After our late night in Tongren station, Chengdu East station rolled in at around midday, bright and modern. The metro was busy but reasonable and we emerged at our stop into a subterranean shopping mall, which proved to be troublesome every time we had to pass through its labyrinthine depths. The bloody thing didn’t seem to have a discernible end – you just had to find the right turning to duck down to find an exit stair.
En route to the hostel we passed what I can only assume was Chengdu’s Xinjiang corner – a cluster of Halal Uyghur Naan shops just off People’s Park. Also just off People’s Park was our hostel, squeezed in between a corner shop and hot pot restaurant. We checked in and clocked their offer of panda tours and opera tickets, before heading up to our dorm.
Xishu Garden Inn was chosen for its cheap centrality, but we struck gold. Our bunks had curtains, mini lockers, and a personal lamp and socket too. Two floors above us was the spacious rooftop bar selling reasonably priced Chinese food and expensive Western food, which we ignored; we’ve sworn only to eat Western food once, at most.
We showered and stretched out on our inexplicably comfortable beds after embarrassing ourselves at the bar (purely through how much food we ordered), then started thinking about how to spend our measly two days. Leshan, a (relatively) nearby city, had been recommended, and of course the giant pandas – for which Chengdu is famous – were a must-see.
We decided to wander: first was People’s Park, right on our doorstep. The English word ‘Park’ conjures images of a large field, perhaps containing a play-park or smattering of flowerbeds, more often than not littered with trees (or just littered). This image is not remotely close to a Chinese park – the Mandarin word means ‘public garden’, and that’s just what this was: a web of waterways, pagodas and paths, winding their way between all manner of plants.
From here we walked to the ‘Wide and Narrow Alley’. Tame after the likes of Fenghuang which, albeit touristy, felt genuinely old, this offered pedestrian streets heaving with tourists and home to (universally expensive) ‘fusion’, ranging from independent tea houses to straight up Western chains (Starbucks, I’m looking at you), all with modern interiors but traditional fronting. We walked quickly onto a main street, where Evie perused sunglasses while I bought bananas – an inane detail, for sure, but I was desperately craving fruit. Kirsten discovered the softest, cutest dog plushie I think I’ve ever come across, and we almost bought it, much to sensible Evie’s disapproval. Almost.
Now with thoughts of dinner, we wandered down a hopeful-looking street which turned out to be expensive banquet halls and opera houses, but eventually arrived at a much quieter part of town. Roadworks had thrown the pedestrian crossings into disarray, and the only solution was to await our green man in a small island of road that seemed to be avoided by cars, trucks, bikes and buses alike for no apparent reason. Passing an outdoor viewing of some war film, we found a shop with pricing more to our liking and ate, before returning wearily to our hostel by bus.
The next morning was a seven-thirty start to be out by eight for a nine o’clock train to Leshan. We were rushing, obviously, but picked up a speedy breakfast of ‘bing’ (flat round bun things, toasted and with sesame seeds) from one of the Uyghur vendors on the way to the metro. I didn’t relax until I saw the ticket pickup queue at Chengdu South station, and we didn’t have long to wait inside until our train was called to board. Milling confusion reigned on the platform when the electronic carriage numbers glitched, and passengers had to resort to asking a real-life human train attendant person.
One high-speed train and vintage decor bearing bus later, we found ourselves at the giant buddha site for which Leshan was known. Edinburgh student IDs once again got us in for half-price, and we wound our way up the hillside, coming face-to-giant-face with the statue itself, which was cut into the hillside overlooking the convergence of three rivers in the eighth century CE.
We ducked into a temple, followed by a memorial hall, and eventually a board-walked lake brimming with greedy koi carp, who followed us, mouths gaping, for food. Though none was forthcoming, they followed us around until we left for the path down the side of the buddha. Queues, along with Lonely Planet’s estimated walking time of two hours (due to queues, not due to length), prevented us from taking the path, since our train back was rapidly approaching, and without lunch none of us was in much condition for slow-shuffling down a hillside.
One lunch later from a vendor who didn’t aggressively follow us down the street (I don’t care how cheap it is, if you intimidate me I don’t want your food), we caught the bus, and then train, back to Chengdu, in time to shower and nap before our ride to the Sichuan opera, booked through the hostel for a very reasonable fee.
I believe that the Sichuan Opera cannot be properly described; it has to be seen. Chinese, English, Japanese and Korean subtitles were provided beside the stage, but were not used often since dialogue was rare and fleeting. I would say it was a smattering of skits and sketches, gradually working its way loosely through a couple of plot lines, some funny, with strong elements of pantomime (hamming it up; audience banter; slapstick and light ending), and others more moving, expressed mostly through dance (and a small amount of singing). Between each advancements of plot were impressive acrobatics, puppetry, fire breathing and finally ‘face changing’, in which mask-wearing dancers would switch masks at the click of a finger, or flick of a fan. I won’t pretend I understood everything, but you didn’t need to; it was an intense spectacle, and well worth seeing.
Back home (“home”) we bought a local dish called ‘dan-dan mian’ – essentially spicy noodles topped with minced beef. A few drinks at the bar, and it was time for bed, in preparation of our early panda viewing the following morning. But this post is getting long, so I’ll wrap up there. Read about our last day in Chengdu in the next post!