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The home of the “Three Kingdoms” and pandas Enthralling history and enchanting sites in Sichuan
For a long time, the people of China have called this place the “Land of Abundance (天府之國)”, as it has an abundance of natural resources and a rich heritage. Today, it is better known as a familiar restaurant name, Sichuan Province (四川省), for its delicious, varied Sichuan-style cuisine, which you can normally find in any Chinese restaurant. However, this is just the first of many things to enjoy in Sichuan.
With such a long and enchanting history, Sichuan is known for much more than its nice food. The capital of Sichuan is Chengdu (成都), which was a prominent city during China’s Three Kingdoms period. Chengdu was the capital of both the Shu dynasty and Shuhan dynasties, and continued to be developed as one of the four major cities, including Changan (長安), Yangzhou (揚州) and Dunhuang (敦煌), during the later Sui and Tang (隨唐) Dynasties. You don’t have to memorise all of these city names, but you might want to remember this – you can find more than 50% of the entire world’s panda population right here in Sichuan!
Let’s take a closer look at the attraction of Sichuan Province and Chengdu in western China.
We recommend PATH, a 3-day, 2-night journey, for experiencing China’s endless charm!
Start by digging into the Hot Pot and Mapo Tofu that are typical of Sichuan cuisine, then become immersed in the fabulous history and culture in the streets. You’ll not only see the pride of Chengdu – the globally beloved panda – but also the world’s largest Buddha statue that truly is as magnificent as you can ever imagine. From sights to dishes, your astonishing journey around Sichuan starts here.
Chengdu’s airport and train stations are always bustling, like many places in China. It’s what people mean when they say “Rentaiduo”, literally meaning “too many people” – and you will hear it quite often.
You may feel the excitement begin to wear off as you head from the airport to arrive, tired, at your hotel. To revitalise yourself, there is nothing better than Huoguo, the scalding Sichuan hot pot meal. It’s the best dish for people who enjoy hot and spicy food.
Huoguo is a Chinese-style Shabu-shabu, where you eat thinly sliced ingredients after cooking them in the boiled soup on your table. It features diverse ingredients, and the locals say, “You could cook anything except a plane or a chair”. The boiling soup is made with chicken broth and beef bone stock. To make Huoguo Sichuan-style, they add dried pepper and Fazao to the soup. This herb is spicy enough to numb your tongue. Among the many types of Huoguo, we recommend the one that has two pots together, offering both spicy Hong soup, and the milder Cheng soup. You can then enjoy both regular and spicy soups at the same time.’
Chinese people believe that food is the most important thing in life. This means that eating may become a key feature of your travels in China. Though you can actually find Huoguo anywhere across China, there is a certain spicy taste in Sichuan’s Huoguo which makes you crave more. Because of the heat of the spices, many restaurants offer free refills of soft drinks and juice. People do say that you can’t claim to have visited Sichuan if you haven’t tried Huoguo. Once you’ve been recharged with Huoguo, it’s time to find out more about Sichuan.
After leaving the heat of the Huoguo behind, take your next step onto this Jinli street. You’ll discover an old scene from the Shu Kingdom brought back to life. This avenue, filled with red lanterns, may remind you of romantic scenes from Chinese films. It might even remind you of scenes from the film “Kung Fu Panda 2” where the main character jumps around the street markets. The background for this scene was based on Jinli Ancient Street. This street, mostly filled with gift shops, gives you the chance to browse handcrafted gifts, little dolls and many other authentic Chinese souvenirs.
Drinking some tea at one of the outdoor cafés may help soothe your senses, and after it gets dark, listening to music in the live bars can lend an exotic atmosphere. Also, don’t miss out on the wide range of street food, such as meat skewers and dumplings.
In fact, the Jinli Ancient Street is one of the most popular locations in China for young couples to go on dates. China can be quite liberal at times, so don’t be surprised to see couples kissing in the open.
With its relaxing music and atmosphere, Jinli Ancient Street is the best place to enjoy a traditional, romantic Chinese experience. Under the red street lighting, you may even find yourself caught up in the moment like many other couples.
China has always cherished the panda as their number one animal that must be conserved. They even have a law that anyone kills a panda should be executed. Since pandas reproduce very rarely and there are only a few left, people in China work hard on research to get them to reproduce. People come from all over the world to visit China to see them, because China is the only country to breed them. Among the places in the country, Chengdu has the largest ecological park for pandas to inhabit, and it is certainly a must-visit location.
Pandas don’t like to go outside when the sunlight gets hot in the afternoon and enjoy sleeping inside after breakfast, so you should check them out early in the morning while they’re awake to have meals. Since the weather is usually cool between 8:30 am to 10 am, you have the chance to see them having breakfast outside for that one and a half hour time.
Looking at the roly-poly pandas, you may find yourself growing jealous of their relaxed lifestyle of chewing on bamboo all day. With the protection and value that the country places on them, it almost seems like pandas live a charmed life. There is also a place where you can take pictures with pandas.
You can buy a printed photo for approximately 2,000 yuan. It might seem expensive, but remember this price includes support for their research. There are also various panda gifts available that you can’t buy anywhere else. So, if you love pandas, visit the Chengdu Panda Base.
Chen Mapo Tofu (陈麻婆豆腐)
China has five kinds of spiciness, classified by region. Those spicy flavors are numbing hot (“mala”) from Sichuan, sweet and sour (“xiangla”) from Guizhou, fresh (“xianla”) from Yunnan, sweet and spicy (“xianla”) from Shaanxi and sour (“suanla”) from Hunan. The “mala” flavour from Sichuan is incredibly hot and uses a little Sichuan pepper and Sansho pepper. “We don’t fear spiciness” is what they say about spicy food, and they seem truly proud of it. But exactly how far can Sichuan spiciness go? If you are really ready to try scorching spiciness, you might want to try Mapo tofu and Dandan noodles.
Mapo Tofu originated in Chenxiangsheng Fanpu (陳興盛飯鋪), a street located in the western part of the Holy City of the Qing Dynasty. It was named after the old lady who made it first. It was not even her real name; it meant “Pockmarked Mrs Jin” in reference to her appearance. This Mapo Tofu is known for being a very hot flavor which numbs the tongue. Since there are other types of Mapo Tofu in Korea, you might want to compare this dish with them if you have the chance.
In Korea, in the 1950’s and 60’s, at night street vendors would shout their wares; “Chapsal deok! (Rice cake!)” or, “Memil mook! (Buckwheat pudding!)”. Likewise, in the past in Chengdu, people sold noodles in the street. Since they carried their wares on their backs, these were called “carried noodles” (担担面, Dandan Mian). As life changed and food became more available after independence, Dandan Mian had been more popular. Now you can find it any restaurant and even enjoy its diverse forms and tastes.
Actually, you can never finish Sichuan food, but at least you experience a little tip of an iceberg if you try Huoguo, Mapo Tofu and Dandan Mian. While you’re enjoying Sichuan food with cheap beer, while talking loudly and freely over the table in the restaurant (which is quite acceptable), you may think this is the best way to travel China.
This is a park recommended for anyone to enjoy the most realistic moments in China. Since there is at least one or more public parks built in any city in this country, Chengdu also has many such places. Among those, this park was built in 1911, is the largest and the most popular located at the center of the city. You can observe quite interesting scenes from people coming here. The most common appearance is children walking with their grandparents. Because most Chinese women tend to return to work after having children, their parents often take care of them and they often appear together in these public parks.
From early in the morning, you will see people working out like, doing stretching, playing badminton or practising Tai Chi Chuan, and there are even people boating on the lake. People enjoy mahjong or Chinese chess together during the day time, and some evenings they sing together in the park after work.
If you’re lucky, you can join in a special occasion that makes this place more extraordinary than other public parks. Even though it does not happen all the time, the people occasionally hold a fabulous fashion show. Without any professional help, they only need a red carpet and upbeat music for the show. At this show, even ordinary people wearing their own clothes can walk on the runway to show off their looks. People gather around to watch the funny show and you will not even notice you are staring at it. There is also a café for having snacks and teas in the park. If you want to go to “the most Chinese place in China”, sit back with a cup of tea in the park and watch the people’s various daily lives.
The Narrow Alley was created during the Quing dynasty. It’s popular for its old appearance which celebrates the past. Kuanziangzi is a name combining “kuanzhai” (width) with “xiangzi” (alley).
Leading to the area where Chengdu’s literary and martial artists, as well as government officials lived, only nobles were allowed to pass the wide alley, meaning commoners had to use the narrow one. This alley is protected by the government as one of three secured streets for their cultural significance, along with Daicisi (大慈寺) and Wenshuyuan (文殊院).
This alley is used for filming scenes in many films. In the film that Korea and China made together, “A Season of Good Rain”, they used this place for the main characters to date and play with windmills. You can find unique colours in each alley. Go around freely since all vehicles are prohibited to enter.
The alleyway dyed with the deep cultural colours, the sound of bamboo leaves waving in a delicate wind, a relaxed cup of tea that you can enjoy under the warm sunlight, these are pleasant moments you can only experience in Kuanziangzi. You get to see more fabulous things at night, not to mention great restaurants and pubs, and Sichuanese opera, which is a must-see when travelling to Sichuan. They say the opera here is as great as the one in Beijing, and it’s the best among the hundreds of local Chinese operas, being most famous the performers being able to switch their masks in an instant. You can rather easily observe the restaurants performing this show in all the alleys
with their schedules shown outside. It is a much more fascinating Chinese opera experience than watching it on TV.
Kuanziangzi, that has both retro colours from the past and elegant moods from the present. You can find a similar atmosphere in Hutong (胡同) in Beijing, so don’t miss out if you get a chance to visit Beijing.
Take a bus from the New South Terminal Station of Chengdu to the Leshan Terminal to visit Donfang Fudu and Leshan Dafo. Although the bus leaves every 30 minutes, it may also be a good idea to take a van as there are so many people visiting the same place. If you take a van, it will go straight to your destination. The only drawback is that they only leave when they have a certain number of passengers, and it is slightly less safe. If you take a bus, get off at the Leshan Terminal and switch to bus number 13. It takes 30 more minutes to get to Dongfang Fudu. It is up to you whether you get off at Leshan Dafo first to visit Dongfang Fudu later, as both places are in Leshan.
Dongfang Fudu is a magnificent collection of popular Buddha statues that attracts a lot of visitors at all times. You will first see the Juxing Wofo (巨型臥佛) that is lying down as you approach around the bridge. Wofo means Buddha lying down. When you see the huge statue lying down and over 170 metres long, you might wonder if they wanted the sky to be his room and the earth his bed. Pass this place by, and you come to Dongfang Fudu, which is filled with different Buddha statues including the Yungang Dafo (云岡大佛). As you experience these magnificent constructions and figures, you might already have been stunned by how strong their Buddhist religion was.
The Leshan Dafo is the most gigantic Buddha statue in the world; it has been designated as UNESCO World Heritage since 1994. This place was located where several streams from different rivers meet (Min River, Daitohuo, Tingjian), so it caused many troubles for boats to pass each other. To prevent accidents, a Buddhist monk, Haitong (海通), wished them luck by beginning to sculpt a statue, and the work continued for over 90 years. When construction was finished, it was brightly decorated and a wooden shelter was built to protect the statue from the elements, however the shelter was burnt down by the Mongols. If you have ever watched the Chinese film, “The Storm Riders”, there is where two characters fight each other around a mountain. That scene shows Leshan Dafo.
You should take the very steep rock stairs called, “Jinquzhandao” (九曲棧道) to see all of Leshan Dafo. These stairs look very narrow over the rock. The part of its name ‘zhandao’ means a path that is made by drilling the rocks with sticks.
As you go down the stairs, you will be able to see the Buddha statue’s head, ears and checks gradually appear. Don’t be awed by its scale. It has a 71 m high and 10 m wide head. Its shoulders are over 28 m wide. It is one of the most gigantic statues ever. If you actually imagine the people walking on the statue, three people could fit inside one of the ears and more than 100 people could stand on one 8.5 m wide foot. There are conch-shape knots on every Buddha statue’s head showing its scale. This statue has more than 1,000 of them, which tells of an enormous scale. It’s enough to say “The Mountain is Buddha, as Buddha is the Mountain.” As you might feel from this statue, Chinese people are very religious, with many wishing to visit this place at least once before they die. However, there are also monks selling diffusers and saying “The more money you spend on this diffuser, the more luck it will bring to you”. This truly is a country which has everything.
If you take a boat to see this place from across the river, you can see “The sleeping Buddha”, Shuifo. This huge figure is made of the line that goes over the Nung, Ou, and Gu mountains for 4.4 km. A more important fact is that Leshan Dafo is built right on the spot that this sleeping Buddha’s heart would be. This represents the belief that Buddha lives inside everyone’s heart. Their strong belief in Buddha made this enchanting combination of nature and belief possible.
Chengdu in Sichuan is one of the cities that people in China long to visit or live in. Unlike Shanghai or Beijing which have become so urbanised that they have lost their cultural look, Chengdu is still appreciated for its valuable sites and heritage. Both the weather and price for living here is quite moderate, there’s no reason for people not to live in Chengdu.
You probably already want to go visit other sites in Chengdu. You may feel like there are countless fascinating places to visit in China. If you get a chance, also visit the University of Sichuan, and Mufushui (武侯祠), considered the best in Sichuan, and Mushuiwon (文殊院) and Tianfu Square. Get ready to enjoy a marvelous journey in Chengdu.
Photos & Written by Ga-young Yu
1. Hot Pot from Heaven (天辰元火锅, Tianchenyuan Huoguo)
2. Jinli Ancient Street (錦里古街, Jinligujie)
3. At Chengdu Panda Base (成都大熊猫繁育研究基地, Chengdu Daxiongmaofanyuyanjiujidi)
4. Chen Mapo Tofu (陈麻婆豆腐, Chen Mapodofu)
5. Chengdu People’s Park (成都人民公园, Chengdu Renmingongyuan)
6. Narrow Alley (宽窄巷子, Kuanzhaixiangzi)
7. Oriental Buddha Park (東方佛都, Dongfangfodou)
8. Leshan Giant Buddha (乐山大佛, Leshandafo)