The drive into Chengdu was like a movie set in modern-day Tokyo. Everything in a foreign script, flashing lights, neon signs and the bus driver riding the horn the whole way. By sheer luck, we disembarked in the centre of the city. The rest of the evening passed walking in the cool air through the downtown Chengdu, admiring the amazing buildings and Chinese feel of it all. Very clean, very relaxed. Nothing like I’d expected. Once we had completed the expert challenge that involved finding our hotel, we unpacked our things and set out for a late-night dinner.
Sichuan cuisine fascinates me, and as a lover of particularly spicy food, I was hoping to find myself in food heaven. We settled on a small restaurant with an illegible menu (as they would all be). A friendly group welcomed us in, but a hostile owner was not too happy about our arrival, yet served us up a plate of pork and green peppers, none the less.
After some rest and recalibration, we set out to explore Chengdu. I was finally in my fathers China. A surreal and unusual realisation of bittersweet joy and curiosity. A sub-provincial city in the Western region of Sichuan, Chengdu is known for two things: fiery red cuisine and pandas. A city far removed from its busier siblings, I was to find none of the over-crowded mania most visitors warned of.
Chengdu – flashy, modern & clean
It came as no real suprise to find ourselves in a city where nobody spoke a word of English. Where flocks of businessmen skimmed past on yellow rental bicycles, briefcases in the baskets, dinging their bells as they passed. Chengdu was a bright and happy city, a rare find. 14 million inhabit this sprawling metropolis.
A city full of matching condo buildings, train stations and bustling malls. It was a unique opportunity to explore a country in such an authentic way. Somewhere unblemished by the Western tourism that plagues and transforms the more popular cities. The touting is very minimal, as we passed people in the streets they took pleasure in saying ‘Hello’ with beaming smiles, practising the very little English they knew.
Yet, dear readers – to understand and experience the city of Chengdu one mustn’t take it at face value. On wandering the streets you might notice a distinct lack of street food and hole-in-the-wall eateries. You know, the kind that spring to mind when uttering the word China. Don’t get me wrong – it exists, but not in the swarms I was hoping for. This is partly due to a recent ‘clean up the straights’ bylaw that was targeted towards getting the vendors off the roads. It is also because you’re looking at entirely the wrong level… For this exploration, we had to head underground.
The mysteries of the Chengdu tunnels
In my travels, I have yet to experience anything quite as post-apocalyptic sci-fi as the unusual tunnel land that was to greet us in Chengdu. The tunnels of Chengdu are not like anything I was prepared for. Not mentioned in the guidebooks I read, nor something I have encountered much elsewhere in my travels. I never quite came to understand why – perhaps the summers are too hot, the winters too oppressive? Maybe people prefer a life spent underground? For whatever reason, almost all the interesting discoveries we made were at least a few meters under the earth.
The first land of tunnels we stumbled upon looked like the entrance to a metro station opening. Yet, there were many of them spaced 150m apart down the entire length of the street. An unusual expanse of derelict underground lands unfolded in front of us. For long stretches, the storefronts were uninhabited and abandoned. The ones still holding on? Lonely islands stocking underwear or iPhone cases, the owners glued to their soap operas like captains of a sinking ship. It only took one descent into this absurd wonderland to know that we would be back again.
So many tunnels, but why?
That night I toiled away on Baidu. China’s answer to Google in a land where most websites are censored, to see what I could discover of this underground discovery. As it turns out, Chengdu has had an elaborate system of underground passages long before even the metro was constructed.
They were known as the Tianzuo Shangcheng, and date back for over 40 years. Back then it was home to many shops before business tapered off and the entire complex was closed. This was while the first Metro line construction began.
In 2010, the land of tunnels was to be given a revamp. A hefty sum to the tune of 289 million yuan was paid for development rights, and this large 40,000 square meter network of tunnels was to be given a facelift. The final shopping centre was to total 90,000 square meters and become known as the Diyi Dado (地一大道). Part of a grander scheme of underground shopping districts across the country.
A series of abandoned projects
As with many, if not most, things I have discovered in China; new projects start with a fanfare – a huge pile of money and a lot of promise. Most dwindle away into incomplete renovation projects, lost amidst the capitalist maze of Chinese construction. The promises were grandeur – connections between many downtown buildings, rainbow passageways leading to 24-hour shopping centres. The area around Tianfu square appears to be a spectacular success, resembling more of a modern-day Tokyo than much else.
Housing modern shops, expanses of arcades and restaurants with as many as 10,000 merchants vying for a storefront space on opening day. Today it is home to many of the unusual nuances across China. The aptly named ‘A La Fried Dumplings’ which, does not sell fried dumplings at all. The fast food ‘Happy cat’ haunts me – it’s probably not cat meat, but why the happy dancing kittens in the video?
A deserted, underground wonderland
It is in the tunnel lands further afield, a short stroll away from the Tianfu hype, that things get interesting. Large stretches of an abandoned mall with large chunks deserted. The majority of remaining stores house hair salons and underwear stores. There are a couple of small restaurants, tattoo parlours and plenty of iPhone covers to be coveted.
Down the far end, completely abandoned. There is an area with the walls painted to be Parisian, welcome to Paris, it informs. Another stretch painted with tulips & windmills claims itself Dutch. Eventually, we arrive to the sea life-themed tunnel. A deep underpass decorated with fish and undulating blue neon lights, the paint peeling, and eerie music coming from a worn speaker in the corner.
Traditions and Cuisines of the Sichuan Region
Up above the tunnel land, spring is taking hold and rural China is alight with bright yellow flowers. In the city, there are many displays of plastic yellow flowers and fake peach blossom trees, the most popular selfie haunt in town. We enjoy a rare moment of clear skies and sunshine to see what culinary delights might await. Chengdu is famous for being spicy, thanks to world-renowned Sichuan peppers. They add a noticeable citrus flavour & numbing mouthfeel that is omnipresent across the region.
Due to a series of misunderstandings, bad translations and planning errors we never managed to sample the famous Sichuan Hot Pot. In the centre of the table lies a bubbling caldera of spicy hot broth to dip your chosen skewers, poaching them in lava until done. The skewers range from simple vegetables to more complex items such as intestines pulled from a live duck, or a pig’s stomach lining.
Chengdu, A city famed for Pandas
But there’s no disputing Chengdu’s true claim to fame, one you will see reflected in every second shop window. The region of Sichuan is the native home to China’s most beloved mascot. If you were ever in dire need to outfit your home, restock your wardrobe and dress your child in panda-themed gear, the shops in Chengdu would be a good place to start.
The city also happens to be home to the largest panda research base in the world. Located in what used to be rural Chengdu, it has been devoured by the expanding city and is now in an outer-city industrial area. But, you wouldn’t know it once you get inside. Well-kept pathways lead through towering bamboo in this massive, immaculate park. Trails lead to museums, exhibits, the research centre itself and of course, many pandas of both the giant and the red variety.
Being one of the major tourist attractions for panda lovers worldwide, it should come as no surprise to learn that with one wrong move or miscalculated step in planning, you will find yourself sandwiched between tens of thousands of tourists. You’ll be unable to see the pandas because they hate rampant tourism as much as I do, and choose to hide away and nap during the park’s peak hours.
Visiting the Chengdu Panda Research Base
Carefully we plotted our visit, catching an early morning local bus and utilising GPS to establish the correct stops. Arriving 15 minutes before opening time, and we were relieved to find only a handful of other die-hard panda fans who had the same idea. We waltzed ourselves in, the fourth and fifth visitors on this day, and made our way straight to the pandas.
Many hadn’t been let out yet and were still milling about in their sleeping quarters, munching on bamboo and pacing about waiting for playtime. We were mere centimetres away from them, separated by a glass window. I’ll be honest with you here – the first panda I spotted looked so fuzzy and had such round teddy bear ears that I couldn’t tell if it were real or a picture. Then it moved. I was rather taken by how unreal they look.
An inundation of tour groups
Throughout the first hours of the early morning, there were few people, and we enjoyed most of the exhibits to ourselves. The pandas were playful little clowns and enjoying breakfast time. The cubs rolling about their mothers and doing headstands in the trees.
By 9.30, there was a dramatic change in the landscape. School groups, tour groups, masses of undulating people everywhere. Claustrophobics nightmare. The pandas were gone – hiding in their huts, in the trees, pretty much anywhere to get a break from the crowds. When people on Tripadvisor complain of the pandas being hard to see or asleep, this is why.
Amidst the flurry of culture shock and Sichuan peppers, of tunnels and giant pandas, Chengdu provided a glimpse into a side of metropolitan Chinese life that I was not to find again in my travels. With an awareness that we were to experience China in this way for the last time on this journey, we bid farewell and boarded an overnight train to Xi’an.