If I’d been told that dragons came from Sichuan, I would have believed it, just based on my first night in its capital, Chengdu. Over dinner, a Sichuan opera fire breather in a heavy brocade robe and full face paint blew a massive fireball, eliciting applause from the diners in the restaurant.
At the same time, my tongue tingled as I savoured river fish in hot chilli oil. The sensation was possibly the closest I’d had to having tiny firecrackers exploding in my mouth. Thankfully, my lips did not swell and steam did not come out of my ears. The fire breather survived the flames unscathed and I survived my initiation to Sichuanese cuisine – a huge contrast to the cool spring that I’d come to experience.
Sichuan is famed for its beautiful spring season when fields burst into bloom and life stirs after a restful winter, and I was more than ready to embrace this vibrant season.
EAT, SLEEP, PLAY, REPEAT
For a city over 2,000 years old, verdant Chengdu appears very modern and new, with wide pavements and clean roads. Yet, under the shadow of its skyscrapers is a relaxed city with the demeanour of its playful resident, the giant panda.
The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, a sprawling 100-hectare complex, is home to over 100 giant pandas, the largest contained population of these gentle creatures.
A morning walk through landscaped paths on Futou Mountain led me to leafy enclosures where panda cubs playfully wrestled with each other while adult pandas fed on bamboo shoots – part of their daily diet that consists of up to 40 kilograms of bamboo shoots a day! These bears are considered national treasures in China and according to the World Wildlife Fund’s 2014 census, there are only 1,864 pandas left in the wild.
Before I came to the panda base, I didn’t see the appeal of these gentle giants, but the sight of these black and white fur balls lumbering about, climbing and hanging from trees reduced me to a screaming fan girl in an instant. The adult pandas were equally delightful, rolling on the grass and scratching their bellies.
At the complex, these pandas receive the best of care, as well as nutritious meals in surroundings that simulate their natural habitat, while researchers observe their unique personalities and temperaments.
The limber racoon-like red panda, a relative of the giant panda on the evolutionary family tree, also finds a home at the base, as do various birds such as peacocks, egrets and swans. Sichuan’s other giant panda breeding centres are the Dujiangyang Panda Valley and the Bifengxia Panda Base, both accessible from Chengdu.
MAO AND MAH-JONG
The life of the giant panda echoes in the lives of the people of Chengdu, for whom happiness, enjoyment and work-life balance are high priorities. Chengdu residents seem carefree and relaxed, spending their leisure hours with friends and playing mah-jong (a Chinese game played with rectangular tiles) at teahouses. It’s little wonder that Chengdu is considered one of China’s most liveable cities.
The city’s geographic centre is Tianfu Square, where a statue of Mao Zedong, the founder of the People’s Republic of China, towers over two stylised dragons spiralling downwards to a subterranean shopping arcade. Just two blocks away, at People’s Park, locals go about their daily routine. Clusters of retirees gather to sing and dance while groups of elderly men play Chinese chess. At the ‘blind date corner’, parents of single men and women leave contact details of their children on sheets of paper for middlemen to collect and sell to potential in-laws.
I walked around the park, watching locals entertain themselves as a troupe of middle-aged women in braids square danced to old songs. As I sat with my companions at the historical Heming Teahouse, a Chengdu favourite for more than a hundred years, and people-watched, I could not help but wonder where all the young people were.
SPRING TIME BLOOMS
My question was answered when I visited the Wide and Narrow Alleys (Kuanzhaixiangzi and Zaixiangzi) where young people go to chill out in style. These ancient streets, located in the city centre, date back to the Qing Dynasty and some of the structures were formerly military quarters. Now, most buildings have been restored and converted into modern tea houses, bars, souvenir shops and even a post office, fondly referred to as Panda Post.
Another favourite hangout among youngsters is the vast Sansheng Huaxiang Flower Village, on the southeast outskirts of Chengdu. Here, farmers’ houses have been transformed into tea houses with alfresco seating. Meixiang Lake within the village is surrounded by over 200,000 plum trees, making it one of China’s top plum blossom viewing areas in early spring.
At these tea houses, it is common to see teenagers playing billiards and ping pong, and the elderly singing karaoke while barbecuing meat on outdoor grills. Young women in lace dresses walk about taking selfies with fresh flower garlands in their hair as boys play laser tag in the open. Spring time, with its fresh air and floral perfume, seems to bring everyone outdoors.
Farther out of the city, some 86 kilometres from Chengdu, is Stone Elephant Lake, named after the ancient Stone Elephant Temple that rises high above the lake’s banks. The lake and its flower fields are popular for wedding photo shoots. The garden is truly international in its collection of flowers. I missed the tulips by a few weeks but was happy to see a range of purple irises; white and violet lupines; yellow, orange and white poppies; pink foxgloves; and buttercups in full bloom. Nearby, vendors sold pinwheels, pastries and other snacks, while gliding on the eponymous lake were boats and colourful canoes.
OF MIST AND MOUNTAINS
Another popular spring time retreat not to be missed is the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Mount Emei Scenic Area. Driving past canola fields and tea plantations, I was excited to visit this sacred site, home to the 1,200-year-old Leshan Giant Buddha. Buddhism arrived in China from India via the Silk Road about 1,800 years ago, and this ancient site was a historic place I’d heard of many times.
Facing Mount Emei and set on a red sand-stone cliff at the confluence of the Minjiang, Dadu and Qingyi rivers, the colossal carving of the seated Giant Buddha, at a height of 71 metres, is considered one of the largest stone Buddhas in the world.
Visitors spend hours going up and down thousands of steps carved in stone to reach the top of the statue. I took the easier option – a half-hour boat ride across the rivers from the promenade of Leshan city. From the deck of the boat, I stood in awe, looking up at this ancient wonder that took 90 years to build, and felt truly blessed to have been able to see it intact, even after hundreds of years.
Opposite this ancient site is Mount Emei or Emeishan. Towering at over 3,000 metres, Mount Emei is the highest of China’s Four Sacred Mountains of Buddhism and home to what is said to be the first Buddhist temple in China. It takes under a day for visitors to get to its peak – the Golden Summit – where they will be rewarded with the sight of a 48-metre, multi-faced Samantabhadra bodhisattva bronze statue, built in the 21st century. Trekkers can opt for a two- or three-day hike, stopping at a few temples and monasteries on the mountain.
Alighting at the parking lot after my shuttle dropped me at the foot of the mountain, I climbed up hundreds of steps to join the great sea of people in the queue for the cable car to the peak. The cable car ride took only a few minutes through dense fog, breaking through the clouds to the mountain top, a few minutes’ walk to the Golden Summit.
Reaching the peak, I caught my breath and sat in a lotus position on a bench, staring up at one of the bodhisattva’s faces that peeked out from the treetops, as the wind blew the clouds upwards. It was the perfect way to lose track of time. The cool mountain air made the trip up a breezy one, and I would really recommend visiting in spring, due to the mild weather.
On the way down the mountain, fat and furry Tibetan macaques perched on fences, waited for handouts from visitors who were eager to snap their photos. I walked past the crowds and kept a steady pace, knowing that after all the walking, a hearty vegetarian lunch would be waiting for me.
Emeishan City, at the foot of the mountain, may be quiet but sleepy, it is not. One of its many attractions is the Sheng Xiang Emei, an exciting variety show. Dancers in flowing rainbow-coloured robes gracefully swirled around on stage. Their performance was followed by acrobats, contortionists and aerialists who appeared in a series of scenes that showcased their skills.
The most amusing acts were distinctively Sichuanese – a long spout tea kettle demonstration, performances from the Emei School of Martial Arts, a Sichuan opera puppet that could write calligraphy, as well as the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it face changers. The audience members were clearly enjoying themselves. It was good to know that 21st century folk still appreciate these time-honoured talents.
After a long day, it was time to experience Emeishan’s hot springs. Although spring nights are not very chilly, soaking in a covered outdoor pool with 40 degrees Celsius water was relaxing, especially for my tired legs.
SECRET TO THE SWEET LIFE
Before returning to Chengdu, I took a detour to the narrow gauge train station from the coal mining town of Yuejin. Powered by one of the world’s last steam locomotives, the tourist train chugged past terraced fields and villages, its thick smoke billowing out along the 15-kilometre route to the picturesque old industrial town of Bajiaogou, nestled in a valley. The narrow tracks meandered through bright yellow canola fields blazing in the sun and past tung oil trees with pretty white blooms. Every time the train entered a tunnel, I eagerly looked forward to coming out into the light and seeing what lay beyond the next bend.
From here, I took a golf cart through a gorge lined with giant tree ferns. Winding through the zigzagging roads with the cool wind in my hair, I spotted mountain bikers cycling in the opposite direction. Despite the uphill climb, they looked content, taking in the fresh air as they trailed behind their companions.
I truly admired their commitment to well-being and togetherness. Throughout my travels in Sichuan, I noticed this feeling of joy and contentment. I couldn’t help but wonder if being outdoors was the Sichuanese secret to happiness.
The tea culture runs deep in the veins of the Sichuanese, who still frequent tea houses as their forefathers did long ago. Here’s what you should know before your first tea house experience.
- SEATING Outdoor tea houses have bamboo chairs arranged around a square or circular table. Stay as long as you please.
- INDIVIDUAL SERVINGS Each person gets one cup with tea leaves. You can refill your cup with hot water from a flask, instead of the communal teapot containing tea leaves. Jasmine tea may be served in a glass and green tea in a distinctive ceramic cup with a small saucer and cover.
- TEA PREPARATION Soak the tea leaves in a little hot water and cover the cup for a few minutes. Then, add more hot water.
- FINGER FOOD Peanuts and sunflower seeds are the snacks of choice.
- TABLE SERVICE It is normal to be approached by fortune tellers, masseurs and ear cleaners.
GETTING THERE AirAsia X flies to Chengdu from Kuala Lumpur daily. For flight info and lowest fares www.airasia.com.
travel 3Sixty° team’s visit to Sichuan was made possible courtesy of Chengdu Wonderful Tour International Travel Service and Sichuan Tourism.