Beijing Getaways: Chengdu Guide 成都
Nice and Spicy: The southwestern Chinese hotspot of Chengdu
Chengdu, the capital of the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan, is now a bustling international metropolis of more than ten million, making it China's fourth largest city.
Chengdu has a long history dating back to 4500 BC, when it became the centre of the ancient Shu Kingdom. While the oft-quoted Chinese saying "Once you come to Chengdu you will not want to leave" may be a slight exaggeration, the city was recently named China's fourth most livable city by the China Daily newspaper, and is a good base from which to explore the surrounding area.
The best times to visit Chengdu are from March to June and from September to November. Chengdu has one of the lowest sunshine totals in China (less sunshine than London), and most days are cloudy, even if without rain. This is especially so in the winter, which is typically overcast and dreary. Midsummer weather can be very hot and humid.
In addition to traditional Chinese festivals such as Spring Festival, International Labor Day, and National Day, Chengdu has its own festivals such as the Lantern Festival. Held in the Qingyang Palace (Gray Goat Palace), the festival is held once a year around Spring Festival and features Sichuan folk opera, acrobatics, and other performances. During the Flower Festival, a popular spring event, flower growers carry their flowers and exotic plants to exhibit and sell.
Sichuan cuisine is renowned for its spiciness, and the predominant ingredient in Chengdu cuisine is the chili pepper. If you thought you could handle the hottest of Indian curries, try some of Chengdu's spiciest food, overloaded with the most potent of peppers. Locals believe that chili is beneficial both in summer to help cool you down, and in winter, as a warmer. According to Chinese legend chili also has medicinal properties and helps protect against illnesses which result from wet or damp conditions.
For those who dislike or who are unused to spicy food, Sichuan dishes can be upsetting in more ways than one, and you may find yourself using the expression "wo bu xihuan lade cai" (I don't like spicy dishes) on a regular basis.
Used correctly however, chili is not supposed to dominate dishes, but to bring out the other flavors, and once your stomach gets used to the extra spice, Sichuan food is really delicious. The most famous Chengdu dishes include spicy chicken with peanuts (gongbao jiding) and spiced tofu with chili (mapo doufu).
Many dishes in Chengdu are served in a fish flavored (yu xiang) sauce which is made from vinegar, ginger, sesame and soy. Hotpot (huoguo) is also very popular here, and there are hundreds of streetside restaurants and stalls serving up steaming pots to passers-by. There are over 10 varieties of Chengdu hotpot, including hotpot with boiled mutton and hot pot with beer duck - all are spicy enough to set your mouth on fire.
The discovery last century of the lost Sanxingdui site at Guanghan, about forty kilometers south of Chengdu, is recognized as the most important archaeological find of Sichuan relics. The Sanxingdui Museum is regarded as one of the major historical museums in China and is a must-see. A major capital of Shu culture was also unearthed in Chengdu just seven years ago, and a great museum housing both the excavation and the finds was opened in 2006.
Famous scenic spots such as Wuhou Temple and the Du Fu Thatched Cottage are also worth checking out in Chengdu, and the UNESCO sites of Jiuzhaigou, Leshan and Mount Emei (Emei Shan) are easily reached by bus. Many of Chengdu's hotels and hostels arrange tours to these destinations - try to avoid national holidays and weekends if possible if you are not a fan of huge crowds.
Another highlight of Chengdu is the nearby Panda Reserve - the best place to see China's most famous indigenous species up close. Catch an early tour to avoid crowds and see the adult pandas munching away on freshly delivered bamboo shoots. Play time with the cubs is great fun too. The site also houses red pandas and has a large lake with local birdlife.
Jingli Street, a reconstructed road of wooden shops housing all manner of food, drink, crafts, puppet shows and music, is also interesting, and a good place to pick up souvenirs. Like other major Chinese cities Chengdu has its share of Western hangouts - well-patronized expat haunts include the Shamrock, the Bookworm, Grandma's Kitchen, Pete's Tex-Mex Grill and the Paulaner Bar at the Kempinski.
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