I think the best way to soak up the atmosphere and culture of a city or even a country is by walking through its streets, visiting the markets and just mingling with the people. While on our China Odyssey, Mom and I loved experiencing the Chinese culture and learning about all the little things that make it so different and interesting.
We spent 2 days in Chengdu, a city located on the edge of the fertile plains of the Red Basin and surrounded by small mountains. This city kept a lot of its historical identity and this lent a very tranquil atmosphere to the place. One of the first places on our list to explore was Jinli Street, located just to the east of the Wuhou Memorial Temple.
Jjinli Street consists out of a couple of alleyways and narrow streets crammed full of old buildings, interesting little shops, tea-houses and restaurants all modeled on the architectural style of a traditional old town. It is recorded that as early as the Qin Dynasty (221 BC – 206 BC), Jinli Street was one of the busiest commercial areas of this city. Hence, it is known as ‘First Street of the Shu Kingdom’. Visitors from all over China and abroad gather here to relax, admire the traditional-style buildings, and taste some local snacks.
The two of us entered this very lively street through an imposing archway with ‘Jinli Street’ carved on it. From there we walked along the winding street paved with green flagstones.
Strolling down the narrow street we were surrounded by old-world stores selling Shu Embroidery, lacquer products, folk handicrafts, curios, calligraphies and lanterns. All of these stores have their unique style but also have one thing in common: no matter how busy the place is, the stores feel peaceful and relaxing inside. Most of the special local products can be found here. Here I bought myself a beautiful Chinese lantern. I probably would have bought way more than one but we still had 2 weeks left of our China Odyssey and I felt that I couldn’t fit more than one into my backpack. Needless to say my mom with her already overloaded backpack bought two!! One of which I in the end had to fit into my backpack.
A huge part of our Jinli street adventure was spending some time at a traditional tea house sitting outside, relaxing and chatting over a cup of tea.
We sat down at the Lotus Palace Bar tea house for some very aromatic Chinese tea. This tea garden is situated in the centre of the Ancient Jinli Street, but it’s the perfect example to highlight how Chengdu has retained its cultural heritage. We sat in the courtyard with its red-and-black lacquered tables and chairs of conventional style ready for our tea adventure. Being tea novices and not actually knowing what we were going to get we ordered two different flower flavours. Instead of bringing two different teas they brought the lavender and flower tea mixed in tall glasses with a jug of boiled water. The flower buds and tea leaves were all loose and floating at the bottom of our glasses.
The fragrant aroma was a delight and we couldn’t wait for the water to cool down enough for us to taste our flower tea. We realized that the flavours were quite strong and would have been better if we only had one flavour but it was still very tasty. We did have some trouble drinking our tea without getting a mouthful of tealeaves and flowers every now and then which just added to the weirdness of the experience.
In the middle of the street we came upon a wooden stage which looks like an ancient pavilion. It is used from time to time for performing classic Sichuan Operas and we were lucky enough to be there during one of these performances. We had the opportunity to stand and watch some of the actor’s beautiful, quick costume and make-up changes.
Despite the traditional atmosphere here, you can also sense something fashionable. There are many cafes and barrooms here – including Starbucks, which is a bit sad as it just seemed so out of place.
When we reached the end of the street, we were tempted by the aroma of the delicious local snacks. Here there are many restaurants as well as sidewalk booths offering local snacks that will make your mouth water.
This is a fun place to try street food and we had a great time tasting some different snacks. On offer is everything from spicy noodles to duck necks, which I wouldn’t consider a snack at all. The first “dish” we tried were great looking kebabs. They ended up being chili kebabs that were so hot that I had to spit out the first bite and had all the bystanders laughing at me! This sent me running off to the nearest drinks vendor where I tried to put out the burning furnace that my mouth had turned into.
We next tried duck spring rolls which were fabulous but I would have skipped the chicken “cake” we had for desert as it ended up being a bit dry and hard to swallow.
That evening we sat down at one of the numerous bars down Jinli Street where they brought small tot glasses for us to drink our beer out of, this was very strange! These cafes or bars are the perfect place to take a break, rest, and soak up the local culture after a long day of exploring.
All the walking around had exhausted us so we decided to treat ourselves with a “taxi ride” back to the hotel. We got a ride from a little old guy with a motorbike tuc-tuc. After making sure that he knew where our hotel was and agreeing on a price we got onto his small tuc-tuc. As we sat down a tiny old lady told my mom to move her feet a bit, she then plopped down a tiny pink plastic chair and sat down with us fanning herself. Apparently she was coming along for the ride.
The guy drove with his hand permanently plastered to the hooter making a dreadful noise as he weaved through the traffic ignoring all road signs and rules. He turned up a one way street next to the river and continued to swerve through traffic going in the wrong direction. The two of us clung to each other and you could see the horror on our scared faces. What the hell had we gotten ourselves into!! I thought that at any moment an oncoming car was going to squash us and end our China adventure.
As soon as he stopped the little tuc-tuc in front of our hotel we both couldn’t wait to get out, our legs still shaking from the experience. We were so glad and grateful that we actually got to our hotel in one piece! This was definitely a very frightening but unique and also fun experience that we will definitely always remember. We took a photo of our the tuc-tuc and its “hell-driver”!!
I read that very few people who visit this part of China leave without becoming hooked, and I can second this statement. I would love to visit Chengdu again!!