It was a freezing and foggy Monday morning. A typical winter day in Chengdu. Lilly, Sunflower and I headed to the city centre to indulge in the cultural festivities. The celebration of the Year of the Rooster was in full swing and the streets were packed. I was in awe of the contrasts that surrounded me – modern skyscrapers and shopping malls were built between ancient Buddhist temples and Chinese museums. It seemed as if two worlds had collided, been forced to become one and, in an astonishing way, they complimented each other. It was so unnatural that it emphasized the beauty and elegance of both worlds. It was also inspiring to see that the Chinese respected their history and did not try to demolish any of their ancient buildings to make way for their fast growing economy. They simply braided the new buildings in-between the old.
While walking through the streets of the city I noticed that there were pandas everywhere – unfortunately not actual pandas – but there were thousands of pictures, statues and stuffed plush replicas of these bamboo-eating fluff balls. Chengdu is the natural home of the giant panda, one of the rarest animals in the world, and also contains the world’s biggest giant panda sanctuary. To prove their love for this national treasure, a sculpture of a giant panda (literally – it is 15 metres tall and weighs 13 tons) was built, seeming to peer over the rooftop of a designer shopping mall. This has become a well-known gathering spot for locals. According to Lilly, people just agree to meet up “under the panda’s ass”.
We strolled through (actually, we didn’t need to move, it was so packed that we got caught in the current in the ocean of people and to escape from it would have required both a helicopter and a rescue ladder) two of the city’s most popular street markets. Kuan Alley and Zhai Alley were packed with little food stalls selling traditional Sichuan snacks and shops selling traditional Chinese clothing, tea sets, decor and jewellery. And, of course, there was a shop dedicated to selling panda souvenirs – there were even panda teddies dressed as roosters!
Somehow, we managed to escape the deadly human current and entered a small theatre to watch a classic Sichuan opera: The Changing of The Mask. The small theatre had a type of jazz club feeling to it – we were seated at small tables and sipped traditional Chinese green tea while watching the masked performer change from one face to another almost instantaneously with the swipe of his fan, the movement of his head, or the wave of his hand.
We spent most of the afternoon walking through shopping malls where I could ever dream of affording the clothes. Yet these shops were so demand that there was a line outside each door and a rule of how many people may enter the shop at once. Everyone around us was carrying shopping bags from Chanel, Dolce & Gabbana, and Gucci as if they were grocery bags. I felt completely out of place.
That was until I found the book store. I am such a nerd.
The Fang Suo commune branch in Chengdu is an award-winning book store that also features a cafe, a home living collection and space for cultural events. It is much more than just a retail store and the founders want to encourage shoppers to relax and hang out in the store, as well as to shop. When you enter this gigantic commune, you see people of all ages reading books on the staircases and struggling to pick a book to buy (because, let’s be honest, you know they want to buy them all). Hipster and vintage stationary and home decorations draw crowds of young adults and the cafe is full of people sipping tea and reading newspapers. It was my utopia. I spent well over an hour there and had to be dragged from the shop to make sure we weren’t late for our dinner reservation.
We had dinner at a famous hot pot restaurant. Traditionally, you get seated at a square table with a simmering pot of boiling water in the centre of the table. The raw ingredients are served to you and you cook them to your liking. But we were in Sichuan, a province known for its super spicy food, so our boiling water contained chilies. It felt like my mouth was actually on fire, but after drinking an insane amount of an unidentifiable sweet juice, the pain started to subside. I decided to rather spare my swollen tongue from the last course, which contained heart, brain and intestines. Everyone encouraged me to try some, but I conveyed my apologies by telling them the food was too spicy and silently thanked Chengdu for its love of chilies.