Impressions of Chengdu (成都)

Text by: Thomas Gleave / Photographs by: Oleg Novikov

If you are looking for a welcomed change from the rat race (read: Shanghai), or are simply wishing to see a different slice of Chinese life away from the standard tourist destinations, you could do much worse than Chengdu. What a treat!

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With 11+ million people, Chengdu is one of China's most populated cities. Indeed, it is a sprawling metropolis that seems to go on forever in all directions, even in a taxi. Yet there is something very livable about the place. The streets are busy, but not bustling. They are also relatively clean and the pollution is not nearly as bad as one might anticipate. There are also plenty of trees along the major boulevards and a number of large, well–kept public parks—it is almost enough to make you forget where you are. The city is also modernizing quickly, but not nearly as fast as the cities on the coast, which may explain (at least to some degree) why the laowai (foreigner) factor is not nearly as evident as it is in Shanghai or Beijing. All of this gives one the impression that Chengdu is intent on moving ahead, but at its own pace, at its own terms. So, on the surface, a big thumbs up!

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But like anyplace, it is the people that really count, right? And this is where Chengdu scores a very big thumbs up! The locals are friendly, interested and engaging. There were smiles abound as we wondered around the city, and we were able to strike up plenty of fun and friendly conversations along the way with people from all walks of life—the best part being that their curiosity in us was genuine—not exploitive. Interestingly, most people we met spoke to us in a perfectly intelligible Mandarin Chinese, although once in a while some people seemed to listen to our Mandarin with understanding, and would then respond using a Sichuan dialect. This left us nodding our heads approvingly even though we did not have a clue what was being said.

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If you have been traveling around China for a while and would appreciate a salad, pizza and the like in lieu of the local cuisine, Dave's Oasis should fit the bill. Located on Binjiang Road (M)(滨江中路)about 1 km east of Renmin Road (S)(人民南路), this internet cafe / restaurant / all purpose hang out is run by a local and his wife. Dave is very hospitable and makes you feel right at home. So go ahead, grab a beer and spin those Pink Floyd CDs while you surf the net—for free! Dave can also provide you with some great advice about traveling in Sichuan and other parts of China, as he was tour guide for foreigners for about 10 years—which helps explain why his English is so good. Of course, kudos to Dave aside, even he would agree that you cannot go to Chengdu without trying mala huoguo (麻辣火锅)—the king of local specialties, the chili oil hotpot that is sure to send your taste buds screaming for mercy. (Note: even if you are not up for Dave's, it is a very pleasant walk along the riverside promenade that runs parallel to Binjiang Road (M). You are also guaranteed to meet some real characters along the way, so be sure to have your camera ready!)

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In the end analysis, Chengdu is a great place to spend two or three days taking your time discovering the city and its people. There is still a refreshing innocence and honesty about the place. And most importantly, it still feels like the Real China.

All photographs were taken on 10 June 2005 with a Nikon D70s and a Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 lens