Our next stop was Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan province. For this part of our travels, we tried minimal planning — just seeing what the city had to offer once we got there. This was a bit frustrating, but we figured that a city of 14 million (China’s fourth largest city) must have something to offer.
We window-shopped at the Tibetan quarter of the city, walked the touristy pedestrian streets, and relaxed in a park dedicated to bamboo.
Eastern Memory Music & Art Park
One evening we saw an old factory (that used to manufacture tv tubes) that had been transformed into a center for music performances, with stages large and small separated by artwork, dessert shops, bars, and coffee lounges. Simon loved this place!
A Shrine to Heroes
Joel really wanted to see the Wuhou Shrine, a temple/park/museum. The Wuhou Shrine is dedicated to Chengdu’s most famous hometown heroes. They can be found in The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a historical novel written 600 years ago. The story takes place late in the third century, when China’s empire dissolved into tiny kingdoms held by petty warlords. Three men swore eternal brotherhood and decided to fight all of the evil, selfish warlords. Maybe it’s a bit like King Arthur and the Round Table – a very old tale based on real wars in real places, but with a lot of myth thrown in. Chinese kids play video games based on this novel, its heroes and villains are used in tv commercials, and movie and tv adaptations get re-made every decade. But unlike the Arthurian legends, you can actually visit the tombs and shrines of the novel’s main characters – and that makes Wuhou Shrine a very popular tourism spot in Chengdu.
Like our trip to Beijing, sometimes one parent would stay with Simon while the other went sightseeing alone. Susie had a great time in the People’s Park, one of the best / most interesting parks anywhere in our travels, and Joel saw a poet’s park and an active Buddhist monastery.
A Night at the Opera
We also had a first for our vacation: a date on our own! With Simon in the hands of a capable babysitter (trilingual, no less), the grown-ups got to be out on the town. Our first stop was hotpot – where the centerpiece of boiling broths makes it hard to dine safely with a toddler. These restaurants are popular throughout China, but Sichuan is the home of spicy hotpot. The food was delicious (although not super spicy, by request).
After our meal, we checked on Simon (the restaraunt was near our hotel) and went off to a variety show held in a teahouse with a stage. Popular with foreign and Chinese tourists alike, a troupe puts on small performances that give you a taste of Sichuan’s broad range in theater. We saw Chinese opera, puppetry, the Chinese ‘violin’ (the er-hu), and the famous face-changers, but all within two hours.
The best feature of the night was undoubtedly the face-changers. The art of bian lian features actors wearing a cloth mask featuring a character from a famous Chinese opera. The character’s mood and intent is indicated by color and expression drawn on the mask. In the blink of an eye, the actor changes masks once, twice, seven times. The secret of this quick change is passed down within theater companies, and traditionally only to males (because women might reveal the secret to non-opera husbands). It was amazing, and you should really watch videos online to get the full effect. The only one I have ever seen change from happy to terrifying that quickly is our little Simon. 😉