Tag Archives: Sichuan

Peppers ‘n’ Pandas

Where do giant pandas climb skyscrapers?  Where can you eat a chocolate bear donut?  Where did that numbed-on-fire taste in my mouth come from?

Well, Chengdu, in Sichuan province China, of course!

The Food

We love Sichuan cuisine, and it was Susie’s plan to simply “eat our way across Sichuan province.”  A more modest plan was to try this in just the capital city.

Sichuan food is famous for its use of a ‘citrusy’ fragrant peppercorn (the flower pepper) that also numbs your mouth.  That, combined with spicy red peppers, anise, garlic (lots of this!) and ginger gives Sichuan cuisine its distinctive flavor.  Chengdu is famous for its mapo tofu (literally, this translates to “tofu by the lady with the pockmarked face”), Sichuan hotpot (which we tried on our Chengdu date night), dandan noodles, and spicy pork and/or chicken dishes.  Perhaps most Americans recognize one Sichuan dish especially as a standard dish in US takeout joints: kungpao chicken.

Kung pao chicken and Sichuan green beans.
Kung pao chicken and Sichuan green beans.
Sichuan spicy bbq ribs?  Messy awsum!
Sichuan spicy bbq ribs? Messy awsum!
Green beans, onions and pork.
Green beans, onions and pork.
Not ALL food in Chengdu is spicy.  Simon enjoys his sweet, sweet teddybear donut.
Not ALL food in Chengdu is spicy. Simon enjoys his sweet, sweet teddybear donut.

 

The Sun-Bird:  Chengdu’s Official City Symbol

Chengdu has another symbol, other than pandas.  While not as cute as pandas, the golden sun bird is possibly more impressive.  In Bronze Age China, the area near Chengdu was rumored to have its own complete civilization.  Historians argued back and forth about when / where this mystery people may have lived, but that all changed in 1986.  Workers unearthed sacrificial burial pits, finding one of the most amazing examples of ancient undiscovered cultures.  Chengdu has two archeological sites, and (in interest of time), we visited the one within the city limits, the Jinsha Site Museum.

The Jinsha site had great artefacts, including the hammered gold disc showing a sunstar and orbiting birds (maybe a phoenix?) that symbolize immortality, power (and now, Chengdu).  The jade, gold, porcelain, petrified wood, sacrificed animals (including mounds of elephant tusks) all date from a culture over 6,000 years old.

JinshaSunphoenix
The gold disc of sun and birds from 6000 years ago.
Two archeologists pose in front of the excavation pits.  The museum houses the actual Jinsha discovery site, allowing tourists to watch as archeologists continue to work.
Two archeologists pose in front of the excavation pits. The museum houses the actual Jinsha discovery site, allowing tourists to watch as archeologists continue to work.
A chariot was buried here, including the skeletal remains of two horses and a charioteer.  Man, job security in the Sanxingdui culture is hard-core.
A chariot was uncovered here, including the skeletal remains of two horses and a charioteer. Man, job security in the Sanxingdui culture is hard-core.
Gigantic logs of ebony were found at Jinsha, and now have been turned into a forest.  Also, two Chinese students take a moment to photograph that really tall foreigner.
Gigantic logs of ebony were found at Jinsha, and now have been turned into a forest. Also, two Chinese students take a moment to photograph that really tall foreigner.

 

The Giant Panda:  Chengdu’s Other Symbol

So, the panda is an endangered species that is quite cute, if somewhat lazy-looking.  If China is symbolized by one animal, it is either the tiger or the panda.  But Sichuan province, and Chengdu in particular, really loves their pandas.  Or at least they want their tourists to love their pandas.  So with that to bear* in mind, pandas are a symbol for the whole city.  So panda toys, logos, signs, sculptures are everywhere.

*sorry

A giant panda is scaling that office building!  Ruuuuuuuunnnnn!
A giant panda is scaling that office building! Ruuuuuuuunnnnn!

 

And, when planning a trip to Chengdu, how could we have flown all the way to China and not go to the most famous panda facility in the world?  Needless to say, our halfday trip to the Panda Research Center just outside the city was great.  We were prepared for a touristy, overpriced cheezefest.  And there was that aspect there.  But hey, let’s face it … Simon pointing at live pandas and saying ‘wowwwww…’ is worth it.

Pandaspanda
A panda in its natural habitat: a highly controlled zoo for tourists.
The panda nursery is a very complex facility.  All that is missing is a machine that goes 'ping.'
The panda nursery is a very complex facility. All that is missing is a machine that goes ‘ping.’
baby panda ... kawaiiiiiiiiii
baby panda … kawaiiiiiiiiii

 

Of course, the panda center ALSO has red pandas.  Also known as firefoxes (they are the browser’s logo), we actually thought they were just as cute… or even cuter? … than the giant panda.

Red pandas are known for their pumpkin hunting.
Red pandas are known for their pumpkin hunting.
Mommy?  Can I have a red panda of my very own??
Mommy? Can I have a red panda of my very own??
LOOK AT THE NEW FRIEND MY MOMMY BROUGHT TO ME!!!!!
LOOK AT THE NEW FRIEND MY MOMMY BROUGHT TO ME!!!!!

 

 

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What’s to Do in Chengdu?

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.

Chengdu's Tibetan quarter has one-stop shopping for all your monkish needs.
Chengdu’s Tibetan quarter has one-stop shopping for all your monkish needs.
Bamboo gracefully towering over pathways.  Wangjiang Park.
Bamboo gracefully towering over pathways. Wangjiang Park.
Simon at the park near Dufu's Cottage, Chengdu.  Yes, our little Xiao Pienzi was given that balloon by a passerby.
Simon at the park near Dufu’s Cottage, Chengdu. Yes, our little Xiao Pianzi was given that balloon by a passerby.

 

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!

EastMemParkcosplay
Posing with cosplayers (people who dress up like Japanese cartoon characters). Silver samurai looks deadly, silver princess shows a heart of love, Susie looks happy, Simon looks … concerned.
EastMemParkcrayfish
Four toddlers and a bucket of live crawfish. Chaos surely will follow.
EastMemParkSimon
Simon rushes to join the revolution!

EastMemParkdessert

 

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.

It is normal for shrines to have lions and dragons and such.  But a baby seal?  Even sculptors love cute!
It is normal for shrines to have lions and dragons and such. But a baby seal? Even sculptors love cute!
Not sure of the mythical / spiritual significance of pumpkins at a shrine.  Oh, China.
Not sure of the mythical / spiritual significance of pumpkins at a shrine. Oh, China.
A statue of Liu Bei, emperor of what is now Sichuan province from 221 to 223, and a main hero of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. He is the literary symbol of a benevolent ruler.
A statue of Liu Bei, emperor of what is now Sichuan province from 221 to 223, and a main hero of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. He is the literary symbol of a benevolent ruler.
Hide and seek in ornately carved wooden chairs at Wuhou Shrine.
Hide and seek in ornately carved wooden chairs at Wuhou Shrine.
Susie finds her favorite animal at the Wuhou Shrine: a qilin.
Susie finds her favorite animal at the Wuhou Shrine: a qilin.
Simon, mao (his orange kitty pulltoy), and a very serious horse all pose at the Wuhou Shrine.
Simon, mao (his orange kitty pulltoy), and a very serious horse all pose at the Wuhou Shrine.

 

 

Nap-time Adventures

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.

Wenshucandles
Flames of the faithful, Wenshu Monastery.
Wenshudrum
Dragon carved from a single large tree trunk, Wenshu Monastery.
Susie's glass of hot floral tea at the People's Park, Chengdu.
Susie’s glass of hot floral tea at the People’s Park, Chengdu.
Another Chinese park, Another set of scary-looking amusements.
Another Chinese park, Another set of scary-looking amusements.
The People's Park L-train??
The People’s Park L-train??

 

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).

Susie goes for seconds on date night at a Sichuan hotpot.   Two yellow boiling broths (chicken soup) and two red boiling broths (spicy pepper soup).  The small dishes have raw veggies and frozen meats that you cook at your table.
Susie goes for seconds on date night at a Sichuan hotpot. Two yellow boiling broths (chicken soup) and two red boiling broths (spicy pepper soup). The small dishes have raw veggies and frozen meats that you cook at your table.

 

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.

Shadow puppetry at the Sichuan variety show.
Shadow puppetry at the Sichuan variety show.
Puppetry at the Sichuan variety show.
Puppetry at the Sichuan variety show.
Chinese opera is not known for its subtlety.
Chinese opera is not known for its subtlety.

 

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.  😉

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The Sichuan variety show's climax act features Face Changers, who switch cloth masks in less time than your camera shutter works...
The Sichuan variety show’s climax act features Face Changers, who switch cloth masks in less time than your camera shutter works…