ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, January 07, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 32

A slice of Chengdu ~ Autumn in Sichuan

In Part 1 of a three - part series, Nishy Wijewardane deviates from earlier Chinese Silk Road trails to explore autumn amidst the mysterious and dramatic landscapes of China’s “Wild West”: Sichuan Province, bordering Tibet.

Autumn is a season intimately associated in my mind with the western world; hues of browns, oranges, reds and golden yellows splattered by odd still green leaves on trees yet to surrender their foliage; the crunch of dry leaves underfoot and flurries of winds, often ghostly mini-cyclones, raking up debris into the air, down pathways in far away woods, and the last frantic searches for food by bushy red squirrels preparing for prolonged winter months…That such a scene, perhaps barring the squirrels (substitute pandas and takin), could exist in China was a startling realization.

Bicycle rickshaw

So it was that this unexpected thought on a solo journey some years back in an unlikely desert province of Xinjiang, provoked a curiosity to visit Sichuan. The name itself was luring; roughly meaning “Four Rivers” yet concealing many more. I was passingly aware of Sichuan’s high forests and gorges, and its mighty Yangtze river . Besides a lifelong love of landscapes, my curiosity was aroused on a suspicion that Sichuan harboured much more than ignorant outsiders like myself knew of it. It seemed a land of considerable geographical and ethnic variation. Closer study revealed that it also encompasses the daunting Eastern Tibetan plateau and has - despite Sichuan’s overwhelmingly “inland” Han population - the most important and uncommercialised Tibetan presence outside of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), delineated such as it is today. I was drawn to visiting the vast Tibetan plateau, having traversed much of the area to its north, beyond the Kunlun and Karakkoram ranges. The memory of standing back on the far reaches of China’s spectacular Taklamakkan Desert and seeing myself encircled southeastwards by the high Tibetan plateau, with billowing snowy ranges many hundreds of kilometres away, constituted, I suppose, a powerful desire to know what was on the other sides.

A typical Sichuanese panorama (local watercolour)

A province of extraordinary diversity and raw beauty

A casual glance at a map of China today presents a slightly misleading picture. At what seems the very heart of this beautiful country, lies a sizeable Sichuan. Yet, it is deemed as the largest province in the country’s southwest, and renowned as China’s very own “Wild West”. Sichuan Province (485,000 sq kms or 7.5 times the size of Sri Lanka, with a population of about 90 million, narrowly concentrated) is bordered on its western flank by cold, giant steps of rugged high altitude landscapes into Tibet, on its far south by the green steaming mountainous jungle of Yunnan province (and thereon Burma and Laos), on its east by more riverine terrain extending into Chongqing (separated from Sichuan in 1997) and Shannxi provinces, and lastly to the north by the majestic high prairie steppes of the Qinghai province as well as historically rich and dusty Gansu province, a starting point of the ancient Silk Road. Thus its very geographical and geological placement characterizes this province in no uncertain way, yet for many non-Chinese its fame extends more perhaps to a fiery culinary style and its indigenous pandas, now a national and Olympic symbol.

Smells and sights of Chengdu

My initiation into this province of promising beauty was through its capital Chengdu, known popularly as the gateway to Tibet. Chengdu embraced me with the acrid smell of pollution as I stepped into it one pleasantly cool, dry October night, reminiscent of Nuwara Eliya. A hazy brown smog almost permanently smothers this industrial city, home to some of China’s multi-hundred million labour force and industries ranging from heavy manufacturing to silk brocade and aerospace; very soon one begins to miss a blue sky which many worldwide might still take for granted.

Puppet act in the Sichuan Opera

Yet Chengdu, a typical paradox that one comes to expect in fast modernizing China, has its roots as an ancient settlement founded over 2 millennia ago and the birthplace around AD 960 of the world’s first widely used paper money. More recently, in World War II, the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist) government led by Chiang Kai-shek fled to Sichuan to escape invading Japanese forces and brought with it many of the intelligentsia and businessmen who subsequently helped found Chengdu as a modern economic centre. Later, it was the last mainland Chinese city to be held by the Kuomintang controlled government as Chiang Kai-shek’s defence of Chengdu in 1949 crumbled in the face of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, and the Nationalist Government of China fled to Taiwan to start another chapter of history.


This historically known “Province of Abundance” shares a commonality with agrarian Sri Lanka: around 475-221BC, an enterprising Chinese, Li Bing, harnessed the Du He river on the Chuanxi plain with a unique weir system (still used) which subsequently bestowed over 2200 years of irrigation and hence prosperity. Added to this is an extraordinary mineral wealth discovered later. Indeed, as I gradually realized, “water” - in its many varied locations, colours and pristine states – has been the lifeblood of this province; its overwhelming symbolic presence has been captured eloquently as quintessentially Sichuanese by countless talented Chinese landscape artists in love with its harmony. In Sichuan, it is indeed a special relationship.

With miles of broad highways and dreary buildings, Chengdu throbs with activity and legions of cyclists, some carrying stupendous agricultural loads with acrobatic skill, others being 3 wheeled rickshaw coolies jostling against Chengdu’s efficient taxi drivers. Waves of pretty lady scooter drivers pass on the roadside, usually mobile in hand. Large corporate headquarters here fuel business activity and impressive billboards broadcast advertising messages in both Chinese and English. I am endlessly entertained by Chinglish across China; in Chengdu ‘Transcendental English’ seemed to be the order of the day as I struggled to infill mentally key words or phrases expressing a slogan but missing from original scripts. Often impossible to discern the product or service being advertised, one could only sympathize with the sheer Chinese earnestness of offering services incomparable with competitors, while assuring the reader – very few spoke English - of the wholesome goodness, mental wellbeing and environmental soundness of receiving or ingesting whatever product or service was on offer. “Nice Chemicals Benefit All” was one succinct rural slogan over a belching factory outside the city; what seemed to be either banking or insurance slogans outside my guesthouse assured me that whatever it was, it was indisputably the best.

A mouth numbing cuisine

My forays in this city were short recuperative breaks with a chance to safely enjoy local cuisine and, vitally, to do my laundry after long rough rural incursions. The Sichuanese style of cooking is identified world over as “fiery and sizzling” (that it is numbing rather than chillie hot is less known) though Sri Lankan curries can pack a few more sweaty punches. Ma Po tofu (dofu ), a speciality of any decent Chinese restaurant worldwide, is said to originate from Sichuan, and I ate many a meal at Ma Po Restaurant, reputedly the oldest eating establishment serving the original dofu dish. The name is said to derive from Ma Po, a local woman in the 1880s with a face pockmarked by smallpox, whence the dofu, of similar surface characteristics, obtained its name; this, however, was not a comforting thought as one dipped into huge bowls of tender dofu of caramel pudding consistency, laden with spices and meat and doused in a good half litre of oil. But beware of the not-so-humble Sichuan “peppercorn”! What is mistaken as a sprinkling of dark peppercorn husks in the middle of dishes renders one’s tongue and palate as completely numb – an effective natural anaesthetic if ever there was one. Quite how the Sichuanese enjoy this sensation was not revealed to me. The spice is unrelated to black or chilli pepper and served in a potent combination of star anise and ginger; it is a common ingredient in Tibetan and Bhutanese cooking, said to mask visceral meats.

Sichuan’s most eminent citizens

Dishes of double-cooked pork are also favourites here, of fatty pork so tender and succulent that one can mistake it for eggy dofu…or tasty ginger or spicy Sichuan beef, hot or cold, Gung Pao chicken or the lesser known Tea Smoked Duck…an assortment of animal entrails, from fish lips, pigs’ extremities and innards to shredded rabbit ears was on offer in tantalizing forms. My frustration was that it was impossible to locate even a partially English menu, or a vaguely English speaker, making navigation around such delicacies particularly precipitous. And I had forgotten my picture book of edible animals and vegetables to point to! An assortment of tasty fried or soupy noodle dishes is also commonplace across Sichuan, as is steamed sweet dumplings, akin to dim sum.

One evening I sampled the ubiquitous Sichuan ‘Hot Pot’ street-side with an adventurous female Singaporean stock market trader, selecting the safer looking items in a cupboardful rack of skewered meats and vegetables. Neither of us knew what to do, much to the bemusement of fellow diners, but her language skills helped.

On a table inset with a burner, a bowl of spicy broth is placed and diners idly plunge selected skewers to be cooked; meat can also be dipped in garlic oil or a less potent milky broth, for the feeble. Food everywhere is inexpensive ($2 for two) and that it is many times the cost (and half the portion) in Sri Lanka is inexplicable. The Sichuanese eat early, from 5 p.m. onwards, a fact borne home to me as I strolled to a very pleasant themed eating area in Jinlin Street one early evening at 9 anticipating a good meal. I was met with the sight of cooks, familiar from a previous evening, already having their own dinner amidst heaps of empty dishes and empty gestures of hands.

Facets of city life

Besides crowded pedestrian precincts (and the best tasting McDonalds burgers I have ever eaten worldwide, a sign of American subjugation?), Chengdu boasts several Peoples’ Parks, though some are disappointingly grimy and crowded. Elderly citizens meet here to socialize and play mahjong inside pavilions and tea houses, the seriousness of the game being written across faces of hardened players. In some corners, traditional Chinese karaoke recitals take place against the backdrop of the city’s more elegant old Buddhist/Taoist temples.

WenShu Temple is Chengdu’s largest and best preserved Buddhist temple, dating a millennia back to the Tang Dynasty, with many courtyards and quaint black temple buildings. Incense sticks are lit by hurried worshippers (shoes are not discarded) and material blessings sought, a contrast to my earlier journeys on the Silk Road where in over 6000 kms and countless sites, I never saw a Buddhist worshipper.

In one alcove, a multi-armed Hindu goddess resided, a curiosity in this city.

One morning I tried to visit the Sichuan Provincial Museum, the largest museum in China’s south west with supposedly 150,000 artefacts. Characteristically, my well patronized guest house had no knowledge of this institution in their city and with some difficulty I recruited a taxi driver. I was met with a large circus-type circular gateway banner boldly proclaiming - in meticulous English - the museum’s title but where I expected a towering building, there was none! A vast cleared ground of several acres without one brick in sight in the heart of the city beckoned. Astounded, I vainly attempted to locate the runaway museum; my taxi driver shrugged his shoulders as he had, after all, dutifully delivered me to the location, but not even the neighbours could recollect what had happened to the building next door. Later I learnt through authorities that the museum was “under renovation” and would open in “2007”…somewhere. This was perhaps symptomatic of fast changing Chengdu where property developers predominate and even shops in guidebooks could either not be located or, if you persevere, warrant a search a couple of street numbers further on .

I had more luck in attending the local Sichuanese opera, a delight. In contrast to the formal, intellectual, thematic and artistic elegance of European opera catering to elites, the now more communal Sichuanese “street” opera (200 years old) showcased a variety of acts, today in a theatre. Soothing transcendental traditional music, appealing to inner heartstrings, emanated from a fascinating range of complicated olden day string instruments, requiring lifelong dedication. Some heart-stopping jugglery demonstrated the famous Chinese dexterity while comedy sketches and dramatizations of historical fights in splendidly frightening costumes by men and women kept one rooted.

A stunning puppet show was performed by three ladies, including a beautiful lead, manipulating large ornately dressed puppets above head height with lifelike movements and ending with a fire breathing puppet. The pièce de résistance, however, was the “changing mask” dance.

Agile macho dancers (lithe women, it later emerged) in multicolour painted masks and dresses, performed animated dances to dramatic music. What was unmissable were the millisecond transformations of their masks, untouched by hand, as they fleetingly shook their heads. Blue, white and red masks, artfully painted and contoured to the face, suddenly transformed into green and yellow patterns, and more. It was impossible to deduce how such a sudden change could be conjured! To prolong the disbelief, the dancers mingled with the audience, staring into our faces while provocatively changing their own masks, some to real flesh and back, six inches in front of stunned onlookers.

Though the city was an interesting diversion in parts, my real yearning, however, was to see rural Sichuan’s fabled landscapes. Armed with a bus ticket and the name of a town, I set off to the far north, to beautiful Songpan, Huanglong and Jiuzhaigou.….....

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Copyright 2006 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.