The skies look puffed with fluffy clouds, but slivers of sunlight from a setting sun were peeping through. The aroma of Sichuan pepper felt overpowering, as hot pots began bubbling for the impending dinner. Vendors selling sweet rice on sticks, tofu and snack bowls filled with a quick fix noodle preparation, walk along. Their goods sell fast. It’s 6.00 pm and it's time for dinner.
But in Chengdu, any time is time for food. There is little to wonder about the fact that it was officially recognized in 2010 by the UNESCO as a city of gastronomy, the first Asian city to gain this honour.
Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan, a province in southwest China. It is traditional but not without modernity mixed in equal measures. It is a photographer’s delight; a city rife with sprawling parks, buzzing nightlife, Buddhist temples, shopping alleys, and of course restaurants that jostle for space on even the narrowest of streets, all offering ample opportunities for portraits, landscapes, still life and street scenes.
It’s difficult to pinpoint a starting point to your journey through the lovely Chengdu. Perhaps, visiting one of the three famous temples in the city, which are Wuhouci, Qingyang Gong (temple of the Green Ram) or Wenshu Yuan would be a good place to begin. While Qingyang Gong charms with a certain meditative air, Wenshu Yuan brings a lively feel thanks to the charming tea-house attached to it. Roaring conversations are centred on games of mah-jong or Go, over endless fistful of sunflower seeds and cups of tea. Tea-houses abound the city, particularly in the aforementioned parks, which are beehives of activity by themselves. In the most popular one of all, Renmin Gong Yuan (People’s Park), an active lifestyle is evident from the number of locals who flock to play badminton, practice tai chi or walk at whirlwind speed. More than once, 80-year-old sprightly grandmothers have whizzed past me at a blistering pace. And then there are the small groups of middle-aged women and occasionally men who dance to popular tunes blaring from a boom box set to one side. They can be found swaying gracefully or attempting an energetic salsa twirl on most evenings, oblivious to the amused crowd around them.
Towards late evenings, these hotbeds of culture begin to wind down their frenetic pace. Shopping alleys like Jinli Street and Kuanzhaixiangzi (literally, wide and narrow alley), modelled after ancient Chinese towns, right down to the brass lion head knockers on doors, begin to come alive. Although more expensive compared to other shopping centres, the atmosphere and décor in these places, with their quaint nightclubs, bars and restaurants make them popular haunts.
A day in Chengdu cannot end without capturing shots of the swarms of street food vendors who set up their wares around 9.30 pm and do brisk business even at 1.00 am, their patrons being youngsters mostly. Little crates or stools are placed around makeshift tables, next to the carts. Here, students exchange bawdy jokes, lovers exchange glances and friends hold drinking competitions. The night, it seems, is still young.
But Chengdu is not all materialism and gluttony. The magnificent Sichuan opera with all its finery and sound effects is highly entertaining. Above all, the brightly coloured clothes, the painted faces with their intricate expressions and animated gestures are all enough to send your camera on an overdrive.
And if you have had enough of the people and the city, head out to the famous Panda Reserve on the outskirts. Pandas are the official symbol of Sichuan and the furry beings are well looked after in this expansive zoo. Walkways lined with bamboo and small ponds surrounded by trees make this an ideal spot to soak up the naturual bounty.
Chengdu has an allure that grows ever so slowly—the friendly locals, the lip-smacking variety of foods and drinks, expat filled coffee houses and bookshops with a pace of life that seems at once rushed and unhurried. All threads that form Chengdu’s rich tapestry of culture ensure that you might leave Chengdu but Chengdu will not leave you.