If there is one city that is synonymous with great tea and food, it is Chengdu, the 14-million strong capital of the Szechwan province in south-western China. It has been labelled a UNESCO City of Gastronomy, thanks to the world-famous Sichuan cooking style which relies heavily on a particularly mouth-numbing type of peppercorn.
So I flew there with great expectations. But the day I arrived, I was flummoxed by the vistas of endless avenues lined with gigantic skyscrapers broken up by massive squares – one of them with a particularly big statue of Chairman Mao. I had come looking for Chinese history and culinary traditions, and wonderful tasty things to put in my mouth, but all I saw was a typical communist grandness that is supposedly a mark of development. The old city used to be walled in, but when Chairman Mao visited town in 1958, he pointed out that such useless ancient structures would obstruct traffic – “city walls are backward, dismantling them is progressive,” he said – so the historical walls were immediately torn down. The old royal palace was demolished a few years later, in the 1960s, and replaced by the huge statue of Chairman Mao.
Today Chengdu is perhaps better known globally for iPads than history, as one out of every two iPads in the world is manufactured here. Development also means that a thick cover of exhaust and smog envelopes the Chengdu sky which is said to hardly ever be blue, making this the perfect destination for tourists who want to avoid getting a sun tan.
But there turns out to be some very interesting things that tourists can do in Chengdu. The next morning I set out to look for pandas – the iconic bearlike animal (and a symbol of the World Wildlife Fund) that are found in the wild largely only in the Szechwan province. Some 80% of the world’s panda population, or about a thousand animals, live here. Seeing them in their natural habitat is quite a project, but luckily they are not so hard to find in Chengdu as the city is home to a panda breeding centre which has panda nurseries and a panda hospital. These pandas are eventually meant to be released into nature, so the enclosures are designed to be as authentic-looking jungles as possible.
It is crucial to go early to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, to see the 100 or so resident pandas get their morning meal of bamboo. A podgy panda’s diet is 99% bamboo and the feeding starts around 8.30am. Because of an intoxicating component in the raw bamboo, the pandas inevitably get stoned as they munch and crunch, and after breakfast they usually topple over backwards and fall into a deep coma which may last until the next morning. Only some of the panda cubs go on goofing as their elders snore – they’ve not yet become as fat and slothful as their mummies and daddies – and their crazy Kung Fu style games are a delight to watch. There is a buzz of excitement at the base that day as some baby pandas have recently been born, which is amazing considering that pandas are generally too lazy to procreate.
Later that same day, I visit the Jinsha Archaeological Site which is to the west of the city centre – it is a fascinating dig where people can cross the pits on wooden walkways and platforms, and study the remains of an extremely ancient city. The five square kilometre site was discovered in 2001 and it is considered to be one of the most important archaeological finds of the 21st century. Signboards explain the significance of the various things, like the remains of a ritual banyan tree, and the next-door site museum is full of pottery and jade objects and a rather fabulous gold mask possibly worn by ancient priests.
In between all the sightseeing, I sample as much Sichuan cuisine as I can. A famous Chengdu-style vegetarian dish is mapo doufu – or tofu with hot chillies – and having it at a tiny worker’s canteen blisses me out, while a big meal of kung pao chicken and twice-cooked pork at a student hangout stretches my tummy further. Finally one evening I join a group of locals around a hotpot meal in a bar. The hotpot is the most famous dish in Szechwan so it must be tried at least once: raw ingredients such as mushrooms and meats, tofu and thick potato noodles are served on trays and we use our chopsticks to soak these morsels in a big pot of simmering and spluttering, spicy and oily broth, until ready to eat. The process is terribly messy if you’re not a chopstick expert – often my food disappears into the broth and I have to fish around for it. One is also warned not to drink the broth itself, it is simply so spicy it will make one’s intestines explode.
But above all, Chengdu is known for its tea houses. Apparently there’s a local haiku that goes something like: ‘Here the sunny days are rare, but don’t worry since tea houses are everywhere.’ I discover them more by accident than design. I’ve of course heard that there is a hundred-year-old tea house in the central People’s Park, which is supposed to be a must-visit for tourists and perhaps a bit of a rip-off at ¥15-25. Though it is cheap compared to the posh Kuanzhaixiangzi area – also known as ‘Wide and Narrow Alleys’ – which is well-known for its very expensive and exclusive tea houses, where you might end up paying ¥100 for your cuppa. Other tea houses stage Sichuan opera and are more like entertainment spots.
However, instead of immediately going to a tea house, I decide to do a bit more sightseeing and spend my last day looking at Buddhist monasteries and temples. The city has a couple of really ancient ones dating back to the Tang dynasty (7th-10th centuries AD). Xuanzang (better known in India as Hsien-tsang), the great scholar and traveller of the 7th century, actually studied in one of these prior to his journey to India. Xuanzang’s long sojourn in Bihar and elsewhere in our country is of course quite well known, since he wrote a lengthy report sharing useful geographical information as well as detailing the condition of Buddhist sites such as Na Lan Tuo (Nalanda) where the head monk personally taught him yoga and nicknamed him Moksadeva. His Journal of West Countries in Tang Dynasty (completed in 646AD) is perhaps the best 1st millennium guide to backpacking in India and still in print as a valuable information source for archaeologists. So I take the metro from my hotel to the big Wuhou temple which supposedly holds a piece of Xuanzang’s skull bone. I’m unable to locate the bone, as I keep getting lost inside the vast temple and nobody I ask for guidance knows any English, but I do get to sample awesome Chinese kebab skewers and Tibetan yak butter tea in the bazaar out in front.
Afterwards I take a long stroll through central Chengdu until I find the Daci temple, which is where Xuanzang was initiated into Buddhism and where he also lived as a young novice monk for five years, until he felt the urge to go to India to find out more about Buddhism firsthand. Apparently this temple too has a piece from Xuanzang’s cranium and even a relic from the Buddha himself, but again I’m unable to find either. By then, having walked so far (though not as far as Xuanzang did when he walked to and from India) I am phenomenally thirsty and that is when I discover the tea house deep inside the monastery. It is very crowded, and the guests are mostly old Chinese gentlemen and ladies. In a corner I find a counter where I order myself tea. The rates are dirt cheap, I pay around ¥6. What I get is a cup full of tea leaves and a massive thermos flask with hot water – sufficient for some fifteen cups at least, and I end up sitting there for the rest of the afternoon refilling my cup, writing my notes, and warming up with the tea. With each refill, the flavour of the leaves in the cup seems to change – the taste gets less sharp and perhaps a bit mellower as the hours go by, which suits me just fine as like most Indians I’m not used to drinking tea without milk. But the beverage retains its essential flavour for surprisingly long: I’ve read somewhere that Sichuan tea that doesn’t last for more than three steeps is considered to be of inferior quality.
This is indeed a happy end to my visit in Chengdu. Watching the leisurely tea drinking that goes on at the temple premises, I start sensing an almost Buddhistic atmosphere over the whole scene. There is something very meditative about the way the old-timers have planted themselves in their bamboo chairs, some of them so relaxed that they’re fast asleep, softly snoring – almost like overfed pandas. Others sip their tea and while away time by chatting or playing slow board games like mah-jongg. However, I keep hearing that coffee is getting popular among the younger generations of Chinese who take it to be a drink of modernity and symbolic of a Westernized lifestyle, so the tea houses of Chengdu reportedly aren’t quite as popular as they once used to be.
But tea is undeniably a very important part of Chinese culture, a drink of refinement and intelligence. In the days of the Tang dynasty, when the temple itself probably was built, there were about 400 tea houses in Chengdu and although tea was originally drunk as a health drink (and grew wild), it had by the Tang days become a beverage of pure pleasure, which was commercially cultivated.
So what better way is there to grow old than in a Chinese tea house? Most of the faces I see are adorned with that typical Buddha smile that one encounters on statues in museums. There’s a sense of contentment all around – of people who have worked hard all their lives, who survived revolutions and seen the world change, and now they are happy to spend their final years communing with their tea cups.
The featured banner is of the tea house inside the Daci temple. Photo by author.