In my travels I have yet to experience anything quite as post apocalyptic sci-fi as the unusual tunnel land that was to greet us in Chengdu, nor as clownishly cute as the beloved native giant Pandas we would meet.
After a well earned rest and recovery from the previous day’s unusual welcome to China, we set out to explore Chengdu. A sub-provincial city in the Western region of Sichuan, Chengdu is mostly known for just two things: fiery red cuisine and pandas. A city far removed from its busier siblings, I was to find none of the over-crowded mania most visitors warn of. Instead we were welcomed by a pleasant, modern and clean mini-metropolis where nobody spoke a word of English and flocks of businessmen skimmed past on bright yellow rental bicycles, complete with briefcases in the front baskets and dinging their bells as they passed.
Chengdu was a bright and happy city, feeling like a rare find. Over 14 million residents inhabit this sprawling metropolis that is full of matching condo buildings, train stations and bustling malls. It was a unique opportunity to explore a country in such an authentic way, unblemished by the Western tourism that plagues and transforms the more popular cities. The touting is very minimal, and as we passed by people in the streets they took genuine pleasure in saying ‘Hello’ with beaming smiles, practicing the very little English they knew.
However, dear readers – to really understand and experience the city of Chengdu one mustn’t take it purely on face value. On wandering the streets you might quickly notice a distinct lack of street food and hole-in-the-wall eateries, the kind that spring to mind when uttering the word China. Don’t get me wrong – it absolutely exists, but not in the swarms I was hoping for. This is partly due to a recent ‘clean up the straights’ bylaw that was targeted towards getting the vendors off the roads. It is also because you’re looking at entirely the wrong level.. For this exploration we had to head underground.
The tunnels of Chengdu are not like anything I was prepared for. Not mentioned in the guidebooks I read, nor something I have encountered much elsewhere in my travels. I never quite came to understand why – perhaps the summers are too hot, the winters too oppressive? Maybe people just prefer a life spent underground? For whatever reason, almost all of the interesting discoveries we made were at least a few meters under the earth.
The first land of tunnels we stumbled upon looked like the entrance to a metro station opening, except there were many of them – spaced only 150m apart down the entire length of the street. An unusual expanse of derelict underground lands unfolded in front of us. For long stretches the storefronts were uninhabited and abandoned, the ones still holding on? Lonely islands stocking underwear or iPhone cases, the owners glued to their soap operas like captains of a sinking ship.
It only took one descent into this absurd wonderland to know that we would be back again. That night I toiled away on Baidu – China’s answer to Google in a land where most websites are censored – to see what I could discover of this underground discovery. As it turns out, Chengdu has had an elaborate system of underground passages long before even the metro was constructed. They were known as the Tianzuo Shangcheng and date back for over 40 years, back then it was home to a number of shops before eventually business tapered off and the entire complex was closed while the first Metro line construction began.
In 2010, the mystical land of tunnels was to be given a revamp – a hefty sum to the tune of 289 million yuan was paid for development rights, and this fantastically large 40,000 square meter network of tunnels was to be given a facelift and some more room to breathe. The final shopping centre was to total 90,000 square meters and become known as the Diyi Dado (地一大道), part of a grander scheme of underground shopping districts across the country.
As with many, if not most, things I have discovered in China; new projects start with a fanfare – a huge pile of money and a lot of promise. Most dwindle away into incomplete renovation projects that never quite found their way to completion amidst the weird capitalist maze of Chinese construction. The promises were grandeur – connections between numerous downtown buildings, rainbow passageways leading down to 24-hour shopping centres. The area around Tianfu square appear to be a spectacular success, resembling more of a modern-day Tokyo than much else – housing modern shops, expanses of arcades and restaurants with as many as 10,000 merchants vying for a storefront space even before the opening date. Not to fear, however, it is still home to many of the unusual nuances to be found across China: The aptly named ‘A La Fried Dumplings’ does not, in fact, sell fried dumplings at all, and the fast food ‘Happy cat’ haunts me – perhaps it’s cat meat, but why the happy dancing kittens in the video?
It is in the tunnel lands further afield, a short stroll away from the Tiafu hype, that things get interesting. Large stretches of abandoned mall with large chunks deserted. The majority of remaining stores house hair salons and underwear stores. There are a couple of small restaurants, tattoo parlours and an abundance of iPhone covers to be coveted. Down the far end, completely abandoned. There is an area with the walls painted to be Parisian, welcome to Paris, it informs. Another stretch painted with tulips & windmills. At one point, a sea life-themed tunnel decorated with fish and undulating blue neon lights, the paint peeling off and eerie music coming from a worn speaker in the corner.
Up above this new discovery that I have simultaneously come to be fascinated yet repulsed by, spring is taking hold and rural China is alight with bright yellow flowers. In the city there are many displays of plastic yellow flowers and fake peach blossom trees, the most popular selfie haunt in town. We enjoy a rare moment of clear skies and sunshine to see what culinary delights might await. Chengdu is famous for being spicy, thanks to world-renowned Sichuan peppers. I never found the food to be as spicy as I would like, however I have developed a taste for the spiciest of Southern Thai and Indian dishes, so perhaps I am immune. The Sichuan peppers have a noticeable citrusy flavour & numbing mouth feel that is omnipresent across the region.
Due to a series of misunderstandings, bad translations and planning errors we never managed to sample the most famous traditional dish – Sichuan Hot Pot. In the centre of the table lies a bubbling caldera of spicy hot broth for you to dip your chosen skewers, poaching them in lava until done. The skewers range from simple vegetables to more complex (and often disturbing) items such as intestines pulled from a live duck, or a pig’s stomach lining. A dish to be savoured for a future visit, perhaps?
But there’s no disputing Chengdu’s true claim to fame, one you will see reflected in every second shop window. The region of Sichuan is the native home to China’s most beloved mascot. If you were ever in dire need to outfit your entire home, restock your wardrobe and dress your child entirely in panda themed gear, the shops of Chengdu would be a good place to start. The city also happens to be home to the largest panda research base in the world.
Located in what used to be rural Chengdu, it has now been devoured by the rapidly expanding city limits and is situated in an outer-city industrial area, but you wouldn’t know it once you get inside. The huge park is explored via well kept pathways through towering bamboo, leading you to museums, exhibits, the research centre itself and of course, many pandas of both the giant and the red variety. Being one of the major tourist attractions for panda lovers worldwide, it should come as no surprise to learn that with one wrong move or miscalculated step in planning, you could find yourself sandwiched between tens of thousands of tour groups, having a thoroughly unenjoyable time. You’ll be unable to see the pandas because they hate rampant tourism just as much as I do, and choose to hide away and nap during the park’s peak hours.
We plotted our visit carefully, catching an early morning local bus and utilising GPS to establish the correct stops. We arrived a bit after 7am, around 15 minutes before opening time and were relieved to find only a handful of other die-hard panda fans who had the same idea. We waltzed ourselves in, the fourth and fifth visitors on this day, and made our way straight to the pandas. Many hadn’t been let out yet and were still milling about in their sleeping quarters, munching on bamboo and pacing about impatiently waiting for playtime. We were mere centimetres away from them, separated just by a glass window. I’ll be honest with you here – the first panda I spotted looked so fuzzy, and had such perfectly round teddy bear ears that I couldn’t tell if it were real or a picture. Then it moved. I was rather taken by how unreal they look.
Throughout the first hours of the early morning there were few people, and we enjoyed most of the exhibits to ourselves. The pandas were acting as playful little clowns and enjoying breakfast time, cubs rolling about their mothers and doing headstands in the trees. But by 9.30, there was a dramatic change in landscape. School groups, tour groups, masses of undulating people everywhere. Claustrophobics nightmare. The pandas were gone – hiding in their huts, in the trees, pretty much anywhere to get a break from the crowds. When people on Tripadvisor complain of the pandas being hard to see or asleep, this is why.
Amidst the flurry of culture shock and Sichuan peppers, of tunnels and giant pandas, Chengdu provided a glimpse into a side of metropolitan Chinese life that I was not to find again in my travels through Xi’an and Beijing. Something perhaps common across the majority of cities and villages in the vast and bewildering land, just not in the places many tourists choose to visit. With an awareness that we were to experience China in this way for perhaps the last time on this journey, we bid farewell and boarded an overnight train to Xi’ian.