Chengdu, (not to to be confused with Chengde) the capital of Sichuan (not to be confused with Szechwan) province is a sprawling city with some ten million people located in southwest China.
It's not a destination many people would put on their list of places to see when visiting China but it is where we've had two of our most memorable dining experiences.
Back in the mid-90s, we took two trips to Tibet which required a special permit which was to be issued in one of two "gateway" cities, Xian and Chengdu. If there were any politically motivated demonstrations going on in Tibet at the time, all foreigners were to be denied entry.
On our arrival in Chengdu, we were picked up by our guide and taken to our hotel in downtown Chengdu. "Why do you come to our great city of Chengdu?" we were asked. We didn't tell him it was only to pickup an entry permit to Tibet, but rather to see the great sights the Sichuan capital had to offer. "Ah, Yes, there are a great many things to see here". There are famous old temples, museums, monsteries, and a Panda Park. Eighty percent of China's estimated population of 1000 wild Pandas reside in the Sichuan Province and the thought of seeing some Pandas certainly peaked our interest. However, the Panda Park turned out to be an amusement park with a Panda theme. Let's see, Panda roller coaster rides, and ferris wheels, no thanks.
Chengdu was trying desperately to be designated a "tourist gateway city" in the mid-90s as evidenced by all the banners and signs (all in Chinese) hung everywhere in the downtown area. It wasn't one of the five destinations Nixon visited on his groundbreaking trip to China, and all those cities had prospered greatly from tourism. Tourism was on the rise in Chengdu though, but mostly Chinese tourists from other provinces, so we were still the odd pickles in the barrel.
Everyone spoke Mandarin and very few spoke Engilsh.
We did visit some very nice temples, parks, and monasteries there but eating is what we will remember the most about Chengdu. Sichuan Province is well know for spicy dishes, hot pots, mapo do-fu, smoked meats and incredible teas.
Restaurants in upscale hotels at the time usually served a toned-down version of the local cuisine, more suitable to the tourist's palate at a highly inflated price. We decided to take our chances outside the hotel.
Wandering around the back streets, we decided to go into what looked like a clean place to eat. We weren't exactly sure if it was a restaurant at first but once inside, just behind the old wooden carved doors, were a couple of bowing, smiling girls waving us into the dining area. We were quickly seated in the small crowded room with all eyes on us. Menus, in Chinese only, were handed to us and we gazed blankly at them before looking up at each other. "You don't suppose they have a menu in English, do you?" Even if we knew how to ask for an english menu, we knew there wouldn't be one. A tallish man with a cheshire smile etched on his face eventually came over and proceeded to speak to us in mandarin. Could it be the specialties of the house, or maybe the daily specials which he was reciting? We pointed at the menu and he continued to smile and nod his head. We tried to ask him if there was anyone there who could speak some english and his smile slowly faded as he relized our predicament. He turned away from us and yelled something in mandarin prompting stares and laughter (I'm pretty sure it was - "these people can't speak or read Chinese.").
Soon, a man appeared through a thin cloth curtain separating the dining area from another room and made his way towards our table. Smiling, with a cigarette in his mouth, dressed in a tank top and shorts, he said "eat". Yes indeed, we wanted to eat and he proceeded to help us order our meal. He wasn't really able to speak english but his limited vocabulary, of maybe thirty words, was enough to get us what we wanted.
As he made his way back to the mah-jong game in the adjacent room he proudly received his "job well done" from the restaurant staff and patrons.
We had some of the best dishes we've ever had in this tiny little restaurant, from spicy do-fu with preserved radishes to our favorite Sichuan dish, shredded smoked duck with spring leeks, cabbage and peppers. All in all, we had three large plates of food with steamed rice, two large bottles of beer, fresh fruit, for about three US dollars.
There were plenty of smiles and nods as we left. The mah-jong game in the next room paused as we were bid farewell by our "interpreter".
As we made our way out towards the large carved woooden doors, two girls chased after us with the tip we had left on the table. We pointed at the money, then at them, and left as they smiled at each other.
The next evening, we had a spicy Sichuan Ostrich dish but that's another story altogether.
I'm not sure how Chengdu has changed since we were there last. I'm certain that skyscrapers have popped up all over the city but if you do decide to go, go for the food.
Chengdu, China time
**Visits: Summer 1995, Fall 1997