Chengdu - Tea Time
Written by Wang Yuanchang
With Qatar Airways launching flights to Chengdu this month, Chinese travel writer Wang Yuanchang touches down at Chengdu Shuangliu Airport – the fourth-largest airport in China – to savour all the city has to offer. Starting with a cup of tea.
As the saying goes, teahouses of Sichuan rank first in the world, while those of Chengdu rank first in Sichuan. As far back as the Western Han dynasty (206 BC to AD 24), both tea trade and tea culture were prosperous – with Chengdu the starting point of the southern Silk Road.
Chengdu's teahouses were traditional men's clubs where political and business deals were struck, but in today's China they are everybody's club; social networking, face-to-face style.
There is a popular phrase in Chengdu which says 'Winter sun in Chengdu is so valuable, it needs to be bought.' For my first days in a cloudy Chengdu (summer, by contrast, is just as bright as winter is dull), that phrase rang true, but as soon as the sun popped out from behind the clouds, scores of young and old flooded into the 3,000-plus teahouses that are dotted across the city.
As one of the few remaining bastions of true teahouse culture left in China, Chengdu establishments are ubiquitous, dotted on street corners, in every park, and even in office compounds. Their well-deserved reputation is based on their quantity, quality, and diversity.
Go to any major public park, Buddhist monastery, or Taoist temple, and you will find it hard to disagree. It is especially in these big public spaces that the tea culture thrives. Even in Chengdu, a city of more than eight million, which is growing at rocket-like speed, their special atmosphere somehow feels like a rare city oasis, where the bustle slows down and the spirit stays intact.
So what can you expect to see in a teahouse in an afternoon? Small society, as Chengdu people call it. It is the perfect spot in which to relax, to socialise; to people-watch. Once you are inside, relax and enjoy a moment where time just seems to slow down.
There is a distinctive kind of teapot that is unique to Chengdu. It is made of brass and has a spout that is approximately a metre long. The servers of this elaborate piece are called 'Tea Doctors' and their use resembles traditional martial arts. Because of the long spouts, tea can be shot from across the room into small teacups without spilling a drop.
Waiting staff present the menu in English as well as Chinese, and once you have selected from the list, an elegant tea set is delivered, complete with porcelain teapot, cup, saucer, and lid, plus a steel strainer.
Once duly filled, hot-water pourers make regular rounds to reinvigorate the brew, theatrically dispensing from their long-spouted brass pots, so no need to worry about reaching the bottom of your cup too soon.
The waiting staff are not the only ones proving attentive to your enjoyment and relaxation; you can also order shoulder massages, and even ear cleaning should you wish! This is a rare, age-old profession, and ear cleaners take their job very seriously. For me, it was certainly both an eye-and-ear-opening experience to have my ears attended to outside the sanctity of my bathroom at home, by someone else, in a complicated procedure.
As you can guess by now, there is atmosphere aplenty, but it gets even better at Wenshu (God of Wisdom) Temple, an ancient Buddhist sanctuary founded in the Tang dynasty, whose present buildings are two or three centuries old.
Set beside the temple's mighty timber halls and red-pillared pavilions is a swathe of bamboo chairs and tables shaded by ginkgo trees, a garden teahouse inhabited by a throng of voluble imbibers, and a hubbub of tea-tipplers, many of them well-heeled. Surrounded by so much history and such dazzling relics of China's past, partaking in a lively contemporary scene, here I had the strongest sense of being inside this nation's remarkable 3,000-year-old culture. Not every teahouse is this adventurous of course.
One of the best things about Chengdu's teahouses is the community atmosphere. With its traditional teahouse principle of 'one seat, one cup', Renmin Park teahouse is the largest and most popular – as is only right – for Renmin Park means 'people's park'. At a lakeside shaded by willows, hundreds of people sit around in bamboo chairs at stone tables, chatting with friends or family; catching up on news; playing cards, draughts, and mahjong; chewing seeds and nuts. Tea is the lubricant to a thoroughly social outing, and it comes in an endless list of varieties, from scented teas such as jasmine and chrysanthemum to the many kinds of slightly caffeinated oolong and green teas.
Some people might compare Chengdu teahouses with Paris cafés – but probably not after having been ear-cleaned in Renmin Park(!); it's more likely that they have enjoyed a cup of green tea in one of the sedate teahouses along the Funan River.
Such is the new China: racing at breakneck speed into the future, but preserving, enhancing, and even recreating features of the past. The garden teahouses of Chengdu fall into that latter category in a big way.
When in Chengdu, try to stay as long as possible and visit the teahouses; both the old and the modern, and put anything that troubles you aside. You will find your heart rate slows, your head clears, and you will understand why Chengdu people are so serious about such a simple thing as tea.
Chengdu Panda Base
Wildlife conservation has received an enormous boost this year with several births around the world of giant pandas, the endangered Chinese icon of the conservation movement. Zoos in Atlanta, Taipei, Vienna, and Washington DC welcomed panda cubs, while Edinburgh Zoo is preparing for the possible arrival of the first panda cub born in Britain. All the worlds pandas are on loan from China, and many were raised at Chengdu Panda Base, the leading scientific research and breeding centre for the endearing animals. Those who cant visit themselves can take a virtual peek, with Google just announcing it has added the Panda Base to its Street View, and live streaming of the giant pandas now also available at ipanda.com
Head to the ancient street of Kuan-Zhai Xiang ('Wide-and-Narrow Alley'), built in 1718 during the reign of the Kangxi Emperor, to taste a host of dishes, in restaurants such as Long Chao Shou and Chuanbei Liangfen. For an unmissable dish, try san da pao (three big cannons), a sweet dish made with from sticky rice, brown sugar, sesame, and beans. The names comes from the act of throwing these sticky little snacks against a metal tray: 'bang, bang, bang'!
Sichuan opera is also a must for travellers who want to learn about traditional folk art performance. The operas have three distinct features, known as Changing Faces (where performers switch masks to change roles), Spitting Fire (which takes years to master and is quite literal), and Rolling Light (clown-like comedy while balancing a lighted flame on one's head). As well as the live performers, Sichuan opera also includes puppetry. Seeing the performers inject life into the wooden dummies to create an engaging and lifelike character is always a favourite.
Qatar Airways launches flights to Chengdu, China on September 3.
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