Let’s continue our look back through our adventures in Asia. We visited Chengdu, China and made some new furry friends. This post originally appeared in The Toronto Star.
SICHUAN PROVINCE, CHINA— “And we’ll be back riggggght after these messages…”
It’s what I imagine the foursome in front of me on Jin Li street in Chengdu, China are saying to the camera, but the truth is I have no idea.
This is day two in the capital city of Sichuan province and only my family’s—husband Ish, sons Ethan, 8 and Cameron,6— second week in the country and it is becoming increasingly clear that all of the French we’ve studied in school isn’t going to help us here.
Jin Li is a replica of an ancient Chinese street complete with shopkeepers selling traditional snacks and a Dairy Queen.
Today it is also home to big boom mikes and a swinging camera. The foursome are filming some sort of music show like MTV seemingly aimed at kids not much older than my two, and the hosts, who are playing to the camera with big grins and funky clothing, are the hipsters of the generation.
We don’t know what’s happening, but we know exactly what’s going on.
There are parts of China you can venture to where none of this is true. Where you won’t stumble on a KFC or Cartier store, where you’ll forget about BOGO sales and Adidas clothing.
But what makes Chengdu so interesting is the unique way it allows you to be far from home in one minute and completely familiar in the next.
It mixes western with eastern on every corner. It offers up serene parks that lock out the bustling traffic on one hand, and streets that make a human game of frogger out of every crossing on the other.
You’ll stumble on names you recognize among the ones you don’t but never to the point where you feel like you never left home, or yearn for a reminder of it. Somehow Chengdu manages to make the balance just enough.
And despite the language that separates us, there are a lot of things us North Americans can relate to in Chengdu.
Among them: A love for spicy food, North American chains, pop music and good shopping deals.
Visitors to Chengdu of course, don’t come in search of North American chains. What they come for, most often, are the pandas.
Toronto’s newest inhabitants made their way from here earlier this year, but there are still plenty of uncles and cousins whiling away their days in the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base.
And although signs are written in English and Chinese and trails are fairly easy to follow, we were glad we had brought a guide, a local university student, along to tell us the best ways to see the pandas without the crowds (start at the back not near the gate, get to the nursery around mid-morning) and to provide information not included on the signs.
There is no doubt that the pandas are worth seeing. But there is also an admirable protection of the country’s 5,000 years of history, culture and tradition that make it possible to turn a corner and find yourself surrounded by art and architecture generations old.
China’s history and culture, Winzer Zhao, owner of tour company China Travel 2.0, tells me, is where he hopes visitors will focus their attention.
“Every single place in China has a local culture to be tapped,” explains Zhao. “It’s a very important time for the east and the west to develop some mutual understanding. I want to welcome foreigners to China so they can breathe it, touch it, experience it for themselves and then share the history and culture. We’re trying to show the real China.”
It’s not hard to find if you’re willing to look.
Before we stumbled on to the filming, we spent a few hours roaming the Wu Hou shrine and temple and reading about the ruling family of the Three Kingdoms Period (220 AD to 280 AD). Life sized statues offer up a sense of what they looked like, what clothes they wore and how they interacted, while you wander through buildings that date back to 1672 AD.
And before Wu Hou, we explored the thatched cottage of the renowned poet Dufu, whose poetry — translated on the boards throughout the display — tell a story of a China that is romantic, brutal and breathtaking all at once. Even the kids could follow along from diorama to sculpture to poem, gaining insight into Dufu’s life and political leanings before touring the home where he created many of his poems .
But eventually we found our way to Jin Li: The winding street lined with artisans that range from painters delicately imprinting cloths and ceramics to the quick-moving hands of the sugar candy makers who turn the hot sugar into blowfish shaped lollipops before your wondering eyes.
And like most of Chengdu, on Jin Li street you can sample spicy Sichuan cuisine, opt for something familiar or try a little bit of both.
And that’s how we end up watching a 30-minute program entirely in Mandarin, while munching on spicy skewers and licking chocolate dipped vanilla Dairy Queen ice cream cones and manage to feel like we understand exactly what they are saying.