When it comes to trying things for the first time, Chengdu, the capital of China’s Sichuan Province in the western part of the country, is more than giving. What kind of first time? Well, that depends on who you are and what you’ve already done. For me, it involved having my tongue numbed and tingling at the same time, pulsing with hot and cold prickles while beginning to flush. And no, this isn’t the Chinese equivalent of a wild night out in Bogotá or Berlin; I’m talking about spice. Sichuan spice. It is a fiery favourite used in many of the area’s dishes. So while you may not have come across of Chengdu, you’ve probably heard of the region’s culinary delights.
With the greater city’s population nearing some 14,400,000 million people, not only is it big, it’s old—over 4,000 years. What’s notable is that neither factor is particularly tangible. The general mood is one of relative calm for a city that should be crowded; one that feels contemporary for somewhere so ancient. Sky-rise buildings slice into the misty white clouds that cover the heavens in early November, becoming illuminated at night with a haze of luminescent colours. These pulse down their facades like messages from the gods (the gods of disco, obviously). Blue into green, pink and purple: the evenings are neon rainbows.
The city is embarking upon a huge investment initiative to cultivate it as a cultural destination in China, and from November this year until early January 2019, Centre Pompidou is co-presenting Cosmopolis #1.5: Enlarged Intelligence in collaboration with Mao Jihong Arts Foundation (a privately owned organisation dedicated to culture) and Chengdu Media Group. It’s the largest international contemporary art exhibition ever to be presented in Chengdu, and is a good starting point to visit its major creative zone, Eastern Suburb Memory—a former state-owned electronics factory built in the 1950s, and the main site of the show. Not only is it an exhibition venue, as you walk through these buzzing streets—beneath structural pipes, metal staircases and concrete cooling towers—you’ll pass cinemas, cafes, bars, small theatres and music venues, all neatly nestled together.
The exhibition’s other location is in the north of the city, at Jincheng Lake in the Wetland Park, a vast man-made ecosystem of plant life swaying beneath the water’s surface, tiny fish busily swimming about the greenery. Here is the remarkable creation of Kunlé Adeyemi, whose architectural studio NLÉ Works addresses the future of housing during rising populations and threats of flooding with climate change.
“As you walk through these buzzing streets—beneath structural pipes, metal staircases and concrete cooling towers—you’ll pass cinemas, cafes, bars, small theatres and music venues”
Searching for affordable accommodation solutions, he developed the speculative design MFS IIIx3—Minjiang Floating System—an archipelago of three floating structures that jut out into the lake and gently bob upon the waters. Elegantly hand carved from bamboo—which is sliced into planks and hollowed out as thin strutted slats, or crisscrossed to form billowing curtains—three triangular pyramids with vast walls of tessellating triangular windows appear as hubs from the future, where we might sit at one with nature, rather than battling with it. It’s at night that it feels truly magical, a gathering point amid golden lights and bamboo where people can listen to concerts in its central space, music emanating across the otherwise silent lake.
If it were possible to sleep here, I would have done so in a heartbeat (waking up to that light, that view, is the stuff dreams are made of). Instead I based myself at Fraser Suites in the Jinjiang District—on the twenty-first floor. If you can get up that high, do, and if you can wake up before the sun rises (jet lag anyone?), soak up the luminescent red sun that burns through the morning mist. Flaming cherry. Although this hotel is in the so-called central historical part of the city—the new part spreading out in concentric rings at the edges—its innumerable high-rise buildings tell a different story.
However, if you find the road that translates as “Secret Alley” (turn left out of the hotel), you’ll find a series of small traditional structures with upturned pagoda rooftops, including a tiny shop selling traditional Chinese alcohol, which sits in vast ceramic pots topped with weighty bags of rice. You can sample the gently tinted liquid, and then stumble a few houses up the road to slurp traditional Sichuan red soup, selecting your raw meat, fish or vegetables from a buffet-style counter, which is then cooked to perfection. All for around thirteen Chinese Yuan, about £1.45.
For book lovers, Chengdu is a must. With over 3,400 bookstores through the city, there’s something to cater for every taste. One of my favourites was in the central business district Lan Kwai Fong Chengdu: Fangsuo Book Store, a huge subterranean library with literature filling the shelves around colossal concrete pillars.
Once you’re done feasting upon words, you can come back up into the light to visit the Buddhist Daci Temple, which sits somewhat strangely in the centre of this otherwise commercial area—and bringing real resonance to that oft cited phrase: shopping is the new religion. Once the largest monastery in Sichuan and first built in the Sui Dynasty (581–618 AB), its current form took shape during the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). If you’re lucky, you’ll hear the monks gathering to chant beneath the statues of Buddha, surrounded by burning incense while the city continues to whirl outside its gates.
“If you’re lucky, you’ll hear the monks gathering to chant beneath the statues of Buddha, surrounded by burning incense while the city continues to whirl outside its gates”
A short twenty-minute walk south from there will take you down the milky blue Jinjiang River—lined with fishermen’s poles and their bounty of black carp swimming in tupperware—to cross the Anshun Lang Bridge. It was originally constructed in 1746 and later destroyed during a 1947 flooding, with this replacement made in 2003. Somewhat underwhelming and emitting an Emperor’s New Clothes vibe, it looks historical, but has a bar and restaurant nestled inside a nouveau storied pavilion.
It’s on the other side of the bridge that the good stuff happens: a willow tree lined walkway, bulging roots rising from the ground and leaves draping down to kiss the waters. For such a peaceful place in daytime, at night you can visit the city’s clubs which sit just behind, including Erma Pub, a local bar shaded in tones of shocking pink with music, drinks and dancing. If you don’t feel like staying out, cross back over the bridge and head to Fious Virens Tea House, where locals sit drinking pints of green tea that bob at the bottom of the glass like a mini ecosystem.
The best is always saved for last, of course: panda bears. In the northwest of Chengdu, about an hour’s taxi ride from the centre, these black and white beauties reside at the Giant Panda Research Base, chewing away on their leaves. Be sure to go as early as possible and avoid Saturdays at all costs—unless you love falling in with the crowd. The tragedy is that I was too wrapped up in my books to make it. That first will have to wait until next time.
Cosmopolis #1.5: Enlarged Intelligence
Until 6 January 2019 at various locations, ChengduVisit Website