Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Cultural Brew in Chengdu

It’s a summer day in Chengdu, the humid capital of Sichuan province, and people are languishing at a riverside teahouse, paralyzed by the heat despite shade from overhanging ginkgo and willow trees. In front of each is a thermos of hot water and a steaming cup of tea – which, according to Chinese medicine, is in fact “cooling,” making it the perfect thing to drink in this climate.

Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, is a modern, overcrowded metropolis – but patches of traditional culture survive among the expressways and offices, and especially in the people. The city dates back to prehistory, and became known as a base for rebel armies around AD 200, before blossoming as a trading nexus on the “tea-horse roads,” which spread out from central China into distant Tibet by the 16th century. Tea has been drunk in China for millennia; there are hundreds of varieties of tea and as many ways of serving it. But teahouse culture – with teahouses serving as hubs of local communities, like a bar or pub in the West – really only survives nowadays in Sichuan, and most obviously in Chengdu.

The teahouses of Chengdu vary from grand old buildings to bamboo-pole stalls in temples and markets
Sichuanese teahouses take many forms, from a few chairs in the corner of a temple park to grand, antique-style buildings with heavy wooden furniture and a theater stage for watching Sichuanese opera.
Take a seat in either and a waiter will materialize to offer you tea; sometimes there’s not much choice – just jasmine or green tea – but other times you may be offered a three-page menu of regional specialties. Tea is normally served in a gaiwan cha – a squat, lidded cup and saucer, which is used as a teapot elsewhere in China for pouring the brew into thimble-sized cups, but here it’s drunk from directly. Locals pick up the whole assemblage in one hand to take a sip, carefully holding the lid only slightly open to keep back floating leaves.
Demanding far less skill, zhuye qing, a green tea from the forested foothills of holy Mount Emei, always arrives in a glass tumbler so that you can watch the tiny, spear-shaped buds rise and fall as the drink cools.
The waiter will leave behind a flask of hot water, or periodically return with a metal kettle. Some establishments serve Sichuanese snacks, or at least a plate of dried beans or melon seeds so you can munch on something as you watch your fellow drinkers chat idly in the Sichuanese dialect, or play cards or mah jong. If the teahouse is a theater, don’t expect the audience to devote too much attention to the play; they’ll know the story already, and catching up with friends or swapping stories is far more important.

Drinking cups (wan) have lids (gai) to catch the leaves of the tea (cha); together they form the gaiwan cha for drinking tea

Best Teahouses in Sichuan Province

Heming Teahouse  inexpensive
Everyone in Chengdu knows Heming Teahouse.
Set underneath a wisteria vine just inside the city’s most central park, this open-air teahouse looks out across a large ornamental pond.
There’s a large bronze kettle at the entrance (actually a water spout for you to wash your hands on the way in), the regulation bamboo chairs, and some solid, inconveniently shaped stone tables. Cruising hairdressers, shoulder masseurs, and even earwax removers move among the locals, some of whom seem to spend the entire day here. There’s just the right blend of indifference and attention shown to you by the staff. Weekend crowds sprawl, chew sunflower seeds, and slurp their drinks cheerfully, as they gossip, browse their newspapers, or stare vacantly at youngsters bumping around in boats on the pond.
A cafeteria off to one side sells hot and cold snacks, and once a year there’s a food fair in the park, where you can buy other local treats such as “three gunshots” – three sticky-rice balls that are bounced off a drum into a tray of toasted flour and served in dark caramel; more performance art than a meal.

North Gate, Renmin Park, Chengdu; open 6 AM–7 PM daily  Tea-drinkers watch Sichuan opera at Wuhou Temple in Chengdu
Also in Eastern Sichuan
For a rural riverside setting, leave Chengdu and head to the village of Huanglong Xi, whose rickety antique streets and low-key temples have made it something of a tourist phenomenon. For a similar experience with less raucous crowds, try Pingle, about 55 miles (90 km) west of Chengdu. There are wonderfully atmospheric teahouses in Zigong, a former industrial town a day’s journey from Chengdu; here you can relax over tea in the flagstoned courtyards of Wangye Miao and Huanhou Gong, two splendidly ornate merchants’ guildhalls commemorating the town’s salt-mining heyday.
Also in Western Sichuan
For a totally different take on what makes a good cup of tea in Sichuan, head to western Sichuan. The teahouses scattered through dusty backlanes in Songpan – a Qing dynasty garrison town encircled by stone walls and snowy mountains – make great perches for watching the Muslim, Tibetan, and Qiang population go about their business. In the remote monastery towns of Litang and Langmusi, pluck up the courage to try Tibetan butter tea: a rare mix of tea, yak butter, salt, and water churned into a soup.

Sichuanese Snacks

Sichuan is famous for the variety of its snacks, or xiaochi, which, unlike many Sichuanese main courses, are not always searingly spicy. Savory “carrypole noodles” (dandan mian) are named after the way street hawkers of this dish used to cart their wares around, while gruesome-sounding “husband-wife lung slices” (fuqi feipian) feature slivers of beef in a mild soy/vinegar/chilipepper dressing. Both chao shou (Sichuanese ravioli in plain soup) and tangyuan (rice flour dumplings stuffed with sweet sesame paste) are pepper-free, though bland douhua, soft tofu, comes with hot relish on the side. Upping the heat considerably, gege (rice-coated spare ribs cooked in tiny steamers), liang fen (cold bean noodles in a chili pepper/vinegar sauce), and ranmian (the aptly-named “incandescent noodles”) are best avoided unless you have an asbestos mouth.
A Day in Chengdu
Though much of Chengdu is modern, there are many places in the city to soak up a more traditional atmosphere.
MORNING : Greet the dawn among scores of martial artists in Renmin Park, then catch a cab out to Chengdu’s Panda Breeding Research Base to watch these endangered creatures breakfasting on fresh bamboo shoots. Return to town for tea at the atmospheric Green Goat Temple, dedicated to Taoism’s mythic founder, Lao Tzu.
AFTERNOON : Ride the bus or walk to Jin Li, a lane full of antique-style shops and stands specializing in Sichuan’s famous xiaochi snacks. Visit the adjacent Wuhou Memorial Hall, where emperor Liu Bei of the ancient Shu kingdom is buried, then take a bus to the extraordinary Jinsha Museum, packed with cultural relics from the Bronze Age.
EVENING : After dark, have supper along Kuan Xiangzi, a maze of beautifully restored 19th-century stone lanes and buildings that house some great restaurants. Afterward, catch a short performance of Sichuan opera at the Shufeng Yayun theater.
Getting to Chengdu
Chengdu has a train station and international airport. A metro line runs south through the city, and buses and taxis are everywhere.
Where to stay in Chengdu
Traffic Hotel Chengdu (inexpensive) is a backpacker favorite – clean, friendly, efficient, and in a good central location.
The BuddhaZen Hotel (moderate) is a boutique hotel with a traditional courtyard setting, located in the fascinating “old street” area of Wen Shu Fang. +86 28 8678 1212
The Sofitel Wanda (expensive) is Chengdu’s best upmarket option.
194 Qintai Road, Chengdu; or check the listings magazine GoChengdu:

1 comment:

  1. We will not allow China government to opress us like TIBETANS. We will fight you till DEATH!

    Why you Chinese are quiet about this oppression? Is it because you think other nationalities as ANIMALS! SPEAK UP!!!! Tells us if this is humane or not! Which side are you? Your EVIL Government or the greater good of JUSTICE!