An Oriental Escapade: Exploring Chengdu, China

The word ‘Orient’ has almost always carried a sense of enigma around it, and the term is also often used as a metonym for the ancient Chinese civilization and its traditions and culture. China has long been associated with the silk road, and historians and authors have written at length about the travels along this great trade route. Caravans of silk, paper, tea, and spices have inched away from the ancient Chinese provinces headed towards their final destinations in the Mediterranean and in cities throughout Europe, and so have new thoughts, beliefs, and ideas. Let’s take a walk around Chengdu that was once a significant part of the ancient silk road.


The city of Chengdu is said to have been founded by the Qin Dynasty during the 3rd Century BCE. It served as one of the empire’s greatest commercial hubs under the Tang dynasty. The city is also credited with the first use of paper money anywhere in the world. And the city was recognised in the ancient world for its fine brocades and satins and came to be known as the ‘city of brocade’ during the Han dynasty.

Scholars and literati visited Chengdu during times of peace as it was considered to be a fashionable thing to do. The account of the same can be found in the writings of Li Diaoyuan, a poet of the Qing Dynasty. Some people believe Chengdu to be the oldest established city in the world.  Even today the city has preserved its antediluvian charm and has all the vibes of a peaceful, laid back atmosphere.


The famed Tea Houses and the game of Mahjong

Before technology became commonplace in most households, the locals in Chengdu went to tea houses for tea and conversation. Tea houses were the places where the latest news, ideas, and opinions were shared over many a cup of tea. Sunflower and melon seeds were cracked, and afternoons drifted away in lazy banter.

Mahjong tiles
Mahjong tiles

In Chengdu, however, not much has changed to this very day. The tea houses in Chengdu still see a bustle of people enjoying tea over a game of Mah-jong, the tile-based game that can be conveniently called China’s national pastime. This game, developed during the period of the Qing dynasty, is commonly played by four players. A group of elderly gentlemen very much engaged in a game of Mah-jong in a tea house, as the lights of the day start to fade away, is a common sight to behold in Chengdu

Hot water is poured over the local herbal tea from long-spouted copper pots specific to Chengdu as patrons relax in their bamboo chairs.  Many western coffeeshop chains of the likes of Starbucks are making inroads into Chengdu to lure the youngsters. But the charm of the ancient tea houses lives on unabated.


Furry Pandas and soft diplomacy

When in Chengdu, one cannot miss a visit to the Pandas. These furry animals, constantly eating bamboo in front of cheerful and amazed audiences, are a treat both to the eyes and the soul. Not only that, this peaceful looking animal has been an integral part of the Chinese diplomatic scene since the 1950s. The trend began when a panda named ‘Ping Ping’ was presented to the Soviet Union by China; and to this day. China is said to be exerting its cultural influence on the world and exercising its soft power via Panda diplomacy. In the 1980s, China even started lending out Pandas for fees as high as $50,000 a month. Th Panda diplomacy is an essential component of the Chinese Guanxi – reciprocal relationships that can establish deeper and more trusting bonds between countries.

Three giant pandas Chengdu China
Three giant pandas Chengdu China

The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding is highly popular among tourists visiting Chengdu and allows visitors to observe pandas & other endangered animals from a distance. The breeding centre is located on the outskirts of Chengdu.  One can watch the pandas at every stage of development, from tiny babies in the nursery through to maturity.


Dujiangyan: The first irrigation system

Another major tourist attraction in Sichuan is the Dujiangyan Irrigation System, which is also a UNESCO world heritage site.

The Dujiangyan Irrigation System, known as the ‘Treasure of Sichuan’, plays a crucial role in draining off floodwater, irrigating farms. It provideswater resources for more than 50 cities in Sichuan province.

An ancient irrigation system in Dujiangyan City Sichuan China
An ancient irrigation system in Dujiangyan City Sichuan China

In ancient times, the city used to be a frequent victim of Minjiang River floods. To prevent the destruction caused by flooding, Li Bing, a Sichuan Province official, decided to develop an irrigation system using the river. The project not only freed the land from the floods but also established the oldest and only surviving no-dam irrigation system in the world. It is a marvel of ancient Chinese science and civil engineering prowess.


Du Fu and Chinese Literature

Alongside a stream called the Huanhua, in Chengdu’s western suburbs, sits the serene Du Fu thatched cottage. This memorial, dedicated to Du Fu, was built about a thousand years ago during the Song Dynasty (960–1279). Entering the Du Fu Cottage complex is like taking a step back in time.

Du Fu is one of the most revered poets in China.  He lived during the Tang dynasty, the era when Chinese literature is said to have reached its golden age.  Nearly 1500 of his poems have been preserved over the ages. Du Fu is known to have spent much of his time traveling. His works are said to have been inspired by his travels and the hardships he endured. Du Fu was also a keen observer of the political and social developments around him and never shied away from condemning injustice. A visit to the Du Fu cottage is a must for lovers of poetry or literature in general!


Chengdu has all the charms of a world nestled in nostalgia. It reeks of the tales of the travellers who once passed through its wide and narrow alleys, the tradesmen who carried their silks and their gold. It smells of lazy afternoon teas, its valleys reverberate with the teachings of the Tao and the Buddha, and it sings of the poetry of the wise and the old. To an explorer searching for a piece of a world from long ago, it is a place that can paint a picture of human endurance, of exploration, and of a tranquil existence.


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Photos: Shutterstock

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