Jun 4, 2012

Real wide and narrow alleys

In old Luzhou

The narrow alleys of Luzhou

One of the things from our January visit to Chengdu that we were amused by was the Kuanzhai Xiangzi, or, literally, the wide and narrow alleys. To refresh your memory, it was an area of about three square blocks that had been constructed to look like Qing Dynasty architecture. To us, it felt like, Disneyland Sichuan, full of expensive restaurants and tourist traps.

Since we’ve been back in Luzhou, we’ve been exploring the little nooks and crannies around our city. We’ve found our own wide and narrow alleys, which aren’t as old as Qing Dynasty but they are still places where average people live and work. We think they’re pretty cool. Take a look:

This alley is really old and really narrow

Click on the photo above for a slideshow of Luzhou’s authentic “Wide and Narrow” alleys.

Feb 2, 2012

Chengdu: Xiao Tong Alley

Where the hipsters are

Hanging out at a funky bar on Xiao Tong Alley
Here’s an album of photos from Xiao Tong Alley.

I’ll wrap up the story of our stay in Chengdu with a little bit about the area where our hostel was. (As I mentioned before, it was funky!)

We were on a street called Xiao Tong Alley (remember, “Xi” is pronounced “shə”), which we learned was a newish neighborhood that sprang up in the past year. It’s attracted a really young, vibrant, artsy crowd; I joked to Peter that we had found the Bushwick of China.

Whereas in the southern part of the city everything was huge and stark and modern and neon (the generally desired aesthetic of modernizing China), here everything was small-scale, home-made, rustic and, our favorite, artist-run. These places were decorated by someone who had an eye; we found edgy murals and distressed French-countryside chic - stark contrast to most of what we’d seen up to this point: the two dominant stylistic modes seem to be sidewalk roughness or super-sterile luxury. It was really cool to find “Alterna-hip.”

We spent a good chunk of each night somewhere on the street, and everywhere we went, we found someone who wanted to talk to us - and, importantly, who we wanted to talk to. From the bartender from Luzhou who was excited to jam out some Clash tunes with us, to the London-educated finance grad who now works with a bar-owning artists’ group, we mingled with some really interesting people who belong to the emerging creative class of China.

It was a Paris-in-the-’30s/Soho-in-the-’70s vibe that we weren’t sure that we’d find in China, but were supremely glad to do so.

Jan 27, 2012

Chengdu: Return to the Bookworm

Reading and wine are so divine

Learning goes good with wine

We liked the Bookworm so much, that we went back again the next afternoon. Also, on our first night there, we missed the new books! The bulk of their stock is second-hand, and the new books are tucked on a few racks into a corner in the second room, which we didn’t enter the night before.

But, new books! We browsed for a good while and then Peter and I bought one book each: “Mother Night,” by Kurt Vonnegut (who I’ve always meant to read more of) and “Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present,” by Peter Hessler (obviously a relevant subject to us). We also bought a set of Chinese-English flashcards.

Once we had made our purchases, we sat down for lunch and some afternoon wine. (We really don’t drink as much as these vacation stories seem to indicate, I swear! We just don’t have access to much in Luzhou.) While we waited for our food, I pulled out the flashcards and we started to look them over, each sharing gleaned tidbits of knowledge and educated guesses about how characters function in the Chinese language.

Here's Tony

The guy sitting at the table next to us (we actually caught him in a photo of the book store, left) overheard us talking about learning Chinese and asked us if we had tried Rosetta Stone. (Answer: Not yet. But it’s on our radar.) This morphed into a long discussion about China and U.S. international relations - he had spent long stretches of his life in the U.S. and Canada, though his parents were still in Sichuan. We listened more than we spoke (both out of old journalistic habits and because it’s good ex-pat practice here), but it was interesting to hear his perspective on world events. He spoke pretty candidly with us, and I think that was partially because we were obviously already interested in China and Chinese culture, given the flash cards, and when he learned we were English teachers in a pretty small city … well, I think that really impresses people here.

Jan 26, 2012

Chengdu: International Night

America, India, Ireland ... in China

Peter, eating Indian food at Namaste
Check out more pictures from International Night.

On the fourth section of Renmin Road - Chengdu’s main street - we found a cluster of different establishments catering to different foreign tastes. So we made a night of it. An international night!

We started off at The Bookworm, an English-language lending library/bookshop/bar-restaurant. (Why has no one done this in America?) We lingered over a plate of hummus and a couple of cocktails reading second-hand travel books; our table was right next to the travel section.

Our second stop was Namaste, one of a few Indian restaurants in the city. Indian food might be second only to Mexican in terms of cuisine that we miss. The restaurant was empty when we arrived, which we found puzzling as it was a Friday night. But the restaurant got pretty good reviews online, so we sat down anyway. And while we were waiting, an Indian family came in and sat down, which we thought was a good sign of the restaurant’s authenticity. (That, or they read the same reviews we did.) And it was pretty good. It definitely filled our need for naan.

Our next and last International stop was the Shamrock Bar, which we had seen mentioned on all the Chengdu ex-pat boards. It definitely did the Irish super-pub thing well, and it did play host to an interestingly diverse group of people, both nationality and age-wise. I have to say, however, that it wasn’t really the bar for us. It was loud and smoky, and there was just a real fratty vibe that we weren’t into. Also, it was expensive, which we really weren’t into. So we had one drink each, watched bemusedly while a drunk guy danced to the Michael Jackson tunes the DJ was spinning (yup, there was a DJ), and went back north to what we were now thinking of as “our neighborhood.”

Jan 26, 2012

Chengdu: The Subway

Clean and fast and where we want to go

Underground in the Chengdu Subway
More photos, here!

Chengdu has a subway system!

OK, “system” might be a little overselling it. So far they have one line that just opened recently, with a plan to expand it in the next few years.

But what they’ve got is clean and fast, and it took us close to where we wanted to go.

Jan 23, 2012

Chengdu: Renmin Park

Tea by the lake

We’ve got a large album of photos from Renmin Park right here.

Renmin Park — or, the People’s Park — is a large park close to the center of the city. Popular with locals and tourists alike, even on the cold January day that we were there, it was a bustling scene.

Where we entered the park, there was a pretty cool amusement park area called Kids’ Paradise. In our wanders, we also saw the lake where they were renting out paddle boats, several tea houses and a monument to the Railway Protection Movement. In every free corner, there were groups of people dancing, doing tai chi, watching live music performances or just watching the world go by.

We sat for a bit by the lake to enjoy some tea, which is served loose in small cups with a lid to keep it warm. It also comes with a thermos of hot water so that you can refill your cup as much as you like. Lingering is encouraged and expected.

While we were sitting, we were approached by a local man who has been running tours for foreigners for the past 22 years. His speciality is taking tourists “off the beaten path.” We chatted about what we do, where we’re from, etc., and he gave us some good suggestions of places to visit. He also tried to sell us tickets to the Sichuan Opera, but he was OK with it when we said no.

Jan 21, 2012

Chengdu: Kuanzhai Xiangzi

The wide and narrow alleys

Shopping in the wide and narrow alleys of Chengdu
Check out our photo album of the Wide and Narrow Alleys here.

A few blocks from our hostel was a pedestrian area called Kuanzhai Xiangzi - which literally translates to “Wide and Narrow Alleys.” It was an apt description.

These wide and narrow alleys were lined with restaurants, tea houses, bars and tourist shops, and the architecture was meant to mimic the style of Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). We found out from some friends we made that this area was just built a few years ago - which makes sense; nothing about the area looks remotely historical.

The area was naturally filled with tourists. It was a funny little walk - you could have an overpriced (I presume) version of cuisine you could find for much cheaper around the corner, we found a Qing-style Starbucks, and, I had a Brooklyn Lager at a German Beer Hall! Now that’s fusion.

Jan 20, 2012

Chengdu: And now … 49 Pictures of Pandas

Yeah, that’s right

Jan 20, 2012

Chengdu: Bad taxidermy

It’s cold, but creepy

Like I mentioned, we spent two hours at the Chengdu Panda Base checking out the pandas. Thing was, we had three hours to spend in the park before the van was due to take us back into the city. So we had an hour to while away … and we were getting cold.

There was a panda museum on the grounds, so we decided to check that out, if only to warm up a little. Unfortunately, this being Sichuan, the museum was open to the outside and there was no heat. So warming up was out. But! They had some terrible taxidermy on display!

OK, so not really an upside. But we got some great pictures out of it. (FYI: We spent the rest of that hour in the park’s coffee shop, which was also open to the cold, but was at least serving hot beverages.)

This taxidermy is bad.
More bad taxidermy!

Jan 20, 2012

Chengdu: Taco Night at The Lazy Pug

With guacamole and cheese

Tacos and Nachos, Oh my!

In our research of Chengdu, a bar called The Lazy Pug kept coming up over and over as a popular hangout for Western ex-pats. That in itself wasn’t super enticing to us; we didn’t move to China to surround ourselves with other Americans. But. Thursday nights are Taco Night!

The bar is run by an American couple, and is pretty authentic in its Western-ness. It was easy to pretend that we were at home in New York while we were there - which isn’t something we want to do often, but every once in a while it’s comforting.

So, much like our visit to Hong Kong, this was a great place to assuage a little homesickness. Unlike our tacos in Hong Kong (which were good enough for being overseas), the Pug’s tacos were excellent. The meat was seasoned well and they understood what vegetarian meant, so both I and Peter were pleased. In fact, on our way out, we told the female half of the ownership couple that these were the most authentic tacos we’d had in this hemisphere. Her response was that she and her husband were taking a month off soon to travel and figure out how to make their own corn tortillas to make the tacos even better!