Chengdu. Known for its pandas and the Leshan Giant Buddha. But what about Chengdu itself. Is it worth sticking around for? Personally, I haven’t heard anyone raving about it, but that doesn’t necessarily have to be a negative thing. China has many gigantic cities that no one has heard from. Names like Chongqing and Lanzhou don’t ring a bell with many people, but these are huge cities with millions of people. Luckily for us, ‘unknown Chengdu’ turned out to be a great place. It is a surprisingly green city that doesn’t feel as chaotic as Shanghai or Beijing. Chengdu left a great impression on us, and I think it was because of the mix of old and new. A good example of this is Kuanzhai Alley, an artistic alley complex in the center of Chengdu.
The Wide and narrow alleys of Chengdu
Kuanzhai stands for Kuan Zhai Xiang Zi. This means wide and narrow alleys. And actually, that is a good description of what the area looks like. The wide alley is the entrance to 45 courtyards. There are many souvenir shops, old Chinese tea stores, and Sichuan restaurants located here. Oh, and don’t forget about the ‘professional ear cleaners’ that offer to stick a needle in your ear to remove everything that is bothering you. I am too scared to try it. Would you try it?
Art in the side streets
Right next to the wide alley you have several narrow alleys that show a different side of China, the modern one. These alleys are the terrain of local artists and are full of surprises. For instance, I saw panda street art, sat on a 3D bike that was sticking out of a wall, and visited a street exhibition showing photos of Chinese paralympic sportsmen. The layout of the whole area reminded me of the hutongs in Beijing or the Shikumen in Shanghai. The same gray colors, characteristic doors, and courtyards. Only in Chengdu, the artists took over.
Street food at every corner
Not only art made its way to Kuanzhai Alley, but the area also offers great snacks for the foodies among us. Spread out through the alleys there are little stalls that offer freshly prepared street food. Chengdu is known for its spicy Sichuan dishes. Hot pepper and chili are the main ingredients that are often used in the local food. But don’t worry, besides spicy mapo tofu and hot pot there are also other dishes available like fried banana and potato slices on a stick. There’s really something for everyone.
Bonus: square dancing
Kuanzhai Alley also offers ‘high-class entertainment’. I say this ironically because the entertainment consists of dancing locals. In China, it’s pretty normal to dance in a large group in public places in the late evening. For us, foreigners, it looks kind of weird, but for the Chinese, it’s part of the everyday course. It’s healthy, cheap and moreover, they have fun doing it! The square in front of Kuanzhai Alley is actively used for square dancing at night. I just loved watching this and secretly I was a bit jealous of their stamina. They could easily dance for hours!
Where to stay in Chengdu?
We stayed at Buddha Zen hotel, a beautiful traditional courtyard hotel. I would totally recommend it. Other recommendations are Poshpackers Hostel (rated with a 9,6, offers dorms and privates) and Lan Hotel (also rated with a 9,6, beautiful rooms). Click here for a list of accommodations in Chengdu.
Is Chengdu on your radar? Do you want to visit Kuanzhai Alley Chengdu? Let me know!
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