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November 28, 2011

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Life in Chengdu's slow lane

WEEKENDS and holidays are prime time for tourist attractions and shop owners at such places who rarely enjoy a free weekend or holiday. Yet, on a warm Saturday afternoon, almost one-third of the shops on the main site of historic, scenic Anren Town have closed their doors.

"They must be out somewhere having tea or playing mahjong," a next-door shop owner says, half joking. "I almost joined them but they already have four for mahjong."

Only a few steps away, two locals are chilling out in the sun with tea and peanuts. Next to them are four others at the peak of mahjong excitement.

The famous Chinese tile game usually ends when one of the four player wins, but the Sichuan version is different - "fight to the last blood," as the locals say. Players keep fighting till only one is left.

Anren Town is around 40 minutes' drive to the west of Chengdu, capital city of Sichuan Province and a political, financial and technology center of southwestern China. In contrast to the fast pace of life in other big cities booming in the west, this area and its residents are known for enjoying life in the slow lane.

Since ancient times, the fertile, well-watered land has freed residents from concerns over the harvest. The geographical location and shape of the area, a plain surrounded with high cliffs, made it easily defensible. Its rhythm and lifestyle are hard to disrupt, even today. The area is also one of the origins of the Taoist religion, whose key tenets include doing nothing and maintaining harmony with nature.

Chengdu is right on the Chengdu Plain, known as the "Kingdom of Heaven" and "Suzhou and Hangzhou in the West" since ancient times.

The plain is crisscrossed by small rivers, and two major rivers - the Fu and Nan - flow through the city. The confluence of the two rivers is near the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) Hejiang Pavilion in the city's central area, where modernity and tradition as well as commerce and entertainment are blended.

The pavilion was first built more than 1,200 years ago, when the confluence made an important port where hundreds of ships loaded and unloaded goods every day. Sailors, passengers and locals went to the pavilion to have some tea and drinks, snacks and rest.

As it got increasingly popular and crowded, more pavilions and towers were built nearby, while small vendors took spots on the bridge to sell all kinds of products.

The entire place became the first municipal public meeting place in the city. Intellectuals and poets also used to gather there to exchange their latest works. Many famous poets have written about the beautiful scene and bustling trade.

It was gradually deserted after the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period (AD 907-979), when the region was plagued by political instability and frequent wars.

The pavilion was rebuilt in the old style by the municipal government in 1989. Shops, galleries, restaurants and teahouses opened for business, as in the old days.

More than 1,200 years ago, poor students tried to sell their calligraphy while famous intellectuals created poems at the restaurants nearby. Today, artists sell their works at the galleries while good food and drink is available nearby.

With nearly half the population of Shanghai, the city of Chengdu is known for having as many teahouses and bars, if not more.

It has again become a popular and lucky spot for residents, while increasingly modern architecture and skyscrapers are built around it. Locals say almost every couple will have some of their wedding pictures taken at this place, where auspicious history and affluent modernity coexist harmoniously in one frame.

The surrounding modern symbols include the Shangri-La Hotel. Looking down at the bustling pavilion from a high floor in the hotel, visitors can easily get lost in time. Carefree crowds take strolls, enjoy food and window shop along the bridge at the same leisurely pace as if they had crossed over from the Tang Dynasty to today's Chengdu.

The pavilion area is a few minutes' walk from the Swell Fun, claimed to be the oldest wine lane in the world, started in the late Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). The site was discovered in 1998, and archeologists found wine cellars, fermenting equipment, wine vats, stoneware and porcelain used in the winery during different dynasties. The site was in use for more than 500 years until the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Anren Town is a famous ancient town near Chengdu, best known for its Sichuan-style architecture, the legend of landlord Liu Wencai and China's largest private museum, the Jianchuan Museum Cluster.

Liu (1887-1949) once was known as an infamous landlord, called Tiger Liu to describe his wickedness. It was said he helped kill Communist soldiers, exploited peasants and his servants, kept dozens of concubines and still raped more young women.

Liu died of illness in October 1949 and his luxurious mansion was turned into a tourist attraction by the town government.

In recent years, some historians have uncovered materials and conducted interviews that demonstrate Liu was far from being the vicious Tiger Liu portrayed in propaganda materials, articles and stage shows.

The town's main street is filled with small shops and teahouses in old-style architecture, many of which housed Liu's relatives and close followers. The town also provides "foreign horse"-renting service. In old times, bicycles were known as "foreign horses."

Chengdu is also bicycle-friendly, and has built four "green" roads (for pedestrians and bicycles) since September 2010, to connect the natural scenic sites, historic sites and public parks. Jinjiang LOHAS (Lifestyle of Health and Sustainability) Green Road is closest to the city center, 6.7 kilometers long. Bicycles are for rent.

The lesser-known Blue Roof Center is a landmark of the city's contemporary art scene and one of the most significant artists' centers in the country. It was established in 2003 by four famous artists - Zhou Chunya, Guo Wei, Zhao Zhineng and Yang Mian - who rented a block of warehouses and named it after the blue iron rooftop. Today it houses more than 100 artists' studios, mostly from Sichuan Province.

Unlike the more famous 798 in Beijing and M50 in Shanghai, artists at the Blue Roof Center usually don't open their studios for tourists except for special open-up days.

For many people, spicy is a synonym for Sichuan cuisine, one of China's eight major regional schools. Its spice and heat - just two characteristics - are so well known worldwide that many people are discouraged from trying the varied fare.

Sichuan cuisine is famous for its sophistication, rich fragrance and 24 compound flavor categories, a result of more than 50 cooking methods.

A dish can be sweet and spicy like Kungpao Chicken; sour and spicy like Suan La Tang, or hot and sour soup; spicy and mouth-numbing with special fragrance like the cold beef dish Fuqi Feipian (literally "married couple's lung slices"); and heavily pungent and tasty like Dan Dan Mian or Sichuan-style noodles, among many possibilities.

Koushui Ji, literally meaning "mouth-watering chicken," is so named for the layers of Sichuan peppers on dozens of sauces that add heat to the cold cut chicken.

The Sichuan peppers, among the hottest in the world, are said to be so strong they can make one salivate without stopping.


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