Letters to Liona: Hello from Chengdu!

Liona is my 9-year-old niece. She lives in rural Wisconsin where I grew up, and like a lot of starry-eyed country kids, she's fascinated by cities and dreams about traveling and seeing the world. I wanted to find a way to share my journey with Liona and give her a little snapshot of what life is like in different places, so I've decided to write her a letter each month. Thought you might enjoy following along, too.

Dear Liona,

Hello from Chengdu, China! I've covered a lot of miles since my last letter: 10,280 to be exact. I left Portland and drove through Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Colorado, Kansas and Missouri...and then I hopped on a plane that took me to San Francisco, and another one that flew from San Francisco all the way to China.

When I arrived in Chengdu, it was nighttime. The view from my room on the ninth floor of an apartment building looked like this:

...And in the morning, it looked like this:

On the street outside, lots of people get around by bicycle, bus, or motorbike. Here's the view from an alley between two main roads.

I'm living here for the month with some of my favorite people: my friends David and Bec, and their 1-year-old son, Gideon. They moved to Chengdu from Northern Ireland.

China is a fascinating country to explore, and Chengdu is a really interesting city. Let's check it out!

Chengdu is one of China's biggest cities, with around 10 million people (that's more than twice the population of the whole state of Wisconsin!). It's the capital of Sichuan province, a region in China that's well known for its spicy food.

Along with spicy food, Sichuan is also famous for its pandas. I didn't see any real pandas, but I did see lots of panda statues. :)

One of the first things you'll notice in Chengdu (or anywhere in China) is that you can't really read anything, because nothing is written in English. The Chinese language is called Mandarin, and instead of letters like an alphabet, they use "characters," which are little pictures. Every word has its own character, or sometimes two or three characters make up a single word.

Do you see the three big yellow characters in the picture below? They mean "Outstanding Tea House" in Chinese.

Even products like Coca-Cola have a different name here. The Chinese name sounds like "kuh-co-kuh-luh," and it means "tasty fun."

When I was in college I learned Mandarin and lived in China for a year, in the capital city of Beijing. I can still speak some Chinese, but there are a LOT of characters that I don't know. Luckily the people in Chengdu are really friendly, so if I get confused, I can always ask someone for help!

Maybe I'll ask these guys. They look like they know what they're doing.

There's actually another language, called a dialect, that people speak locally in Chengdu. It's called Sichuanese, and it sounds very different from Mandarin — most people outside Sichuan can't understand it at all. This would be like if all the people in Wisconsin had a special "Wisconsin-ese" language that they used when they were at home with their families, or around town shopping for groceries. If people from Minnesota or Florida or California heard that language, they wouldn't be able to understand a word of it.

Because Chinese is so different from English, it's tricky to get the right meaning across to people who don't speak Chinese. Many places try to translate their names and messages into English, but that doesn't always make it very clear. Sometimes, it's even more confusing:

Other times, these translations make no sense at all. Here are some of my favorite funny ones...

Mmm. Speaking of spicy pork chops possession (whatever that is), let's go eat some Chinese food!

Most people who live in Chengdu shop for groceries every day, buying fresh vegetables and fruits from the small outdoor markets that are on almost every street. Here's one in my neighborhood:

For lunch, it's common to eat a big bowl of spicy noodle soup, or rice topped with bits of meat and vegetables.

My favorite thing to eat for lunch is a plate of little dumplings called jiaozi ("jeeow-dzuh") that you dip in a tasty mixture of soy sauce, chopped garlic, spicy hot pepper paste, and black vinegar. Yum! Everyone eats with chopsticks here...you've got to concentrate so that you don't drop any dumplings into your bowl of sauce and splash everyone!

The most interesting meal here in Chengdu is called "hot pot." Every table in a hot pot restaurant has a big open kettle in the middle, filled with spicy broth, with a flame underneath to keep it boiling hot. The waiter or waitress brings out plates full of all kinds of food — mostly raw meat and sliced vegetables — and everyone uses chopsticks to grab what they want to eat, dunk it in the pot until it's cooked, and then pop it in their mouths. 

Next, we can wander along the street and pick up the perfect snack: a quarter of a pineapple on a stick. 

These girls look pretty excited about the pineapple, too.

After dark, let's take a walk down Jinli Street — the whole street is lit up by dozens of the traditional red lanterns, and the doors and windows are made out of wood and carved with ancient Chinese patterns.

One weekend, I was lucky enough to take a trip outside of the city with some friends, to a small town in the mountains of Sichuan called Kangding.

We rode for eight hours in a bus on curvy, winding roads...


...past beautiful green hills and big, clear lakes...

...through valleys and small villages...

...going higher and higher up into the mountains, and closer to the clouds.

Finally, we arrived in Kangding.

Kangding used to be an ancient tea-trading center, and is an important city in the Tibetan region of China.

Tibetan people have their own culture, food, art, clothing, and ways of life that set them apart from other Chinese people. I especially love the Tibetan style of painting, which they use to decorate tables, chairs, walls, doors, and windows.

Every night in Kangding there was a community dance in the town square, and people gathered to do a dance with Tibetan dance moves. I tried to join in. :)

At last, though, it was time to go from the mountains of Kangding back to the streets of Chengdu.

Thanks for exploring China with me! Here's one last little snack for you to enjoy before I sign off: a sweet, purple sticky-rice cake with goji berries.

I'll write again soon...next time, from Hong Kong!