Note: This post is the second in a series of posts about breaking out of the routine of sameness in Chengdu. You can read the first post here: Breaking the Cycle of Sameness: Food
One problem I notice a lot living in China is that people fall into a pattern of going to the same places all the time. I’ve heard a lot of my Chengdu friends say “I’m so sick of going to Poly Center every weekend.” And yet, every Saturday, there they are again without fail. But why do they do they keep going? Most likely because it’s comfortable, and it’s what they know.
China’s not the easiest place to feel comfortable in, so when you find a place that feels right (coffee shop, bar, restaurant etc.) it’s easy to get “locked in” and keep going to this place over and over. This often leads to the false notion that Chengdu is smaller than it actually is. This post is going to be focused on breaking the “cycle of sameness” when it comes to places. Let’s start with one of the most important aspects.
Transportation & Independence
Public transportation is one of Chengdu’s shortcomings. The subway, while cheap, clean and pretty fast, is very limited in terms of it’s lines and destinations (admittedly, in a couple years this may not be the case).
Buses are cheap and more accessible, but they are not that fast or comfortable, and they get incredibly crowded at peak hours or during bad weather.
Taxis and Uber are fine, but for most people, taking taxis every day is not the best option, especially if your Chinese is limited. So what to do? My suggestion: buy an ebike (scooter) or a bicycle.
Personally, I ride an ebike now, and so far (I’ve had it since last year) it’s been the best purchase I’ve made in Chengdu. Ebikes are cheap to buy and easy to charge. They range from 600 rmb (second hand, not the most reliable option) to upwards of 3,000 rmb for the higher end, newer models. To charge them, all you need is an outlet and your power cord.
For me, purchasing an ebike is what made Chengdu “open up”, and made me more willing to explore. Meeting a friend at a new coffee shop halfway across the city is no longer a one-hour trip. Ebikes are also excellent for reaching those “too far to walk, but too close to take a cab to” destinations.
That’s not to say they are without downsides, however. First, they can be dangerous. Unless it’s your first day in Chengdu, I think you’ll have noticed this. Some of this danger fades over time as you get accustomed to Chengdu’s traffic rules (or lack there of), and start to get into the “flow” of driving here, but anyone who’s still riding an ebike in Chnegdu can tell you at least a few stories of the close calls they’ve had (or worse).
The second downside is that they’re very likely to get stolen if you aren’t vigilant. There’s a huge market for stolen ebikes in Chengdu, and it seems like foreigners are prime targets. My advice, don’t get a flashy looking bike, put it in a garage whenever you can (it’s 1-3 rmb, very affordable), or always lock it up somewhere you can see it. Read this post on preventing your bicycle from getting stolen because many of the same rules apply.
The second transportation option is the bicycle. Cheaper than the ebike, safer and better for your body. The only downside is that it’s slower, and (depending on what you consider a downside) it’s exercise. Bicycles are, however, a great way to explore the city, and beyond, is a leisurely way. You’ll still have to deal with the traffic anarchy, and bikes are also targets for thieves, but the cost of replacing a bicycle is usually more affordable than an ebike. There is a fantastic community around bicycling in Chengdu, and the Natooke bike shop is a good place to start exploring that.
Navigation & Getting Lost
In the case that you aren’t proficient in Chinese, getting around Chengdu can be overwhelming to newcomers. So here’s two tips.
First, get Baidu Maps on your phone. Yes, it will demand a little Chinese, but if you have the address of your destination, you’ll learn very quickly how to not only find the place (just follow the line), but see how to get there by car, bus or subway. In the case that you can’t write Chinese and don’t know how to input the address, get a friend or colleague to text you the address (and only the address) in Chinese. Hold your finger on it, click “copy”, go to Baidu maps, and click “paste”. If this seems like a hassle, let it be motivation for you to get in gear with learning to read and write Chinese. The more time you spend in China, the greater the dividends this investment will return.
Finding Places to Go
There’s not enough space to focus on every kind of place but here’s the quick version: check out Chengdu Places because it has information on over 100 over the most relevant places in the city for expat residents. But for my own recommendations, I will divide them into daytime and nighttime destinations.
Daytime Places in Chengdu
For ta d, daytime places are coffee and tea shops, restaurants and outdoor places like parks. While I understand the value of having a good coffee shop to go and relax, if you go there every day it’s going to get stale no matter how good the coffee is. Recently I’ve noticed a lot more coffee shops springing up around Chengdu, particularly in the South, so if you see a new one, go inside and check it out. I’ve found a few great coffee shops by doing this, and even better, it’s stopped me from believing that 35 rmb is an acceptable price for coffee (Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte’s excluded).
Furthermore, if a friend, especially a Chinese friend, wants to meet you somewhere, ask them to pick the place. Don’t be afraid to go a bit out of your way to meet them, either. They likely know the city a bit better than you do.
For restaurants, as I touched on in my food post, don’t go to the same place every day, no matter how easy or delicious it is. If you like a dish from your favorite restaurant, try to order it a new restaurant and compare them. The philosophy I use when it comes to this problem of same places is find something you enjoy (coffee, tea, reading books, watching movies etc) instead of one place you enjoy.
Parks are a great way to break up the cycle of sameness. They’re all over the city, and no, they’re not all as noisy and overwhelming as People’s Park (????). On a nice day, Wang Jiang Park (?????) by Sichuan University’s East Campus is a lush, relaxing place that’s perfect for spending a couple hours with a book and some tea.
Nighttime Places in Chengdu
Nighttime places are where I feel the cycle of sameness really becomes apparent. I myself have fallen into the aforementioned cycle of going to the same bars and clubs every weekend, finding out that it’s the same atmosphere as the last time, and then complaining the next day about how boring Chengdu nightlife is.
Despite this enduring notion, there’s actually a pretty diverse nightlife scene in Chengdu. No, it’s not London or New York, but it’s more varied than it might seem at first glance. I could list all the names and areas that I like here (and if you ask in the comments I’ll tell you), but instead I encourage you to explore.
There’s a great selection of live music bars in Chengdu including both Chinese and Western style clubs and bars. There’s multiple sports bar type venues, expat pubs, hip, more underground clubs filled with Chengdu’s younger crowd, stoner bars, jam bars, and more. The advice I’ll give here is don’t go to the same bar every weekend. In a place like New York City I understand the value of having “your bar”, but in China, a place where, as a foreigner, it’s easier to fall into a rut of loneliness and “sameness”, this doesn’t hold as much value. The more varied the bars and clubs you visit, the more unique, interesting people you’ll meet, and the more you’ll start to view Chengdu in a new, more diverse way.
If bars and clubs aren’t your thing but you still crave social interaction, my final piece of advice is for you: Find or throw house parties. Since high school I’ve always preferred this type of social gathering to bars. For me, it’s easier to meet and talk to people, it’s more personal, and it really brings the expat community together. So if you have a suitable apartment (sorry, mine is basically a cupboard), don’t be scared to have a party every now and then. Open invitation is best. I’ll be there with a bottle of vodka for you and a bottle of baiju for me!
What are your suggestions on how to break out of this cycle of going to the same places? Have any lesser-know places you like to visit in the city?