Hutongs and Tea Houses

I want to thank Chengdu for another stupendous day. I wandered through its relaxed residential quarters, ran into a street full of avant garde fashion, toured the “wide and narrow” lane (a neighbourhood built to look ancient and was very successful at it) and shopped along the city’s original commercial strip.

Even back in my Mom’s time, Chengdu is known for its chill atmosphere. There were lots of upscale open-air tea houses in the “wide and narrow” lane that look like tea houses of yesteryear. There was even a Starbucks tucked inside a hutong. With the Starbucks inside the Forbidden City taken down, this was probably the only Starbucks in a traditional Chinese building anywhere in the world.

However, I had my memorable tea house experience at where the locals go. I followed the music fluttering in the air to a park that was designated as a seniors recreation centre. However, Chengdu-ese of all ages met inside, middle aged couples practiced ballroom dancing and vendors sold children’s toys. There was a lake in the middle of the park and vine-draped terrace wrapping half way around it. Under the terrace and all around, there were traditional (so much so it was almost “provincial”) little tables and chairs made of bamboo as far as the eye could see. Here, tea was served in slightly chipped porcelains cups, the hot water came in oft-repaired hot water bottles that are still the standard in Chinese university residences and an old man with crooked teeth served instead of pretty young girls wearing Qipao. When he grabbed the rim of the cup with his dirty, wrinkled fingers, the eyes on my germaphobic self popped. However, seeing as the night before, the server had his thumbs dipped my rice soup when he brought it to me, my practical self decided that even if I didn’t see this, there are probably lots more I wouldn’t like behind the scene. So like last night (I ate from the centre of the bowl), I decided to enjoy the tea (from the local mountain and the cheapest offer on the menu but the most fragrant brew I’ve ever tasted) pretending that I saw no evil.

Around me and over their respective cups of teas, teens gossiped, couples murmured and business deals were struck. Birds hopped between chairs to pick up sunflower seeds fallen from the table, while servers clearing away the tables snacked on the leftover sunflower seeds scattered between the cups. Between leafy branches, I caught glimpses of people frolicking on their hired boats in the man-made lake. While strings of Chinese opera trickled from the radio, I watched ear cleaning masters (yes, you read it right. They are accredited by the municipal government) providing their services to tea house patrons (even to hipsters my age).

I think travel is very much like life. You spent a significant amount of time saving, planning and preparing for it, then struggling to do all the things you “must” do. In the end however, it’s all for the few precious moments that seem to worth nothing but are actually priceless.

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