I’ve been living and teaching in Xi’an, China for the past two months, so when China’s 7-day National Holiday came around, I knew I wanted to explore a new part of the country. I decided on Chengdu, the capital of the Sichuan province, located in the southwest of China. Why Chengdu? Aside from Beijing and Shanghai, Chengdu is equally as culturally and modernly vibrant. Within the city, the Jin and Fu Rivers cross, which allow for spectacular afternoon strolls and nighttime views. More so, many of my fellow Chinese teachers and friends told me that some of the best food in China can be found here. Lonely Planet’s China travel book even sites Chengdu as the first city in Asia to be recognized as a Unesco City of Gastronomy. For the food alone, I was hooked.
Aside from the travel itself, rationalizing spending a good chunk of money is a stressor for me. 20 CNY here, 30 CNY there— even the little things can put a hole in your wallet. Like most twenty-something travelers, I’m always searching for the next best deal. I’d rather allow myself to splurge on an experience I’ll remember, rather than an expensive plane ticket or hotel room. If you ever find yourself in Chengdu, here are 7 tips for saving some money, yet still finding time to make those life-long memories along the way.
1. Travel by train whenever possible
Although train travel is long and seemingly never-ending, it’s by far the cheapest way to travel in China. On the normal trains (identified by the letters: Z, T, K, L, Y, or S) you’re given 6 seat options: standing room, hard seat, soft seat, hard sleeper, soft sleeper, and deluxe soft sleeper (ordered from least comfortable/least expensive to most comfortable/most expensive.) I ended up booking a hard sleeper, which totaled to 400 CNY round trip (60 USD/80 AUD.) With the hard sleepers, there are 6 bunks to a room, with about 11 rooms per car. In other words, you’re really packed in there. The bed itself is small (think dorm-style) but you’re given a decent pillow and blanket to make things a bit more comfortable. There’s also a rack opposite the beds for luggage storage. The train attendants walk through the cars quite frequently throughout the trip, sweeping up trash and offering dried fruits and ramen noodles from their carts. I would recommend packing as many non-perishable snacks as you can (fruit, crackers, nuts, dried noodles) because you can often find these items cheaper at a local shop before you hop on the train. Despite the length of the ride (18 hours) I enjoyed seeing the countryside, sleeping when I could, and catching up on a podcast or two. Culturally, being the only Westerner packed in a small area with Chinese people for a long period of time was an experience— a good one, at that. If you’d like more detailed information about other seat options on the normal train, check out this Travel China Guide.
2. Book a hostel instead of a hotel
I think this goes for any part of the world, but Chengdu has some of the best hostels I’ve ever experienced. I ended up staying at three different hostels because I originally wasn’t sure on my vacation dates when I booked my first hostel, and by the time I tried to extend my stay at that hostel, it was completely booked. Out of the three I stayed in, I would recommend Mix Hostel, one of Lonely Planet’s highest-rated hostels in Chengdu. I ended up staying in a mixed 6-bed dorm for two nights (80 CNY/12 USD/16 AUD total) but I wish I could have stayed longer. The accommodations were standard for a dorm room— you’re given a curtain-drawn bunk, sheets, comforter, pillow, reading light, and locked safe. The hostel is nestled within the city, just a short walk away from Chengdu’s largest heritage site, the Wenshu Monastery. The atmosphere is relaxed, communal, and “homey.” The wooden walls within the 3-story hostel are beautifully decorated with tapestries, lanterns, and Tibetan photography. The staff is quite friendly, too— they were more than happy to answer any question I had. They offer free tours of the city and welcome you to book other value tours through them (such as to see the Sichuan opera, the Panda Breeding Center tour, and much more.) They even put on a free event while I was there— a dumpling making party. The kitchen staff provided all the ingredients and taught us how to roll and form our own dumplings. The best part? Enjoying them afterwards, of course! If I could book this hostel again, I would in a heartbeat. All in all, staying in any hostel in Chengdu is a great way to save money, meet other travelers, and receive local travel recommendations.
3. Sample the street food
I arrived late Friday evening at Mix Hostel after being on a train all day. I was exhausted, but I needed food, fast. I asked the hostel’s staff where they recommended for a quick bite to eat. They eagerly replied, “anything on Zhangjiagang night food street.” The street ended up being an easy 5-minute walk from the hostel and man, was it bustling. Steaming food carts lined both ends of the street, while groups of people sat outside restaurants on tiny chairs, sipping Tsing Tao beer and enjoying a hot meal. I started with dumplings at a small restaurant mid-way down the street. My Chinese is minimal at that, so I pointed to a couple random items on the menu and ended up with some of the best dumplings: 6 stuffed with pork, spices, and chives, the other 6 stuffed with chicken and garlic (15 CNY/2 USD/3 AUD total.) I finished most of them and made my way back up the street to the food carts, where I ordered fried noodles. I chose my fillers: egg, peppers, tomatoes, sprouts, and onions. The cook sauteed everything together with spices and soy sauce, and placed everything in a to-go container. The total price for a delicious bowl of fried noodles? 8 CNY/1 USD/1.5 AUD. Street food in Chengdu is amazing, not only for the quality, but for the price as well.
4. Take a break from the tourists and visit the Aidao Nunnery
By far, one of my most memorable moments in Chengdu. Recommended by Mix Hostel, the nunnery was nestled near the more touristy Wenshu Monastery, but was far, far less crowded. A Buddha statue greeted me immediately, along with two nuns situated off to the side of the entrance, chatting quietly with visitors. I walked among the enclosure first, admiring the Buddhist relics, enjoying the smell of incense, and listening to a room of robed women chanting softly. I was told there was a vegetarian lunch ceremony that began at 11:40 AM every day, so I found my way to the meal hall. Following the “crowd” (by crowd, I mean 50 or so older women, men, and families) to a dish room, I chose a bowl and washed it, along with a set of chopsticks. I payed 5 CNY (0.75 USD/1 AUD) for a ticket and walked to the dining area. As I walked into the hall, a nun began sounding a gong, while another sat in the dining hall singing. I noticed everyone set down their chopsticks to listen. They weren’t necessarily praying— they were simply paying respects to the nunnery, the nuns, and the meal. I found a seat after this as the nuns began dishing out white rice to start. I couldn’t tell you what I ate, but it was all vegetarian and it was one of the best meals I ate in Chengdu. Amidst all the traveling mayhem, having the opportunity to sit in a quiet space and enjoy a meal (with Buddhist nuns, for the record) was such a special experience. It’s definitely a must-do in Chengdu.
5. Get your education on at the Sichuan Museum
Yet another “freebie” experience— you can’t beat those! Although the museum was on the smaller side, it was beautiful. The rooms were full of art, pottery, ceramics, and artifacts from nearly all the dynasties, all discovered in the province of Sichuan. The whole time I couldn’t stop thinking about how impressively intact everything was, especially considering how old China is. You can’t miss the Tibetan Buddhist relics room, as well as the Sichuan Ceramics room. Heads up: Bring your passport or some other form of ID. You’ll need it to get your free ticket into the museum.
6. Stroll through the Huan Huaxi Park and/or Renmin Park
If you’re looking to avoid the crowds, hit the Huan Huaxi Park. If not, try the Renmin Park in the center of the city (pictured.) Both are free; both are equally enjoyable. The Huan Huaxi Park is situated on the outskirts of the city, closer to the famous Du Fu Cottage and Green Ram Temple. Within the park, there are many beautiful fish ponds, shaded stone paths, and photo-worthy statues. I particularly enjoyed a bird viewing area, where you could watch storks, geese, and ducks of all varieties. The Renmin Park, on the other hand, is more of a tourist “hot spot.” Within the park, you can walk through gardens, take photos by stone monuments, and sit by the park’s pond, watching people float by on paddle boats. The teahouse within the park is worth walking through, too. Aside from the older men and women sipping tea and playing Mahjong, you’ll see people getting their ears cleaned. Weird, but culturally mainstream in Chengdu.
7. Explore the antique art market
The market is located near the Sichuan Museum, so visiting them back-to-back makes for a culturally rich day. It’s free to walk through and “window shop,” unless you want to buy something, of course. I wasn’t sure if I caught the market at a good time or if it was one of the Chengdu’s “hidden gems” no one really knows about, but there was virtually no one there. It was set in a small corner of the street, but still full of tiny shops and street vendors. What was extra-cool about this market was the fact that you could tell people weren’t just selling generic plastic jewelry or ceramic cups to make a quick buck— the artists were all working on new projects right there. You could really be tempted to spend a lot of money, too… Stone jewelry, hand-carved statues, hand-painted pottery, and much more.
Whether you’re a foodie, a tea lover, or simply travel junkie looking for a new city to explore in China, look no further than Chengdu. My fellow budget-friendly travelers will enjoy the ease of how little money you’ll have to spend, too. Saving money doesn’t have to stop you from immersing yourself in the Sichuan culture, or any culture for the matter. In fact, some of the experiences that cost the least are, indeed, the most memorable.