Cooling weather and back-to-school season signifies the start of shopping season. If you're not on a Wal-Mart run with the kids, an outing to one of Chengdu's open markets might make for a welcoming change of pace from the city's over-air-conditoned homogenous megamalls and supermarkets. Even if you're not looking to buy anything, simply perusing the aisles of outdoor markets and taking a gander at the curios on sale can make for a fun excursion. Here we profile five of our favorites in Chengdu.
Lotus Wholesale Market
To some, it's a great day's outing; to other's it's stressful shopping hell. Love it or hate it, if you've lived in Chengdu for some time, you've probably been at least once upon recommendation of a friend or foe. Just southeast of the north train station, the market is usually described as selling pretty much everything you can think of and then some. While the maxim is mostly true, there are notable exceptions—you won't find any import-food items, for instance, although French presses have been known to lurk in certain kitchen-appliance sections. While you might find many of the goods not up to par in terms of quality, careful searching will lead you to the items you want. The higher-end fashion items tend to be available at the inner buildings rather than along the periphery of the market. Street vendors also abound in this area, selling everything from fried snacks to dried fruit to jewelry. But watch your valuables: With the crowds and chaos, the area has earned a reputation as being rife with pickpockets.
What You'll Find Clothing, shoes, handbags, jewelry, household goods, dishes, cookware, home-decor items, toys and stuffed animals, sewing supplies and fabric, yarn and knitting/crochet supplies, stationery, paper products
Why to go You're looking for a big selection of something specific; you're looking to buy in bulk; you need to buy a bunch of inexpensive souvenirs to take home
Why to stay away You hate lots of walking, crowds, or browsing and bargaining; you're looking for high-end consumer goods, including electronics
Songxian Qiao Antique Market
The goods at Songxian Qiao—propoganda posters, waving Mao clocks and watches, coins, stamps, old photographs—aren't particularly unique or cutting-edge to the weary China traveler or resident; nonetheless, the market, butting up against one of the tributaries in the west part of the city, still makes for a good excursion if you like looking at (or digging through) large collections of old things. Alongside official stalls and shops, vendors spread out their wares on blankets and invite visitors to take a look. Another note of interest is that many of the goods sold at Songxian Qiao seem to be authentic (or are at least pretty darn good replicas) whereas so many of the allegedly old photographs, images in the Mao clocks, and propoganda posters are obviously printouts scanned at low-resolution. Chengdu has a second antique market under the bridge where Renmin Nan Lu crosses Erhuan Lu, but that one is dwarfed both in size and selection by Songxian Qiao.
Near the antique dealers' stalls you'll find a book market
What You'll Find Collectibles such as stamps, coins, bills, and out-of-print cigarette packages; Cultural-Revolution-era posters and books; poster-sized reprints of old cigarette and liquor advertisements and movie stars; antique metalware and trinkets, pottery, calligraphy, scrolls, lacquerware, jewelry, batik, textiles, a small selection of tourist kitsch
Qingshi Qiao Fish and Plant Market
Every major city in China has one, it seems: the place where you go to ogle at the exotic birds and fish and bugs, feel sorry for the caged-up puppies, kittens, and rabbits, and watch rodents run on their wheels and the sometimes gory feeding process of the larger reptiles. Chengdu is no exception, and its animal and plant market lies smack in the center of the city, southeast of shopping central Yanshikou, not far from an open market selling fish of the food variety. Laser-tattooed fish available at the market have recently come under scrutiny by various media outlets, but that doesn't necessarily need to stop you from purchasing your own set of swimming love, wealth, health and happiness characters for 100 yuan.
What You'll Find All sorts of pet animals including fish, turtles, birds, small mammals, and tanks and related supplies as well as plants, pots, soil, fertilizers, etc.
Wuhou Tibetan Area shops
What Westerner isn't intrigued by the serenity surrounding Tibetan Buddhism? Colorful prayer flags against blue skies, incense-filled temples, monks wrapped in gold and burgundy robes—these are the images of "the rooftop of the world." And while Chengdu is a major thoroughfare for travelers heading onward to Lhasa, with the high costs of travel logistics to the region, many of us will never get there. But if you're still hankering for a taste of savory yak-butter tea or silver trinkets, the roughly two-block area adjacent to the Wuhou Temple and the Minority Nationalities and Sports universities, will provide you some urban tokens.
What You'll Find Clothing and intricately patterned textiles, incense, jewelry and ornaments, folding floor mats, Tibetan music CDs, and as well as hostels and restaurants serving Tibetan specialties.
Informal Street Markets
With Asia's numerous famed massive street markets (think Hong Kong's night markets, Beijing's silk market or Bangkok's Chatachuk), it's perhaps surprising that the closest Chengdu has is the Lotus Market, which isn't quite the same, at all. But what Chengdu does have in (albeit rapidly deteriorating) abundance are unauthorized vendors who lay their wares right on the sidewalk hawking trinkets, toys, jewelry, clothing, socks, handbags, etc. We once even spotted a vendor selling beautiful silk parasols on the sidewalk. Haggling is in order here. And while some of the hawkers certainly make their living selling their goods, a surprising new trend has sprung up countrywide—that of the yuppie street vendor.
Where to find them Since police hold street-clearing sessions at random, there are no set places for street markets, but areas with heavy foot traffic tend to attract sidewalk vendors for obvious reasons. At night, small markets seem to crop up around areas surrounding university gates, like the small street heading into Sichuan University's south gate, and during the daytime vendors often congregate around the big open-air vegetable markets.
Photos of Songxian Qiao by Daniel Aytes.