4 feet 2 mouths

walking and eating our way around the world

Archive for the category “China”

The Best Thing I Ever Ate (by Carmen)

Yang’s Fry Dumpling

Yang’s Fry Dumpling

That’s it. In the picture. The best thing I ever ate. Specifically, it’s a fried soup dumpling (aka 生煎包 or shengjianbao) from Yang’s Fry Dumpling in Shanghai. The memory of that first bite into the crisp, sesame-scented skin through to the juicy interior. Savoring each sip of the piping hot broth. Even now my mouth waters.

But it was about more than the dumpling. It was the moment, the trip, the city, the people, the cafe, the florescent lighting, the finding of the dumplings themselves – everything contributes to the experience of a true food find. So here is my ode to the holy grail of dumplings, encountered on a rainy afternoon and Huanghe Road in July 2009.

Shanghai French Quarter

Shanghai French Quarter

Alleyway in the French Quarter

Alleyway in the French Quarter

It was Nathan and my first taste of travel in Asia. The weeks before I started grad school we criss-crossed the continent for 6 weeks – Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan, and China. It was a culinary awakening in many ways. The flavors were fresher, brighter, stronger, spicier, sweeter, just overall more intense than I could have imagined. I was loving everything I ate, becoming intoxicated on everything from gula melaka (a rich malaysian palm sugar) to Japanese bento boxes. Our last stop on the itinerary was Shanghai. My parents, who had joined in part of the journey, Nathan and I had lingered in the old French Quarter, ate amazing bbq eel and observed the crazy fast high-rise construction in Putong.

Yang's on Huanghe Road

Yang’s on Huanghe Road

But it was in our first afternoon that we arrived at Yang’s. We were looking for a noodle restaurant recommended by the guidebook and had no luck finding it (this happens a loooot). As we gave up, I looked across the narrow street and saw a familiar yellow sign advertising fry dumplings. It took me a second to realize that I had seen it on TV, Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations to be exact. Nathan and I had watched it to get excited for the new sights, sounds and tastes we were about to encounter. Everything came together at the right moment otherwise I would likely have passed what looked like every other hole in the wall cafe right up.

Workers at Yang's

Workers at Yang’s

Dumplings getting fried

Dumplings getting fried

The bowl of plump dumplings was plunked down in front of us and I gathered my dumpling with my soup spoon. As I took my first bite into the skin, I was careful not to lose the precious broth inside. From the second the flavors hit my taste buds I was floored. A beautiful depth of textures and flavors exploded in my mouth. We all had a collective moment of silence around the table. I’ve commemorated the event with a picture of these glorious dumplings on my living room wall.

Slurp!

Slurp!

My mom always said I’d find true love when I least expected it. She was right. But I didn’t realize her sage words applied to culinary relationships as well. Love at first bite. This love is not only because it tasted phenomenally good, but also because it provided a capstone to the deliciousness I had encountered throughout Asia. This dish inspired me to try more, explore more, travel more and find that next bite to take me out of this world. In short, Yang’s inspired me to dream big eventually leading to the Big Trip of 2012-2013. What power a simple dumpling can have!

Shanghai by night

Shanghai by night

Looking down the core of the Shanghai Jin Mao Tower

Looking down the core of the Shanghai Jin Mao Tower

Shanghai has been on my mind because a friend of ours moved there almost one year ago. Inspired by this blog to do more exploring, he and his wife took the plunge and moved halfway across the world – from Texas to Shanghai. We recently received a lovely email with them complete with pictures of their experiences. I’m so impressed with their adventurous spirit. So this post is dedicated to them, Tomasz and Nicola. To many more adventures – and dumplings.

Note: Yang’s Fry Dumpling is a local Shanghai chain with a few locations. I went to the one at 97 Huanghe Road, just north of People’s Square. It’s labeled 小杨生煎馆 on Google Maps as of June 2014. One friend tried to find this location and was unsuccessful, so you may want to consult the web for other locations.

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Chinese-isms and Attempting to Understand China (by Nathan)

1763 Chinese Map of the World (Credit: wikicommons)

1763 Chinese Map of the World (Credit: wikicommons)

I think it was Churchill that described Russia as a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”  The idea was that in no way was it possible for Churchill to understand or justify the actions that he was witnessing.  But, what about China? Things have changed a lot in the last 75 years, but I think it is appropriate to say that China is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma with a gold and red bow.  We were definitely challenged in our travels in China. We spent TEN weeks exploring the country; we traveled in six provinces, we visited twenty cities and I feel that I have only grazed the surface of Chinese culture, the food and the landscapes.  China is a country that is magnificent and confusing and it needed a summary of its own.  We saw so many beautiful places and we ate very delicious food, but we also had cultural experiences that left us perplexed.  Occasionally we came across a few good “Chinese-isms” or chinglish that provided some smiles along the way.  I’m posting pictures of some of the best ones as well as my random observations on food, transport, hygiene, speaking Mandarin, translations, censorship, materialism, staring and being a lao wei in China.  Scroll down towards the end for a breakdown of our daily costs in the mainland and in Hong Kong.

I think of Hansel and Gretel with this one, only bewitched stuffed animals were sold inside.

I think of Hansel and Gretel, only bewitched stuffed animals were sold inside.

I love that the words “angle” and “Salisbury” were just added for fun.

I love that the words “angle” and “Salisbury” were just added for fun.

This is not just any trash bin, it is the one where “unrecycling” is necessary

This is not just any trash bin, it is the one where “unrecycling” is necessary

I think that China and I have one of those love/hate relationships.  I think it is a beautiful country that is continuously complicated with all types of irony.  I am completely fascinated and head over heels for Chinese food also all its varieties.  From Yunnan, to Hunan or Sichuan, the most humble peasant shop owner can turn out dumplings and noodles that I still dream about.  Few places on earth have food like China.  The Chinese definitely love their food too.

The is where Jim Carrey created his signature line in “The Mask”

The is where Jim Carrey created his signature line in “The Mask”

We took buses every day in China and for some reason it is a thing for older men to snort and pull up phlegm from their entire bodies then spit it on the floor of the moving bus.  People didn’t just spit on the bus, of course, they spit everywhere.  But it was when it occurred in enclosed spaces, like buses and restaurants, that it was particularly gag inducing.  Seriously, wtf.  Even the excellent and modern long distance trains were not safe.  China has such an excellent rail network.  I love the subtle sway and knocking of trains, even the tiny compartments provide a cozy comfort. We were sitting on a train and I watched a guy sneeze (it was close quarters); he of course did not cover his mouth or nose.  With snot all over his face and shirt he turns to the train curtain to wipe himself off.  It is a bewildering attitude towards hygiene when one sees people cleaning their chopsticks in hot tea before eating but not washing their hands, covering their sneezes and spitting everywhere.  We rarely got sick in the rest of our travels but in China we consistently developed new colds.

It’s a barbecue place with fries?

It’s a barbecue place with fries?

I searched and searched for such a couch, but I only found paintings of “conches.”

I searched and searched for such a couch, but I only found paintings of “conches.”

There is no doubt that I struggled to speak mandarin in China.  In fact, Carmen and I worked pretty hard to learn some key phrases of Putonghua, the dialect of Beijing, but we repeatedly found that the dialects throughout the country vary so diversely that we were lucky if we could get our duoshao chen (translation: how much is it?) understood by the people.  We resorted to copious amounts of pointing and we found amusement in the translations that restaurants and shop owners found for their signs.

Mystical flower shop in Changsha

Mystical flower shop in Changsha

Yay, Chinese shipments of pharmaceuticals directly to my “Little House on the Prairie”

Yay, Chinese shipments of pharmaceuticals directly to my “Little House on the Prairie”

The food better be good here!

The food better be good here!

As it turns out there are thousands of business owners that have included English on their signs.  Unfortunately this does not mean that they actually speak English, but more that they are hip to the fact that English looks pretty cool on a sign.  So it is very doubtful that the pharmacy had anything actually to do with a “little house on the prairie,” or that there was a “yellow brick road” leading to a flower shop.

Honor and disgrace in China, do people really regard their actions as following this?

Honor and disgrace in China, do people really regard their actions as following this?

Three Gorges Dam and “willingness” for eminent domain

Three Gorges Dam and “willingness” for eminent domain

One idea that China challenged me to think about was: what is truth?  Is something true because we are told by a higher authority it is true, or that major news sources report it, or is it because people around us believe it to be correct?  In China, everything was censored, we could not access our blog, Facebook, YouTube, NY Times or BBC as they were all blocked and the only news released in the country is approved by the government.   I was surprised to learn that mainland Chinese people still think that Taiwan is part of China.  There is no concept that Taiwan votes for a president or survives as an independent country. Within China they are told Taiwan is another province of China.  And thus we found subtleties in newsprint and billboards that, to us, feel like major distortions from the news we know, but to others are this is the truth.  I encourage you to read it for yourself, Google China Daily and read a bit; it’s English with a clear pro-China bias. I think it is the hush-hush cover-ups that bother me- the tens of thousands killed in the Sichuan earthquake but the paper says that there was no damage in Chengdu, which is highly doubtful.  Another example was about the three gorges project.  We found a nice little description in a museum describing the excitement of villagers to leave their homeland.  Since when is eminent domain a happy experience?

Friend this oxygen bar!  Why is there a mound of trash then?

Friend this oxygen bar! Why is there a mound of trash then?

I was lost in the national park and this is the map I found.

I was lost in the national park and this is the map I found.

Another thought: what is high quality?  China has mastered reproduction and manufacturing, but at the cost of creation.  As long as it “looks” like a person has an iPhone or a Louis Vuitton bag, a person must be high-class.  There is so much effort in copying everything else in the world that there appears to be a serious loss in modern creativity.  Appearances are everything, which means that clothing and in particular shoes are very important; it does not matter if they are fake or fake leather or that they even last more than a few weeks.  What matters is the tag and how they look now.  During our travels we would encounter other Chinese tourists or locals that would stare at our faces, then our shoes and then analyze our entire clothing.  I think their thoughts were “you are white, why aren’t you rich.”  Our clothes after seven months of travel were not at their best, but this obsession with material glamour is something that I have never understood.

Just one letter off but Antique Cliffy Painting got Carmen's funny bone

Just one letter off but Antique Cliffy Painting got Carmen’s funny bone

Carmen and I were the object of constant staring in China.  Yes, I have blond hair and yes, we were sometimes visiting places that few westerners visit.  But the challenge in China was not that there were a few glances here and there; it was that whole families would stare at us forever.  Imagine being on a bus and every time you turn your head to look along the aisle of the bus there were ten people hard-nose scrutinizing everything about us.  Yes, they were curious; fine I get that, but it never came across as amiable (like it did in India) and it still made me a tad uncomfortable, even after fifty days of it.

Who carries religious list?

Who carries religious list?

When  jumping, one flies in a “parabolic” shape

When jumping, one flies in a “parabolic” shape

It is a subtle euphemism, and again no jumping off the cliff.

It is a subtle euphemism, and again no jumping off the cliff.

It came a sharp reality to me, that in China I can only ever be a lao wei.  I want to be judged by my merits rather than my outward appearance.  This is an ideal Americans hold dear in theory, if not always in practice.  But no matter what I do in China, even if I lived there for the rest of my life, I will always have the label of foreigner plastered across my forehead and would be judged first and foremost by this fact.

So true… suburban lawn owners and golfers unite!

So true… suburban lawn owners and golfers unite!

One of those interpretive signs that means well and says nothing.  Erosion caused the club shape, duh.

One of those interpretive signs that means well and says nothing. Erosion caused the club shape, duh.

All that, and I will still travel in China again, I would even live there! (Carmen is not so sure about that last part.) It is the challenge and the beauty of it that will always draw me back.  There are countless wonderful things about China that far outweigh the spitting and awkward stares.  The infrastructure in China is fantastic.  We took a six hour bus ride that went through over fifty tunnels and bridges!  The metro systems are all new, easy to use and cheap.  I look at San Francisco trying to make a designated bus lane on Geary Blvd and it is painful, but China would have 5 underground metro lines by now!  The natural landscapes are phenomenal, China is growing at a rapid pace, but suburbs in the Western sense are rare; this means that all one billion people are pretty centralized.  This leaves beautiful canyons, forest and landscapes ready for us to explore.  The food, I can’t write about it enough, but it is really that good.  China has five thousand years of history and the last fifty years is a minor blip in a long history of culture and tradition.  There is so much to explore and enjoy; we have only seen a fraction of it.

China in numbers:
51 days in China
6 provinces
20 cities
10 accidental viewings of babies pooping on sidewalk
15 hacks and spits seen per day
42 local bus trips
28 regional bus trips
6 train rides (3 overnight)
20 metro trips
80 photos taken
12 market meals
400 Sichuan peppercorns consumed
90 cheap beers consumed (they only have 2.5% alcohol)
75 bowls of noodles consumed
65 dumplings eaten
35 temples explored

Travel Costs in China

Carmen and I are scrupulous in understanding travel and what it takes to survive a life as a tourist.  Thus I performed a little financial analysis for everyone to learn about what the costs are associated with traveling in true 4FEET2MOUTHS style.  The costs of flights, country visas, travel insurance, bank fees and initial planning costs have been smeared into the whole trip and cost about $15.50 per person per day.  That means it costs only $31.73 to bounce between cities, eat enormous quantities of food and sleep in clean, but small double rooms.  We have an expense that we call “get in” which is the transportation costs moving from one city to another by train or regional bus.  Thus, 50% of our total budget in China is getting to the city we want to see.  Furthermore sleeping, eating, shopping and fun make up the rest.  Entertainment or “fun” to us is any park entrance fee, bars or desserts on their ownPark entrances are exorbitant; we spent over $400 in entrance fees.  Be ready to shell it out in Zhongdian, Yuanyang, Zhangjiajie, Leshan, Emeishan and every other beautiful place China has.  It is a nice pie chart, as a couple it costs us only $94 to travel each day in China.  Who can say they travel for under $100 per day ($50 per person)? We have created one of these charts for every country and we will be sharing them with you over the next few weeks.

Is this HK bus a submarine too!

Is this HK bus a submarine too!

From our 2009 trip to Shanghai:  no shitting in the park (point 2) and no feudalism (point 5)

From our 2009 trip to Shanghai: no shitting in the park (point 2) and no feudalism (point 5)

In some amazing way, Hong Kong is different, the same and unique all at once.  Hong Kong has all the great modernity of infrastructure: buses, metros and bridges with people that are kind and patient to wait in lines.  The food is fabulous and the language is equally difficult to understand.  I particularly like that the double decker buses have a real periscope.  No one spits in Hong Kong, no hacks interrupt ones dining and restrooms have actually been cleaned!  We visited Hong Kong for two weeks this trip and it came as a welcome relief after several weeks of struggling though China.

Travel Costs in Hong Kong

All the glamour and glitz that is Hong Kong comes at a price.  Most specifically, hotels are expensive and there are nicer restaurants fulfill every foodie’s appetite.  Hong Kong is well worth visiting, but the total costs are $70 per person per day or $140 per couple per day. Thus, as you can see eating in Hong Kong is twice as expensive as in China.  Lodging is a whole other system in Hong Kong; the rooms are smaller, cleaner and definitely nicer quality.   We resorted to couchsurfing six out of the 14 nights which saved us $250 ($17/day).  Hong Kong is worth it and much more.

China and Hong Kong are inherently linked.  In 1997 China regained control of Hong Kong as the colonial ties ended.  There is a fifty year grace period as China figures out what to do with Hong Kong’s free speech, capitalism and voting.  This essentially means that all the advancement and human sensitivity that Hong Kong embraces is at risk of being swallowed by the behemoth of Chinese mainland culture.  I love both China and Hong Kong, but I like them different, two flavors that shouldn’t be mixed too much.  I encourage everyone to visit, explore and integrate themselves into China and Hong Kong, it is a complicated but phenomenal experience.

Past, Present and Future (by Carmen)

PAST
Looking back on our trip is an adventure unto itself as it provides me a rapidfire onslaught of memories and emotions.
 We had such a variety of experiences this past 14 months, how do I begin to summarize it all?  Fortunately, we have done a couple summary posts already.  Therefore, I’m going to pick up where we left off.  Here is a selection of favorite memories from the last part of our trip, Cambodia through to Hong Kong:

Clockwise from left: cooking amok, hanging out with Dalat locals, banh mi

Clockwise from left: cooking amok, hanging out with Dalat locals, banh mi

  • Squeezing fresh coconuts for milk and adding it to my fish curry in ultra laid back Battambang
  • That first bite of banh mi in Saigon – crispy, crunchy, sour, sweet, creamy, savory goodness
  • Being invited by locals for watermelon and rice liquor next to Pongour Waterfall near Dalat
Clockwise from left: Halong Bay, Thai stewed pork, mushroom bun, Laotian jungle

Clockwise from left: Halong Bay, Thai stewed pork, mushroom bun, Laotian jungle

  • Chilling on the deck of our boat with Julia and Jonathan in Halong Bay
  • Observing a simpler way of life in the jungle villages of Luang Namtha
  • Being served delicious stewed pork by a street vendor in a cowboy hat in Chiang Mai
  • Sampling Yunnan’s famous mushrooms in steamed bun form at the early morning market in Kunming
Clockwise from left: monastary in Zhongdian, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, stinky tofu, rice terraces

Clockwise from left: monastary in Zhongdian, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, stinky tofu, rice terraces

  • Getting up close and personal with Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and the intense rapids at its base within Tiger Leaping Gorge
  • Devouring dumplings then getting a taste of Tibetan spirituality at Ganden Sumtseling Gompa monastery in Zhongdian
  • Trying to get my head around the incredible rice terraces of Yuanyang while making new friends Michael and Albert
  • Eating the infamous black stinky tofu of Changsha and actually enjoying it
Clockwise from left: hot pot, hong kong high rises, tied tofu skins in Chengdu, tea house in Zigong in Sichuan province

Clockwise from left: hot pot, hong kong high rises, tied tofu skins in Chengdu, tea house in Zigong in Sichuan province

  • Dipping fresh tofu in a bubbling red hot pot while sitting in a converted bomb shelter in Chongqing
  • Hanging out in the convivial tea houses of Sichuan
  • Finding my food mecca in Chengdu – mapo tofu, gong bao chicken, twice cooked pork, fish fragrant eggplant how I miss you so
  • Absorbing the vivacious energy of Hong Kong in its streets, dim sum halls, hidden bars and Michelin starred hole in the walls
"This food will change your lifestyle" from a 2009 trip to Malaysia

“This food will change your lifestyle” from a 2009 trip to Malaysia

Many of my memories have to do with food because I don’t eat to live, I live to eat. Throughout our travels I was struck by how much difference it made to eat a cuisine in the place it had originated. And it’s not just because things taste fresher. It is a about the environment and the people too. Take dosa for example.  I had eaten dosa, the Indian roll stuffed with potatoes and veggies and served with daal and chutney dipping sauces, in Berkeley.  But it wasn’t until I was in India – eating my dosa at breakfast on a metal plate with a metal cup of chai tea, breathing in the thick humid air, watching other groups chatting happily in their sing song accent – that I really got it.  Dosa is filling but not heavy.  Basically, it is a damn good way to start the day.  In each country, I learned more about foods that I thought I had known with the result being that I now have a greater appreciation for these cuisines.

Of course, travel is about more than food.  Travel changes you but not necessarily in a dramatic way.  I had experiences that caused me to do some thinking, yes, but no light bulb epiphanies that changed my life. When confronted with so many new or unique experiences each day it’s hard to gauge change within yourself. Perhaps a better way to put it is a better sense of self.  Because the saying is true – “wherever you go, there you are.”

Sleeper bus to Yuanyang

Sleeper bus to Yuanyang

And we went a lot of places.  Over the past 14 months I have ridden high speed trains, a 27 hour sleeper bus, overnight ferries, small vans overburdened with 22 people, and what I like to call the rickshaw roller coaster. Powered by my own two feet I weaved through traffic packed streets on a bicycle and walked 500 mile across Spain.  My career is in transportation and I can’t help but feel that these experiences brought greater insight to my work.

Women skillfully carrying their goods

Women skillfully carrying their goods in Hubli, India

To remember all these places, experiences and transport modes gives me an immense sense of gratitude.  I know how fortunate I am for the health and resources to do this trip.  As a woman, I’m also grateful for the fact that I was born in the West.  Sexism is alive and well in the USA but I’m happy we got past the women as second class citizens thing.  Not so in many other parts of the world.  It was annoying to see groups of men and women working in China because often the men were sitting around while the women were shoveling or raking or doing whatever job had to be done.  Of course in Turkey there is gender separation as a result of religious norms, though as a tourist I personally did not feel any discrimination. The country we visited where I felt it most was India.  The culture is positively obsessed with gender and the idea that men absolutely can’t control themselves in the presence of a woman.  Women must cover, must hide away, must have their own train car in order to not be groped.  It wasn’t until I arrived in Thailand just after India that I realized how oppressing it all was.  I could finally wear a tank top to deal with the heat and nobody looked twice!  There were more women walking the sidewalks, women riding scooters, women sitting next to the men they didn’t know on transit (gasp!) and life went on.  I do hope that India finds a better balance of equality in the years that come.

This tower of dolma was one of the few things we got to "cook" during our travels

This tower of dolma was one of the few things we got to “cook” during our travels

PRESENT
Given my tales of culture shock and exhausting bus rides, it’s no wonder people often ask if I’m tired of travel. I think I surprise them when I say not really. If someone offered me a ticket to Italy leaving tomorrow, I wouldn’t hesitate to pack my bags.

That said, I am excited to resume some of my hobbies that I haven’t been able to do because of my travels. Cooking and having my own kitchen is a big one. I’m looking forward to have those lazy Sundays when I get to dedicate my day to making a delicious bolognaise. Also, learning about some many cultural histories has me thinking about my own familial one. I’ve always wanted to make a family tree and now I’m more inspired than ever.

Therefore, we are now in the process of settling down. At least for a short while. The big question is where. Part of the impetus of this trip was an was a desire to move from the San Francisco area, where we had spent nearly 10 years. We are looking for a new place to call home. Our main desire is a big city that supports our lifestyle of exploring by foot and eating good food. Will it be New York? London? Hong Kong? I wish I knew! But the main determinant will be where we can land jobs.

In the immediate future, there is our wedding to plan which is both exciting and anxiety-inducing. Meanwhile, we will be posting on some of our local travels to see friends and family as well as advice on how to plan your own trip.

Clockwise from left: the Camino, Hong Kong clay pot restaurant, baklava in Turkey, Santorini, Chengdu delicacies, sunset on the beach in Koh Tao, spring rolls in Saigon

Clockwise from left: the Camino, Hong Kong clay pot restaurant, baklava in Turkey, Santorini, Chengdu delicacies, sunset on the beach in Koh Tao, spring rolls in Saigon

FUTURE
But just because we are staying in one place doesn’t mean I can’t already plan my future travel adventures. Taking a year off just opens your eyes to more places to visit and explore.

My dad asked me where would I return of all the international places I’d been this year, which is much better than asking what my favorite place is (impossible to answer!).  For some places, one visit is enough.  But it’s the ones that call you back that indicate that there’s something special there. Here is a list of places I would return (* means I visited pre-blog):

  • The Camino
  • Greek islands
  • Istanbul, Turkey
  • Southern Vietnam
  • Thailand beaches
  • Sichuan
  • Hong Kong
  • Japan*
  • Anywhere in Europe*
I want to have a wall map in my apartment (photo credit: Urban Outfitters)

I will definitely have a wall map in my apartment! (photo credit: Urban Outfitters)

And then of course there are the places you hear about and see tantalizing pictures of.  A list of countries I have never been but want to explore:

  • Australia
  • New Zealand
  • Korea
  • Western China
  • Nepal
  • The “stans” in Central Asia
  • Russia
  • Croatia
  • Lebanon
  • Jordan
  • Egypt
  • Morocco
  • Botswana
  • Northern Brazil
  • Southern Argentina

It’s time for us to put down some roots and have a bit more routine in our life. But wherever we end up one thing is for sure. A map will be posted on the wall. Pins will be pushed in to the countries we’ve been to, the ones we need to go back to, and the ones we’ve yet to explore. It will serve as a reminder of fortunate we are to have seen all that have as well as an indicator that the next adventure just around the corner.

But this is not the end!  Stay tuned for Nathan’s thoughts on the trip coming up next.

Taking a Long Sip in Pingle (by Carmen)

Canal bridge in Pingle

Canal bridge in Pingle

One of our favorite places in Yunnan was Shaxi, a town with maybe a thousand people. The size of most cities in China are jaw dropping. Visiting the tiny towns provides insight to a slower and community oriented side of life. With this in mind we decided to take a day trip to Pingle, a couple hours east of Chengdu.

Pingle street

Pingle street

5D show!

5D show!

Pingle is over 2000 years old and was a stop on the famous Silk Road trade route. Little has changed architecturally since the Ming dynasty – some of the towns trees have even been in the same place for a thousand years. But that was then. Now, everything in China is rapidly changing. While we were there many of the little lanes were under construction to better support the tourist masses. And of course all the tourist junk shops. My favorite though was the Avatar 5D stand. 3 dimensions just wasn’t enough!

Wall of bamboo

Wall of bamboo

Nathan wondering how to climb bamboo

Nathan wondering how to climb bamboo

There wasn’t a whole lot of information on Pingle online so we discovered our activities while there. For example, we saw a sign pointing to a bamboo forest. Plenty of rickshaw drivers tried to take us there but we decided to walk. About 10 minutes later we found a valley filled with a sea of bamboo.

Crossing the stream

Crossing the stream

Picturesque bamboo stream

Picturesque bamboo stream

Most of our walk was along the one road that cuts through the valley. That meant that every so often we had to jump to the side as a car or rickshaw going much to fast sped past us. But for the most part it was peaceful and beautiful. Eventually we found a small path that crossed the river and wound along the stream for a bit. Then we caught a rickshaw back to town.

Roof tiles in town

Roof tiles in town

Riverside tea

Riverside tea

Finally, we drank our tea. This was the real reason we came to Pingle. Nathan and I had so enjoyed the tea houses of Chengdu and Zigong that we wanted more. The ones in Pingle line a calm river where kids played in the mud and casually threw their trash into the flowing water. In the tea houses the clink of mahjong tiles and families having convivial conversations filled the air. It was as chill and peaceful as China gets. The tea was delicious and Nathan and I settled in for a long afternoon of sipping and people watching.

The Real Reason We Went To Chengdu Was To Eat! (by Nathan)

Sichuan snack sampler set (xiao chi tao can) at Long Chao Shou restaurant

Sichuan snack sampler set (xiao chi tao can) at Long Chao Shou restaurant

The pilgrimage continued in a different kind of way when we were in Chengdu.  This city is sacred because it contains one of the most delicious cuisines in the world- Sichuan.  Sichuan literally translates to “four rivers”. These waterways created fertile valleys that supported bountiful harvests and a highly advanced cuisine. When we finally made it to Chengdu we were overwhelmed with choices and the main challenge each day was deciding where and what to eat.  We couldn’t go wrong with Long Chao Shou restaurant that made huge platters of Sichuan street foods for those like us with a sacred appetite.

Wontons in numbing oil and fiery dan dan noodles

Wontons in numbing oil and fiery dan dan noodles

Sichuan peppercorns (photo credit: wikicommons)

Sichuan peppercorns (photo credit: wikicommons)

Carmen already covered what to do in Chengdu.  Those activities were fun, but I want to be honest with all of our readers, we really went to Chengdu to eat.   Sichuan peppercorns, for us, are way cuter than any panda bear.  Our love for Sichuan food actually began in Beijing during a cooking class in 2009.  An Australian friend we were cooking with encouraged us to chew on this tiny little pink peppercorn.  The rush of sour tastes was initially awkward, then later settled with intense salivation and saltiness.  The funny thing about Sichuan peppercorns is that they then numb the entire mouth.  The tingle strangely caught me off guard.  I pulled and tugged at my lips enjoying drunken dumbness of my mouth.  The feeling soon disappeared, but from that taste I was hooked and eager to use Sichuan peppercorns in everything.  We read the amazing autobiography (Sharks Fin and Sichuan Pepper) and cookbook (Land of Plenty) by Fushia Dunlop and our Chinese food skills quickly advanced.  I also threw the kernels in all sorts of dishes like pizza, barbecue sauce and deviled eggs.

Legendary mapo dofu

Legendary mapo dofu

A delicious chunk of gooey mapo tofu

A delicious chunk of gooey mapo tofu

Sichuan food is amazing because of its intense flavors and textures that are only matched by the best of world cuisines (Mexican, Thai & Indian- Sorry France, suck on my chili and peppercorns!).  A classic Sichuan Chinese dish is mapo dofu, tofu tossed into a fiery broth of broad bean paste, dried red chilies and Sichuan peppercorns.  A touch of sugar, dark soy sauce, black vinegar, green onions some ground bacon is all that is needed to make this magic.  The result is a dish that is a touch sour, but spicy and savory with a slightly sweet ending.  The tofu is flavorful and creamy, the peppercorns are crunchy and the green onions slightly crisp.  In Sichuan it was served more dramatically than in the States.  The oils in the bowl are still sizzling the tofu when it hits the table, and the whole thing is topped with an additional spoonful of ground peppercorns and red chilies (and probably MSG).

Twice Cooked Pork

Twice Cooked Pork

Another favorite of ours is hou guo rou (twice-cooked pork).  This dish is basically pork belly or bacon that is boiled, then removed and cooled.  The pork is sliced and wok-fried with green garlic and of course chili peppers.  Yes, it is fantastic and rarely disappointing.  We ate this dish five times while in Sichuan.

The best gong bao chicken we’ve ever had

The best gong bao chicken we’ve ever had

Stewed pork belly, gong bao ji and seasonal greens

Stewed pork belly, gong bao ji and seasonal greens

There is one Sichuan dish that has made it to Panda Express, but don’t insult the Sichuan food gods.  Gong bao chicken (better known as kung pao chicken) is from the heavens and they don’t mess around in Chengdu.  And funny enough we found a crowded no-name restaurant with wooden tables three blocks south of Mix hostel on Renmin Zhonglu.  Their gong bao stands as one of my top three food items of this entire trip.  Somehow it is the simplest and known dishes that surprise us sometimes.  The chicken was caramelized with sweet, salty spiciness.  The peanuts had extreme flavor and crunch compared to the ones I have cooked with.  The dried red peppers provided an easy way to intensify and mitigate the spiciness.  Oh, and there were some green onions in there just because ;)

Sichuan snack shop

Sichuan snack shop

We also found ourselves eating delicious street food served within tiny restaurants.  One classic shop was across the street from the Wenshu temple and across from Long Chao Shou that I described earlier.  They served maybe twenty types of Sichuan snacks from spiced bean jellies, to wontons and what we went for- the heart, and gut of Sichuan food – dan dan noodles.  This noodle dish is basically egg noodles thrown onto a ground pork and red pepper oil.  The bowls are served small, like boat noodles in Thailand, and we found ourselves grabbing a bowl in between meals.

Street kabob on sesame flatbread

Street kabob on sesame flatbread

Like in many Chinese cities, there were a handful of Uyghur kebab vendors in Sichuan.  We could smell this one for several blocks outside the Wenshu temple.  He grabbed a handful of skewers and placed them over the hot coals.  He fanned for the heat and after a few minutes we were given the succulent kabobs and a sesame flatbread.

Made to order Chinese pocket sandwiches

Made to order Chinese pocket sandwiches

Sichuan street sandwiches

Sichuan street sandwiches

Carmen chowing down

Carmen chowing down

I spotted this 20 sqft shop from the bus.  The line of people extended from the restaurant and wrapped around the street.  Another day around the corner I saw two women devouring pita pocket sandwiches, I jealously watched the dripping juices and food moans.  Call it food porn or whatever, but they looked good, the sandwiches I mean.  I had to figure out what they were and where they found them.  To my great excitement we walked by this tiny black sign and there were more sandwiches; to my great excitement this was the place I was eyeing. There are only a couple choices, mushroom, pork, beef and pig ear.  We ordered a couple, and the next day a couple more and the next day I would have eaten them again, but our stupid flight got in the way.  Each sandwich is made right there in front of the customers.  Two street chefs roll dough balls and bake the flat bread over a fire.  Then a handful of “stuffer” chefs toss together shredded carrots and daikon with chili oil and the meat or mushrooms.  Hell yeah I want it la jiao (spicy).  They stuff it into a hot flatbread, wrap it in wax paper and shove them into our hands.  We walk away happy and eager to find a secluded place as it was now our turn to devour these on the public sidewalk.  If you want to try these amazing sandwiches, the closet of a kitchen is called Chuan Bei Famous Snacks and it is on the east side of Renmin Zhonglu just between Hongshizhu Street and Wenwu Street.

Hot pot tofu skin knots

Hot pot tofu skin knots

Our raging hot pot and round three of veggies

Our raging hot pot and round three of veggies

We could not leave Sichuan without revisiting the craziness of hotpot. Hot pot is famous throughout Chengdu and Chongqing and we were feeling pretty confident that we could tackle it again.  We went to Yùlín Chuànchuàn Xiāng, we sat down and we ordered a spicy broth and a couple beers.  It was enormously easier to order here because there was an entire walk-in refrigerator lined with vegetables, tofu and skewered meats ready to be tossed into the bubbling broth.  Our essential favorite was the twisted tofu skin, and we also enjoyed broccoli, button mushrooms, cabbage, meat balls and a whole fish.

Various bowls of wantons in spicy oil, or broth or with cabbage

Various bowls of wantons in spicy oil, or broth or with cabbage

I get hungry just thinking of Sichuan food.  I had read about the food of Chengdu as if it was the stuff of legend.  The flood basin that makes the Sichuan province provides a bounty of culinary abundance truly defining it as a land of plenty.  This essential destination fulfilled our wildest dreams of flavors and textures.  Visiting Chengdu has provided us a context to the food, an experience within the Chinese culture and memory linked to my taste buds. It was difficult to leave, but we’ll be coming back and our stomachs will be grumbling until then.

Stairway to Heaven in Emeishan (by Carmen)

Stupa at the top of Emeishan

Stupa at the top of Emeishan

We were peregrinos once again. But this time it was a little different. For one, we were in China on the holy mountain of Emeishan. Second, we were only going to hike 50km not 800km. Instead of churches, we would encounter temples. Instead of a bottle of wine with our patatas bravas we would eat a simple bowl of vegetarian noodles and drink tea. Instead of the end of summer we were hiking at the end of winter. All in all, we were ready for these changes and excited to see a more spiritual side of China.

Carved Buddha at trailhead

Carved Buddha at trailhead

Forest steps

Forest steps

Map of Emeishan

Map of Emeishan

Emeishan is one of four sacred Buddhist mountains in China and has been a site of ancient pilgrimages for centuries. A series of temples have been established along the trail to house and feed people walking to the top. A carved Buddha welcomed us at the trailhead and we began to ascend the steps built into the forest. We struggled a bit to find the correct trail since the best map we had was a schematic one from the hostel. But after some asking around and pointing we made our way to the temples.

Tibetan style Shenshui Pavillion

Tibetan style Shenshui Pavillion

 Psychedelic purple cabbage

Psychedelic purple cabbage

One of the first temples we encountered was the Shenshui Pavillion. It was covered in a riot of bright colors, similar to the Tibetans ones we had seen in Zhongdian. We took a bit of a break, then pushed on. Shortly afterwards we saw this awesome purple cabbage plant; nature’s own version of colorful decorating.

Stairway in the forest

Stairway in the forest

Wannian Temple entrance

Wannian Temple entrance

Up and up we went. The stairs through the forest at times seemed never ending. But we kept looking out for the next landmark or temple. In a few hours we were able to reach the famous Wannian Temple

Six tusk elephant at Wannian Temple

Six tusk elephant at Wannian Temple

1100 year old bronze elephant

1100 year old bronze elephant

Wannian Temple is the oldest on the mountain and is dedicated to Bodhisattva Puxian. He liked riding a white elephant and this has become a symbol of the mountain. A giant bronze elephant with six tusks was constructed 1,100 years ago(!) to honor him and bring luck and long life to the people.

Stairway down

Stairway down

Stairway up

Stairway up

And then there were more stairs. We had started the day at 500m (1,650 ft) and our ultimate goal, the Golden Summit, was 3,077m (10,100ft). But it wasn’t one straight up shot. There were foothills to traverse and winding paths that followed the natural contours of the mountains. So we definitely felt like we had climbed all 3000m, if not more! When we couldn’t take the steps anymore, we would take a break. There were plenty of cafes and tea houses along the way vying for our business. We eventually stopped for lunch in a café that seemed to be full of local construction workers. Gong bao pork and stir fried greens is an excellent way to fill up for a hike.

White elephant bathing pool

White elephant bathing pool

Simple noodles at the monastery

Simple noodles at the monastery

Looking down at white elephant temple

Looking down at white elephant temple

Our final destination for the night clocked in at 2000m. The White Elephant Bathing Temple is so named for the time Puxian flew his elephant to a pool at this site in order to bathe it. By the time we made it to the top of the infinitely long staircase, we were exhausted and so happy to the bright red walls of the temple. After checking in for the night, we went directly to the dining hall for a hot bowl of noodles. The cook got a big kick out of the fact that we wanted it lao ji (spicy) – many people can never believe that a lao wei could like spicy. But we piled it on and were very happy and comforted. We then took our large water thermos to our room to drink tea and warm up with our electric blankets.

Sunrise at White Elephant Bathing Temple

Sunrise at White Elephant Bathing Temple

Oil lamps at the rustic Taizi Ping temple

Oil lamps at the rustic Taizi Ping temple

Prayer flags

Prayer flags

The next morning we were on a mission. We stopped briefly at the temples along the way, soaking in each one’s individual flavor. Some, such as Taizi Ping, were very rustic affairs in comparison to the more elaborate Wannian or even Shenshui.  Hidden from the path Nathan spotted enormous curtains of prayer flags that weaved through the forest.

Deep gorge

Deep gorge

Cliff

Cliff

Monkey on the cliff

Monkey on the cliff

As we neared the top, the trees became less dense and we could see the dramatic gorges and cliffs of the mountain. And that’s where we encountered the monkeys. Monkeys are a common theme in many Chinese parks and people love to feed them. It’s odd, though, that they are then terrified of them when they get close. I do not quite understand the Chinese relationship to wildlife – it’s like a mix of entertainment and distrust.

Nathan on the final steps

Nathan on the final steps

Six tusk elephant at the top

Six tusk elephant at the top

Finally, after two days, 50km and 3000m, we were on the final steps of Emeishan. White elephants greeted us as we made our way to the top.

Stupa at the top of Emeishan

Stupa at the top of Emeishan

Us with stupa

Us with stupa

And then we were at the golden stupa. It was installed about 6 years ago so it does not have much historical significance. But I think it adds a lot to the atmosphere and is beautifully crafted.

Golden Summit Temple

Golden Summit Temple

Golden Summit Temple with stupa

Golden Summit Temple with stupa

We were lucky to have such a sunny day as the mists of Emeishan are legendary. And so are the crowds. I haven’t mentioned that 99% of the thousands of visitors that day had not taken a step on the path we took. Sadly, Emeishan has been overrun by the cable car. Many people were there just to take their million photos, including with us, and then they head to the gift shop. I understand that not everyone can hike the way Nathan and I did but it does cheapen the experience when those that can don’t try at all. Is it really a pilgrimage anymore when you haven’t even had time to ponder your journey, to the top and in life?

Father and daughter who wanted to take a picture with me

Father and daughter who wanted to take a picture with me

The one good thing about this easy access to the top is the easy access down. Nathan and I hike an hour down to the bus station and caught a minibus for the 1.5 hour drive back to town. I was mulling over my thoughts and getting over the shock of being in such a tranquil environment during most of the hike and then being jolted by so many people at the top.

That’s when something strange happened. As the driver took a bathroom break at one of the cable car depots, he opened the back door for anyone who wanted to get out. At that point, a lady threw her walking stick out the door. A very old woman then felt around the ground for it and I realized that she was blind. The woman on the bus had given her the stick so that she could resell it later but didn’t even have the decency to hand it to her. Fortunately, the old woman had a companion, another woman of the same age, who helped her find the stick. Together they lifted up empty plastic bags apparently asking for something. It felt like everything was happening in slow motion as I was trying to figure it out. The companion pulled out a plastic bottle and it finally dawned on me – they simply wanted plastic bottles. It was at that moment that the driver, who had returned, shut the door and left them in a cloud of dust. Something about these two women pulled strongly at my heart. Simply based on history, these women must have experienced a lot of hardship in life. They should be honored, but instead were treated with disdain. They were extremely humble to all these people on board who had just paid 150RMB ($25USD) to go into a spiritual, sacred site. I can only imagine what $25 would have meant to them. I thought about these women a lot since I’ve seen them. I had plastic bottles I could have given them but due to confusion and language barriers, I pulled them out too late. I hope they are ok. I wish there was more I could do. And I wish there was more focus on helping these hard working yet destitute elderly woman than building more malls for the nouveau riche… And there is my tale of temples, burning thighs and heart ache on Emeishan.

Visiting the Big Guy in Leshan (by Nathan)

The big toe of the Big Guy

The big toe of the Big Guy

Two visionaries: Nathan and Buddha

Two visionaries: Nathan and Buddha

What an enormous toe!  That is what I kept thinking to myself while standing below the largest Buddha statue on earth.  The toes alone of this statue made me feel small and the towering statue made me feel miniscule.  I guess that is the whole point, the enormity of God and the frivolous creatures that we are as humans on earth.  It was very humbling to enjoy and admire such a creation as this in China. Look at what they carved from a mountain 1,300 years ago!

Stairway along the cliff

Stairway along the cliff

222ft carved statue of Buddha

222ft carved statue of Buddha

The Leshan Dafo is now the largest statue of Buddha on earth.  I use the word “now” because there used to be a bigger one, but it was destroyed in Afghanistan.  I am kinda liking Buddhism and its global respect for humanity versus the religious extremism that so prevalent.  The Leshan Buddha stands 222ft (70m) tall with earlobes as tall as a house.  Long earlobes are often seen throughout Asian statues as it is a sign of long life and prosperity.  We climbed several hundred stairs along the cliff to reach the bottom.  At the base, Buddha sits serenely staring into the horizon and into the souls of all those admiring his grandeur.

Carved hand on the knee

Carved hand on the knee

Tibetan family

Tibetan family

We had a particular rewarding experience with a Tibetan family that had made a pilgrimage here from their homeland somewhere in western China.  They were so courteous and friendly in their “hellos” to us that we were at first taken aback; that’s not our typical reception in China. There is still a clear divide among Tibetan and Han Chinese. While many of the Chinese visitors would do a cursory incense lighting they would then proceed to take pictures of themselves from all angles in front of the Buddha. Many of these visitors dressed in their heels and glamorous clothes trying their best to show off. The Tibetan family, on the other hand, was dressed in thick robes and animal furs that were clearly better suited for a freezing winters than the warm temperatures they were feeling in Leshan.  They did their best to shed clothes, but their main focus was to pray to Buddha. They lit candles and meditated.  It was nice to see people that saw more of this statue than its tourism. I secretly wished that they would invite me for some yak butter tea, but I did not know how to get that across :)

Arch bridge and blossoming flowers

Arch bridge and blossoming flowers

Yellow flower fields

Yellow flower fields

We made our way into Leshan on a bus from Zigong.  The plan was for a day trip to visit the “big guy” and the surrounding temples and then hop on another bus to where we would stay the night in Emeishan.  With great luck, everything went as planned and we were able to see everything, including some beautiful fields of yellow flowers, arched bridges, temples and painted rock caves.  This would not be the end of our spiritual journey through China; it was time to put our pilgrimage shoes back on…

Banging That Zigong (by Nathan)

Zigong lantern festival

Zigong lantern festival

There are countless ways to explore the Sichuan Province.  We considered going west into the foothills of Tibet or to see the turquoise pools of Jiuzhaigou, but to maximize seeing sights and minimize the long bus rides we decided to go South and West.   Our fingers roamed around a map and settled on Zigong, a city of tea houses, dinosaurs, salt mines and light shows.  How could we go wrong?

Sichuan masks

Sichuan masks

Going off the beaten track in China is an excellent way to lose the comforts of the English language.  And, although there is plenty to do in Zigong, we quickly determined that little to no western tourists seem to visit this city.    We knew we were in for a treat when we arrived at the hotel and the receptionist kept pointing at the receipt demanding that we pay an extra $25. We could not understand her or the English translation that was written “kqpdfg mzfbxq” so we refused.  She eventually gave up and we later looked up the Chinese character and found out she just wanted a deposit.  To her benefit, we were nice to the squatty potty.

Two men clean a big pot on the street

Two men clean a big pot on the street

I believe Carmen and I must have been the most interesting people to ever step foot in Zigong.  After six weeks in China we were starting to feel accustomed to the stares and hyper-analyzing we received from many Chinese people.  In Zigong, we turned heads and whole crowds turned to watch the lao wei.  No one had ever seen a foreigner in Zigong?  We would walk along the sidewalks and families would stop eating in the restaurants, babies would stop crying and even at the cemetery the dead briefly stopped dying to watch us.  Maybe that is a bit too drastic, but it is extremely awkward to feel like such a rarity. I gained immense respect for the real first visitors to China in the eighties when Chinese borders finally opened up after forty years of closure.  We too enjoyed some staring when we found these men cleaning (or buying?) a huge pot.  They wondered around blindly and we giggled on the sideline.

Salt mine museum

Salt mine museum

Blossoming flowers and a Chinese backdrop

Blossoming flowers and a Chinese backdrop

Swooping eaves of the salt mine museum

Swooping eaves of the salt mine museum

Our first tourist destination was the Zigong Salt Museum.  The beautiful building was originally a guild hall for craftsmen in Southern Sichuan.  Zigong was the center of the salt mining industry for the last two thousand years.  All of Sichuan is situated in an enormous floodplain at the base of western Himalayas.  Millions of years of runoff concentrated into brine aquifers that still supply salt to present day China.  There were some great exhibits showing how drilling techniques originated in China with some nerdy inventions that only an engineer like me would enjoy.

Bubbling brine caldrons

Bubbling brine caldrons

Salt productions

Salt productions

Further outside of town is one of the actual salt mines.  This derrick was the first mine in the world to exceed 1000m in depth.  The drilling and pumping was once all done with ox power, but now they utilize diesel engines.  We walked our way into the boiling room to see huge caldrons boiling off the brine water and crystalizing the salt.

Interior of the Wángyé Temple Tea House

Interior of the Wángyé Temple Tea House

Wángyé Temple Tea House overlooking the Fuxi River

Wángyé Temple Tea House overlooking the Fuxi River

Historic photo of the Wángyé Temple Tea House and Fuxi River

Historic photo of the Wángyé Temple Tea House and Fuxi River

Sipping tea is an essential activity all across Sichuan.  The Sichuanese are known throughout China as tea drinkers and Zigong is the Paris with some of the most beautiful and picturesque tea houses in the world.  The Wángyé Temple is one of these tea houses.  We strolled along the river walk looking at this beautiful building in the distance.  To our great surprise and delight, we discovered that it was our planned destination.  Inside we were surrounded by rustic woodwork and arched windows.  Our fellow tea drinkers played mahjong or cards with thick clouds of cigarette smoke clouded around them.  We found a seat next to the window and a waitress brought us a menu.  Of course we could not read it, but could get an idea of price so we pointed at two items in a game of “Chinese roulette.” Lucky us, chrysanthemum and jasmine were just what we wanted.  We watched the Fuxi river amazed that this same building was still here eighty years ago.  The tea house was an excellent place to relax, think and plan more of our adventures across Zigong.

Zigong dinosaur museum and the szechuanosaurus

Zigong dinosaur museum and the szechuanosaurus

Carmen and a long-neck brontosaurus

Carmen and a long-neck brontosaurus

Two dinosaur skeletons fighting each other

Two dinosaur skeletons fighting each other

Hell yeah we went to the dinosaur museum!  I really like dinosaurs and I enjoy running around like a crazed little kid.  I went to this museum with very low expectations, China’s exhibitions about the natural world have not been impressive, but I was quickly surprised to find an elaborate display of prehistoric bones and archeological landscapes.  That same floodplain for salt was also collected the flash floods and rivers from the mountains.  Dinosaurs would be swept away into the Sichuan basin and buried in the mud.  Archeological sites surrounding Zigong have found some of the most elaborate collections of dinosaurs on earth.

Bones encased in the mud

Bones encased in the mud

Amazing in-tact szechuanosaurus skull

Amazing in-tact szechuanosaurus skull

Carmen and I and one massive bronze skull

Carmen and I and one massive bronze skull

There were displays of enormous long-necked beasts and tiny high-speed runners.  They even built the museum around an excavation site that contained fifty or so dinosaur skeletons encased in the mud.  Huge stegosaurus bones lay next to szechanosaurus and various other creatures.  I do have to point out that Chinese tourists approached the museum a little different from Carmen and me.  We watched a group of thirty rush into the show room from a tour bus.  The rock barricades were but a small obstacle for the group to touch and poke at the dinosaur bones.  I watched one woman grab onto a 10ft long rib of a brontosaurus and shake it back and forth as if to test its legitimacy of being bone.  I secretly hoped that it was in fact plaster and that the real skeletons were locked away somewhere.  The skull collection was exciting and Carmen and I particularly liked the bronze one at the back of the park.

Zigong street

Zigong street

We left the museum and quickly decided to walk along a small market street.  We were on the edge of Zigong and again we were the object of many stares.  We were two-legged travelosaurs walking and looking for some dumplings.  Unfortunately we were unlucky, we boarded the bus unsatisfied, but we with a better destination in mind- another tea house

Floating green tea leaves

Floating green tea leaves

Carmen enjoying tea at the Huánhóu Palace Tea House

Carmen enjoying tea at the Huánhóu Palace Tea House

The front of Huánhóu Palace Tea House

The front of Huánhóu Palace Tea House

Huánhóu Palace is a beautiful courtyard of overhanging trees and a small pond.  We pulled up bamboo chairs into the sunlight and ordered two cups of tea.  She delivered the ceramic cups and an enormous jug of boiling water.   The tea immediately put us at ease; we relaxed in the warm air and sipped on our tea until late in the afternoon.

Our food in Zigong was out of this world amazing.  We stumbled upon a handful of busy restaurants and market-side stalls, but unfortunately forgot to take any photos.  One favorite was a dumpling and noodle shop that served us pork dumplings in a spicy oil, but our real favorite was yibin kindling noodles- a cold noodle dish doctored with picked cabbage, spicy sauce and peanuts.  One hawker enticed us into her dimply lit vegetable bar.  We filled up a bowls with mushrooms, cabbage, onions, tofu, eggplant, river weed and numerous other things I cannot name.  They stuffed the lot into a bubbling broth and served us the soup stacked with our selection.

Red floating lanterns in Zigong

Red floating lanterns in Zigong

Lantern festival “main street”

Lantern festival “main street”

We did not intend on exploring the lantern festival, but it was definitely a highlight of the entire trip to Zigong.  Huge metal structures created new each year and wrapped with florescent cloth.  Zigong positions the lanterns throughout a mountain top park for all the community and tourists to enjoy.  We bought tickets for ¥20 which was an amazing deal for what is usually tourist rip-off China.

Salt mine derricks at the lantern festival

Salt mine derricks at the lantern festival

Baby lantern with bottomless britches

Baby lantern with bottomless britches

The lanterns were phenomenal.  The colors were bright and the glowing light emanated in all directions.  We wondered through the park enjoying the towers, dragons, dinosaurs, salt derricks, Sichuan masks and even tiny children lanterns with bottomless pants.

Dome light show

Dome light show

Zigong was an exciting city for us.  We had been getting used to a China that spoke some English with enough expats that we could get by.  Zigong opened our eyes to further challenges with living in China and a harsh reality that we would always be a lao wei (foreigner) here.  The tea houses of Zigong are a magical escape where a hot drink soothes the soul and the surroundings are pleasing everywhere we looked.  Dinosaurs and light shows were just added experiences that added to our fun and enjoyment of the city.  We explored all that we could, and I drank a couple gallons of tea by myself.  It was time to move on…it was time to have a moment with the “Big Guy.”

How Pandas Won Me Over (by Carmen)

Happy panda

Happy panda

We were not going to see the pandas. They may be one of the major attractions of Sichuan but we would not be swayed. “They are endangered! They’re so cute! You can even hold one!” These exclamations would not move us. At least we thought.

Panda laterns

Panda laterns in the shopping area

But we had some extra time in Chengdu. In our walks around the city we saw panda faces everywhere as they are the symbol of the region.  Maybe it was subliminal messaging. Eventually a couple of travelers invited us to share a taxi with them and before we knew it we were on our way to watch some black and white bears roll around.

Panda doing what it does best

Panda doing what it does best

Turns out they really are cute. Ridiculously so. These huge bears just sit around eating bamboo all day and seem to smile about it. Despite their size, they almost seem vulnerable with their slow movements and dopey looks. Nathan kept saying they look like giant stuffed animals come to life. An apt description.

Yep, more eating time

Yep, more eating time

They eat about 40kg of bamboo a day which at their pace takes a looong time.  As a special treat the sanctuary gives them little mooncakes filled with grains and vitamins.  I like how the pandas have a Chinese diet.

Progression of baby panda growth

Progression of baby panda growth (Photo credit: Chengdu Panda Breeding and Research Center)

Of course the cutest pandas are the mini-versions – the babies! Well, they’re not cute when they just come out. They are pink little rat looking things.  Pandas have one of the highest mortality rates.  Their cubs are born weighing only 90g (3oz).  The mothers sometimes crush the little guys since they are so fragile.  Oops.

Baby panda at about 5 months old

Baby panda at about 5 months old

Play time

Play time

But then they grow into little fluff balls that just want to climb things and gnaw on their mother all day.  You can imagine the oohs and ahhs coming from the crowd as we all watched this play session.  You are allowed to hold these tiny guys but it costs somewhere around $200 for just a couple minutes of time.

Sleeping in the tree

Sleeping in the tree

Playful teenagers

Playful teenagers

Even the teenagers are adorable and perhaps even more playful. Since they’re a little bigger they can get into some mischief like toppling their sleeping friend out of a tree just for the fun of it.  But they’re resilient.  I watched one fall from a tall branch and just shake it off.

Red panda

Red panda

Did you know that pandas come in red too? Kinda. They are a fraction of the size and remind me more of a racoon than a panda. But apparently they’re related and have a spot at the sanctuary. However, they definitely don’t get the same love as their black and white cousins.

We spent at least 20 minutes here just watching them play

We spent at least 20 minutes here just watching them play

So we didn’t buy any panda hats or sweaters or tails, all of which are available at the many gift shops. Not that we’ll wear out in public anyway.  Hey, it’s easy to be won over by the panda craze.

Chengdu Do (by Carmen)

Mao statue in the main square of Chengdu

Mao statue in the main square of Chengdu

We were finally in Sichuan! Where bamboo forests sweep across the land. Where Tibetan culture lives strong among the rugged western mountains. Where pandas munch away happily. Where the biggest Buddah in the world lives. Where one of the four holy mountains of China juts out of the earth. Where earthquakes show their raw power. And where you can find some of the most glorious food in all the world. Of all it’s attributes, the food is what really drew us in. A whole post could be dedicated just to the food – and that is in fact what Nathan will do in the next couple weeks. But for now I am going to focus on what we did in Chengdu, the lovely capital city of Sichuan.

Grove of trees on Wenshu Temple Grounds

Grove of trees on Wenshu Temple Grounds

Wenshu Temple building

Wenshu Temple building

Most people merely pass through Chengdu on their way to the other sights of the province, but we found ourselves plenty busy in the city itself. One of our first activities was the Wushou Temple. The peaceful grounds of this temple can make you forget your in the city. We walked among the various enclosed courtyards and watched as the orange robed monks were called to lunch via a wooden drum.

Shadow puppets from the Sichuan Museum

Shadow puppets from the Sichuan Museum

Another cool sight was the Sichuan Museum. Quite a few other travelers we have met are anti-museum, considering them to be boring or something. I am definitely not in agreement. I love museums – the calm and quiet atmosphere, the (hopefully) interesting displays, and the act of learning and gaining new knowledge. At the Sichuan Museum we viewed elegant pottery, extremely delicate embroidery, cut paper arts, shadow puppetry and intricate bronzeware some of which was 2500 years old! Through these artifacts I gained a greater appreciation for local culture. All for free – good deal.

Green Ram Temple

Green Ram Temple

Nathan and a grinning turtle at the temple

Nathan and a grinning turtle at the temple

Near the museum is the Green Ram Temple which is part of the Taoist religion. Taoism is not a religion I know much about. From what I read, it is based on a few ambiguous texts written in the in the 6th century BC. But they do embrace the yin yang which I totally decorated my notebooks with in middle school. So I get that ; )

River by night

River by night

By night we did something we had not yet attempted in China – riding a bicycle. Twenty years ago bicycles were the symbol of the country. Everyone has seen those pictures of thousands of Chinese cyclists pedalling down the street. But no longer. The electric scooter has taken over as the way to get around making cycling a less safe endeavour. But we decided to go for it, at night no less, because it was part of a group that our hostel had organized. So the guide, Nathan, me and seven Spaniards crisscrossed the city, avoiding scooters and snapping pictures.

Us with our new friend Eric

Us with our new friend Eric

Sichuan University

Sichuan University

The next day we met up with a new friend, Eric, who we happened to meet while travelling in Yuanyang. He teaches English in Chengdu and graciously showed us around for a day to see some sights including the Sichuan University and the Tibetan neighborhood.

Chengdu market

Chengdu market

Me and my sweet tamal

Me and my sweet tamal

While we were walking around we happened upon a market where they were selling fresh produce as well as a few snacks. Even though we had just feasted on some dumplings I couldn’t pass up a special steamed dough wrapped in a corn husk. It looked like a sweet tamal, one of my favorite Mexican treats. And to my surprise it tasted like one!

Heming Tea House in the People’s Park

Heming Tea House in the People’s Park

Chrysanthemum tea with goji berry

Chrysanthemum tea with goji berry

Crazy bike and scooter parking outside the park

Crazy bike and scooter parking outside the park

Later we chilled out Sichuan style in the lovely Heming Tea House in the People’s Park. Nathan ordered the popular chrysanthemum tea with goji berries which comes out with big rock sugar cubes at the bottom. People love to hang out at the tea houses to gamble, chat and/or get their ears cleaned by the professional cleaners walking around. Everyone who comes to Sichuan has to do one of these things. I decided on the simple tea and chat option.

The regal court in the Chinese opera

The regal court in the Chinese opera

Close up of an opera singer

Close up of an opera singer

Getting ready to shake her feathers

Getting ready to shake her feathers

Sichuan masks

Sichuan masks

Another specialty of Sichuan is the opera. It is supposed to be very dramatic with a special masks painted with colorful, elaborate expressions. They have a technique that allows them to switch the masks in a fraction of a second. And the Sichuan opera has fire breathers and acrobatic flips (take that Madame Butterfly!). We were excited to attend the opera matinee performance but as we settled in for the show we realized we had made a mistake. We were indeed at the opera but it was not a Sichuan one. No masks, no fire, no acrobats…and where’s the fun in that? Instead we were at a simple performance where the most dramatic act was when one character shook her feather headdress at another character. And if you’ve never heard Chinese opera it isn’t exactly melodious. After three hours of tolerating the screeching and hoping for fire, I had to concede that the language barrier had cheated us out of the Sichuan opera we wanted. Oh well.

Funny chow chow

Funny chow chow

Bottomless pants

Bottomless pants

The opera is just one way to be entertained in Chengdu. Another is simply to walk the streets. On our meanderings we encountered plenty of oddly shaved dogs, including a hilarious chow chow that ran inside after we started laughing. And then there are the bottomless children. I agree this is a much more frugal and ecological way to handle child bathroom needs compared to diapers. But I don’t appreciate the fact that parents let their kids pee and poop anywhere they please. It’s simply not hygenic. I don’t know what the answer is but in the meantime being mooned by tiny butts all day is pretty amusing.

Cherry blossoms

Cherry blossoms

Bamboo stand at River Viewing Park

Bamboo stand at River Viewing Park

Tea house at River Viewing Park

Tea house at River Viewing Park

If you’ve walked around too much then it’s time for another tea house. The River Viewing Park was a particularly pretty garden. It was filled with cozy tea corners where one could watch the bamboo grow.

Global Center

Global Center

Urban design to warm up a freeway underpass, complete with mini electric poles to provide a pedestrian scale

Urban design to warm up a freeway underpass, complete with mini electric poles to provide a pedestrian scale

Contrasting to the cozy green parks are the ubiquitous large office parks and freeways at the edge of the city center. This is the case with all Chinese cities but Chengdu is attempting a bit of one-upmanship with the Global Center. We passed it on the bus and it is HUGE. 1.5 million square meters of floor space, which is bigger than the current tallest building in the world. It supposed to be filled with hotels, shopping, fake beaches, and fake villages all lit with fake sunlight. Pretty much the epitome of Chinese tourism.

Bookworm Literary Festival

Bookworm Literary Festival

Serve the People by Jen Lin-Liu

Serve the People by Jen Lin-Liu

Back in Chengdu city center, we had a lucky coincidence. At the expat-oriented bookstore called Bookworm, the month of March is dedicated to hosting a literary festival. By chance, we were in town to hear an author I admire give a talk. Jen Lin-Liu wrote Serve the People, a memoir about life and food in China. I loved how in the book she worked with dumpling wrappers, noodle makers, home cooks and even high end restaurateurs to get the story behind the food and delve deeper into the culture. She is publishing a new book in July about her travels following the origins of the noodle along the Silk Road. Sounds awesome and I can’t wait.

See, even in the non-food post on Chengdu I can’t help but mention it! I’ve covered pretty much all the things we found to do in Chengdu except one – pandas! They were so adorable they’re getting a post of their own. So stay tuned for the rest of our Sichuan adventures.

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