4 feet 2 mouths

walking and eating our way around the world

Archive for the tag “Sichuan”

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.

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