Sichuan, land of the numbingly spicy

And I certainly don't mean that in a bad way. One of the reasons (besides the pandas) why we decided to come to Sichuan province was because of the cuisine, which is famous for its use of chilies and Sichuan peppercorns. These peppercorns have a curious property: they make your mouth go numb, and it's something the Chinese call “ma”. In combination with “la”, the spiciness from regular red chilies, Sichuan cuisine has built a fearsome reputation for its spicy food.

We had our first taste of the peppercorn when we went for hotpot a couple of nights ago. We've been for hotpot before, but this was a bit different; rather than boiling broth, it was a concoction of boiling oil, chilies, peppercorns, and other spices. It was bright red and the scent coming off of it was spicy and tingly. We chose a couple of things off of the menu, which luckily was in English (avoiding the “urinating beef balls” and “ox penis” but at least getting some tripe and beef tendon), dumped it into the boiling oil, and hoped for the best. I fished out a piece of beef, dunked it in some sesame oil, cilantro and scallions, and carefully bit into it. My mouth immediately caught on fire from the red chilies, but as I continued chewing this curious sensation spread on my tongue – my mouth was turning numb from the peppercorns! It's so hard to describe it, I was totally weirded out at first. Maybe it's a bit like when you drink a wine with a lot of tannins and your tongue feels furry, but multiply it by ten and maybe you'd come close.

As we've been eating, we've noticed that the peppercorn is in everything – the stir fries, the noodles, the soups. Sometimes they're added in whole, sometimes they're sneaky about it and crush it up. So while you're eating your mouth goes numb and you didn't even know what hit you. Even for breakfast! I can see why people like it so much though, the interplay between the fiery red chilies and the peppercorns is such a great combination. I especially love the the dried fried red chilies, when done just right they're a bit crispy, oily, fragrant and spicy, I end up picking them out of the dish and finishing them before we've even eaten the rest of the food.

Eating out here is very inexpensive – on average we're spending about $6 US for any given meal, sometimes as little as 75 cents (!) –  but it's finding the right ones that can be tough. Small mom and pop places are everywhere in the city, we've passed by so many I can't even keep count. They're little open air joints with a couple of tables, sometimes the kitchen is open to the eating area, sometimes it's in the back. We've evolved some rules though to decide how to pick one.

  • Walk around during meal times. Then you can see which ones are busy. If it's busy, there must be a reason why!
  • If it's a busy one, look at the floor and the surrounding environment – are there tons of napkins and debris on the ground? If so, skip it because the kitchen is probably disgusting. If the place looks clean, better chance that the kitchen will be clean too.
  • What are people ordering? If the menu is only in Chinese, then it's easier if you go to busy place and point at something that you might want to try than to struggle to string together a sentence. Going into an empty restaurant is tough.
  • Do the proprietors seem welcoming or at least interested in your business? Skip it if they scowl at you. 
  • How does it smell? If it's stinky you probably don't want to go there, and conversely if it smells good then check it out. Trust your nose.

We've actually had a lot of good meals at random places that we'll never know the name of by following the rules to some extent. We had amazing dumplings in Langzhong, they were so good that we went back for breakfast a second time.

Another thing that was inevitable is that ordering off the menu when you can't read and communicate is a crap shoot. Especially when there are no pictures. Sometimes it just comes down to opening the menu and pointing at something, because saying “What do you recommend?” in Chinese (at least my Chinese) draws blank stares. On the train we were lucky and ended up ordering fish fragrant pork, something that is pretty basic and non-scary. At a hole-in-the-wall which we found via EatingAsia, we managed to order some delicious stir fried beans and the fish fragrant pork again (yes, we've learned to identify that one at least.) At other meals we were not so fortunate, one dish was a bunch of offal that neither of us could identify – maybe it was chicken intestine, maybe not? The dish itself was mediocre, and maybe I am better off not knowing what it was. Another meal we ended up ordering snake. Glad I experienced it, but probably wouldn't order it again. So kids: learn your Chinese, you will thank me in the end!

I have to say that I am not fond of the packaged drinks and snacks in Sichuan. Actually, the bottled drinks are quite awful. They're all sugary and fake tasting, real juice does not exist, not even at froofy drink stands. At least in Sichuan it's hard to get a decent cup of tea unless you're at a teahouse, but we haven't really honed our mahjong skills enough to feel comfortable hanging out in one for more than a half hour or so. Coffee is crappy/non-existent. Snacks tend to be overly pungent or that snappy texture that seems to offend Westerners to no end, or are crappy horrible ripoffs of brand names like Pringles. I keep dreaming of all the lovely fruit juices and kopi-o in Singapore and the fresh coconuts in Thailand.

However, we had some great freshly prepared snacks at a pedestrian area known as Jin Li Street. Sichuan is also known for its xiao chi, literally “small eats”. Vendors specialize in one type or another, it can range from various types of fried meat on a stick similar to kebabs to tofu with molasses sauce. Often these are just street vendors, which we've been avoiding them for the sake of the peace of our stomachs. But we were able to sample a bunch of these snacks at Jin Li Street, as the sanitary conditions are a bit more standardized. Our favorite by far was a combo dish of five types of vegetarian rice rolls, they were savory and a bit spicy, and each had its own texture. All in all, we've really enjoyed the food here and are glad that we had a chance to try it. Next up on our plates later on this week: yak meat and other Tibetan delicacies! Stay tuned…

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Face It

This is the first time that I've been to China in my whole entire life. I was born and raised in the States, a Jersey girl at heart. When I was really young, all I spoke was Cantonese. But basically when I hit nursery school, the rejection started. I hated going to Chinese school on Saturdays, I just wanted to be like the rest of the kids. I wanted to fit in and speak English, goddamn it! So my Cantonese slowly declined to the point where now all I can do is order verbally at restaurants in Chinatown. And forget about Mandarin, I can barely count to ten even though I took a semester in college. 

So I knew it was going to be tough traveling through China without being able to speak or read. But the actual experience has been a lot more nuanced than I thought it would be. Weirdly enough in Hong Kong I felt like I fit in. I could understand at a basic level what people were saying, more than I thought I would. People didn't bat an eye if I spoke to them in English or if I replied in mangled Cantonese, it was all good. Being illiterate in Chinese was not a problem, there was usually some sort of translation into English that was good enough. The only places where it was an issue were some of the small restaurants, but perhaps if I had had enough time I would have gotten up the courage to go in and try to ask for recommendations.

Mainland China is a whole other ballgame. Sometimes it's been so frustrating I want to cry. Or at least have a giant sign that says "我不会说中文" ("I don't speak Chinese") so I don't have to say it again for the ten millionth time. Everyone automatically assumes that I speak Chinese, which is fine and normal. At first I would say "I don't speak Chinese very well" and they'd talk a mile a minute and still expect me to understand. So I switched to "I do not speak Chinese". Period. End of story. However, they still launch into a whole long dialogue. Very unhelpful. 

In Thailand people mistook me for being native – which I was surprised about since I don't think I look Thai, but I soon found out that people thought I was Chinese Thai. So people would start speaking in Thai, but at least when I indicated that I didn't speak it, they backed off a bit, tried English or hand signals, and things worked out. They weren't rude in their reactions, maybe a bit curious, but it was easy to deal with.

In China people are totally confused and have no idea what to do with me. It has never in their minds occurred to them that a Chinese person could be Chinese without speaking it. So I've gotten to the point where I've figured out how to say "My grandparents are from Guangdong, I speak Cantonese, but I was born in America, I'm an American" in Mandarin. (Of course, being in Western China, they snort at the Guangdong part.) And they STILL don't get it.

If I don't open my mouth I look like every other Chinese person on the street, even if I dress slightly differently. In fact, when I'm not with Wayne it's like nobody sees me, I'm just part of the crowd. I think it confuses them even more that I'm with Wayne. Just tonight, I was sitting on a rock waiting for him, and this little kid comes over and starts climbing on the rock next to me. OK, no problem. Wayne shows up and we're talking, and the little kid looks over and I swear he fell off the rock with the most horrified look. (The "OMG I've never seen a white person before in my life and I'm going to stare at him for an uncomfortable period of time" is a whole other blog post completely.)  "White person with Asian person? DOES NOT COMPUTE!!" and you see smoke coming out of their ears. Sometimes I think they think I'm his tour guide or something. 

The most frustrating thing about it is that I want to communicate. I want to be able to ask about how the noodles are made, if they like the city they live in, where's a good place to eat, what they recommend doing, what's village life like. But I can't. So I have to stay in my role as a tourist, just passing on through and gawking. Which is fine for now, but I'm looking forward to being able to converse on a deeper level with people like we had the opportunity to in Thailand and Hong Kong.
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Panda-monium

One of the things I totally wanted to see when we decided to come to Chengdu was the baby pandas. So we signed up for a tour through our hostel, stuffed ourselves into a tiny van (with a crazy driver, of course) and got ourselves out to the Panda Reserve. We played hooky from our tour group and got some precious moments of solitude with the pandas before other hordes of tour groups descended upon us. 

The pandas were ridiculously cute. Especially the baby ones. They were like little balls of fur that tumbled across the grass and up trees, and they made the silliest expressions. I'll let the pictures do most of the talking for the pandas.

And for sure we were gawking at the Chinese tourists as much as we were at the pandas – we couldn't believe that they were feeding bread to the red pandas even though there were signs everywhere that said "NO FEEDING", and some middle aged Chinese dude who thought he was being pretty awesome climbed on top of a fence and consequently got yelled at by the staff. I swear he had the same "who, me? It wasn't me!!" look that our cat gives us when he knows he's done something wrong but is totally trying to play it off as if it had never happened.

(By the way, I do expect the traffic on our site to jump by 1000% because we're talking about "pandas" and "cute".)

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Taxi Drivers who subscribe to the “Die Hard” School of Driving…

Part 1 in Our “How to Navigate China with next to Zero Mandarin” Series

Seriously, first cab we get in mainland China, picture this. We’ve just rolled off a 27 hour train ride, where of the last 2 hours of the trip we spent at the previous station waiting for the train staff to deep clean the train. I mean these guys ripped the curtains off, tore out the runner carpets, removed all the bedding (except ours) and prepped our train car for what seemed like a mass cleaning or burning once we were off the train. I suggest the latter, but the former would suffice. Finally, the train rolls on to our final destination.

We get off and head with the crowds to the exits and the “taxi circle”. Now, I didn’t take a photo, but I should. Picture your average mall parking lot cul de sac. The taxis were crammed in ways you’d never imagine a car could cram into a space, and as we neared more fit in. We shoved our way passed various “taxi drivers” trying to finagle you into their cab before you got to the circle (and saw how deep they were). We pushed to the line where you “wait” for a taxi, seemingly close to the exit.

We spot a guy with a cab nearby. We get in. He stays outside. We sit their for about 30 seconds before I realize he’s trying to get more passengers. Uh uh. I get out. We get out. He says “Ok, Ok…” He gets in we show him the address that Tracie copied using her first-grade level Chinese handwriting skills and we begin to nudge our way out. About a ten minute process of honking and arm waving.

Once we hit the road the fun really begins. You know those car race or chase scenes you see in movies like “Die Hard” or “Smokey and The Bandit”. There you are laughing here and there because no way would anyone ever try or do that successfully. Oh yea, come to China.

Our cab driver ran no less than every red light he encountered. Some he would slow down for by crossing over into the oncoming traffic lane and then turn from that lane. Other times, he’d turn from the right most lane, going left?! When I say there are no rules, I mean it. But somehow, we got there safe and alive. When he passed up our street, he made an 180 in the middle of the street which raised a police car’s eyebrow enough for them to pull up with flashed lights. He yelled something out the window and pointed to us and drove away. Buford T Justice.

After several other rides between tour guides and other taxi drivers, I’ve learned you just let go. There are no rules, and somehow everyone does just fine. In fact, I haven’t seen a case of anger or road rage at anyone else’s moves. Everyone is so blasé about it, its just normal. Its China.

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Want a train ticket? Good luck.

We said goodbye to Hong Kong yesterday and headed to Guangzhou, where we needed to get train tickets. Guess what? Nobody who works in the train station speaks Cantonese! Crap. So we were stuck with stringing together Mandarin from our phrasebook. We wandered around the station until we finally found the long distance ticket sellers, but we had no. idea. how to to read the schedule. After staring at it for about 10 minutes while waiting on line we sort of deciphered it, but still had no idea if we were in the right line.

We were super lucky though – two girls (who only spoke Mandarin) took pity on us and tried to figure out what we wanted, and helped us with communicating with the surly ticket seller. It almost certainly would have been a gigantic fail otherwise – it was almost the end of the day and there were people crowding around the window trying to cut the line, and the ticket seller certainly would not have had the patience for foreigners who spoke no Chinese.

So we're off on a 35-hour train ride to Chengdu in a few hours. Wish us luck!
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Finding Heart and Soul in the Megapolis of Hong Kong

If we’ve learned anything at all on this trip it’s that we live on this small little globe hurtling through the universe, where everyone knows one of our friends or someone in our family and everyone is willing to amaze and surprise us with their hospitality and generosity.

In one day last week we met up with two groups of people, the first were long-time friends of Tracie’s Aunt and Uncle, Chris and Anna and the others were friends of friends from NY.

King, Margaret and Maxine are friends of Anna and Chris and we met them for Dim Sum Saturday morning this past week. They took us to the best Dim Sum we had in Hong Kong at Maxim’s and we chatted for many hours. King, Margaret and their daughter are all beautiful people that shared with us so much information about local traditions and city knowledge that we didn’t hesitate when they offered to let us crash on their couch when our hotel stay was up.

We checked out of our hotel on Monday and invaded their lives for the past 5 days. They really have shared a side of Hong Kong we would have never seen and it has reiterated how important a longer stay is to really get to know the people that live in a place and the place itself. We hope you enjoy the photos below and King will forward us more soon of all of us escapades that he has taken hisself. He’s a terrific photographer to boot and we look forward to seeing them again and hosting them somewhere in the future.

The very evening we met up with the Lai’s, we met up with friends of John and Acacia our friends in NY, Alex and Tammie, who took a risk and met us at a private kitchen in Happy Valley, Hong Kong Palace Kitchen and we are all kicking ourselves for not taking photos of the food, because it was beautiful and delicious homestyle Cantonese cooking. We had a great time with both of them and Alex’s Mom and their friend Ian. It was a regular hoot. And we finished it off with a quick visit to a skyhigh bar at the Crowne Plaza Hotel Bar there in Happy Valley.
And that is just the tip of the iceberg of our visit here.

Now we’re onto mainland China, Guangzhou to start and onto Chengdu in the next couple of days for about 10 days and them back to the East in Shanghai an onto South Korea. Enjoy the pics and talk to you all “soon?”. 😉

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