The Jiuzhaigou experience

So we arrived in a big giant puddle in the parking lot of Jiuzhaigou and we had no idea what to expect. By far the best aspect of our visit was Zhuo Ma’s Tibetan homestay. Beyond the park itself, it made the 11 hour bus ride, fighting with hordes of domestic tourists, and my cold toes all worth it. We yet again found this homestay through an article we found on the internet (do you see a pattern here?), and it sounded right up our alley – we wanted to meet people that actually lived there and experience the local culture. We got that and a whole lot more!

Zhuo Ma is one of the most amazing people that I’ve ever met. She left her small village in Jiuzhaigou when she was only seventeen for Beijing without speaking any Chinese. She stayed for a few years, learned Chinese perfectly, came back to Jiuzhaigou and opened an acclaimed Tibetan restaurant with her brother. On top of that, she started the homestay last year and we happened to stumble in on it. With all of these accomplishments you’d think that she wouldn’t have time for anyone, but she is the total opposite – she is so humble, warm and generous. When we arrived, she invited us in, sat us down right next to the big stove and immediately gave us steaming cups of yak butter tea. And kept them filled the entire time we were there! And even though she was hosting a party that weekend, she went out of her way to help arrange our travels and to make us feel at home.

We really did feel like we were part of the family. She and her mother took turns in the kitchen, cooking up enormous and tasty Tibetan meals (yak, preserved vegetables, fresh vegetables, potatoes. Yum!), and we sat together and ate and drank lots of yak butter tea. We watched Losan, Zhuo Ma’s two year old nephew, run around and we’d play with him for a bit. We had friendly exchanges with cousins, relatives and neighbors who dropped by. We also chatted with Zhuo Ma about her life, the goings on in the village and why she wanted to have a homestay. For her, it’s so important to show visitors the other side to Jiuzhaigou. Many people who visit only see a very superficial, packaged version of Tibetan life if they do at all – basically tawdry “ethnic” performances geared to titillate rather than educate. Realizing that Jiuzhaigou was first and foremost a Tibetan area and seeing the economic and social reality for Tibetans colored our experience in a very different way than if we had stayed in a bland hotel in town.

The other advantage to staying with Zhuo Ma was the amazing landscape. We walked on the yak/sheep paths up the mountain and the views were spectacular. When we were high enough, we could see down into the next valley and the snow-capped peaks loomed over us. At night, we’d burrow under the warmest blankets ever to keep out the mountain cold. And when we woke up, we threw open the bedroom window to a view of Tibetan prayer flags, wooden houses, and craggy mountains in the distance.

There was also a flurry of activity happening at the house, which we also enjoyed. It turned out that the weekend party was for Zhuo Ma’s friend Kieran, an Irishman who works for the national park. People were coming from far and wide for the party, so we met all manner of ex-pats. Some were traveling through, others settled in Chengdu, and some were short term researchers in Jiuzhaigou. So we heard about their experiences of living in China and how it can be both rewarding and frustrating at the same time. One guy said he had to be glued to his mobile phone playing solitaire whenever he was a passenger in a car because if he paid attention to the way people drive he’d go insane.

After a few short days, Zhuo Ma gave us big hugs and we set out for a (very) long journey to Shanghai.


The Sleepiest Big City You’ll Ever Meet

Maybe we wouldn’t have ever to been to the sleepy yet crashingly vibrant city of Chengdu in Sichuan province of China if we’d never read Fuschia Dunlop’s book “Shark Fin Soup and Sichuan Peppers: A Sweet and Sour Memoir of Eating in China”. And we would be kicking ourselves all the way to our graves had we known what we missed.

Remember how we took a painstakingly long train trip from Guangzhou in South China all the way to Chengdu in the South West? We still haven’t told you anything about the city that brought us across a continent.

Food is at the heart of any journey through China. Sitting here with a stoutly stretched belly in Shanghai, I look back with warm heart and fondness of our stay in Chengdu. While we used the city as a base for several ventures, the main reason we headed there is because we both read Fuschia’s book. Tracie read it before we even set foot abroad and I finally tucked it safely into the Pun Pun Cafe library shelves when we set out from Thailand to Hong Kong. I cannot underestimate the importance of her introduction to Chinese food, and China itself has influenced our own thinking about food and eating. It has been like we strolled into a secret room and found the rock that opens a lost lit tunnel.

Chengdu, a city of 11 million by my last check on Wikipedia (that’s almost twice as big as New York by population!), holds surprises at every turn, tearing down old buildings and back alleys and throwing up high-rises to house untold millions.

Thankfully life still churns. We stayed on a hip and happening street in a just as stylish hostel, the Loft hostel, where young Sichuanese with new found disposable cash spend it lounging with Westerners from across the globe. The Loft hostel sits on Xiatongren Lu. It’s a hotbed of young meets old, where you can rise at an easy hour of 9am and lounge around and watch the street vendors ride by, pitching everything from knife sharpening and shoe shining to fresh veggies and handmade noodles. Or you can pull yourself into one of any number of  “Foreigner Friendly” restaurants and find loads of young locals looking cool and living large eating Chengdu variations of Pizza and Hamburgers.

We felt lucky with that street. We ate our first hot pot on our first night, leading to hot pants for me the next day walking through the Panda reserve (hot going in and hot coming out). We drifted on down the street and shared a bowl of hand-pulled noodles the next. We spent hours every day just absorbing the street life and were surprised to see just how diverse a street could be, our little piece of Xiatongren Lu not excluded.

Our second day we spent partly ferried outside of the city to do the touristy thing and see the Panda Reserve. Cute pandas! Once we got the pandas and the hot pot out of our systems, we headed back and spent another leisurely day walking around the city. Chengdu is somehow a huge city where you can while away the hours. The parks are full of young and old alike. On the streets past lunchtime, one is bound to find a vendor napping, a group of older Chinese arguing over mahjong or a group of middle aged businessmen discussing terms over tea. Teahouses, hot pot, “xiao chi” (small eats), taxis, bicycles, strolls, cats on leashes, dogs unleashed. Any afternoon and every corner.

Chengdu is China’s south and its west, it holds the cusp of the Wild West at bay, while the southern pace, that seems to float across the belly of the world, hovering just above (and perhaps below) the equator. When things get steamy, or chilly and dreamy, people turn to one another and the foods they can talk about over the day’s business or play.

One day, we happened upon Chengdu’s People’s Park. It was mid-week, I think it was a Tuesday, somewhere in the middle at least. Every foot of the park was swirling with activity. Impromptu Sichuanese operas alight in every nook and cranny, speakers cranked to drown out others near and far. Tiled circles and squares overflow with people dancing. Lines drape for meters in the trees, encumbered with poetry bashes, done up in Chengdu style, where lashings of calligraphy screech off in varied size and form. Men stroll about with their bird cages for a walk. Ear cleaners chime their tines plying for business. The people are everywhere and the people’s park it is.

Just today we strolled through the same named park here in Shanghai, and while there were people doing their exercises and others putting their kuai up against a game of chess or cards, there wasn’t the same density, the same vibrancy to the park. Chengdu is the hot and the cold, the yin and the yang of our trip. The differences are clear – the Sichuanese live their lives on the street.

In fact, one of the best meals we’ve had in the country and the best Sichuan cooking by far we found in a back alley, tucked under the eaves of a glowering and looming new high-rise. A young lady, face-covered, brow sweating, flames lapping, poured over her woks and stoves, served up the best spicy green beans and fish-scented pork we’ve had to date. Construction workers loomed and settled in from their long haul of a day to the best and cheapest meal in town.

Like much of our trip, we would have never found it were it not for someone else that had blazed ahead. Only the night before Tracie had come upon a post on where the joint was highly lauded and vaguely located. While the young chef didn’t really bat an eye at my anglo-foreign-ness, her dining room was littered with faces in awe at another visit from the little-seen “white devils”.

In Chengdu, we met up with the “Ma” and the “La” and the “Oui Jiao” that Fuschia Dunlop describes so well, that sensation that binds your mouth, lips to cheek, to back of the throat, with numbness, opened us up to flavors and sensations we’d never met before. No place in the world have I had that taste before and as the lifeforce of the city itself, it takes to the streets and wafts around every corner, calling you back.

We based many of our regional trips around Chengdu. It became our hub of the province. And an easy hub to lean back on. The pandas were near, while a longer bus ride took us to the hailed ancient wares of “Sanxingdui”, where recently un-earthed bronzes, jade and clay date from as far back as 7000 BCE.
Only later to visit a living museum, where modern chinese roam the ancient remains of a vibrant and growing city of Lanzhong.

What the people of Chengdu miss out in sunny days, beating London with more cloud covered days a year, they make up for in loads of charm, hospitality, and sense of life. The chillies and peppercorns lend warmth when its cold and damp, and the tea houses keep the dull-drums away. But danger creeps in new forms everyday. Rubble encircles and interleave the city as high-rises tower and dwarf the lazy streets and avenues. All too near is a dread and the sense of a quickening to the overall pace of life. Hope floats in the rituals of the city, the overflowing parks, the calling of the traveling vendors, the roar of the hot pots, wherein living life in the streets gently keeps some of the sprawling “China Today” development at bay.


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…