Even with Kangding to warm us up, arriving in the big city of Chengdu after over a week in the small, isolated, high altitude towns of western Sichuan was a bit of a shock. Hazy, polluted skies, hot and steamy weather and traffic everywhere!
Somehow we managed to get our bearings and find our way to the hotel that we planned to stay at. It was only a twenty minute walk, but after a long day on the bus it was great to dump my pack and have a shower, especially as we hadn’t had hot water for three days.
A bit of a rest, then it was time to take care of some business. First was buying some train tickets for our departure from Chengdu. We’d originally assumed that we wouldn’t be allowed to head north from Zhongdian to western Sichuan, and so would be passing through several towns with train ticket booking offices before reaching Chengdu. The fact that we’d been up in the mountains, hundreds of kilometres from the nearest railhead meant that we’d left it a little late. Thankfully there were still sleepers available.
The second, and much more important bit of business was finding some food. Sichuan province is the epicentre of chili use and the province’s chefs regard themselves as the best in the country with a grudging acceptance that, okay, maybe some of the food in Guangdong (Cantonese) is okay as well.
I suppose that having a photo of my mom here before she appears in the narrative kind of ruins the surprise. For those who know her at least. For those who don’t I suppose my commenting on it is what ruins the surprise. Anyway to make it perfectly clear and completely eliminate any suspense, my mom joins us in the entry
We went out for a poke around our neighbourhood as evening drew in. Most of the dozen or so eating establishments nearby were noodle shops. Tasty, no doubt, but not what we were looking for. On our way back to the hotel we spotted one that somehow we’d missed before, and it looked like just the ticket. Five or six tables, with happy, talkative groups at all but one. The other patrons all had bottles of beer and multiple dishes occupying their tables. We sat ourselves down at the last free table. As the menus were (unsurprisingly) in Chinese only, and out reading skills weren’t up to more than the most basic menu-decoding, we set about perusing the other tables to see what looked good.
We ended up with a huge bowl of pork and vegetable stew, with plenty of chilis floating around the thick layer of bright red oil on the top, and a plate of preserved green beans with pork, studded with chilis and garlic. They were both good, but the stew was spectacular. It was actually surprisingly light on the spiciness from chili peppers (la jiao) but had a whopping dose of Sichuan (or numbing) peppercorns (ma jiao.) Ma jiao have an absolutely unmistakable fragrant, almost citrussy aroma and flavour, and an equally unmistakable numbing effect on the tongue and inside of the mouth. Depending on how heavy a dose you’ve got, whether it’s whole or powdered and how long you spend with it in your mouth, this effect can last anywhere from 30 seconds to 20 minutes or more. And though it’s famed in the west for its chili peppers, ma jiao (which rarely makes it into western versions of the dishes) is the REAL hallmark of Sichuan cuisine.
Sarah with our Sichuan stew
By the time we were about half done dinner we were both quite full, but the food was so good that I couldn’t help finishing it off. When time came to pay the bill I was thinking that I’d be quite happy to go there again if it came to anything less than about 85 kuai. As it turned out the friendly young girl (who’d enjoyed practising her few bits of English on us) asked us for 47. Well, we knew where we’d be eating the next day, provided we needed to eat at all after the size of that dinner!
Back at the hotel we sploged ourselves out in bed for a bit, but then headed downstairs to the lobby where we waited for the guest of this entry’s title. She was a bit later than we’d expected but my mom arrived safe and sound just before midnight. As always happens when one is re-united with long absent friends or relatives, even late at night, we managed to spend several hours chatting away trading news and stories about our travels and just being generally happy to see each other. Finally, it must have been 01:30 or so, in deference to my mom’s jet lag (she’d come straight from Toronto, 12 hours different from China) we let my mom get some sleep.
The next day we planned to take it easy, again on account of potential jet lag. We went out for a walk around town and ended up having a rather full day after all.
Part one was a visit to the People’s Park. Pretty much every town and city in China has a People’s Park, but Chengdu’s was one of the more memorable ones. It had everything from singers and dancers practicing (present in virtually all People’s Parks) to carnival rides (not unusual) to Penjing garden (somewhat unusual) to calligraphists practicing their art in water on a square of smooth flat stone tiles (unique so far as we’d seen.)
All of this was in a cool green setting, which was a welcome relief from the rapidly building heat of the day.
Sarah having a go with one of the clever foam-tipped water brushes that the calligraphers used for drawing on the tiles. She was drawing a llama, though the guy who let her have a try with it was was more into complaining about banks (in both Chinese and English.) Rather like the “political busker” and his sidewalk chalk drawings in front of my old work in Wellington
It took us a little while to figure out what these were, but we eventually realized that they’re singles ads! I just wish we could have read the text of some of them!
I reckon it would have been more fun if the sea creatures shot back
Part two of our exploration was just a general look around the central city. We kind of lost our way as we meandered towards the northern part of the canal ringing the CBD, but still managed to find another pleasant park, lots of prosperous looking streets and, of course, tons of new construction going on. This was yet another example of what we’d slowly been realising: that, contrary to our initial expectations, the central areas of most big Chinese cities were actually quite pleasant places. Beijing was grey, brown, dusty and entirely lacking in vegetation, but it was really the exception rather than the rule.
Our final stop of the afternoon was the Wenshu Buddhist temple. It was notable for being the largest in the city and one of the most important in southwest China. Which made it even more surprising that it was still primarily a place of worship and only secondarily a tourist attraction, with only a modest admission fee. Of all the urban temples we’d visited, the grounds of Wenshu were amongst the largest and most pleasant. About half of them were filled with typically ornate prayer halls and shrines for Buddha/Boddhisatva images. Again, surprisingly the temple offered free incense sticks to all visitors to burn at the altars throughout the temple. Sarah and I had been shown how to properly offer it by one of our couchsurfing hosts in Nanjing and happily passed on this knowledge to my mom, much to the surprise/amusement of a few regular temple visitors.
There was a special visitation for some particularly auspicious Buddha images going on while we were at Wenshu. These were some of the offerings (along with lots and lots of pretty red candles.)
The second half of the grounds were more gardens rather than any more typical ecclesiastical form. There were ponds and water features, rock gardens, big canopies of trees with a dozen or so mynah cages hung from them. In my limited understanding, this was really much more in keeping with the most basic principles of Buddhism than were the richly painted and decorated halls built around huge gilt statues elsewhere in the complex.
Turtles. And some turtles. And more turtles. We figured there were probably close to 1000 in this pond. People specifically brought turtles with them to release into the pond. (I get the idea of releasing captive animals being good karma. But when they’re specifically bred in captivity to release it makes little sense. And when you release them into a small pond in the middle of a big city with hundreds of other turtles, even less so. Cool pond though )
Following our visit to the temple we took a brief look around the “old” neighbourhood nearby. Like most such places (or at least most such places that are advertised as such) it was not really old at all, but was a few streets of reconstructed Ming or Qing style architecture packed full of tourist shops. Nothing wrong with these places really, and better faux-antique buildings than soulless concrete boxes, but we’d already seen plenty of them in Tianjin (which this one reminded us most of), Shanghai, Guangzhou, &c., &c.
Not traditional sculpture. But, as with the rest of the “old” neighbourhood, kind of fun all the same.
We didn’t really know what to do with ourselves for the rest of the afternoon, so ended up partaking in a little classic Sichuan culture: the tea garden. These used to be common all over China, but it’s really only in Sichuan where they’ve maintained their ubiquity. We picked one out on the simple basis that we happened to be walking by it and that it looked like a real old-school local one rather than a fancified upmarket place (as in the centre of People’s Park.) We each got a cup with a healthy bunch of green tea leaves and jasmine flowers at the bottom and spent the next couple of hours chatting, relaxing and watching and listening to the surprisngly noisy patrons playing at their cards and Mah Jonng. True, 8 RMB is a bit steep for a cup of tea. But for eight cups of tea, a genuine cultural experience and two hours of entertainment? A great deal indeed.
Mom and I at the tea garden
Back in the neighbourhood of our hotel we made a return trip to the same restaurant for dinner, much to the delight of the young lady who’d served us the night before. We also introduced my mom to genuine Sichuan food which, unsurprisingly she loved and, in consequence, also to ma jiao, which she also liked, but whose effects I think surprised her a bit.
Day three in Chengdu was when we really got going with the real icons of Chengdu. In fact the real icons of the whole country, come to think of it. Early in the morning we headed straight out to the Chengdu Panda Breeding and Research Centre. Given the way a lot of things seem to work in China, this place had the potential to be an unpleasant and somewhat grim zoo. But we were pleased to see that (no doubt in part due to Chinese reverence for nationalistic symbolism) this had been avoided.
True, there were lots of tourists, even soon after opening time. And yes, a lot of these were noisy, often to the point of obnoxiousness. But really, the overall impression was of a place that really did care about its famous inhabitants and whose primary focus was the well being of them and their species. This impression was helped by the fact that, even outside of the enclosures where the pandas lived, the whole of the centre was planted with lush bamboo forest that wore the cool and misty morning atmosphere quite well.
Two sub-adult pandas
Five sub-adult pandas
Pandas are pretty lazy creatures and spend a lot of their time eating. So I think this is a wonderfully representative photo of the species. Interesting panda fact: wild pandas typically poo about 15kg a day!
Five sub-adult pandas. And a whole bunch of people.
But could said people shut up, or even refrain from yelling for the few hours they were there? Of course not!
It was a good thing we’d arrived early, as the big raccoons (pandas are actually more closely related to them than to bears) were much more active around morning feeding, and, as we saw later in our visit tended towards listless laziness for the rest of the day. The centre was divided up into several enclosures, with the pandas segregated first by species (they had smaller, more raccoonlike red pandas as well as their more famous giant cousins) and then by age. The giant pandas were divided up into adults (who usually lived alone), sub-adults (who lived in groups with others their age), and the cubs (who lived with their mothers.) Each enclosure was surrounded by a ditch and a short concrete wall (giant pandas aren’t the most vigorous animals, so don’t need much to keep them from escaping) and signs listing the “current pandas!” on display.
The red pandas, being fairly agile and good climbers, needed a bit more to keep them from wandering away. But once you were in their enclosures you could get right up close to them, as they were free to wander along the visitor walkways if they felt like it (though visitors weren’t allowed to wander OFF them, and had to walk over disinfectant mats to keep from carrying diseases in on their feet.)
A red panda
Not quite as good as the reds, but giant pandas are pretty good climbers as well
Except for this little one. It seemed to constantly placing itself in very precarious positions where it had to exert all its strength and will not to fall awkwardly. It would extricate itself and then pretty much immediately find a different but equally awkward position for itself
Is that a panda? Or just a panda skin rug?
We finished our visit by sending a few postcards (with vintage panda stamps!) and then catching the buses back to our hostel for the evening.
That night I got a couple of treats, both of which I’d been coveting for some time:
Sichuan hot pot and a good beer.
The beer was courtesy of my mom, who’d been kind enough to lug nine 473ml cans (cans to ensure they wouldn’t leak/explode in the cargo hold of the plane) of Ontario’s finest craft beers with her from Toronto to Chengdu. We sat in the garden of the hostel before dinner and the Great Lakes Devil’s Pale Ale was one of the finest things I’d ever tasted. Hops. I’d missed hops.
Sarah and beer. Two of my favourite things. Now would also be as good a time as any to make two interesting observations about Chinese beer: It’s labelled according to its original gravity in degrees plato. And it’s rarely over 3.7%ABV
For dinner we headed just ’round the corner. Sichuan food is one of the Chinese regional cuisines most successful in spreading itself across the country. And hot pot has led the vanguard. For good reason too. It’s a great social meal. Each person at the table can eat as much or as little as he likes. It’s fun. Who doesn’t like cooking their own food at the table (especially when it’s as simple as dunking it in a big pot of broth.) And it tastes great. At least so long as you like ma jiao and la jiao it does. We ordered our broth zhong la (medium spicy) and found it to be pleasantly piquant, if a slightly over the top with the Sichuan pepper.
My mom and I and our hot (obviously, given the steam) pot
We were set up at our table looking out over the street and had broth brought to our table. My mom and I went to the “stick buffet” where you picked out items that you wanted to cook in your broth (most of them, as you may gather, on bamboo skewers) and put them in a metal tray to bring back to our table. Most of our choices were veggies and tofu, with a little bit of freshwater fish and pork thrown in. We grabbed a half dozen of our sticks, tossed them in the pot, then them out one at a time. We each pulled morsels of the sticks, gave them a brief dip in the chili oil in front of us (at least until Sarah and my mom got side plates sans-oil… they figured the broth was oily enough.)
By the time we were done, a couple of hours had slipped by, we were absolutely stuffed full and the insides of our mouths were numb and tingling. The staff came by and counted up our sticks (one length for “fancy” items and one for the cheap ones) and tallied the bill based on the count.
The evening was firmly capped off with a visit to a bubble tea shop where Sarah indoctrinated my mom into the ways of Jeonju Nai Cha.
Sarah and my mom, Nancy, in front of the Chairman Mao statue in Chengdu’s Tianfu square
All Chinese hotels from lower-mid-range on up provide incoming guests with a disposable toothbrush, comb and various and sundry other personal effects. While there was never any doubt about what happened to them after use it was still kind of distressing to see this outside the place we stayed in Chengdu
The fish pond at the Panda breeding centre. At times they were so thick it looked as though you could walk on them
Tags: Chengdu, China, Llew Bardecki, Pandas, Sichuan, Travel