24.10.2009 18 °C
At first blush, Chengdu was disappointingly modern. I'm not quite sure what we were expecting for this so-called gateway to Tibet and the high regions, but on arrival all we could see was a sea of burning red neon, lofty metal-and-glass towers, shopping malls... so far so Beijing. We went to bed feeling a bit cheated.
The next day we wandered over to one of the local monastery areas. We walked down a dual carriageway choked with cars, trucks, lorries, people, bikes, e-bikes (electronic powered pedal bikes) and trikes, turned under a beautifully ornate arch, and suddenly... we were somewhere else. Somewhere old, and peaceful. The buildings were mostly fairly new built, but in a more traditional style with curly pointed corner bits (what the hell are these called - gables?); large bonsai trees line the side of the road along with paper lanterns; even the street furniture looks ornate, and the road has a embossed dragon motif running down the middle. People are sitting around leisurely drinking tea and chatting. Silent quartets of women are furiously clacking mahjong tiles down. Old men bicycle past at unbelievably slow speeds.
We are entranced by this quarter, and are happy to wander around for two hours or more, just soaking up the atmosphere, fiddling with the tourist wares on display from the handful of stalls. We have a cup of tea and play a few hands of rummy (gin, just for a change - unfortunately you need 4 people for mahjong). I try to barter a book of Chairman Mao's sayings down to a sensible level, drawing a crowd of fascinated locals as I do so.
So... Chengdu is a grower. In all, we were here for ten days, which was part lassitude and part design. We climbed a holy mountain (well actually we got the cable car up and then walked down. One bit, anyway); saw the world's biggest Buddha (thanks to the Taliban destroying the ones in Afghanistan recently); visited a site which, according to the archaeologists, is more important than the Terracotta Army (but which, according to the Pendletons, is a lot less interesting).. and we ate.
Oh boy did we eat. Not only is Sichuan (the province of which Chengdu is the capital) famed for it's spicy food, cooked with lots of chilli and laced with hua jiao the “hot-and-numbing” flower pepper, but they are obsessed with street food.
Street food is essentially any food sold on the street by a vendor with a cart or small stall, as opposed to a sit-down restaurant. You do need an eye for hygiene (and a locally acclimatized stomach probably helps) but to be honest we have been troughing this stuff down without any problems – as long as you follow the locals to their eating places you are unlikely to have any issues. The only problem you are likely to have is figuring out what you are eating at some of the places – is it going to be sweet or savoury, i wonder? We found one of the touristy areas which had a whole street full of vendors which we were very excited to see all had English translations for their food. However most of the time the flowery Chinese descriptions for dishes (example: “Old Mother Chen's Pock-Marked Bean Curd”) get debased into more literal form (example: “a bunch of meat”, “Spiciness Noodles Bowl Of”, “Vegetable Gruel”) or even the plain surreal (example: “The Chicken of Bobo”, “Three Big Bombs” and, memorably “Distrinbule Tneeson”).
It really is a glutton's paradise.
The last episode of note concerns ear-cleaning. Ear-cleaning, Chinese style, involves a man with a long thin metal spike with a coil at the end rooting this around inside your inner ear canal, pulling out all sort of nasty congealed wax (at least for me anyway – Angi as a girl proved her construction of sugar, spice and all things nice). That's the easy bit. He then takes a sort of exploded cotton ball on a stick and roots this around for a while, making weird muffling sounds in your ear. Then lastly for the piece de resistance he strikes a tuning fork on your chair and holds it to the metal spike (which is still embedded in your ear) until you feel like a giant ruler being plucked on a desk. Boinggggggggg!