A Travellerspoint blog

October 2009

'A City You Never Wanna Leave Once You Come'

overcast 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”).

We have gorged ourselves on (our favourite) various bits of veg, tofu, meat and seafood on sticks

pig's ear pancake and lung soup

lots of weird gloopy sweet stuff with powdered sugary stuff

and loads of ridiculously chilli-heavy dishes

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!

Posted by pendleton 21:05 Archived in China Comments (0)

Big Bear-Cat

semi-overcast 22 °C

We are standing in a small, dingy tunnel-like passage. All around us are cells with sliding cage doors, from inside of which come some appalling smells, grunts and whistles. The floor is awash with murky liquids. In front of us a Chinese man is shooting a rapid string of Mandarin at us and gesturing with a broom and mop.

Don't worry, we haven't been banged up for being overly smug marrieds - it's mucking out time at the Chengdu Giant Panda Research Centre! We have 'volunteered' (in the sense of paying a large amount of money) to help out at the panda centre for a couple of days. This involves a fair degree of menial task work, but more importantly, a lot of chances to be around pandas! Things we've done so far include:

Take used panda bamboo out of cage & replace
Clean up panda poo-poo
Feed panda bamboo
Weigh panda poo-poo (very important)
Cut up panda apple & panda cake
Wash pandas
Observe panda behaviour
Mop panda floor
Panda massage (!)

You'll notice that most items on this list are actually fairly mundane tasks with 'panda' inserted in them somewhere. This actually transforms them from mundane to UNBELIEVABLY exciting! The pandas themselves are bloody hilarious (especially the younger ones) & totally compelling to watch; they are greedy, lazy clowns who are always pushing each other around, climbing over each other in search of food, making nonstop pratfalls out of trees, etc. We also got to massage one of the giant pandas, and I held a red panda! (sort of like a big ginger cat crossed with a raccoon, but much cuter). But most of the time we just spent watching the pandas clown around.

Excellent fun and well worth it. Dozens of panda photos await the intrepid viewer in our gallery, i'll just show a couple here.


Posted by pendleton 08:58 Archived in China Comments (3)

Peking, Man

sunny 19 °C

OK, OK, so we were wrong. Very wrong. About as wrong as we've been on this trip, really.

Our working theory (developed from a bar stool in Hong Kong) was that HK would be a good primer for Beijing and hence China. Similar language, culture, food, etc, right?


Hong Kong is pocket sized – the metro will take you from end to end in about 40 minutes. Beijing is huge, vast, colossal, imposing. The map you are handed as a tourist is on such a small scale it verges on useless; a bit like being given a map of London & the Home Counties on arrival in Heathrow. You can (trust me on this) walk for hours just between two tiny looking consecutive feeder roads.

Hong Kong is actually quite comfortable and familiar – the expat influence is very strong, and obviously it was a colony for 150 years or so. China is different. It's loudly, overpoweringly alien. Whereas in HK street signs were generally in Cantonese and English together, here in Beijing everything is just written in Mandarin script, with, maybe for one building in a hundred, the Pinyin anglicised translation. Nobody, and I mean nobody that you come across in the street speaks English – or even understands Pinyin! It's very starkly A Different Place and quite scary at first. The one blessing is that the subway is as superb as Hong Kong's, and likewise has English-language maps.

Oh well.

We lucked out in that we had booked an incredibly helpful guesthouse (Templeside Garden Hostel), in the old barrios to the west of town centre, who were happy to do or help us do almost anything – from arranging tours of the big sights to writing down “Please can I have half an order of Peking duck” on a Post-It in the correct way so that we could walk around until we found a restaurant we liked the look of and then brandish it at them. (For reference if you ever need to draw every staff member in a Chinese restaurant to a single place, have them start a huge discussion and then piss themselves laughing at you, this is one of the most efficient ways we have found. It works even better if you order a tiny little medicine bottle of the local firewater and start knocking out toasts to each other and everyone else present, but I digress)


In the end we gave ourselves five nights here before booking our flights out to Chengdu – we could have stayed longer but it could easily have turned into a month just here and we wanted to move on. We managed to tick most of the major tourist boxes (the spectacular Great Wall, Forbidden City, Tian'anmen Square, a surprisingly disappointing kung fu show) and even managed, on a breakneck last-minute taxi tour, to see the beautiful stadia that they erected in honour of our marriage last August. Well, it would have been rude not to pay them a visit.


And we got stuck into the food, of course! Highlights here included a proper Mongolian barbeque (thin cuts of raw meat flash-cooked in a tasty bubbling broth by our own hand); making dumplings with our hotel staff; a bagful of soft, just-cooked stuffed buns that we devoured like migrants on the side of a busy highway, but which cost us only 2 yuan (20 pence) for eight buns (more than enough for a snack lunch for two people); and an enjoyable evening spent perusing the locals chow at the Wangfujing Snack Street market. We had very tasty couple of plates of fried beef and spicy noodles, and then I truly got my weird food mojo on, devouring (in short order) a fried scorpion, fried wormy bug thing and then a fried starfish. The scorpion was quite tasty but the other things got progressively worse, until the starfish which was like eating asphalt. We followed it up with a stick of toffeed baked crabapples, tart and fizzy in your mouth like sherbet.


Disappointingly, i'm still unable to post the video(s) of me eating the scorpion and the other, well, garbage. You'll have to take my word for how funny Angi's screaming is.

p.s. we didn't manage to see the Peking Man. Sorry for the crap joke.

Posted by pendleton 04:35 Archived in China Comments (0)

HK food

overcast 25 °C

At home it's a simple choice for a lot of people. What shall we eat tonight? Chinese or Indian? Upon (not a lot of) reflection, these are both vast regions, each with populations twenty times that of the UK. Not very surprisingly, the range of cuisines in each is correspondingly vast, vaster even than the most cultured stay-at-home foodie in the UK might suspect (putting myself squarely in this category until very recently!).

Hong Kong is an international hub, and it's very easy to get food from almost anywhere here (we've even seen Jordanian restaurants, a first for us), but it's the Chinese food that calls to the adventurous. We gave it our best but have barely scratched the surface in the eight days available to us. We started off with Chui Chow Canton-style dinner; lots of marinated barbecued meats, jellied goose blood and fried fish. Tasty, especially with the vinegared soy sauce it came with. (n.b. Canton is the generic name for the corner of southeast China that includes Shenzhen, Guangzhou, HK and Macau; Cantonese food is what we normally think of as Chinese food internationally as the Cantonese have long been the seafarers and implicit food ambassadors for the Chinese people as a whole. Things are changing though, and you can find some of these regional cuisines in places like London).


The next night we carried on with the most unbelievably spicy Sichuan-style rice noodle hotpot that had us literally crying tears of pain in the restaurant. It was like eating the sun! It's a different kind of heat to the chilli heat we are used to as the Sichuanese use a kind of spice called the Sichuan pepper in a lot of their cooking which has a slightly similar mouth-burny sensation to it but also comes with a whole lot of numbing-mouthy-sort-of-burny feelings too. Very yummy and very addictive. No pictures unfortunately as we were too busy trying to think of our happy place(s).

We've had plenty of lunchtime dim sum – usually small dumplings, boiled/steamed/fried pastry packages and miscellaneous fried things (fried turnip square anyone?) served by unbelievably rude old ladies pushing trollies piled high with bamboo boxes around huge, brightly lit air-hangar style spaces. This is most fun at the weekend as the locals descend en masse to eat, read the paper and hold screaming competitions on their mobiles.

In Macau we had a quick Macanese lunch (sticky saucy rice cake and more marinated meats) and a fantastic Portugese dinner – starting with a jug of iced sangria! - of salt cod stew and “pork chunks with clams marinated in white wine sauce”, which was frankly good enough to go to Macau for. Here's Angi with Carlos, the jovial owner. The restaurant is called... Carlos.


Eating here does have its challenges. The, er, robust Chinese approach to animal 'welfare' means that fish are kept mouthing the air in polystyrene containers until you deign to pronounce their death sentence. Shark fins are huge business here – openly sold in bright, boutique-style shops for vast amounts of money, along with bird's nests and other such delicacies (n.b. Shark's fins are a terribly bad thing to traffic as part of traditional medicine as the fishermen catch the shark, hack the fins off then chuck the still-alive body back in the sea, not even using the meat). You'll also see these things all over menus, along with turtle, dried seahorse, mantis shrimp, and many more of our undersea friends. A bit of a challenge to ignore, but par for the course here unfortunately.


Lastly, we met up with Audre and Dimitri, our newest heroes. These guys have been travelling the world non-stop for fourteen years! Actually, if you ask them how long it's been you never get a straight answer so it could be even longer ;)


We stumbled across their fantastic blog (the link is on the right) while looking for something good to eat in Lima, and were amazed. On exchange of a few emails it transpired that we were all going to be in Hong Kong at the same time, so we agreed to meet up! It was a hoot meeting up with people as food- and travel-obsessed as we are, although we were obviously trounced on the war stories front. Maybe when we next meet again, four years from now in some other distant land...

Obviously we had to get some food. We went to Chilli Crab Under the Bridge, hoping they would have the (very seasonal and hard-to-get) Shanghai hairy crab available but it wasn't to be. Instead we opted for a sort of crispy salty duck egg battered crab (different to most crab preparations but yummy enough to scrape the crispy bits off the plate when we were finised), a hollowed pumpkin filled with a thick, pumpkiny seafood soup (we also ate the pumpkin afterwards), and a few other sundries, washed down with tea and beer.

Posted by pendleton 06:37 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (1)


overcast 26 °C

We went for Tea at the Peninsula today.


One of the classic hotels of colonial Hong Kong, the Peninsula maintains its air of more rarefied times with its army of impeccably uniformed flunkies, fleet of racing green Rollers parked out front, and of course, a flawless afternoon tea experience.


At first we were politely turned away due to Angi's flip-flop wearing casualness. Luckily we had come armed with a second pair of shoes. Nice to know someone is trying to keep the riffraff out though, eh? We were soon ensconced with a delightful cup of tea, a small selection of sandwiches (with the crusts cut off) and enough sugary treats to make the Tooth Fairy rub her hands in glee.


An hour later, we staggered out from the coolly air-conditioned calmness into the muggy afternoon air. Back to the real world again. Wouldn't have it any other way!

All of this was, of course, in aid of celebrating Sharad's 70th birthday. Happy Birthday Dad!


After our tea for two we went for an evening at the races. No joy though, so we'll have to keep the day jobs (travellers).


Posted by pendleton 06:02 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (2)

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