amw (amw) wrote,

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It's a Sichuan party!

Arriving in Chengdu was a breath of fresh air. Of course, just getting to that point was a pain in all ass because fuck Chongqing.

I got to the station around 10:30 in the morning, hoping to get one of the regular trains between the two biggest western capitals. After waiting in the ticket line for 1.5 hours (!) i got a clerk who went out of her way to NOT understand me, which is a common theme i experienced all around Chongqing. It took a long time to convince her i wanted to go to Chengdu. When she needed to put my name into the computer, and didn't know which part of my passport's photo page was my name, i showed her the visa page, where the same details are printed with Chinese headings, but she shook her head and went back to the photo page pointing at it and yelling the same question again. It's so frustrating when you know what the person is asking and what they are trying to do, but you don't have the language to reply. Even if i did have the language she probably would have pretended not to understand. No matter what i mimed or what i showed her on my phone, she just point-blank refused to try. Eventually she stormed off and got another clerk who took all of 2 seconds to type my name into the computer and give me the ticket.

The ticket was for 8pm but i figured rather than going back into the city i could people-watch in the train station. Because the train station is so massive (train stations here are more like airports), i had to take a shuttle bus to the "north side of the north station". That cost me 2 kuai because it was actually just a regular bus that went one stop along the freeway to the next exit. There isn't a free shuttle from the south side of the train station to the north side, and you can't walk because FUCKING FREEWAY. I am so fucking over this city. Then, on the north side, turned out half the place was under construction, so i sat down with thousands of other people trying to nap on the granite floor and sighed. 8 hours later i got on the train, stood with my backpack in front of the toilets the whole way (no seats were available), then got off in Chengdu.

...where i followed clear signage to transfer directly to the subway, smooth as can be. I got out of the subway facing a massive statue of Mao and was greeted by two street vendors on bicycles offering fruit and stinky tofu. I ordered a stinky tofu, and the street vendor surprised me by speaking some English. He surprised me even more by smiling. In Chongqing everyone seemed cranky. I walked to my hotel and sat down on a plastic stool out front of a BBQ stall to eat my tofu. The owner came over and swept up the garbage by my seat left by the previous occupant, even though i wasn't buying anything. Woke up the next morning, and straight opposite the hotel was a baozi vendor, where i bought a delicious purple-colored steam bun with some kind of taro or sweet potato mash inside.

And on it goes. Chengdu felt very comfortable. Very European. There is a good deal of mid-rise development with lots of small restaurants and food stalls at the bottom. Plenty of parks and greenways and tree-lined streets. Electric scooters and bicycles everywhere. Many people spoke rudimentary English - more than anywhere else i have been in China. Apparently Chengdu is the Chinese HQ of the Peace Corps, so i guess Americans are out and about trying to spread democracy through teaching. More on that in a bit. It also seems to be a relatively major tourist destination, particularly as a kicking-off point for visiting Tibet, the Jiuzhaigou national park and various nearby panda sanctuaries.

For me it was about Sichuan cuisine. Though, i have realized since being in China that trying to sample the "famous" dishes is quite tough as a solo traveler. Of course, i could go to a sit-down restaurant and order rice and several dishes like i used to at Chinese restaurants in the west, but after a month or two bumming around East Asia i don't really have the stomach for that kind of eating. It's simply too much food, plus it is an order of magnitude more expensive than eating on the street. I might do it if i were with a group, but on my own i have been happy with 小菜 (xiǎo cài) - snacks, mostly offered by street vendors. Sometimes i sit on a plastic stool in an alleyway eating a one bowl noodle. I've been inside a few places that serve western dishes (mostly bars and coffee shops) and feel nauseated looking at the amount of food they slop onto the plate. Ordering a family-style feast for one feels like the same kind of morbid excess to me now.

I did get a bowl of rice and mapo tofu at one random dive because i was really hungry and at the end of my rope. It was mediocre, and i got overcharged. I am not sure if it was mediocre because it wasn't the speciality of the restaurant (it was a noodle place), or if it was because they cooked me up some white people garbage, or if all of the other food i've eaten here has expanded my taste buds enough that mapo tofu (and gong bao chicken for that matter) now seems less interesting. I enjoyed the cold noodle i had for breakfast a lot more. And the hard pastry filled with raisins and nuts i bought from a Muslim street vendor. And that purple bun. And - my highlight of Chengdu - 冒菜 (mào cài).

I got the mao cai at a late night eats place next to the river. I had been wandering around in that hopeless and non-committal way that you do when you have low blood sugar - desperately hungry but no restaurant seems good enough. Eventually i saw a place with some kids drinking beers out the front and decided i would sit there for a beer if nothing else. I pointed at a picture on the menu of something that looked like a bowl of soup and asked if there was a vegetarian version. The lady said sure, and i sat down with no idea what i was going to get. Turned out to be the Chengdu version of hotpot, but unlike hotpot you don't need to cook it yourself, and it's not a family-style dish. I got a big steaming bowl of hot and spicy black bean soup with potato slices, cauliflower, glass noodle, seaweed, tofu skin, lotus root and other goodies floating in it. I also got a bowl of rice and a bottle of beer. It was amazing.

An interesting thing about Chinese restaurants - the streetside ones anyway - is that you can basically ask them to make you anything. The menus are ridiculously long, with all kinds of flowery/historic names for things, but at the end of the day the cooks have a mise en place and a wok and they can easily mix and match whatever you want. The trick is learning how to ask for it. Here in the mainland it seems that they know what i mean if i say something like "su de", which i think means "belonging to plain/simple/vegetarian". In Taiwan that's hopeless, because if you ask for "su shi" (vegetarian food) they point you in the direction of a Buddhist place that doesn't use garlic or onion. Here they just prepare you a dish with garlic-y spicy sauce and maybe even meat-based broth, they just don't put hunks of mystery meat in it, which is much more useful. If i could speak better Chinese, i am sure i could order all kinds of great stuff. So much for the myth that you can't get around China without eating meat. At the chain restaurants, sure. I've unfortunately been forced to eat at those once or twice when i was stuck in a train station or a mall. They don't make alterations to the standard menu, and - unless they have xiao mian - the mains are invariably all meat. But at mom'n'pop places they are on fucking point with making the food you actually want to eat, even if there is no vege option on the menu.

While i waited for my mao cai, i couldn't help but overhear a conversation at the next table. It is so very rare to hear English spoken in this country that your ears perk up. One of the girls sitting nearby was a young American i very much doubt was of drinking age in the US. She giggled and chattered with her Chinese friends, but what really struck me was some kind of joke she made like "oh you all are communists so we should make sure we all get the same!" I could sense the guys were awkward trying to reply to that. I am certainly no expert on China, but there is a lot wrong with the idea that all Chinese are communists. China is a country run by a single political party, and - for historical reasons - that party is called the Communist Party of China. But only a very small percentage of the 1.5 billion people in this country are party members, and the only impact most have on the party is optionally voting for a local rep. Even if they were CPC members, the current political system here is far from what any serious leftist in the west would consider communism. I mean, the statue of Mao in Chengdu is looking out at a McDonalds and a Starbucks, for fuck's sake. Deng's opening up has done wonders for the Chinese people, and i wouldn't be here without it, but a lot of mental gymnastics are required to be able to excuse the current system as a necessary step on the road to a true communist utopia, which is the party line. Sigh. Whether that girl was volunteering or just on holiday, i do hope she takes a bit of time to understand more about the culture and politics of the country she is visiting. I dunno. To me that's the whole point of traveling. Maybe she just wanted to see a panda.

Then my food came and i forgot all about it.

Chengdu in general was lovely. There seems to be a much bigger tea culture here than anywhere i have visited yet, and there are tea houses all over the place. People - especially older people - rent a thermos of hot water and get a mug with some kind of exotic loose-leaf tea in it and then sit around all day playing mahjong and chess and cards. I almost sat down myself, but - not gonna lie - i am not that much of a tea fan. At one point as i walked around the city a massive wind came out of nowhere. From one moment to the next it went from a baking hot summer day to a wild fall-like dust storm. Leaves blew off the trees and danced around in mid-air. The lighting was so peculiar that people grabbed their phones and started to take video. I ate some durian icecream to cool down, and was promptly caught in the middle of a rainstorm.

I raced back to the hotel through a large downtown area with highrises and shopping malls and other middle class things that i missed on my first loop round. I slept well, with my window and curtains open, room flashing with the constant colored lightshows of Chinese downtown areas. I woke to the sound of beeping horns and laughing children and hawkers selling their wares.

At breakfast i heard something that made me wish i had longer to explore all the corners of this country. I had ducked in to grab a cold noodle and shared a table with what looked like a young man and his mother. He said hello (in English) and asked where i was from. Chinese in general really like to ask where you are from. I think most people are very attached to their hometown, perhaps due to the household registration laws. Citizens here have to apply for work permits and migration approval to "emigrate" from their hometown, so many do not. I said England, then corrected it to Canada because fuck Brexit, though of course neither i nor my family have lived in either of those places for years. He said Canada was beautiful. I said China was beautiful. He said, "i'm not from China, i'm from Tibet".


I wrote the last section in past tense, because i was already at the train station. I had arrived 2.5 hours early, anticipating the worst, and then i got my ticket in half an hour. I had decided to travel to Guangyuan, which is a "small" town of 2.5 million in the far north-east of Sichuan province. All of the trains to Xi'an from both Chengdu and Chongqing are fully booked over a week in advance, so i figured i would get as far as i could go on the train and then see if i can catch a bus. The bus timetables aren't available anywhere online, so i just have to show up and hope for the best.

The train ride up was lovely. Little farms and little towns and some factories, but mostly hills and mountains covered in trees and epic bridges crossing rivers and ravines. I suspect this place would be beautiful in fall, with all the leaves changing colors. Even as a plains person i can see that. We were delayed an hour or so at some random small town so we all just bummed about on the platform. The train had run out of noodles, which felt like a worse crisis than the delay, but everyone was chill. What are you going to do?

I can't really say much about Guangyuan because i just walked straight to my hotel. It definitely feels like a smaller town, with a whole main street that is only 2 storeys high, like some of the places i visited in Taiwan. Then, because it's China, there are a bunch of new highrises as well, both residential and hotels/offices/etc. But the pace feels slower. There's a nice-looking riverside greenway and tons of small streetside food stalls. I picked up one of the local cold noodle-type things called 凉皮 (liáng pí), which to western eyes just looks like another kind of noodle. The noodle is a thick, flat rice noodle. The veges up here are more varied than in Chongqing and Chengdu where they seem to lean more heavily on their mala sauce. Carrots and cucumbers and some frozen/thawed tofu (gives it the consistency of a sponge cake). I don't know if anything will top Guiyang with its veges and nuts and weird fishy-smelling root, but all these various takes on cold noodle have quickly become my favorite Chinese food. Fresh, spicy, vegan and ready to eat in 30 seconds.

I am a bit sad i will have to rocket out of here tomorrow without seeing anything. According to wiki, this is the birthplace of the only female emperor in China and there are some interesting tourist sites around, including a limestone cliff with buddhas carved all the way up. I would like to do at least one of those famously risky Chinese tourist climbs at some point, where you hang on to the side of a mountain with a chain, and this seems like a fairly undiscovered one. But i am also a bit worried about how i am going to make it to Xi'an, so i kind of want to keep moving forward to avoid missing the one deadline i have which is my flight out of Shanghai on the 14th. Urgh, fuck planning. I wish i could just keep bumming around.

Let's see how i go tomorrow. Maybe if i push out to the bus station super early i can check out the various schedules and fit in a late morning and lunch here. If i can get the person at the counter to understand what i mean. According to my map the only town worth a shit between here and Xi'an is Hanzhong, and i know that getting out of Sichuan is hard because there is a mountain range around the province. There is no high speed rail going north yet, and it's not clear if the freeway is built either. Be nice to see some sun again, though. Sichuan province, land of trees, clouds, smog and mala sauce.
Tags: food, politics, travel

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