Yes, i said it. Chengdu is mad overrated. Although the city is the home of mapo tofu, the restaurants here are disappointing. Last time i was here was the first time in China i got served some 不麻不辣 bland-ass tofu that anywhere else in China would have had at least a little heat.
This time it happened again, first with some fried rice, then with some potatoes. Both times i specifically asked for it spicy, and they gave... nothing. One guy i even went back and said, why didn't you put chilis, what's the point of food if there's no spice in it? Then he shrugged, put the bare minimum amount of powdered seasoning and gave it back. Like, what the fuck? It's ridiculous that you can get spicier food in Guangdong - the province with possibly the blandest cuisine of all China - than you can in fucking Sichuan.
One thing i did find living here in the past three years is that Hunan, Guizhou and Guangxi cuisines are all far more chili-forward than Sichuan cuisine. But if anything that makes it even sillier that Chengdu's flop restaurateurs avoid serving heat to outsiders.
In Chengdu the first time round the only place i found that made food spicy for me was a streetside cold noodle vendor from whom i specifically requested 麻辣 mala (numbing/spicy). She made it for me that way each morning. I think i got a 冒菜 personal hotpot too, which wasn't bad. This time round i've been here over 24 hours and only found one spicy thing, the good old Hunan celery and tofu. And that was only spicy because i repeatedly asked for it. They just added a bunch of chili oil because fresh chopped chilis are not a standard ingredient here.
I admit, i am getting a limited picture, because Chengdu is a city where the restaurants are very meat centric. A lot of places, even with plastic stools, only list meat dishes on their menu. That means most restaurants i don't even bother with.
The other shit thing is street vendors either quoting me too much for something that i know should be cheaper, or serving me last even when i ordered first. It's like people here really have it in for foreigners. Did i mention the first hotel i went to check in told me that no rooms were available? Then when i showed them that i could still book a room online they came up with some other bullshit that "oh well our backend system is broken, so the internet booking doesn't work, you'll have to go to another hotel". Like, just fucking be honest and say you don't want a foreigner staying, you know?
It might not just be a foreigner thing, though. Chengdu is a spectacularly touristy city. I don't know why tourists come here because there is no picturesque scenery and the street level isn't very interesting either. Perhaps they are all going to zoos or other theme parkish attractions that you have to pay for? Either way, tons of tourists. And that could be the problem - any time you go to a touristy spot in China, good food is much harder to find, and all the vendors try to scam you.
First night here i walked and biked all over trying to find something to write about, but this place is a major bummer after Guiyang, where there is something cool around every corner. I went to a jazz bar in a 5-star hotel to drink some extremely expensive cocktails, and then stayed in bed all of Saturday.
So, instead of talking more about Chengdu, let's rewind to Thursday in Guiyang.
For pre-breakfast on Thursday i got a quick 酱香饼 spicy spring onion pancake from a stall near my hotel.
That powered me through till i found a noodle place doing a noodle i hadn't had before - 素粉 which literally means plain/simple (i.e. vegetarian) noodle. I ordered 泡椒素粉 - pickled chili veg noodle.
It came with peanuts, spring onions, pickle and two different chili sauces - mala and salty. The noodles were very similar to 桂林米粉 Guilin rice noodle. You can imagine it like a more slippery spaghetti.
What you can't see in the picture is all the different oils and sauce at the bottom. Mix it up.
I decided to take a walk to a different forest park i could see on the map. As is the way in most of China, the mountain-side neighborhoods are less developed than in the valleys and they retain a rural feeling. I didn't get many photos because of the overcast weather, but here is a shot of the main road heading up to the park entrance to show what i mean.
There was no map - i just headed into the woods. It was clearly not a very popular area for hiking, because many trails were covered with dead ferns and fallen branches. Spider webs crisscrossed the way, strung between bamboo stalks and pine trunks.
It was the kind of forest that terrifies me.
Although i do go out hiking alone a fair bit, i have a strong fear of certain types of forest. In particular cool, wet forests where there is a lot of peaty dirt and mushrooms and dead undergrowth. I worry there are monsters lurking, crazed knife murderers, or swarms of insects.
My fear kicked up a notch when suddenly the crickets (or whatever strange insect) started chirping. Quickly it increased, echoing from every corner of the forest, becoming a deafening whine that continued for hours. I regretted not bringing my earplugs because the racket verged on painful.
I climbed a few summits. One just had a cell tower on it and thick brambles everywhere. Another had an old military radar installation, surrounded by high fences and razor wire.
As i was climbing a third, i noticed i was in the middle of a graveyard.
The fuck, man, it was the start of a Chinese ghost story. I don't know enough about rural Chinese culture to know if it's okay to post photos of people's graves, but suffice to say there were literal burial mounds all the way up the slope. These weren't the nicely manicured graves you see in Hong Kong cemeteries, they were literal piles of dirt. Some had headstones, but others had no markings at all.
I kept going to the top of another summit, where i found an abandoned watchtower that was almost completely overgrown. I stretched my arms above the undergrowth to try snap a photo.
Somewhere along the way i met an old lady on a path, she said there's nothing here to see, but she comes for the clean air.
Each time i took a breath insects buzzed around my face.
For some reason when i got back down i took the wrong bus, my mind floating away. I jumped out over another side of town, where i stopped in at a street side vendor making 凉皮 liangpi, a cold noodle that was one of my go-to dishes for the first year i was in China.
It was a really good blend. Peanuts, cucumber, bean sprouts, spring onion... and... serrano ham?! I'm not entirely sure, but i sure got a lot of that dry-cured pork flavor. At the bottom of the liangpi were a couple batons of mung bean jelly. Fantastic dish.
For dinner i decided to try a rice version of the bean flower noodle. It's essentially the same as the noodle version, but instead of giving tofu and noodle in soy milk, they just give tofu and bean sprouts in water, and a bowl of rice to eat after you dipped the fu.
Friday morning i got green beans and squash with mala soy nut dipping sauce.
That's 8 pics, so i'll stop for today.
After breakfast i took the bus to the station, train to Chengdu and here we are. Getting out of Guiyang required going to three different officials at the train station to take the same details. Arriving at Chengdu, i just piled off the train and they waved me through straight onto the subway.
Today i might jump on a share bike and head out to see if i can find a restaurant that makes it spicy.