Saturday, July 15, 2006

Just ChengDu It!

The train arrived in GuiYang before I had a chance to enact revenge upon Senior Fartypants. I found a hotel and bedded down for the night. My next train left early the following morning; destination: ChengDu, the capital of SiChuan (or "Szechuan," for those of you who enjoy the Taste). GuiYang, or at least what I witnessed, was pretty much gross incarnate. What did strike me as odd was how the entire world of the omnipresent Chinese street market was actually 30 feet below street level. Maybe the modern city had been built above the traditional areas of commerce, but regardless, a deep trench that ran alongside each major thoroughfare gave light to a bustling stall economy that I would have explored given more time (lost due to that damn HK snafu). I did enjoy a tasty dish of huiguorou (twice cooked pork), a favorite of mine and indigenous to the region I was headed towards.

My fellow passengers on the train to ChengDu were kind and courteous, and I'll speak no ill of their company. The story here passed outside the confines of my car and was told through staccatoes of steep mountain and fertile valley, with accents of small, isolated villages and an ongoing theme of rape.

"Rape: not being in the "raping and pillaging" sense so much as the "canola oil" sense. Though canola oil can get surly at times...

But winding through the numerous hamlets between GuiYang and ChengDu it took no imagination to see how the Chinese view their spoken language as being split in a thousand different directions, just as it might have seemed obvious to QinShiHuang, the first emperor of China, how the written language itself varied with each hill and dale. I was glad I didn't have to deal with this division so much, as my Chinese was as clear and state-mandatedly uniform as a foreigner could hope to be.

But now I come to ChengDu. A few notes before we start, courtesy of my friends at Wikipedia, one of my favorite blocked-by-the-PRC websites (my own included upon this list), have to say about ChengDu and the province of SiChuan:
- The area lies in the Sichuan basin and is surrounded by the Himalaya to the west, Qinling Range to the north, and mountainous areas of Yunnan to the south. The Yangtze River flows through the basin and thus is upstream to areas of eastern China. The Minjiang River, in central Sichuan is a tributary of the upper Yangtze River, which it joins at Yibin.
- Sichuan is known as the "Land of Abundance."
- A number of China's rockets (Long March rockets) and satellites has been launched from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center, located in the city of Xichang.

Mostly poxy babble as far as my tongue was concerned. Here are two notes that got my buds flowin':
- The Sichuan cuisine is famous for being very spicy, but in fact only slightly more than 30 % of dishes officially labeled "local" rely on chili pepper. The reputation for hot food is, however, much older than the use of peppers, which became common only in the 17-18th century.
- Chengdu's cuisine is considered to be one of China's most outstanding. The many local specialties include Grandma Chen's Bean Curd (Mapo doufu), Chengdu Hot pot, and Carrying Pole Noodles (Dan Dan Noodles).

Thank you, Wikipedia. This blog brought to you by the letter "C."

Arriving in ChengDu I needed my plan. The next goal, a goal that was the big reason for traveling to this corner of China, was JiuZhaiGou. Finding the long distance bus station, consulting the timetables and my own schedule, and it was ruled that I had a day in ChengDu. Best to do all I could.

First was housing. Going to my trusty Lonely Planet, I found a hostel that suited my needs. Located down a muddy alley-way, I got a bed in a shared room for about $3. My roommate was cool (he had been bumming around Asia for 4 months at that point, had 2 more to go) but the magnificence came in the structure of the place. Built in the traditional courtyard style, the 4-tiered establishment had only two bathroom areas and a kitchen with spotty hours but life that kept going 24 hours a day. People gathered in the center picnic table area to practice languages, play chess, share a beer, or just trade stories. I gave a few of my own (most centered around "Your Chinese is ver good!" and "I could never travel around this country alone like you are!") but didn't care to dillydally. I had limited time in ChengDu.

And hysterical signs to photograph.

No comment. Or too many.

Being known for the cuisine, I beelined for a restaraunt to treat myself to some good lunch. Finding one, and a table, I ordered what became a 12 (count it, 12) course lunch. One thing I love about Chinese food is that they will serve you many many dishes, giving you an opportunity to enjoy a great variety of flavor in one sitting. And since little of it is incredibly filling, getting most of it down isn't too difficult. I wish I could give more detail towards what I ingested that day, but now, a few months later, and menus being my weakest point of Chinese, I couldn't say much without authority except that it was delicious.

Lunch took court in the center of ChengDu, which I am sad to say looks like the center of any Chinese city to me by now. Statue of Mao, Dior outlet. Big outdoor square, McDonalds and KFC. Lots of neon. Great. Homogenization. While I am happy that I might find a Starbucks for a caffeine fix when I crave one, I do wish the world offered more of the delights of individuality that flourished prior to the sweep of globalization.

But I digress.

After the greatest lunch of China it was a temple stop, and like most temples by now, it wasn't much to impress. The shock came outside the walls, and its not too pleasant of one, so skip the next paragraph if you're squeamish.

You were warned, and this might not you as it hit mon capitain, but its a story nonetheless. Outside the temple were beggars, but the most disfigured beggars I'd seen in China. Sad to say, but according to stories on the street and urban legends, folks of this kind are usually rounded up and sent away from the eyes of tourists and Olympic Committees. ChengDu's must have slipped through the net. Often I can pass by with indifference, maybe through the spare coins rattling my pocket to the least annoying of a bunch, but one here actually frightened me. It was a woman, and if you kept your eyes below her neck you'd take her to be as any other over-plump Chinese mom. But here face... well... imagine the almost faceless represenation of "Pink" from one of my favorite albums, "The Wall." The dark, empty black eyes, the motionless mouth, the formless nose. Now burn the christ out of the eerie flatness of that face so that the skin melts and drips down upon itself, to the point that certain tendrils dangle from the bone structure's most precipitous points. Add a voice that wails and shrieks in undiscernable waves and you've got the nightmare I found hard to face outside that temple. The emotion that gurgled in my bowels didn't make me proud.

But inside the temple's walls were oddly (yet pleasingly) manipulated trees! Yay!

There was another temple after that, the second of the day being a Daoist. I hadn't seen many a Daoist temple during my travels, and this one proved elegantly interesting. Then there was a woman who could bring you past St. Peter's Gate through what she could do with your feet, and even some Kung-fu tea service, a local tradition where the server pours the boiling water into your cup through a series of acrobatic positioning. A haircut was involved. Dinner too.

Dinner gave the last interesting story of ChengDu. I found a greasy chopstick down the alley from my hostel, one that looked promising (the name didn't incorporate "fish" or "noodles," neither of which I wanted). Sitting down and asking for a menu, it was quickly realized, yet again, that this foreigner spoke Chinese.

"What do you want, sir?"
"I don't care. Make it spicy. ChengDu is famous for spicy foods, so give me something spicy."
"How spicy?"
"Very spicy. The spiciest you've got."

Well, I got what amounted to a bowl of peppers with some chicken floating within, and a few hallucinations later, it was delicious.

But the best part came in the company. Spotted by a mother, some young boy came over to my table and muttered some English. I spewed Chinese (remember, Sichuan spicy food --> hallucinations... it was like being drunk on spicy) and quickly had a friend who wanted to prove all his English through song and dance. Basically a floor show. As I clapped and dazed along, his mother joined me at my table, gifting a few beers. We talked about education and the state of China's children, the boy sang the alphabet, and in the end I was smiling like a Cheshire Cat. And that mother even paid for my dinner. Belly full, feet tired, hair cut; sleep came to ChengDu.


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