Thursday, August 9, 2007

Do you have anything….spicier?

Our lengthy day of travel behind us, we woke up early this morning for a walk around our nameless Chinese tourist town (which seems primarily centered around serving as a base for visitors to the national park nearby and to the airport). After another delicious Chinese breakfast (baozi, rice porridge, eggs), we headed off for the famous Jiuzhai Huanglong airport.

From there, we jetted away to Chengdu (50 minutes door-to-door, no unexpected paving, no re-routing to unknown destination). Chengdu is famous for two things: pandas and Sichuan peppers. Guess which we focused on.

Our first stop after leaving our hotel was not the panda reserve, but lunch. We learned yesterday that a romantic date over a bottle of wine is not the Chinese way – here, people prefer hustle, bustle, shrieking and shouting. We proved this theory true at lunch at a restaurant that was “seat yourself” in name only; in reality, it was a cross between the NYSE trading floor and the running of the bulls in Pamplona. All of the roughly 125 tables were completely full, and a group of locals lurked at each of them ready to pounce and take the free chairs as soon as the current occupants finished their meal. Undeterred, the four of us split up and sought out tables that looked close to paying their bills. I (Jon) found a great target. The table had three Chinese women who not only appeared to be finishing, but even offered their fourth seat to me. I took it. A waitress came and cleared away their plates. Yahoo, I thought. I patted myself on the back – what an able Chinese tourist. And then the waitress returned and brought the women their actual meal – the plates that had been cleared away were from earlier guests. Whoops. I fell for the old “take this empty seat at an insane and unnavigable restaurant trick.” Luckily, EB at the same moment had snagged a prime spot. We all sprinted over as quickly as possible to be sure the empty seats weren’t filled during the split second delay. Our hard work was well rewarded. The restaurant’s theme was snack food, and we ordered two platefuls: red pepper noodles, gaozi, wonton soup, watermelon soup, bean curd, black rice cupcake, spring roll, unidentified dumpling, corn bread, unidentified shellfish, beef skewer, and Freon if you were sitting near Amy right beneath the air conditioner.

Well-fed, we decided to burn off our enormous meal at Renmin, or “People’s”, Park. A quick preface is in order. In our week and a half of adventuring, we have seen some strange things, and indeed, the extraordinary has become ordinary. Monks on cell phones? Why not, ni hao. Unpaved mountain roads? Sure let’s see what this minibus can do. Cab drivers breaking out in operatic song? Hardly deserving of mention. (yes, this happened on our way in from the airport this morning). Even so, the People’s Park was quite the scene. Imagine the space of about two football fields, throw in a few trees full of chirping (shouting) cicadas, and then throw in the following with no boundaries therein:

  1. Troop of line-dancers, nearby boombox playing deafening Chinese pop.
  2. “Dance floor” with ballroom dancing, accompanying unidentifiable “dance music.”
  3. At least 4 karaoke machines. Amplified and amateur at best.
  4. Two adjacent operatic/dramatic productions, each with its own crowd of onlookers. Adjacent= within 20 feet of one another. And yes, microphones.

It was the single loudest thing I (Amy) have ever experienced. Oh and also there were children playing (shoeless, I wanted to drench them in hand sanitizer), dudes playing what they might describe as tennis against a wall, a guy flying a kite so high we all nearly blinded ourselves trying to spot it, and of course, women playing mahjong and men playing chess. I’m still waiting to see a woman break into the chess scene. I digress. You might be confused about the date and time over here, let me clear that up: we were at the park on a Thursday from about 2:30-5pm. Apparently when you have a metropolitan area with 15 million people not everyone has to work, and the idle know how to make some noise.

After some tea in the park, we sought peace and quiet on the 8 lane city streets. We wandered up to a neighborhood with some of the old Qing architecture, and, you guessed it, found a place to snack. We sat down at an outdoor caf√© and ordered some snacks with the old “we’ll have what they’re having” technique. Never fails. We ended up with edamame, boiled peanuts, pickled ginger, mushroom with Sichuan peppers, tofu skin with Sichuan sauce, and green beans. (yes, snack. dinner follows, just you wait). Oh and pijos (beer). All were delicious and quite spicy.

We spent the next couple of hours walking around, critiquing Mao’s attire in the massive sculpture in the center of the city (really Mao? A double breasted overcoat in this humidity?), and generally exploring the streets. Unwilling to pass up the chance for more Sichuan cuisine, we declared it time for dinner. Acting on the recommendation from a local, we headed to a restaurant fairly close to our hotel and ordered up a mouthwatering selection of yak-free delights: eggplant with garlic sauce, double cooked pork, mushroom jiaozi (these turned out to be pork dumplings with a trace of mushroom), mapo dofu, noodles with hot Sichuan sauce, and edamame. As usual, we had trouble picking a favorite, and all were delicious. At this point, no one was hungry, but Sichuan is known for its spicy cuisine, and having only one night in Chengdu, it was our duty to explore it to the fullest. We ordered one final dish, billed as very hot by our waitress. Out came a vat of spice with some beef and bok choi hiding beneath the surface. Each of us tried a bite or two, and though it was quite hot, we think it’s safe to say we’ve met Sichuan head on and prevailed. As per usual.


fishwatch said...

Jonathan Spence just called, he wants you guys to edit the new edition of "The Search..."

Ron said...

Remember when gazing at Mao's statue that he was indeed the chief Chicom and please remember to show respect. How many of the 1.2 billion are serious Chicoms? Also, the breakfast rice soup was called "congee" in my day, at least in Cantonese. Still so? Have any of the Gobi Desert specialties made it to any of your locales? Yak, yak!!!

Ali said...

unidentified shellfish??!! careful EB