Spicy food and pandas

Sichuan province is famous for many things. The main ones are pandas, spicy food, and more recently the devastating earthquake. Along with the former two assets, it is also a beautiful province with highly diverse landscapes and peoples, with lush green hills and towering red rocks covered with tropical plants to the east, and snowcapped towering peaks to the West (where Sichuan borders Tibet). After spending a lot of time in the archives (and the lab) a fellow Fulbrighter, Yiyi, and I decided to take a trip to Sichuan. Yiyi mainly wanted to see the Pandas, and I was much more interested in the surrounding landscapes (however, we both ended up fully enjoying almost everything).

We arrived in Chengdu late on Friday, October 31st. After a bumpy plane ride, we took a cab to Chengdu International Dream Hostel (which both of us will highly recommend). There, for 35 RMB a night we shared a room with four beds, and fortunately since it was low travel season, we were able to keep the room to ourselves.

The next morning, we set out on the streets of Chengdu to explore. We wanted to see a few of the big temples, such as the 清羊宫 (the Green Ram temple), a large Daoist temple filled with beautiful gardens (see both pictures to the left). Right behind the Green Ram temple was a street full of shops, which had been recommended to us by the man I sat next to on the plane to Chengdu. There, we bought some stuffed animal pandas since we assumed they would be cheaper there than if we waited for the Great Panda reserve.

We then stopped at the Chengdu board of tourism to see if there was anything else we could see that day. She recommended that we go to a street called Jinli to shop, so that was where we went. It turns out that it was similar to the Old Town of Shanghai, filled with tourist shops with both generic and strange knick knacks (see picture to right) and of course, the ubiquitous Starbucks. After we went shopping there, we went to another area nearby in the Tibetan quarter of Chengdu. That street was also filled with fantastic shops of Tibetan clothes, prayer flags, scrolls, embroidered wall hangings, and just about anything else colorful that could be stuffed into a Tibetan temple. The only downside of this street was the Tibetan "monks" that begged for money on the street. The reason I put the quotations around the word "monks" is I am pretty sure they were not actually monks, but instead just bought the clothing. They were rude, pushy, and sometimes even physical as they demanded money from unsuspecting shoppers. One child shoved books in our face to the point where we fell backwards while he yelled "money money money"; we assume these books talked about their "monasteries" but I am not entirely sure since we never took the time to read anything. Another older man hit us on the shoulder when we denied him money. I found this to be a real shame, since these few people were giving Tibetans, and especially Tibetan monks, a bad name.

Our night ended with some wonderful hotpot, a Sichuan speciality. This dish is somewhat similar to fondue; the table is occupied with a bowl of boiling soup, and you order raw vegetables, meat, seafood, noodles, etc. to cook in the soup. Traditionally in Sichuan, the soup is actually a pot of (I believe) chili oil, or perhaps chili soup; we wouldn't completely know since we got the 白味 hotpot, or hotpot for wimps (with no chili, oil or otherwise). Perhaps we didn't get the "full flavor" of Sichuanese cuisine, but it was still quite good. We just didn't think we could handle the real Sichuanese hotpot.

The next day we took a trip to the Great Panda reserve, about 18 kilometers outside of Chengdu. I won't fill this blog space with gushings about how cute the pandas were, although I will say they moved much like Winnie the Pooh, only cuter. Also, while watching some of the most active pandas (we were quite lucky to see them play together since pandas are mostly nocturnal and love to sleep all day), a very sweet British woman stood next to me and narrated with overly cute phrases that would seemingly be from a British farce, which actually made the pandas cuter.

Other than being a fantastic opportunity to both see great pandas and hold red pandas, the reserve I think is a fantastic example of what the CCP can do. The panda reserve is clearly very well funded and controlled (I'm pretty sure these pandas are fed more expensive and better quality food than most of China eats); it uses the best available equipment and employs the best personnel. The effort to save pandas is left to these kinds of reserves, and the CCP takes that very seriously. For example, a peasant may be offered up to 2 years annual salary if it saves a starving panda, and life imprisonment or even execution is the fate of anyone who kills a great panda. Just like we saw with earthquake relief and population control, when the CCP deems something important, it often very effectively gets done.

After a morning of cooing over pandas, we went back to Chengdu where we spent the afternoon exploring some new temples. We went to a Buddhist temple called the Wenshou temple, where we feasted on a wonderful vegetarian lunch, perhaps only surpassed by the vegetarian banquets I was so fortunate to receive at Fo Guang Shan. We had delicious mushroom dumplings and a vegetarian version of huiguorou, which was actually better than the real version, a dish of fried meat, green onions, and soy beans, though the meat is often 90% fat. The temple was also quite lovely, I think mostly distinguished by the buildings' over exaggerated cloud bracketing, seen in the picture on the right.

After walking around wenshou temple, we once again walked around some side streets selling cute Sichuanese souvenirs, including bamboo wrapped porcelain jars (see to right), candy blown like glass, embroidered silk scrolls, and of course, stuffed pandas.

That evening we thought it would be fun to go back to Jinli and try some street food, much of which we had never seen before. We soon discovered, however, that almost all of it was covered in the Sichuan spices "ma" and "la." "La" refers to chili pepper, as it means "hot" or "spicy." "Ma" is a spice that causes your mouth to go numb, and I'm still not entirely sure what it actually is. Nevertheless, Yiyi and I are not big fans of either spice, and we were thrilled, after spending a lot of money on food we couldn't eat, to find some chicken shaomai. Nevertheless, it was an experience.

The next morning we left for Hailuogou glacier park. It was difficult to give up the chance to go to Jiuzhaigou, a beautiful nature reserve in the north of Sichuan known by all Chinese, but we thought a glacier would be more interesting; also, there is a very real possibility that while Jiuzhaigou will probably be perfectly preserved for a long time, Hailuogou may not be here in the near future. The glacier is a few hundred kilometers to the West, near the Sichuan-Tibet highway, and is surrounded by the astounding snow capped jagged peaks that define the Tibetan and Himalayan landscape. It was about a 6-8 hour bus ride, some of which was quite comfortable on the highway, and some of which was typical miserable Chinese bus rides on poorly repaired windy mountain roads. However, in some ways, the bus ride was the best part because we were able to see the variety in landscape as we made our way west. Small villages with tropical green terraced rice paddies and palm trees became taller mountains with colorful fall foliage within a few hours, and soon after became towering peaks with weaker vegetation. And once we reached Moxi village, which held the entrance to the park, we were able to just make out the jagged mountains covered with snow as the sun went down.

Unfortunately, the bus ride was a bit soured by our tour guide. I have been on Chinese tours before, and since we only paid 280 for the entire trip (which is very little since it included meals 2 nights accommodation, and the 75 RMB entrance fee), we didn't expect a fantastic guide or 5 star hotels. However, it all began when he tried to convince us to attend a performance of Tibetan dancers, as for every 100 RMB ticket he sold, he got a kickback. We told him we were tired and did not want to go, and he continued to pester us. The afternoon was nice, as we stopped for awhile in Luding to see a famous communist monument: the Luding bridge (the town you can see on the right). According to Communist lore, during Mao's long march as the communists were being chased by the Guomindang, the communists were headed for the Luding bridge only to find that the Guomindang had removed the planks and were waiting to head them off on the other side. Being the brave communists that they were, they climbed across the bridge like monkeys with grenades in their mouths and blew the few Guomindang soldiers away, and were able to run further into the mountains before the other Guomindang troops could arrive. The bridge is now a large tourist attraction where the nationalistic Chinese come to see the great victory of the CCP (and see the great picture of me on the right, being a good communist, on the Luding bridge).

The tour once again took a turn for the worst once we reached Moxi town and were forced to listen to a woman at a "Buddhist temple" try and convince us to drop 400-800 RMB (approximately 55-120 USD) to have our fortune told. In the meantime, our tour guide tried to figure out where we (as in just Yiyi and I) were staying as apparently he didn't know. After frightening us ("oh my goodness, are we staying in a complete dump?") it turned out we were staying with everyone else. We aren't sure why our tour guide didn't know that.

The other thing that soured the tour a bit was the food. I knew that tour food was bad, but never had I imagined that they would feed us such unhealthy food, and then not give us enough. 12 people, including sometimes one or all of the 5 men from the People's Liberation Army, were expected to share 8 small dishes which often never included meat and only occasionally included tofu. Once, 4 of the 8 dishes were steamed veggies. We often left the table hungry, grumbling about the lack of food. And in the morning, breakfast was rice and steamed buns, and to get any type of protein we had to pay extra. Furthermore, the food must have been really bad, because I am still (6 days later) getting over the food poisoning.

That evening, after we went to our rooms (which was actually pretty nice), Yiyi and I chatted with some of the girls on our tour. There were three girls about our age whose rooms were right near ours. Two of them were working, and another was a graduate student in chemistry. It was wonderful to talk with them, sharing our opinions and experiences in America while complaining about our tour guide.

The next morning, we woke up quite early to have an unsatisfying breakfast, and then we hopped on a tour bus to go to a base camp at the base of the glacier. The Lonely Planet claimed that Hailuogou glacier park had become largely touristy, so I never imagined that the roads up to the base camp would be so poorly constructed. I would have been unbelievably sick on the muddy bumpy roads ridden with piles of rock and bulldozers had it not been for my anti emetic and the gripping fear that our rushed and wild bus driver might drive us off a cliff. However, after about an hour and a half of sickening hairpin turns on muddy roads, we made it to the base camps. It is also unfortunate that we couldn't see very much because of the thick clouds that surrounded the landscapes, barely allowing us to see 10 feet in front of us. We originally wanted to walk, which our tour guide suggested since the clouds were so thick, but unfortunately, we were chased up the trail and actually run off the trail by men carrying sudan chairs trying to convince us to pay them to carry us up the hill. We then realized our tour guide pressured us to hike because he received a kick back from those sedan carrying men; we saw them talking right before he gave us his suggestion.

Because those sedan carriers actually made the hike somewhat unsafe since they took up the whole trail and surrounded us while yelling at us how we couldn't make it up the mountain. Therefore, we decided instead to take a cable car, and I am really glad we did because on our way up, the clouds parted (literally) for about 10 minutes and we got a spectacular view of the jagged peaks (seen in the picture on the right). We stuck our cameras out the window and snapped as many photos as we could, which was a great idea because by the time we reached the end of the cable car, the clouds had descended once again. We waited for about an hour for the clouds to blow away again, which fortunately they did, but in the picture on the right you can see all of the tourists waiting for it amongst an intimidating sea of clouds. We were able to see the glacier (in the picture above), which had significantly retreated since the posters nearby had been taken, but it was breathtaking. I'll let the pictures speak for themselves.

We then took the cable car back down and met everyone else for lunch. Many of the other friends we had made had decided to hike (and inevitably gave in and allowed those sedan chair guys to carry them up) and while they saw some beautiful forests, but missed the overall landscape. While it was sad to have missed the short hike, I'm glad we saw the landscape. We then had another unsatisfying lunch and an even more unsatisfying bus ride down, we made it back to the town of Moxi. This was a really beautiful town with really friendly people. Small children walked up to me to practice their English (it seems that children are more friendly in rural towns). People were building bonfires and roasting lambs under thatched roofs (we were jealous since they got more meat than we did) and people were herding goats and picking lettuce in fields. I almost feel guilty taking so much joy in this bucolic atmosphere since I don't have to live there, but it is really beautiful. We then went to a French catholic church where Mao and the communists had camped out during the long march. There we met an elderly man watching over the church who let us into the church for free (though expecting a small donation). He was actually quite knowledgeable about Catholicism, and sang us some hymns in Italian and some communist revolutionary hymns. He was very excited about me, though I think a bit disappointed that I didn't know much about Catholicism. After that, we went back to our room for a (moderately) hot shower, and then we had another small dinner. Everyone was exhausted, so we all then went to sleep.

The next day we were dragged to a bunch of places where they wanted us to buy things (especially the tour guide, who got a kickback from the sales). We were angry at our tour guide, so we silently protested by staying on the bus until we stopped at a place that makes its own dried meat, and since they gave away free samples, everyone on the tour (the people we liked) encouraged us to come in and have a taste.

The bus ride was even more beautiful, partly because the skies were blue but more because we received text messages from Fulbrighters in Shanghai about Obama's victory. :) We were able to catch part of the news coverage on a television in a restaurant, and when we found out the results, many of the people on the tour congratulated us. Then, the tour guide took one last jab at us (perhaps because we refused to go to those sales pitches) by leaving us on the entrance to a highway, including the older woman who had broken her ankle, telling us to find our own transportation back. It took us nearly half an hour to find a cab, which made us so irritated that we unintentionally took it out on the girls who worked at our hostel, who of course didn't know that our tour would be that bad. We were just scared that the tour we booked for the next day to Leshan and Emei Shan would be just as bad, but they reassured us and we ended up going (which was a wise choice).

We decided to go and see a temple across the street called Wuhouci, a temple built in 6th century for Zhu Geliang, a hero of the 3 kingdoms period known for his great wisdom (he was also made famous through the numerous novelizations of the period, most famously the Romance of the Three Kingdoms). I won't pretend to know anything at all about this period; what I do know is that there were three states vying for power, and two teamed up to battle the third, and I'm pretty sure that the team of 2 lost. Zhu Geliang was one of the generals and leaders of one of the states. (Please don't make fun of my absolute lack of knowledge on this subject).

Then we went to dinner at a place recommended by our friends at the hostel. It ended up being our favorite place to eat in Sichuan, and we ordered a dish that was stir fried pork over deep fried rice cakes in a sweet and tangy sauce, which was delicious (seen on the left). There was a sweet girl who helped to wait on us, and she wanted to practice her English. She was clearly very nervous, but she continued to ask us questions and was just fascinated with us. Her name was Liqing, and she was from Leshan, a full 2 hours away from Chengdu. She was only 16, and she worked every day which was making her grades suffer in school. My heart felt for her, because it was clear she looked at us as a part of this world she could never be a part of. She made us promise that we would come back again, and then she wanted to take pictures with us, which we promised we would send to her.

The next morning, we woke up VERY early for our tour of Leshan and Emei Shan. We could tell almost immediately that the tour would be better than the Hailuogou tour because we stopped at a small street stall for breakfast where the busdriver himself had some noodles, and he clearly did not get a kickback for it. He dropped us off at Leshan, only 2 hours from Chengdu, the home of the large Buddha which was carved into the side of the mountain nearly 1000 years ago. It stands as the largest Buddha in the world (ever since the Taliban blew up the one in Afghanistan in the 1990's). It was carved out of a mountain face in the 8-9th centuries by a monk named Haitong, and so much rock was carved out of the cliff that it actually changed the water currents of the nearby river, making it possible for boats to travel on it. After spending some time walking from one side of the Buddha to the other (which actually took nearly an hour), we climbed around the area to look at some other temples. Unfortunately, I missed much of the narrative because our guide did not give us long to take pictures.

After Leshan, we had some lunch before we headed to Emei Shan, one of the four sacred Buddhist mountains in China (the others being Wutai Shan, Jiuhua Shan, and Putuo Shan). Not only is Emei Shan famous for its place in Buddhist history and its spectacular sea of clouds (which we, unfortunately, did not see) but also because of the monkeys that roam freely on the mountain. While they are not tied up or kept in cages, they are still incredibly influenced by their surroundings. They are quite aggressive with people, and are very used to opening plastic bags full of nuts which are either given to them by tourists or which they have stolen (we also saw one monkey emptying out a wallet...) However, the mountain has employed many people to make sure that the monkeys to do not attack tourists; they do this by carrying large sticks which they snap at the monkeys if they come too close. I also wonder just how animal friendly the staff workers are since many of the older monkeys were missing one or both hands. We still got a lot of pictures with the monkeys at very close proximity, though they were somewhat frightening (as they are known to have stolen things from tourists).

After taking pictures of the monkeys, we went to the the wanniansi, or the 10,000 year temple. By this point in my China travels, I have to admit that most of these temples were starting to look alike, which I think even the most dedicated of architecture experts begin to feel after awhile (much like those who spend a lot of time sightseeing in Europe; all the churches begin to look alike). However, this temple had a very unique building, one which combined architectural elements in a way I have never seen before. Instead of the formulaic structure of most temples, a square building with cloud bracketing, the temple has a sqaure base with a rounded top. It was painted bright yellow with a few simplistic decorations around the base. It actually echoes original Buddhist temples from India, who simply build large mounds of dirt that were covered and decorated on the outside; the proper way to worship at these temples was to simply circumambulate around the outside. Also like these temples, there was no image of the Buddha in this temple, but instead a large elephant around which pilgrims circumambulated; the theme of circumambulation was even further emphasized by the importance of going to the back of the temple, as rubbing the back of the elephant's knees brought good health.

From that temple, we moved onto other areas of Emei Shan, stopping a few times to get small snacks or try teas. We tried some very bitter tea, some pretty strong alcohol (the older men on our tour very much enjoyed that our young female tour guide could hold her alcohol quite well) and deep fried pheasant and duck, a specialty of the region. The ducks and pheasants were quite small, and there was not much meat (and the meat that was there was quite gamey) but it was nice to try the regions' specialties. We were not going to buy any, but the men on our tour bought some for us. (seen on the right)

We then moved on to hike through some really spectacular landscape. One of my favorite scenes was a pagoda framed by two symmetrical bridges, which was surrounded by lush greenery (seen below). We were somewhat rushed for time, so I had to quickly take photos and run to catch up. I am still disappointed we couldn't spend more time exploring the mountain, and even more disappointed that we didn't catch the sunrise at the summit; we only made it halfway up the mountain because we were on a half day tour. But I suppose that is an adventure for another trip.

Overall, I think what this trip did for me more than anything is give me a fierce travel bug. I am very sad I missed Jiuzhaigou, and equally sad that I have yet to go to Tibet. I guess this just means I will probably be in Sichuan again someday.

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