By: Ellie

We’ve been really excited about moving on to the Sichuan province in China. They’ve got spicier food in Sichuan, and Chengdu is surrounded by tons of things to see, but we were most excited that Chengdu is the home of the giant panda!

After yet another night train, (the blankets were used again, but no cotton buds this time) we were whisked away in a taxi that the hostel arranged for us. It was nice to not have to search for the right bus or have to explain to the driver where we were going.
The Mix hostel was cute with a nice courtyard and plenty of space to socialize. We chose the cheapest option once again, which meant no air conditioner in a four-bed dorm. Luckily, the other two beds had some quiet and clean Chinese tourists, so it was not nearly as stinky as the last time.

Once we got settled in, we decided to check out the neighborhood and a nearby Buddhist temple that boasted a tea garden and mock meat style vegetarian restaurant. The temple was really more of a complex of beautiful buildings, courtyards, and gardens.

outside the temple

We hadn’t eaten since the day before, so we went straight for the restaurant. A hostess stopped us and told us we had to wait until 5pm until we could come in and eat. That gave us over an hour to gnaw our arms off. We decided to check out one of the tea houses that Chengdu is famous for. We ordered a cup of flowering tea and peopled watched while we waited.  There are men whose occupation is cleaning people’s ears with all kinds of strange tools while the customers drink flower tea and old ladies gossip and play mahjong.

ear cleaning

ear cleaning

At exactly five, we marched right back into the restaurant and ordered a few local dishes. We had our requisite cabbage with garlic and peppers, some delicious spicy Mapo Tofu, which is a famous regional specialty, and some strange gelatinous “pork”. We skipped out on dishes such as faux-“Monkey Brains” and “Pig Ear” soup. Everything was delicious aside from the weird stuffed “pork” dish, which was sweet and more dessert-like than meat-like. Some temples just don’t get the faux meat right.

Back at the Mix hostel, we were excited to find that we showed up on just the right day for their free dumpling-making lesson. It was extra special because, while most hostels do a dumpling night once a week, this one was free and they offered a vegetarian option, the first one of it’s kind that we’ve encountered. We were pretty full when we got back, but the lessons were about to start, so we had to attend to find out the secret to Chinese dumpling making.

our dumpling crime scene

our finished products

and spring rolls too!

It was so much fun. Almost everyone staying at the hostel crammed into the dining room and almost half of us were vegetarian. After we rolled, filled, and shaped our dumplings, we got to eat everything we made. There were probably over 200 dumplings for 15 or 20 people. The dipping sauce was the most unique part. They used soy sauce and garlic and Sichuan peppers which have a numbing effect, so much so that Eastern medicine dentists use it as an anesthetic. Of course we had to have tons of beer to wash it all down. The hostel also brought out some Bijao, which is a potent homemade liquor. It was a great way to meet other travelers. In fact, this is where we met Annika and Lars from Hamburg, Germany. After wrongly assuming they were a couple instead of siblings, we got along great. They were traveling along a very similar route through China. We spent the remainder of the evening drinking 45 cent beers from the convenience shop next door.
Over the next few days we basically repeated a similar pattern. We’d do a day trip (more on those in the next post) to see sights or explore the city a little in the morning and afternoon, and then spend time drinking and eating with our new friends from the hostel. We were all backpacking for an extended amount of time, so were happy to go on the hunt for the cheapest hot pot or Chinese BBQ. Several of the nights were spent on street corners, outside of a restaurant/food stall, six or seven of us on tiny plastic chairs, around a table overflowing with dishes and empty bottles. Since Lars is also a vegetarian, we ordered plenty of veggies to share. I think his sister, Annika, was thankful that she got a break from sharing with some one who doesn’t eat meat, as she finally got to share with the rest of the carnivores at the table.

On our way home from our first night out, we discovered a massage parlor across the street from our hostel. After a few beers, we were brave enough to enquire about prices, hoping it wasn’t one of the happy-ending style parlors. It ended up being 20 yuan for an hour-long full body message. That translates into less than 3 US dollars! Who could resist? Even if it was after midnight.

As for exploring Chengdu, it actually was much more difficult than we anticipated. It is a sprawling city of 10.4 million people, and over 3 million of them live in the downtown area.  The city has recently begun work on adding an underground. This will be a brilliant  addition once it is in place, but for now it actually caused us a lot more headache. Bus stops were moved and some routes were changed all together, sending us miles in the wrong direction. We tried walking places, but quickly retreated to taxis once we realized that an inch on the map was like 2 km in real life.

baby butt caught in the act of popping a squat or dumpster diving?

We were able to walk to see their main square with a requisite statue of Mao and some beautiful but strange fountains/serpent statues, as well as People’s Park, one of Chengdu’s largest.

random wedding photo shoot in the park

We love Chinese parks because there is always so much going on in them. It seems that parks are a place for two types of people, very young and very old; Kids playing with weird toys and chasing insects, old Chinese people doing any one of their many hobbies. This time was one of the best experiences we’ve had in a park so far. We heard some loud music that could best be classified as a version of Chinese hip-hop. As we neared a clearing, we saw where the music was coming from. A group of about 50 men and women over the age of 70 were doing hip-hop line dancing. We watched from a distance for a while, noticing which ones were more sassy, giving an extra twist of the hips or clapping their hands with more flourish than others. We casually walked around the front of the group, hoping to get a better look without standing out too much from the other onlookers. Some how we caught the attention of one of the sassy 85 year old front-liners. She kept motioning for us to join in, and we would shyly shake our heads and laugh. In between songs, as we were about to move on to another section of the park, she came over and grabbed Kelly’s wrists. “Come, Come!”  Next thing I knew, we were both being dragged into the center of the group as a techno beat started echoing through the trees. They danced circles around us, literally. It was so much fun, even though we had no idea what we were doing. At the end of the song all 50 of the dancers and another 50 onlookers clapped for us, and people ran over to take photos with us. They tried to make us stick around for another song, but we gracefully bowed out and continued our walk. It was probably one of the most surreal and memorable experiences I’ve had so far on this trip.

On our last night, while out to dinner with Lars and Annika, we found a foot massage right next to our restaurant for less than 2 US dollars. Once again, we couldn’t resist. After all, we would be leaving the next day for Yunnan province with Lars and Annika and no one wants to carry a backpack with sore tootsies.


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December 2009
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