Eating Brains and Climbing a Mountain in Chengdu, China
Dear G & B
I haven’t been overseas since April, possibly the longest time in about a decade when I have been just in the UK, and it was wonderful. We’ve had a lot going on, including moving to our new house and G starting school, so it has been great to spend so much time at home.
But, travel has started up once again and my first stop has been Chengdu in south west China. It is the 4th largest city in China and famed for being (I think I might have mentioned this before) the home of Pandas, spicy food and pretty girls. One of those myths that the people here like to proliferate, but isn’t necessarily true. I’m only here for a few days before flying over to Kenya via Doha.
I arrived on Saturday and couldn’t work on Sunday, so decided to go on an adventure: Climb Mount Qingcheng, an ancient place of buddhist worship about 2 hours drive from Chengdu. I thought I would save cash and make it a real challenge by forgoing a taxi/driver and taking public transport. First stumbling block was buying a ticket at the bus station and navigating my way to the mountain itself.
The station signage is almost exclusively Chinese as are the announcements, so I was particularly happy with myself by being able to order my ticket in Chinese and ask if I was on the right bus. I struggled a bit when the bus stopped and I didn’t know if I should get off or not, but the universal language of mime and a few key words saved the day. The bus still stopped quite a distance from the Mountain and I managed to find an English speaker to ask advice from. She turned out to work at the American Embassy and was waiting for her colleague – she said that I was free to join them to make it to the mountain, which was really nice of them. We got a cab to the cable car (it was already about 2pm as the bus had taken over 2 hours to get there) and then had something to eat. I say something because I wasn’t at all sure what it was and didn’t ask, just some kind of meat in spicy oil. The walk through the “high town” was really interesting, a lot like a European mountain town, but with traditional Chinese architecture and lots of stalls selling cured pork, heads and all.
The cable car up allowed us to skip 4km of the climb but there were still three more to tackle to the summit. But it was steep. What amazed me were the amount of people carrying young children and even some women wearing high heels! Dressed like they were off to a nightclub. I struggled in sensible trainers. The path was thin at times, the concrete steps wonky and the it wove through the mountain following a stream with waterfalls, bridges and a cool damp atmosphere. It was really beautiful and peaceful. Well, unless there were a group of men spitting and shouting in front of us. There was a small lake where we had to board a boat and get punted across which was very serene. After about 40 minutes my new friends decided they didn’t have enough time to get to the summit and turned back, but I pushed on, adamant that I had to keep going if I come this far. I virtually ran up the remainder of the hill and it was really tough, I was covered in sweat when I finally reached the White Cloud Temple, expecting great things. It was a bit of a let down, the temple was pretty generic, the statues concrete and recent, the view no better than several hundred feet below. I stayed only a few moments to watch people pray with incense and then turned to bound down as fast as I could. If I missed the last gondola I would have an 6km descent to deal with and would be doing the last of it in the dark!
I did miss the last gondola, but there was a dirt track and some cars waiting. Again in broken Chinese I negotiated a trip down the hill, which turned out to be one of the most terrifying drives I’ve been on. I often read the newspaper when tourists die overseas doing stupid things (like getting into unlicensed taxis and asking them to drive along a mountain road) and think “idiots!” – well, that was me. Terrifying but relieved to get to the bottom, where I bumped into my two chums again. We arranged a car for £5 each to take us back to Chengdu and I finally got back to the hotel, exhausted, at around 8:30pm.
I was taken out for dinner by a prospective business partner last night and I requested hot pot, which is the local speciality. Essentially a pot of boiling chilli oil that you dunk food into to cook and eat. I said I eat everything so he really tested me, first with gizzards, then arteries and then finally with pig’s brain. Not to look like a wimp I scoffed it down with (feigned) relish although the texture was pretty revolting. It had been in the boiling oil for only a few moments when my host scooped it out and plonked the whole thing in my bowl. I chalk it down as an experience.