Huo Guo in Chengdu, China
When hunger strikes in Chengdu the intrepid backpacker sets out to eat as the locals
do, huo guo (hot pot) style. So along with a few other backpackers I had met in my hostel I wondered down the small alleys
in the back streets of Chengdu in search of sustenance. The search took us past old men playing mahjong on tattered wooden
tables, past smoky internet caf�s packed with gamers, and past random machinery shops to a hot pot place that looked busy.
We sat at a round table and the linoleum floor was damp and sticky with bits of food scattered about. The concept of a hot
pot meal is to grab a bunch of small sticks of food on skewers and place them in the pot of boiling water sitting over a propane
flame in the middle of your table. At the end of the meal the waiter counts the number of sticks in a bin and charges you
by the stick. This sounds easy enough.
The tricky part is actually knowing what you are eating, especially if you lack any
semblance of linguistic prowess in Chinese, it seems no one in Chengdu speaks English much less a waiter at a local restaurant
in a random back alley. Inside the open air restaurant literally hundreds of different items on skewers sit in pans on a series
of shelves. The patrons choose their own skewers buffet style and then return to the table and toss them in the boiling pot
of spicy water. I would be remiss at this point if I didn’t emphasize how spicy the water was. There was the vast selection
of exotic veggies and then there were the more interesting assortments of mystery meats no doubt culled from any variety of
geographically unconventional organs of any number of animals from beef, chicken, fish, goose, obscure birds, and even dogs
I am told to name just a few. We were left to only conjecture as to the exact species of origin and body part or organ we
had consumed. Hmm was that one brains, or was it intestines, ligaments maybe , perhaps it was a tongue? Hmmm…. only
an ear could be that hard to chew. This was just the same really as the oily water they are boiled in imparts a flavor to
the meat so hot that you are quite literally left sweating and can scarcely taste what you have just eaten as your tongue
numbs from the fiery spices. We put the skewers in the boiling pot for a while and assumed after a few minutes they were cooked,
but who is to say really , does a bird’s heart really taste all that different if it is cooked for 1 minute as opposed
to 5 minutes? The locals say hot pots are perfect for hot summer nights and their theory goes its makes you sweat and the
sweat thus cools you down. The abundant cold "Blue Sword" beer was very cheap and also quite helpful in the cooling process.
The experience was fun but to this day I am still guessing what I ate……
A Big City
10.5 million people live in Chengdu and it is certainly the biggest city I had never
heard of before I visited, but then again China is chalked full of these million plus populated metropolises that no one has
ever heard of outside China. I had arrived in Chengdu, the bustling capital of Sichuan province, really as a springboard for
onward travels but ended up spending a few days there. The city was not without its own merits. For the most part Chengdu
is a modern city with towering apartment blocks, pleasant tree lined streets, and grand avenues busy with masses of people.
In the scattered back alleys old men drink tea in ramshackle alleyway cafes. Elsewhere in the city busy discos blair Eurotunes
all night. In the mornings workers line up outside retail shops on the sidewalks and stand at military like attention as bosses
yell motivational speeches, a very peculiar site really.
Like any large Chinese city there is the requisite towering statue of Mao Zedong
stoically gazing upon the city above a huge bed of flowers. Elsewhere in the city a visit to the people’s park is a
pleasant way to spend an afternoon. Citizens stroll about the shady greens, assorted monuments, and even a diminutive amusement
park. Families dine in tea houses overlooking a small lagoon where kids paddle small boats under tiny bridges. Wunshu temple
offers another pleasant respite from the rest of the city. Fragrant incenses burn from large vases in front of Buddha statues
as old men and women perform tai chi exercises under the shade of the temples ancient trees.
I had arrived in Shanghai on a late evening and as my taxi zipped toward central
Shanghai I gazed out the window and smiled. Nearing the center the taxi navigated the massive tangles of elevated avenues
and highways diving up and down like an urban roller coaster of sorts. I had always imagined Shanghai to be a place ripe with
excitement and as the taxi neared central Shanghai with the night breeze blowing and neon lights reflecting everywhere I was
fairly certain I would not be disappointed. I made my way to a hostel and then headed to one of Shanghai’s jewels, the
(continued next column)
|Shanghai's Pudong area ( click to enlarge)
|Chengdu: Mao statue (click to enlarge)
|Chengdu: bikes (click to enlarge)
|Shanghai art deco: Peace Hotel ( click to enlarge)
Teaming with energy, The Bund is a 1.5 Km waterfront promenade running along the Haungpu river.
The promenade is set against a backdrop of massive flood lit colonial era buildings on one side and the Manhattan like neon
skyline of the Pudong district gleaming on the other side across the river. Ascending from the side streets to the elevated
promenade the splendor of Shanghai becomes readily apparent. The Bund is buzzing with locals and tourists alike out for a
nighttime stroll, vendors hawking post cards and tacky souvenirs, touts handing out flyers, and kites flying high basking
bright in the floodlights against the black sky. Emerging from a set of stairs going up to the Bund I was greeted by a random
fireworks display lighting up the sky. The fireworks burst even brighter than the endless horizon of massive skyscrapers,
towering apartment blocks and myriad neon billboards across the river. A few other buildings across the river were transformed
into giant jumbotron TV’s, as images moved across the entirety of the massive glass panels. The river it seemed was
just as busy as its banks with large cargo ships rolling through the low lying fog with their deep baritone horns bellowing
loud, echoing from bank to bank. Smaller junk ships, dinner cruise ships, and even boats with neon advertisements all mingled
in the dark waters.
Situated just below the Yangtze delta facing the East China Sea, Shanghai is the world’s
biggest port. Early in the 20th century the Bund was the financial hub of East Asia with its abundant art deco
banks, trading houses, and consulates. One the more interesting buildings is the famous Palace Hotel, once frequented by the
likes of Noel Coward, George Bernard Shaw, Charlie Chaplin, and others. Pudong across the river is one of the world’s
largest construction sites with new skyscrapers sprouting like mushrooms all the time.
Elsewhere in Shanghai there are the trendy clubs, boutiques, and discos of the French Concession
Area. At some point I wondered into one outdoor market replete with bootleg software, dvd’s, and fake designer clothing
where a large red banner leading to the market read “respect intellectual property”. The humor was not lost on
me as I took home a cheap copy of the latest version of Photoshop CS. Shanghai is also home to the world's largest Magnetic
Levitation Train the so called "Maglev". Magnets along the track’s entirety keep the large trains slightly elevated
above the tract, thus completely eliminating friction and allowing the train to reach speeds of 270 miles per hour. I took
this train back to the airport, at this warp like speed the landscapes seem to blur and at one point where the track ran parallel
to a large freeway the cars looked like they were standing still relative to the train.
Well my second trip to China and still really just scratched the surface, one day I’ll