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 cafés
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 Bund.
(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)
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.
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
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.
my second trip to China and still really
just scratched the surface, one day I’ll return