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Nabeel Farah

China 2005

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 cafes 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.


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Shanghai's Pudong area

Chengdu: Mao statue (click to enlarge)

Chengdu: bikes

Shanghai art deco: Peace Hotel

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 return....