THE ESSENCE OF CHINA: CHUNGCHING & CHENGDU
By the time the boat pulled into our final port of call we had all pretty much had enough of chugging along in a diesel dustbin and were ready for the next stage of the journey which happened to be the fastest growing city in the world, Chungching.
Not that we saw much of it, for two reasons
First, we were only there one night and, as we had a three hour bus ride before we arrived there, it was almost dark before we hit our hotel.
Secondly, and more alarmingly was the level of pollution.
Now, everybody knows that the sheer scale of China’s recent industrial development has made it one of the worst offenders when it comes to air pollution, but nothing quite prepares you for a place like Chungching.
In the last 10 years it has gone from being a city of just under one million people to being a city of thirty three million people. It has gone from being a city with only one building over the height of ten stories to being the third largest city on earth.
When we arrived at the hotel and were being checked in, I popped out to the balcony and took a picture across the harbour. The pollution hits you like a slap in the face and within minutes you begin to wheeze and catch your breath as the stifling heat combines with the pollutants to make the simple act of breathing in and out one that you have to concentrate on.
Despite this, we were all very glad indeed to be off the boat and, after a quick shower headed out for a meal at a local Sichuan restaurant which featured more of those fiery red peppers that constitute so much of the local cuisine.
I would have like do have stayed an extra night in Chungching, particularly if it meant spending one night less on that boat. However, our schedule meant that we were there for just the one night to catch our breath before heading to, what became for me anyway, the highlight of the trip, Chengdu.
It is another train ride away, this time a short journey of about six hours which we subjected ourselves to a “hard seat” option which gave us the chance to mix with some of the locals, the children of whom decided that Unccy Simes and his big ears would be just the person to entertain them during the trip.
Unfortunately, the diet their mother fed them seemed to consist almost entirely of sugar and, after about four hours, they began to recreate Lord of The Flies and it all ended in tears (some of them mine)
By the time we got to Chengdu, I was worn out, but did not want to waste too much time in my hotel room as, from what I had read, Chengdu (still within Sichuan province) had some of the best food in the whole country.
First up, the local “snack street” created by local authorities to replace hawker’s markets that had been bulldozed in the ever increasing rounds of development.
Hugely popular with locals and visitors alike, these small streets of stalls offer a huge range of street foods in an environment where at least some attention is paid to levels of cleanliness.
Small cakes of steamed rice came stuffed with pork, hot broths of chicken and noodles glared with the tongue numbing local red chillies and minced beef was served with spices in small bamboo canes in which they had been steamed. An excellent way to begin a visit to the city.
After lunch, my companions and I decided on a bit of a stroll through the city to the People’s Square with its larger than life statue of Mao and then on to the famous tea gardens of Chengdu.
In Sichuan, as indeed in all of China, tea is a very serious business indeed. Just about everyone you see walking the streets is carrying a small thermos made of metal or plastic in which they put tea leaves in the morning and constantly refresh during the day.
Tea is drunk with just about every sort of meal and, when time allows in Chengdu, the locals like to go and sit in the tea gardens, flop on the bamboo furniture, choose from one of a staggering variety of teas and chew the fat.
The People’s Park is, compared to the madness of the streets, a haven of peace and quiet and the leafy surroundings help filter out some, at least, of the pollution that blights the atmosphere. We chose one of the gardens at random and settled ourselves down to enjoy the quiet and tranquillity for a short moment.
I would love to say I enjoyed it, I really would, but it was, in truth a bit grim. The tea was over prices and tasted like I would imagine hot water would if it were filtered through a bowl of cat litter and, being westerners, we were soon surrounded by persistent men armed with brushes offering us the pleasures of their massage and ear cleaning services.
All in all, a bit of a disappointment.
Chengdu has always been well known as a stopping off point on the way to Tibet and because of that, not only does it attract a lot of visitors in search of tourist visas, it also attracts a lot of people from Tibet to the city in search of economic security.
Our hotel was right in the heart of the Tibetan district and we stopped on en route back home to try some of the local food at a small bar around the corner which involved flat bread stuffed with a sharp cheese and then topped with a sour yoghurt.
There was nothing spectacular about it, but it did fill a gap until the evening and what turned out to be one of the most memorable dishes of the trip. The Sichuan hot pot.
Now, Sichuan food is becoming increasingly popular in the UK and, compared to what I experienced on my travel, some of it is actually pretty good. But, nothing I have tried in London comes close to this.
A Large bowl is brought to the table with an outer ring filled with oil infused with green peppercorns and enough of the Sichuan chillies to wipe out a small planet. The inner ring is filled with a more benign broth. From an impressively large menu, you choose as many plates of fish, meat and vegetables as you think you can manage and these are picked up with chopsticks and dunked in which ever liquid you prefer to poach.
Sichuan cuisine is long on offal and plates of innards like lung and kidney are common ingredients, but it was the vegetables like lotus root which provided the surprise as they took on all the flavours of the poaching liquor but retained a beautiful crunch.
Equally as surprising is that, despite the amount of chilli, the broth does not blow your head off. There is, of course, the pre requisite, numbing of the mouth, but nothing that is in the least bit threatening to those of a nervous disposition.
So, it is fair to say that the food on our first day in Chengdu had proved to be a huge success. But, if possible the next day was even better