Immigration Officer: Come to China…wein?
Me: Just now. I just landed.
IO: No no….weil?
Me: Oh – I will be here only, not going anywhere else. Will go back to Kuala Lumpur after 4 days.
IO: No no…pleeeeeeeeeese to tell me….wei, wei.
IO:(holding up my passport): Indiea….wei sei Paddo?
Me: Oh…why? Well, on a holiday – a short break.
The conversation continues….
This is usually the scene every time I arrive in China. While all other foreign tourists, including A, are cleared by immigration in 13 seconds flat, I am always interrogated for 13 minutes. It happened to me in Hangzhou. It happened to me in Hong Kong. A says I must have a “Save Tibet” beeper installed in me some where; hence I get caught every time. In Hong Kong, which is one of those few countries where an Indian Passport holder is privileged enough to get off the plane and walk into the country without a visa or immigration control, I was spotted and stopped and questioned for a good 20 minutes. The fact that it was the week when the Olympic torch was passing through Hong Kong and that Mia Farrow had just been denied entry in Hong Kong and that I was secretly planning to join any demonstration I could find while I was there to douse the Olympic torch to mark my protest, is a different story.
So this time I have a strategy to fool the immigration officials into thinking that I love China. And I could see it failing already. The flight to Chengdu is 2.5 hours late. I am slowly but surely losing my patience. I am hungry and grumpy. To keep me in spirits, while A takes his customary nap in the flight, I keep Groucho Marx for company. When we land at 12.30 am in a cold, windy Chengdu, I have Mr. Groucho himself for company. I can’t blame him. The poor guy had to have flight food for dinner instead of the steaming hot pot he had been dreaming of for the last two weeks. But that did not deter me. I put my strategy to action. I keep thinking of succulent butter pork and scrummy siew yok and luscious char siew and piquant pan mee. That does the trick. I have this look of content and absolute bliss plastered all over my face – my immigration clearing takes 10 seconds. Mr. Groucho, however, takes 15 minutes to clear immigration this time.
Why then, you ask me, I keep going back to China. The food is mind blowing, to start with. And the people, contrary to the popular belief, are really friendly. They don’t understand your language, but they are willing to help you out. They are always smiling, willing to get photographed and are generally very curious when they see an Indian couple walking down the streets. Then there’s the culture bit – in spite of the Cultural Revolution. There’s so much of history in that country, like India. And unlike India, it’s clean and organized. Trains run on time, roads are spotlessly clean (the same could not be said about the air though).
To get back to this China trip, we had some 3 days of leave carried forward from last year. How I don’t know. Signs that we are not travelling enough. A, please take note. Any way, since those 3 days had to be used up by March or else forgone, we decided on Chengdu. The land of Giant Pandas and Giant Buddha. And Sichuan hot pot. And also because the Air Asia tickets were a real deal when we booked them 5 months back. And I got this terrific bargain at Traffic Inn over the internet. It is located right at the heart of things, has a clean bed, en suite bathroom, a warm shower and an English speaking staff. Just the things we look for when we travel. All for RMB 120 per night.
It would be a rushed trip, yes – but we don’t mind rushing through, do we? This is what I keep telling myself when I get up at 6 next morning, all groggy eyed and cold and hungry, after some 4 hours of sleep. And it is cold. The temperature hovered between 5°C to 15°C while we were there in Chengdu and as always, though we had carried warm clothes, it was not enough. Lesson learnt – if you ever travel to China during spring or autumn, treat it as winter and carry your heaviest jacket.
A warm shower made sure I was fully awake. A hurried breakfast of toast and eggs and we get into the van waiting for us to take us to the Panda Breeding and Research Centre. The fact that the Chinese have undertaken the task to save an endangered species is a miracle on its own. The fact that one of the world’s most endangered species is from China is not so surprising, though. There is an old saying “The Chinese eat everything that has four legs, except for a table and everything that flies, except for an aero plane”. The Giant Panda also has four legs – and I am sure a couple of them were barbequed by some enterprising Chinese many B.Cs ago. They must have not tasted that great – hence they are still around.
The Giant Panda is native to central-western and south western China. Due to farming, deforestation, and other developments in the name of civilization, the Giant Panda has been driven out of the lowland areas where it once lived. And although it belongs to the order Carnivore, the Giant Panda's diet is 99% bamboo. It also eats fruits. So basically, because of its priorities in life – which is to eat and sleep the whole day, it is getting extinct. An adult Panda weighs up to 150 kgs and eats up to 14 kgs of bamboo shoots on a daily basis.
Though it’s not ideal for any wild animal to live in captivity, given the fact that the population is dwindling to less than 2,500 mature in the wild, may be it is a good thing to keep a few of them in captivity to facilitate breeding. It also gives an opportunity to people like us, who would never go to a zoo and could never climb the remote mountains of Sichuan to catch a glimpse of the elusive Giant Panda, to observe them from close quarters. Not much to observe, though – because all it does is eat shoots and leaves. But it is such an endearing sight that you don’t get bored. And you pray that this docile, cute Giant stays around for your great great grandchildren to see and admire. And not become a mythical creature like a dragon is or a tiger is soon going to be.
A morning with the Giant Pandas is enough to get our spirits soaring. A hurried lunch of spicy sausages and buns at the bus stop, right next to our Hostel (hot pot given a miss again), we team up with this Austrian girl from Singapore who is staying with us at the same hostel, to board a bus to see the Giant Buddha at Leshan. Our guide from the Panda tour, a Chinese girl with the English name of Loretta, helps us get the tickets for Leshan from Xinnanmen Tourist bus station. It costs us RMB 52 each.
A 2 hour bus ride later, where we caught up on our sleep, we find ourselves at the entrance of the Giant Buddha complex. We buy the entrance ticket of RMB 150 each, and start our adventure. The entire complex is so picturesque and surreal that it reminds me of all those Chinese movies I have watched with flying monks. The rain only adds to the mysticism. We walk up the mountain and down, get lost, follow several other group tours and consult our LP, show pictures taken to make people understand where we come from and where we want to go to – and finally we get to see the head of the Giant Buddha.
And giant it is. It is the largest carved stone Buddha in the world and at the time of its construction, was the tallest statue in the world. The statue is 233 feet tall and it depicts a seated Maitreya Buddha with his hands resting on his knees. His shoulders are 28 meters wide and his smallest toenail is large enough to easily accommodate a seated person. And it is old. The construction started in 713, led by a Chinese monk named Haithong, and was completed by Haitong's disciples in 803. It is an UNESCO World Heritage Site and the Chinese Government has undertaken the task of restoration of the Giant Buddha.
We start from the head and tentatively make our way down the narrow steps. It’s raining, it’s cold and it’s teaming with people, stopping every 2 seconds to take a picture with the Buddha. By the time we get down to the feet of the Buddha, I have wobbly knees but I am thankful that I have not slipped or fallen down (as A says, I am a bit unbalanced and most of the time, even in dry surface, find myself pulled down by gravity).
The customary pics taken, we make our way back to where we came from. We walk up and down again, admiring the scenic surroundings, taking pictures, following the tour groups, getting lost, showing pictures to make people understand where we came from and where we want to go to and finally find ourselves at the entrance of a fishing village. We try sign language to make the few curious men, who have gathered around two Indians and one Austrian, understand that we are looking for a bus to take us to Chengdu. They find a guy who speaks a few words of English and after much bargaining, we strike a deal of RMB 45 each to take us back to Chengdu. 1 hour and a bowl of hot egg noodles later, we find ourselves driven by a van from point A to point B to point C and finally put onboard a bus. Even 2 hours later, we find ourselves at a bus stand in Chengdu where we are not supposed to be dropped off. We again find a man who speaks a few words of English and decide to share a cab ride with him to Xinnanmen Tourist bus station, which is some 100 meters away from our hostel.
It is only 8:30 in the evening and we are not tired. So we decide to try out Jinli Street or Jinli Gu Jie, as it is locally known. It is an ancient street, done up in traditional Chinese way, with shops and food stalls catering to locals and tourists alike. There’s one such street in every Chinese city, I guess.
A walk around these ‘ancient streets’ is as interesting for the architecture as it is for the opportunity to just mingle with local Chinese and get a taste of traditional street food. We drift from stall to stall, taking in the aroma and colours and textures of the food on display. Most of the time, we do not know what we are eating – but we go by our maxim, coined by the great food columnist, culinary expert and host of the travel show “Bizarre Food”, Andrew Zimmern, which is “if it looks good, eat it.” Our new friend looks at us with much awe and apprehension as we try out pig ears and pig snouts and other such weird fares.
Sichuan cuisine is known for its spices, liberal use of garlic and chili peppers, as well as the unique flavour of the Sichuan peppercorn. As if that is not enough, there is a bowl of chili powder kept aside in every stall, to be dusted on your food, according to your palette. A, being a hard core hot person, takes generous helping of the free chili powder on offer. The locals look at him with admiration, while I look at him with trepidation – I do not want an upset tummy to ruin our next 2 days of stay. My fears are, luckily, unfounded.
A 5 o’ clock wake up call and we have another long day lined up. Today is going to be the Dujiangyan Irrigation Project and Mount Qingcheng. It is cold, to say the least. By the time we reach the Dujiangyan Irrigation Project and realize that we have been grouped with a Chinese party, with a Chinese guide who speaks only 2 words of English – yes and no – we are livid. But there is little we can do by then. So the alternative is to form our own group – the two of us, our Austrian friend and two elderly Korean gentlemen who are more comfortable with English than with Mandarin – and find an English speaking guide. We find one – for RMB 20 per person. And thank God we do. Otherwise the entire trip would have been a complete let down. There’s so much history behind the sites that we are about to see that without a proper explanation and context, it would be just a walk around in the park. While we are negotiating with our guide, A goes looking for breakfast. He’s back with sausages, covered with peppercorn. His eyes are set on some red spicy noodles he has spotted, but he has to give it a miss as our group is waiting for him. I wish we could explore on our own but when you are in a country like China, it makes sense to take a guide to take you around. Otherwise, you can feel completely lost.
Construction of the Dujiangyan irrigation system began in the 3rd century B.C and this ancient water management system has survived till the present day. This system still controls the waters of the Minjiang River and distributes it to the fertile farmland of the Chengdu plains. The provincial Qin governor Li Bing set up this irrigation scheme to counter the devastating flooding caused by the Min River. His system makes subtle use of the local topography. It splits the Min into an inner flow for irrigation and an outer channel for flood control. The original system has been preserved, but modern building materials and technology have been utilized to enable this ancient system to conform to the requirements of the present day. The South Bridge, a main landscape at the Dujiangyan Scenic Area, was seriously damaged in the May 12th, 2008 Earthquake and restoration work is still being carried out. The dam, however, was left unharmed – otherwise, it would have added to the disaster.
Next on the list is an organized lunch which consists of bean curds and vegetables and makes A even more livid. I am happy that he got to have those spicy noodles from the road side stall on a brief stopover en route – otherwise I could see a few flying daggers and some airborne Chinese – my Kungfu Panda gets violent when he is denied his food.
The climb to Mount Qing Cheng starts at the old town of Qin An. Mount Qing Cheng is one of the most famous Taoist mountains in China. The mountain, which is surrounded by numerous peaks and is shaped like a city, is dubbed 'the most peaceful and secluded mountain under heaven' and combines perfectly with its evergreen scenery. In 21st Century, the scenic beauty remains unaltered but peace, like any other place on planet earth, has definitely departed. There are trails – abrupt and arduous – that does little to dissuade the bus load of tourists who arrive everyday to climb the mountain. We make most of the 3 hours that are given to explore the area and we climb as high as the Tianshi Cave. But there are just too much of noise around, too many people around to enjoy the nature.
We get back to Chengdu at around 7 and have a quick espresso – for the evening is already lined up. We get into the waiting van that takes us to watch the famous Sichuan Opera. Sichuan Opera (Chuan Ju) originated at the end of the Ming (1368-1644) and the beginning of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). With immigrants flooding into Sichuan, different dramas were brought in to blend with the local dialect, customs, folk music and dances. Today it is famous for its varied performances, such as Bianlian (Changing faces), Gundeng (Rolling lamps) and Tuhuo (Spitting fire). The 1.5 hours show is not to be missed if you are in Chengdu. It is worth the RMB 100 you pay for your ticket.
After the show, armed with the chit that has the name of a restaurant serving hot pot frequented by the locals, we head out on our mission to finally taste the famous "má là" hot pot.
Here’s a little history about hot pot that I have dug out of the internet.
‘The Chinese hot pot boasts a history of more than 1000 years. While often called "Mongolian hot pot", it is unclear if the dish actually originates in Mongolia. Mongol warriors had been known to cook with their helmets, which they used to boil food. Hot pot cooking seems to have spread to northern China during the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-906). In time, regional variations developed with different ingredients such as seafood. By the Qing Dynasty, the hot pot became popular throughout most of China.
One of the most famous variations is the Sichuan "má là" (Chinese: 麻辣 — "numb and spicy") hot pot, to which a special spice known as huā jiāo (Chinese: 花椒 — "flower pepper" or Sichuan Pepper) is added. It creates a sensation on the tongue that is both spicy and burns and numbs slightly, almost like carbonated beverages. It was usual to use a variety of different meats as well as sliced mutton fillet. A Sichuan hotpot is markedly different from the types eaten in other parts of China. Quite often the differences lie in the meats used, the type of soup base, and the sauces and condiments used to flavor the meat.’
We pick our meat and ask for the soup. They get us a white base with veggies floating - the one that's meant for tourists and kids. We look at them in disbelief. We point at the red soup steaming in the next table and ask for the same. Now they stare at us in disbelief. After a few minutes of 'are-you-kidding-me' looks from either side, they give up. And get us the real thing.
Spicy it definitely is - and hot as well. But the heat is more from the spices than the chilies and hence bearable. I was envisaging scenes of me breathing fire, with tears welled up in my eyes – but the hot pot turns out to be not as scary as it is made out to be. But then again, we eat hot and spicy food all the time – so maybe, our taste buds are ready for any challenge.
A peaceful night of resting, after having finally tasted the hot pot, we get out of our room at around 9 am. Our destination for the morning is the Tibetan quarter of Chengdu. Chengdu is adjacent to the Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures (TAPs) of Kardze and Ngaba, which form the easternmost parts of the Tibetan areas known traditionally to Tibetans as Kham and Amdo. Hence a lot of immigration has happened in Chengdu from Tibet and a little neighborhood with Tibetan shops and eateries thrive in the heart of Chengdu today. We have our breakfast of hot momos in a small shop, with a Tibetan lama as our fellow diner.
We walk up and down Ximianqiao Heng Jie and Wuhouci Heng Jie, watching the young lamas and budhhist monks, clicking pictures and exploring the shops. This is the closest to Tibet I will probably ever get (knowing my stance about China’s stand in Tibet and my interaction with the immigration officials so far) – but this is definitely not the Tibet I have visualized. May be, this is the Chinese Tibet – the real Tibet is still the Shangri la I have read about and I believe it to be.
As I catch my plane late in the afternoon that day, my mind has already started working on the next itinerary. If I can manage a week’s leave, then we can fly to Chengdu and from there to Lhasa. And do the holy lakes. And visit the only paradise that hopefully still exists on earth. Maybe it won’t be that tough to get a permit. I could think of many more Chinese delicacies to fool the Chinese authority. The roast pig snouts and pig ears just got added to the list.