Monthly Archives: September 2009

Foodie Voyage through Western Sichuan — Kangding

So, I’m an obsessive little locavore when I travel. My love for food and travel combine full-force, often resulting in my eating five to seven meals a day all for the sake of trying it all. This is sometimes to my detriment, as it’s happened more than once that it becomes physically impossible to walk after stuffing myself to the gills. I am so disgusting.

So to honor this passion, I present you with a culinary tour of Western Sichuan, where some of my most memorable meals to date took place. These little mountain villages served up made-to-order anything and everything. Yak meat dumplings, mapo dofu, fiery dumpling soup, yak butter tea, stir-fries to die for, hand-picked veggie medlies perfectly flavored with Sichuan spice.

This is part one of a three-part installment. First stop: Kangding. Stop two: Moxi. Final stop: Chengdu.

Meal One: Beautiful Breakfast BaoziDSC05598

Location: Kangding

Description: Thomas and I awoke early that morning, eager to begin our hike up Paoma Shan and tour the town of Kangding. At 7:30 a.m., though, the streets were empty. We searched for a good 15 minutes for a place to buy food for the day, and eventually stumbled upon a tiny restaurant with an orange awning that was clearly the hopping breakfast joint in town. We took a seat at a rickety table. When a server approached us seconds later, we simply pointed to the table next to us, implying that we wanted whatever they had — a heap of pillowy dumplings (baozi  (BOW-ZUH)– which is different than the steamed dumplings we get in Chinese restaurants here. They’re made with steamed bread). Along with our two-tiered plate of 14 baozis, we each got a bowl of rice porridge (basically the juices/water that rice and other grains have simmered in), and pickled ginger. It seemed there was only one breakfast option here, as each table got the same spread. All for a grand total of 13 yuan. (Less than two dollars). The dumplings were stuffed with yak meat, heavenly heavenly yak meat, and were nicely spiced — tempered for a gentler morning meal. Just enough garlic, with Sichuan zest that didn’t make my tongue feel inflamed.

Meal Two: The Rockin’ Tibetan Restaurant

The suave clientele. Check out those hair styles. And those jackets!

The suave clientele. Check out those hair styles. And those jackets!

Location: Kangding

Description: If you read my previous post about Re Tibetan Restaurant, you  understand just how much we enjoyed our meal there. SO much so, we decided to try to go back the following evening. I know — such a foodie faux-pas to return to the same restaurant — but let that be a testament to just how wonderful the meal was. However, when we got back, the servers tried to take advantage of our Western-ness by presenting us with much newer, much more expensive menus than the night before! How dare they try to taint our memorable meal! I successfully defeated my rage and pitiful Chinese and expressed to this heinous woman that we had been there the night before and were given different menus, with prices about 50 percent cheaper! She pretended that she didn’t believe/understand me, but the jig was up. She looked sheepish, and started laughing nervously with her co-workers. Finally, the youngest of the bunch presented us with the tattered menus we recognized from the night before. We had won, yes, but something had changed about that place. It was no longer the same in our eyes. I wanted to cry. (Okay — that’s a lie. But I’m trying to convey just how crushed we were to learn of Re Tibetan Restaurant’s corrupt underbelly!) We defiantly stormed out of the restaurant. HA!

Only problem was — we were still famished and we were still craving, YEARNING, for Tibetan food. We walked aimlessly like dejected puppies for a block or two, until I looked up (taking my sad gaze off my dragging feet) and saw a cute little Tibetan tea house. “Too bad they don’t have food in there,” I said to Thomas.

But Thomas, the literate genius that he is, read the sign about three feet above the door, which triumphantly read “Tibetan Restaurant.” Oh. Oh!!!!

We basically galloped inside and took a seat along the benches that lined the walls of the restaurant so that everyone was sort of facing each other, eating on tables that went up to your knees. This place was hoppin’. Thomas and I squeezed next to a Tibetan grandmother (with her cute little grandson) adorned in a bright blue dress with her long hair woven intricately with a ribbon and tied in a bun. Across from us were two swankily dressed local dudes with gold jewelry and sporting the typical Kangding sport coats. Their 80s-style hair was gelled enough to properly withstand any amount of mountain wind they may encounter. (See photo above!) It must be the cool thing to do to talk on your cell phone while you’re eating in a small restaurant, because that is what quite a few of these guys did.

I haven’t even begun to talk about the food yet, but for us the real joy of this meal was having a front-row seat to the diverse segments of the Kangding population. Part ethnic Tibetans refusing to let go of their culture, part 80s throwback fashion, part “We are the Future” modern Chinese. And a host of other subcultures I probably didn’t pick up on. The difference in clothing between mothers and daughters was fascinating. Many women chose to still wear more traditional Tibetan clothing, while their kids — just the next generation down — dressed essentially like the students I taught in Dalian — that modern megatown on the complete other side of China. It felt a world away.

But now I will talk about the food. We decided on beef baozi, two orders of beef and yak butter rice, and a pot of Tibetan butter tea — this time sweetened. The beef was quite tender, and the yak butter made the rice smooth, soft, creamy and heavenly. The sweetened butter tea was a great choice for this meal, because this time we didn’t have to battle piquante curry sauce and the like. We slowly ate our food, mostly because it was ridiculously rich, but also to soak up the culture. We got a lot of stares, which made me nervous because I’m a messy eater, but we were staring right back.

We asked one of our snazzy fellow diners to take a picture of us. We wanted to capture the moment. After being treated like tourists, i.e. prey, at the other Tibetan restaurant, it was a welcome experience to be treated a little bit like one of the locals. Or at least dine shoulder-to-shoulder with them.

One Week in Western Sichuan Part Two: Mountain traffic jams, disturbing rest stops, and yak butter tea

Day 2: Chengdu to Kangding

We left Chengdu at 11 a.m. Monday morning. This is about three hours later than we had intended. There were medical issues that arose after our delicious mapo dofu meal the night earlier. I’ll leave it at that.

Anyway, we caught the 11 a.m. bus, which was nowhere near as plush or impressive as the bus we took from Chongqing to Chengdu was. But one thing that was far more impressive was the scenery passing us by out the window. More and more rural, more and more mountainous, and more and more resembling the China I had envisioned. Dalian, for me, wasn’t very Chinese. It was less than 100 years old, with high-rises, glitzy signs, all the Western food conveniences you could ask for, and was clean, fresh and open. But as we bumped along the surprisingly crowded mountain roads (traffic jams stalled us twice on the way and three times on the way back), the China of my imagination unfurled, as did lush peaks towering over muddy rivers.

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We whizzed past villages whose dare-devil residents took to selling exotic fruits mere inches away from the highway, affording them harsh breezes as the tourist buses came and went. We even saw one elderly woman (read: at least 75) doing her daily stretches by resting her leg on the highway’s guard rail. We stopped at rest stops along the way with food choices like mystery-meat dumpling soup served out of a large cast iron pot, with bottles of Sichuan’s specialty spices sitting at every rustic picnic table. Some rest stops were less charming than others. Thomas informed me that in the men’s “bathroom” (basically several holes in the ground with some concrete walls enclosing the area), the guys enjoyed peeing on the hogs that roamed around the area. So perhaps that solves the meat mystery.

DSC05572

After a total of nine hours of winding up and down on a bus that screeched and honked (and sometimes halted) its way toward Kangding, we arrived at about 8 p.m. Most of Kangding is squeezed into a valley and sidles up to two rushing rivers that converge near the center of town.  The water sounded distinctly frothy, the air crisp. Passersby adorned a wide array of attire, from sleek (if slightly dusty) blazers to traditional colorful Tibetan tribal clothing to Adidas merch. We wore shorts and t-shirts, expecting a climate similar to the one we came from in sweltering Chengdu/Chongqing.

But we were cold. Or at least I was. And hungry. My Lonely Planet (dare I even have faith in this outdated version? Every good traveler to China should invest in LP’s 2009 version, released a couple months after I left for Dalian, shucks) said there was a Tibetan restaurant or two in this town, so we set out to find the one it recommended. We found it, but the place had changed names. Now it’s simply called Re Tibetan Restaurant.

There’s no door but instead a heavy duty, brightly decorated curtain, with eye-catching red, blue, yellow and green designs. The colorful Tibetan decor continued inside. We got seated by a window, at a table not unlike a picnic table, bench and all.  We placed our luggage under the table and settled in, thrilled to be right in this very moment. We had arrived, and were about to eat a hell of a lot of food. Nothing could have made me more pleased. And, since I’d recently re-introduced dead animal into my diet, my ordering options included the myriad dishes with yak meat, a Tibetan staple.

Interior of Re Tibetan Restaurant

Interior of Re Tibetan Restaurant

The tattered, multi-page menu had pictures and some attempt at English. Perfect. We decided (after deliberating in a hunger-induced stupor) on minced yak meat tomato casserole, curry potatoes with yak meat, “beautiful valley” vegetable cake, and yak butter tea to drink.  The vegetable cake was a flaky pastry stuffed with lightly spiced vegetables. The yak meat dishes both had quite a kick to them, and if I knew more about Chinese spices, I would tell you what was in it. This kick was definitely necessary to curb the saltiness of the butter tea, which at first literally tasted like a stick of butter had been melted in a microwave. But the spiciness and saltiness interacted in a way that both were dampened to a very pleasant level. We just may have ordered too much food, but finishing all that we order is a challenge both Thomas and I enjoy. We even triumphantly drank the last of our curry sauce, sauce that neither spoon nor chopstick could access. And let me tell you — that yellow sauce was fantastic. Not too watery, but not thick and heavy, either. Totally drinkable and drink-worthy.

We sat and contemplated for awhile, mostly to let our gorge-fest rest, and  had a bit of a “how are we here” moment. How did we just chow down on minced yak meat and butter tea in the mountains of Western Sichuan, perched close to the Tibetan frontier? After the previous days of convoluted traveling, the meal stood as a sort of arrival for us. From here on out, it was all about slowing down, climbing up (mountains, that is), and exploring. Observing. And of course, eating. And maybe some sleeping. We could both use some of that.

It was now 9:30, and we still had no place to sleep for the night. We gathered our bags from under the table and reluctantly closed the book on our Tibetan dinner experience. The internet and Lonely Planet told us the Black Tent Hostel was our best bet. Kangding seemed a bit less likely to have expanded and altered its entire city makeup as Chengdu had. We headed toward where we thought the Black Tent would still sit.

Along the way, though, we were introduced to the world of Kangding fashion. Brightly colored wraps that would certainly combat the cool air caught my attention. They were beautiful; a bit like Pashmina scarves that everyone obsessed over a few years back, but with East Asian paisley flair. I bought two immediately, each for 30 yuan (about 5  dollars) after half-assed haggling. It’s always hard for me to bargain when I want something that desperately. I have no poker face.

After the shopping stop, we continued to walk along the river. We crossed a bridge over toward what seemed like an open coffee shop. Learning from our Chengdu debacle (read the PART 1 entry below), I asked a worker in there for directions. In Chinese. Perhaps something positive that came from the aimless Chengdu wandering. My ability to express in Chinese that I was very lost and needed help had skyrocketed. Anyway, this nice lady realized quickly that I wasn’t comprehending everything she was saying, so she walked us to our hostel herself, about five minutes away from her shop. Perfect. No hassles, no confusion.

Black Tent is a quirky place, with a wrap-around screen porch, and a single bathroom and shower for the entire hostel. Inside, a girl was huddled around a heater and watching TV while butter tea brewed on a hot plate nearby. She spoke a decent amount of English, and told us they had two bunk beds in a dorm available for 15 yuan each (less than three dollars). The room itself was sparsely decorated, but had warm, Tibetan-style quilts. Our roommates were four Chinese men biking their way to Tibet, so the lights went out early. That was fine with us. We had a big day tomorrow, too. Doing what? We weren’t quite sure. But we were excited to find out.

One Week in Western Sichuan: Part One of Seven

**PICTURES TO COME SHORTLY**

**ALSO, Sorry for being so slow. Traveling without fancy internet-accessible items makes blogging/twittering on the road difficult. I need to learn to be a better traveler.**

Day 1: June 28, 2009

The hotel room is musty and the air thick and humid. Five stories down, rush-hour cars speak their special Chinese honk language, in which drivers press on the horn to alert those sharing the road of any and every move they make. “I’m turning on my turn signal — HONK HONK HONK.” “Okay, now I’m going to change lanes — HONNNNNNNNNKKKKKKK.”

The blanket on the board-stiff bed (the overwhelming Chinese mattress preference) is far too thick for this heat. I propel my legs above me to kick it off quickly, as I realize I’m sweating rather copiously. It’s 7 a.m. in Chongqing, municipal population of 34 million, at the Fuyuan Fandian Hotel. Thomas and I arrived there via taxi only five hours earlier, after a three-hour flight from Dalian, with everything I had brought over for four months plus all that I had acquired while bopping around Eastern China.

Now I find myself  in the Wild West of China, about to begin a week-long journey in which absolutely nothing is reserved or set in stone aside from one night in a hostel and a vague idea of where we want to go, as well as a requisite jaunt over to Tokyo somewhere in the not so distant future.

We successfully stored my three grande dame suitcases at the Chongqing airport, leaving us with but two backpacks toting what we would come to find out entirely too little clothing for the icy climes we’d reach later in the week. But for now, we felt as prepared as we could feel.

The plan was to take the 9 a.m. bus that morning from Chongqing to Chengdu, home to pandas and tea houses and the most confusing city layout either of us had  ever experienced. After arriving at an estimated 1 p.m., we’d spend the day relaxing and moseying around Chengdu before leaving the next morning at 8 a.m. en route to Kangding, a rustic mountain town of 80,000 that’s more Tibetan than Han.

Part one of the plan panned out. We caught the bus at the station adjacent to our hotel. We indeed arrived at around 1 p.m. The next step was to find our hostel. Simple enough. I had reserved a room over the phone shortly before departing Dalian. I had my trusty Lonely Planet to help us navigate the buses.

Oh. But wait. Lonely Planet is a tad old. And outdated. Turns out, like so much in China, the hostel had upgraded and moved across town in the three years since my edition was published. I should have known to check before assuming that things go untouched in a country that is absolutely addicted to upgrading and renovating. Now the difficulty is finding this new location.

Oh, did I fail to mention it was raining all day?

Oh, did I fail to mention it was raining all day?

mao photo

Mid-meandering and wrong-waying, we come across a giant Mao Zedong statue, what I’ve come to find as a common sight in any moderately sized Chinese city. But Chengdu is no moderately sized town. It stuffs 9 million residents (and growing) into its city limits. Just 60 miles away lies the epicenter of last May’s earthquake. Not surprisingly, one would have never guessed it. Debris and destruction have long been cleared. Because China never sleeps.

But humans do, and we humans needed a place to rest our heads later that day. We decide that instead of attempting to find a sketchy new address via painstaking public transportation, we’d consult the Lonely Planet and walk to the nearest hostel. According to our entirely detail-less map, The Loft Hostel seemed to be the winner.

So we walked. And walked. And walked. And then realized we must have passed the Loft at least three times given the distance we had covered, without knowing it. Perhaps it moved/expanded/franchised, too? My three-dollar Chinese cell phone seemed to be in a functioning and friendly mindset, so I decided to brave foreign-land phone calls and find out where they were now located.

No English-speaking friendly receptionist. I shamefully fumbled around with a few Mandarin sentences that I thought I remembered from my Hotel Services chapter, but crashed and burned.

Now whole-heartedly discouraged and famished (it’s approaching 4 p.m.) we backtrack again. And again. And then entered a grocery store for a quick pick-me-up and directions. I point to what I only assume is a very incorrect map in our Lonely Planet, thankful that Chinese characters of the hostel names are printed underneath. Anyone can speak finger-pointing. Zig-zagged gestures from two or three customers and a clerk leave me confused. It’s also obvious they’re confused, too.

For good reason. Turns out, we were attempting to search for the Loft Hostel, while using the map location for a Marriott hotel. We discovered our error at  5 p.m. It was time for a break. We squatted on the sidewalk, because this is entirely accepted and normal in China. If your legs are in need of a break, just pop a squat. In a city of 9 million, what are the chances of finding an empty bench, or even a low-lying tree branch? After all, tree branches serve as apparati for elders’ morning and afternoon stretching routines. Thus you squat.

Squatting, we reflect on our “relaxing” day of touring Chengdu. We were barely able to muster the energy to keep going. What’s the point? We were in throes of traveler’s tension, brought on by a desire to want to see so much, with time escaping, slipping through our fingers. Finally we decided it’s probably not the best solution to just ignore our needs for food and shelter. We rose from the squat determined to find a better place to rest our legs. And our heads.

As luck would have it (luck! how about that!), we were just around the corner from the Loft. Somehow, by navigating this palm-lined concrete jungle with hardly a street or avenue that runs parallel to any other street, we ended up near a location we had wanted to find but had been using an entirely wrong address. Sounds pretty Chinese to me.

The Loft was under construction, but had a double room available for all of 12 USD total. The room itself was wholly basic, but the Loft has quite a modern-chic feel to it, boasting a restaurant and bar that serves Danish food. Three or four traditional tea houses were scattered along the same street, as well as a convenience store where Thomas would end up purchasing several ice cream cups in one night.

Forcing a smile shortly after having found the Loft Hostel. Needing food.

Forcing a smile shortly after having found the Loft Hostel. Needing food.

After putting our backpacks down, we decided to do something entirely un-Ashley or un-Thomas and hail a taxi (we’re very anti-taxi — at least I am) to a restaurant that supposedly has the best mapo dofu, a Sichuan speciality with tofu and pork in a blazingly spicy chili and bean sauce. It was exceptional, and even a toned down sauce (per request) made me sweat. Thomas stuck with the full-heat version and proceeded to hiccup throughout most of the meal. Finally — a traditional Sichuan experience for our day in Chengdu.

Then again, being lost and confused is certainly a traditional Chinese experience. Hell, my first day in Dalian I got so turned around I ended up hitching a ride in an ambulance (for 10 yuan) back to my house. That’s the thing about traveling in China. Nothing ever goes as planned. Look where reserving a hotel room ahead of time got us. I learned after my first trip within China back in April to keep my patience, to take everything in stride, to accept that to travel in China means letting go of the part of me that loves to plan trips. It’s all part of the journey.

Small-town China, here we come.