We always suspected we might end up enjoying Chengdu and delaying putting foot to pedal for a few days, but after 10 days of abusing Matt and Apple’s fine hospitality it really is time to get back on the road….tomorrow perhaps.
Our time in Chengdu has flown by. We’ve spent time with my brother, been to a Lantern Festival, played Russian roulette at a couple of splendid hotpot feasts (the food’s delicious but the hygiene practices somewhat questionable), marvelled at the skill of the face-changers at the Sichuan Opera, watched Cloud Atlas at the cinema (it’s epic – go and see it), crooned, squawked, wailed and hollered (according to preference and vocal talent) at KTV karaoke, and made some repairs to our kit (I put some new zip sliders on our tent and Keith’s rebuilt the Pino, including a thorough clean of all components as he switched them from the old frame to the new).
As we mentioned in the last blog entry, we arrived in Chengdu on the first day of the Chinese New Year, but the Spring Festival celebrations accompanying New Year last for a whole week so the city’s been unusually quiet as many people went to the countryside to visit family. Mind you, “quiet” in a heaving, high-rise metropolis of 14 million people is something of a relative term. Firework stalls have sprung up on street corners and we’ve had an excellent view of the random nightly displays from the 17th floor balcony of Matt & Apple’s apartment. Rather too good at times in fact, as we’re at exactly the same height as the rockets when they explode into a shower of stars. It still feels safer than being at street-level though as the idea of lighting the blue touchpaper and standing well back hasn’t quite reached China yet. It’s not uncommon to see people lobbing lit fireworks willy-nilly in the street.
Bizarrely, Christmas music is playing here in MacDonalds restaurants. We suspect that somewhere in MaccyD’s American nerve-centre some bright spark asked what Spring Festival was all about and was told “It’s kinda like their version of Xmas” and somehow this translated into an edict that all Chinese MacD’s must play “All I Want For Xmas” and other godawfulness for the duration. At least that was the only explanation we could come up with.
As the week wore on the city returned to its normal levels of noise and chaos with hundreds of cars back on the roads, each driver with their own interpretation of the highway code. To try to improve driving standards the Chinese Authorities have recently changed the bank of questions used in the driving test. The result has been a massive reduction in the number of people passing, which I suppose is one way of making the roads safer. One can only hope the new test also covers practical driving skills in more depth than the previous version.
On paper, Chinese driving instruction seems fairly robust: students must complete three weeks of classroom sessions, a month of behind-the-wheel training and three separate road tests. But when you look at what is actually being taught in the lessons, and remember that car ownership wasn’t even allowed 20 years ago, you begin to understand why driving standards are so poor here.
The first day’s practical lesson is typically being shown where the engine, battery and radiator are and practicing screwing and unscrewing the petrol cap.
Some instructors apparently insist that you start your car in 2nd gear, advise that you should not use indicators as they will distract other drivers, and insist that you honk your horn in warning on sight of any hazards or before making any manoeuvre.
A typical question from the old test was:
The Law of the People’s Republic of China on Road Traffic Safety is designed to maintain road traffic order, …………….., and increase the efficiency of traffic flow.
a) Ensure the vehicles can run at high speed
b) Fulfil transport tasks satisfactorily
c) Protect the legitimate rights and interests of the citizens
d) Reduce traffic accidents
(The answer’s c of course)
To learn practical skills, learners are taken to a safe, off-the-road environment and taught how to park their car and how to cross a bridge made of two planks (this isn’t a bad thing to have to learn given the times they need to squeeze their car up onto the pavement and then manoeuvre into an awkwardly-angled gap). Up to eight students share one instructor and it seems that learners have little opportunity to drive on the road and practice in real-life situations. And of course, if the test is too rigorous or too expensive for you then you can always just buy your driving licence online.
I won’t bang on any more (in this post at least) about Chinese drivers, but if you want a good laugh then take a look at the following link to a very accurate description of traffic trying to make a left-turn at a junction in Beijing, as observed by an ex-pat living there. Just imagine the purple and gold taxi is a green one and you’ll be seeing a pretty accurate picture of Chengdu traffic instead.
For a more rounded view of Chinese culture – and on the recommendation of my mum, who said it was excellent – we decided to go to see some face changing as part of an evening of Sichuan Opera. Face changing is an ancient art that involves the high-speed removal of silk masks, and to be honest, it was pretty spectacular. In the blink of an eye and the flash of a sleeve gaudily painted faces changed colour and expression.
It was impressive enough on the stage, but when they walked the aisles and did it right in front of you it was jaw-dropping. The speed with which the mask is whipped away and drawn on slender threads into some recess in their clothing is unbelievable. For the grand finale one artist changed not just his mask but his entire costume, with outer layers being whipped away back stage somehow in the blink of an eye. The best trick of all was the reveal of the final costume, when an enormous collar of jutting flags appeared from nowhere. I still can’t imagine how they hid them so well beneath the first and second outfits.
Unfortunately, to enjoy the face changing, we had to sit through some amateurish acrobatics, operatics, sword-play, puppetry and hand-shadows (luckily there were accompanying animal noises to help us guess what he was trying to show with his hands).
There was a brief rise in performance standards partway through the show when a man did the splits with a lit candle on his head and then leant forward until his chin was on his knee, and without disturbing the candle, and still maintaining the splits position, inched his way beneath a wooden bench. But that was about as good as it got. The face-changing was worth enduring the rest for though. And the costumes were good.
Whilst Sichuan Opera is aimed firmly at the tourist market (both Chinese and foreign), for Chengdu locals a good night out is not complete without a trip to KTV karaoke. So off we went.
I was a bit sceptical about the enjoyment value to be had in a small room with a couple of microphones and a large TV screen, but how wrong I was. Time just flew. We’d already been to the cinema, the opera and then for a bbq, so it was quite late when we got to KTV, but we could book the room until 6am so even though it was approaching midnight the night was still young.
The beer at KTV is pricey but Pat had sensibly snuck in a couple of bottles of baijo and the rest of us supped the cheapest drink on the menu: a jug of red wine mixed with sprite – which turned out to be a big improvement on Chinese red wine on its own. It took some dedication, and we were all a bit emotional, but by 5am we’d pretty much perfected our rendition of “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” and staggered home vowing to re-watch The Lion King as soon as possible.
Sichuan province is renowned for its cuisine, which is typically quite spicy. We ate at a couple of nice restaurants in Chengdu before we left last November, but our only hotpot experience (which Sichuan is famous for) had been in Gansu province, and in any case, to enjoy hotpot properly you really need to be with someone who can understand the menu. So Duncan and his friends took us to two different but equally enjoyable hotpot restaurants. The broad principle at each was the same – in the middle of the table is a hole with a gas burner under it, a large pot of beef-stock, spices and oil (or in our case a split pot with one section containing significantly fewer spices for my benefit) is placed over the burner and you cook your own food at the table.
In the hotpot restaurant we went to in Gansu and in the first one we went to here in Chengdu you have to order the food by ticking items on an order sheet. If you don’t read or speak Chinese it’s really confusing working out which bits to tick. In Gansu the other diners had to help us out and we ended up with a reasonable selection of food, but in Chengdu Matt ordered everything for us and was also able to identify what we were eating too, which was much better. At the first Chengdu hotpot place the raw food arrived on a series of trays. Some things you chuck straight into the pot and then fish out with your chopsticks when you think they’re done, and other things you have to hold in your chopsticks whilst they cook for fear of losing them in roiling red cauldron.
You then transfer your chosen morsel of food from the hotpot to your individual bowl of sesame oil (into which you have added chopped garlic, fresh coriander, oyster sauce, vinegar and MSG according to your preference), then having dipped your food you finally get to eat it. It’s a long, slow, sociable way of eating and the evening eases along with a liberal flow of beer and banter.
At the second Chengdu hotpot we went to there was a slightly different way of ordering which was easier for foreigners: you simply take a tray to a room full of interesting things on sticks and make your own selection. At the end of the meal the staff count how many sticks you’ve had.
You can cook just about anything in a hotpot. Here’s a selection of some of the things we had:
Thinly sliced potato; various styles of tofu; various mushrooms; chunks of sweet potato; celtuce (a chunky, green vegetable); thin rooty things that taste a bit like soil and you either love or hate the flavour; blocks of cooked, powdered rice; taro; sliced lotus root; prawns; pig brain; duck intestines – delicious; whole squid; octopus tentacles; pea shoots; thinly sliced kidney – not so tasty in our opinion; various forms of tripe; a fibrous sheet from somewhere in a cow’s throat – crunchy but surprisingly enjoyable; thinly sliced beef marinated in red wine; hard-boiled quails eggs; mmm-mm, the list goes on but memory fails me.
The biggest downsides to hotpot (aside from the risk of food poisoning from undercooked food, the use of the same chopsticks for raw and cooked food, or the age and dubious origin of the fatty hotpot itself) are the garlic breath the next morning and the danger to your clothes from the red spicy oil dripping from the feisty bits of food making a bid for freedom from the uncertain grip of your chopsticks.
So, we’ve been amply fed, watered and entertained here in Chengdu but really can’t stay here forever. At some point we must think about hitting the road again and making our way south to either Laos or Vietnam to check out the delights of SE Asia.
To this end we’ve been putting a bit of effort into route-planning and kit preparation. Keith’s rebuilt and cleaned the Pino and I’ve put some new zip sliders onto our tent. Hillebergs are beautiful tents but the one criticism that’s come up time and again in reviews is their cr*p zips. To our frustration but no great surprise ours failed as we approached Chengdu and for a number of nights had to be gently coaxed into closing properly. Hilleberg warn that zips should be brushed clean every day in dusty environments, but even though we did brush them regularly, camping every night in the gravelly expanse of Xinjiang province made it a rather futile practice. The result has been that the zip slider has become worn and no longer brings the teeth of the zip together properly so it opens up behind the slider as you try to close the zip.
Our tent is fairly bulky and heavy so we made the decision not to take it back to the UK for Hilleberg reps to fix for us, particularly as we thought that a friend of Matt and Apple’s would be able to get new zips put in for us. Unfortunately sourcing zips proved difficult and in the meantime we’d read on Travelling Two’s blog that replacing the slider can be just as effective. We weren’t able to get the exact double-sided sliders that we need, but have put new single-sided ones at the top of the zip where we tend to only open it from the inside for ventilation, and then have moved double-sided sliders from doors we don’t use so often to the main doors which were failing. My seamstress skills are clearly not as good as Friedel’s as it took significantly longer to unpick and then re-sew the inner tent around the end of the zipper than she suggested it would, but all in all it seems to have gone quite well. I guess we’ll find out for definite when we next erect the tent and try it out under real life conditions. I also want to keep my eyes out for more replacement sliders, preferable the ones with a pull-tab on each side.
Sourcing zips and sliders is not the only challenge we’ve faced. Our trailer has a 16” wheel and we’ve struggled to find good quality tyres for it, which means that it’s the wheel that punctures most frequently. Whilst back in the UK we were very excited to find a 16” Schwalbe Marathon Plus tyre, but our excitement turned to irritation when we finally tried to fit it to the trailer. It is miles too big! The tyre currently on the trailer is marked as 16 x 1.35, the Schwalbe is 16 x 1.75, which basically means they should have the same inner circumference but different widths of tread. So that was £27 well spent. Not! Some lucky bike shop in Chengdu will soon be receiving a new piece of stock.
Tyre frustrations aside, Keith’s diligent labours on the bike have on the whole been successful. Our rig’s looking quite beautiful again and the thorough cleaning meant Keith spotted a crack in the pannier rack which he’s been able to have fixed before it failed more dramatically and no doubt miles from anywhere. The chap who fixed the break also spotted another crack so brazed over that too, and then rubbed down and re-sprayed the heat-damaged area so the rack’s looking as good as new – all for the princely sum of 50 Yuan (about £5).
Sadly this post is ending on a sobering note. Whilst drafting it I was flicking through the internet and on Travelling Two’s website came across the sad news that fellow long-term cycle tourists Pete and Mary (who we met briefly in Kazakhstan as they headed towards Almaty and we headed to Bishkek) have recently been killed by a truck driver in Thailand who didn’t see them because he was picking his cap up from the cab floor. Whilst we’ve laughed about the appalling driving standards here in China (mostly to try to save our sanity and not let it get to us too much) the reality is that both at home and abroad people are killed for no good reason by the stupidity and selfishness of others. RIP Mary & Pete.
Ride and drive with care everyone.