Tag Archives: Sichuan Hotpot

Guiyang to Chengdu 18 December 2014 – 01 January 2015

Time waits for no man and since our last blog post, time has marched on and lots has happened. We’re now actually back in Malaysia where we plan to be back on the bike in a few days time, but this post will tell you a bit more about our time in China and another post that will hopefully go up in a few days time, will tell you all about Tamar’s brother’s fantastic Han Dynasty traditional Chinese wedding.

Cool Guiyang, Colorful Guizhou, Beautiful China (taken from inside the bus)

Cool Guiyang, Colorful Guizhou, Beautiful China (taken from inside the bus)

In many ways, China has got under our skin, but in a good way. While the hooting horns still bring us close to committing a crime, the other universe that China sits in just continues to amaze (although sometimes shock) nearly every day. In the last blog post, our plan was to be on a bus the following day, going about 600kms north and out of the mountains. We were told to be at the bus-station for 11:00am. Sadly this information was incorrect and we should have been there for 9:00am for the once-a-day service from Guiyang (Guizhou province) to Zigong (Sichuan province). On discovering that we were a little late for that day’s bus, we considered a number of options such as going to another city, but then decided just to settle for travelling the following day instead, and we bought our tickets and made arrangements with the bus-station police crew for their help in getting the bike through the station and onto the bus in the morning. We found a local hotel for the night as it began to snow, and then in the morning everything went swimmingly and by 4:00pm we were in Zigong, 600kms away and about 10 degrees warmer, 1000m lower down out of the mountains.

It’s cold out there (taken from inside the bus)

It’s cold out there (taken from inside the bus)

The bike had to be split into two to fit into the luggage compartments underneath, but that was all fine and the bus journey was very straight forward. The bus travelled on the expressway (motorway toll-road) but from it we could regularly see the road that we would have been cycling on had we ridden the journey, and just like before Guiyang, the road went up and down steep hills at every opportunity while the expressway, regularly up on stilts, just cruised through and over the mountains. We crossed high points at about 1600m and the hills were covered in snow and it looked bitterly cold out there. Such contrast to Zigong when we arrived there at about 400m altitude, with the warm sunshine causing us to shed the thermal layers of clothing that we thought would be necessary. It would have been a tough 6 or 7 days on the bike from Guiyang to Zigong and we would certainly have not arrived in Chengdu in time for Christmas with Tamar’s brother.

Spinning rope out of rice-straw

Spinning rope out of rice-straw

Our route from Zigong to Chengdu was via the town of Leshan which is home to the world’s largest Buddha statue (carved from stone). I think in our travels so far, at least half of the Buddha statues that we’ve visited have been the largest in the world, when you fully read the small print, for example, the largest lying Buddha made with a wooden frame and covered with papier mache. But without doubt, Leshan’s “Da-Fo” (large Buddha) is pretty big at 71m tall and this makes his fingernails larger than the average person. The road from Zigong to Leshan took us through an area where lots of bamboo is grown and where lots of large specimen trees were sold. The root-ball of the trees was trussed up with rope. A bit later, we passed a workshop where they were making reels of rope and we stopped for a look and were impressed to see that the rope was being made out of straw. In the UK, straw is the bi-product of wheat or barley harvest, but in China it’s from the rice harvest. Three ladies were hand-feeding the straw into a machine that twisted the straw and wound it around a large reel. Then we put two and two together and worked out that this was the rope used on the root-balls of the specimen trees.

Buddha’s ears are apparently 7m long

Buddha’s ears are apparently 7m long

What big hands you have

What big hands you have

Leshan is a pretty town that sits on the confluence of two rivers – the Dadu and the Min. In the wet season, the turbulent waters of the confluence were a great danger for river traffic in years gone by and so a wise monk considered that if he were to create a giant Buddha statue right by the confluence, recessed and carved into the 100m high cliff, that would bring calm to the waters. Work began in 713AD and went on for 90 years and the extracted stone was discarded into the hollows of the riverbed so as the Buddha took shape, the turbulent waters were indeed calmed – all thanks to the calming influence of the Buddha. The statue is now in the centre of a whole temple complex and so, on our visit, our guide was able to answer lots of our questions about different facets of the temple and the Chinese Buddhist traditions and for a short while after our visit, we even knew our ying from our yang.

Ying & Yang hand-wash fountain

Ying & Yang hand-wash fountain

Oil lamps at the temple

Oil lamps at the temple

Arhat with eyebrows that show off his long life

Arhat with eyebrows that show off his long life

The Chinese text is actually instructing temple visitors to refrain from throwing litter

The Chinese text is actually instructing temple visitors to refrain from throwing litter

I mentioned previously about how much of Chinese life, goes on out on the streets – just walking around the towns and cities and cycling along lets us see so much of this. In a riverside park in Leshan, during the day, groups of people were playing cards while others were playing traditional Chinese instruments, and in the evening, a singing group got out their overhead projector and electric piano, poached some electric from the nearby lamp-post and then had their evening practice session. Who needs a village hall when you can just practice in the park? You will regularly see people dancing, or playing badminton, aerobics classes on the pavement or ladies with fans doing their traditional fan-dance in the park as we saw in Chengdu. All you have to do is walk around and be entertained.

Playing the Chinese Erhu

Playing the Chinese Erhu

Choir practice

Choir practice

End of a Fan Dance in a Chengdu park

End of a Fan Dance in a Chengdu park

The day that we left Leshan we had a great example of Chinese patience on the roads. As we cycled out of a small town we came upon stationary traffic. Being as we’re on a bicycle (albeit a rather wide and long one) I tried to weave my way past the hold up (Tamar loves it when I do this). There had been a minor accident in the opposite direction with a car’s nose sandwiched between two trucks – one truck had been stationary at the side of the road and the car went to pass it not noticing the 2nd truck already overtaking both truck & car in a single move, and thus car nose sandwiched. They were taking up three-quarters of the available road width so now traffic in both directions was trying to squeeze through the remaining space. With the holdup, people being delayed further back in the jam who couldn’t see the cause thought it would be best to overtake everything so that they too could get to the front. And so you end up with a full road-width of traffic, facing onto a full road-width of traffic. We managed to get the bike around one of the trucks involved in the car-sandwich so we were gone, but it was a long time before the other traffic held in the jam got through and started to overtake us.

Typical Chinese city centre Police car, or is it a golf cart?

Typical Chinese city centre Police car, or is it a golf cart?

Police centre of operations protecting the public at Leshan Buddha

Police centre of operations protecting the public at Leshan Buddha

We regularly witnessed another classic example of Chinese patience on the roads, but seldom was it demonstrated with quite the finesse as could be achieved by Tamar’s new sister-in-law. When queuing in a line of traffic at a cross-roads, waiting to cross the oncoming traffic into a side-turn, as the line of traffic moves off and begins to thread its way into the side-turn, if you perceive that its going too slowly or you don’t want to get stuck behind something, you just neatly jump out of the line, swiftly under-cut everybody and then deftly nudge your way back into the line further forward. The skill of your manoeuvre I think is best measured by the number of horns that you cause to have hooted at you and that’s where Tamar’s sister-in-law was definitely the master as she would smile and nudge her way back into the line-up without a squeak.

Our last campsite before Chengdu, hidden behind a derelict factory, amidst the allotments of cabbages and beans

Our last campsite before Chengdu, hidden behind a derelict factory, amidst the allotments of cabbages and beans

After Leshan, it took us two days to cycle north to Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan province. Chengdu has grown at a phenomenal rate over the last 10 to 15 years and now has a population of over 10 million people. Perhaps 15 years ago (I’m not completely sure of the dates of these) they created the first ring-road in the city. As the city grew they needed another a little further out, so they created the 2nd ring-road and then a bit later, the 3rd ring was developed. Then another, but between the 2nd and the 3rd, so they called it the 2-and-a-half ring-road. To deal with the still growing levels of traffic, over the last 2 years they have built an elevated ring-road directly on top of the 2nd ring, completely looping the city: 28 unbroken kilometres of elevated highway. Chengdu is also building a metro network. In 2006 work began on its first line and already 2 lines are fully operational with another 2 lines due to open in the next few years and if I recall correctly, 4 more lines currently being planned. China must be such an exciting place to work as a civil engineer!!

The rapid development has its costs however. Smog in the city can be crippling some days. It seems everybody’s smartphone is equipped with an app that tells them about today’s air quality. A measure of a certain particulate in the atmosphere (sorry I can’t remember which exactly) should ideally be below 50, but is considered safe up to about 100. During the 4 weeks we were in Chengdu, it was rarely below 200, often up around 300 and on one occasion nearly topped 400 and these levels were described as being “serious risk to health” and “hazardous”. With pollution at such levels, many would choose to only exercise when the count was low. We observed some very grey days where high-rise buildings less than a kilometre away could hardly be seen but we also had one or two very pretty days complete with blue skies and you could dance with your shadow as the sun was actually visible.

We arrived into Chengdu on Christmas Eve and Duncan (Tamar’s brother) was able to sort some accommodation out for us, close to his apartment. We were staying on campus at one of Chengdu’s universities and so there are lots of reasonably priced places to eat all around and lots of street food vendors, all tailored to the student market. Wraps or rolls, dumplings or fried potatoes, chicken’s feet or sweetcorn – it was all on offer. It was difficult to walk anywhere and not be tempted to try something else. That, coupled with the many great restaurants that we visited, have resulted in us returning to Malaysia perhaps a few kilos heavier than when we were diving on Tioman. Sichuan province has a unique peppercorn that is used extensively in the local cuisine and when eaten, is like a small nuclear explosion going off in your mouth causing a certain numbness. This numbness allows more chilli than might be reasonable in a dish to be added and so you end up with a mouth on fire, and numb, all at once. We dined on Sichuan hotpot, fish cooked at your table in a paper bag, wasabi laden salad that blew your sinuses wide open, Tibetan yak meat, to mention just a few of the highlights.

A tofu wrap sir?  Pop your money in the saucepan in front there please

A tofu wrap sir? Pop your money in the saucepan in front there please

You haven’t been to Chengdu until you had Sichuan hotpot

You haven’t been to Chengdu until you had Sichuan hotpot

Fish cooked in a paper bag – Duncan, Spring & Keith wait patiently

Fish cooked in a paper bag – Duncan, Spring & Keith wait patiently

A feast of delights laid on by Spring’s parents, seated with Keith

A feast of delights laid on by Spring’s parents, seated with Keith

One interesting factor though was the part the Chinese staple, rice, played in meals in some of the fancier restaurants. Our main reason for being in China was for Duncan’s wedding and we were lucky enough to be invited out to many more classy restaurant meals than we would normally allow ourselves. The lazy-susan in the middle of the table would get loaded with wonderful dishes – vegetables, meats, fish, tofu – but with so many great dishes to choose from, why would you want rice as well? And so there was no rice served. And as you dipped into each of the dishes and transferred some from each to your own bowl, it was frighteningly easy to lose track of just how much you’d eaten. And when the lazy-susan would start to look a little empty, more dishes would be ordered as the host became concerned that you might return home still hungry and they might be responsible for such a tragedy. It really was difficult to stop eating (for both of us) while there was still beautiful food on the table but our western approach of wanting to show our appreciation by eating everything, was proving counterproductive to our waistlines.

Traditional Sichuanese themed restaurant – the waitresses sing a song while the rice dough is pounded by the chefs

Traditional Sichuanese themed restaurant – the waitresses sing a song while the rice dough is pounded by the chefs

And later the waitresses pour alcohol down your throat whilst still singing – quite a party atmosphere

And later the waitresses pour alcohol down your throat whilst still singing – quite a party atmosphere

As part of standard wedding preparations, Duncan’s best man organised a great stag-night which began with an excellent meal in a Japanese restaurant with lashings of Asahi beer and lots of Sake toasts. The evening continued in a traditional vein as well with entertainment that included traffic-bollards and night-clubs. And of course on the morning after, most of the questions centred around how on earth did people manage to make it home.

Another glass of sake anyone?  Duncan 2nd from left, and best man Mark on the right

Another glass of sake anyone? Duncan 2nd from left, and best man Mark on the right

We spent a lot of our time in Chengdu, updating various other parts of our website (if you should care to browse the other pages). We began our itinerant lifestyle in April 2011 but our trip of 2011 seemed to sit in our heads as a stand-alone and not part of the trip that brought us to China and on into south-east Asia. But more recently as we meet people and tell them about ourselves we have begun to include that trip into the conversation of where we’ve been. So now we’ve taken the step of updating our maps and daily-stats pages etc, to all indicate the total number of kilometres that we’ve covered since leaving our home in Croydon. As we rode back into Kuala Lumpur from the airport last week, our records tell us that we’ve now done over 44,000kms.

Carved in a single piece of stone, about 1.5m tall – not cheap

Carved in a single piece of stone, about 1.5m tall – not cheap

We also made some time to do a little sightseeing around Chengdu visiting some temples, both traditional (Buddhist mostly) and modern (shopping malls mostly). In the streets and alleyways surrounding the Wen-Shu temple, there are shops and stalls selling jewellery and traditional crafts. You can get beautiful pieces in jade, amber, silver or gold. You can get a 1.5m tall Chinese ancient scholar statue carved in a single piece of marble, and you can even buy a severed tiger’s foot, and so some of the more shocking bits of China are found. As we walked past the stalls (yes plural) that had tiger’s paws for sale, when the stall holder caught your eye after you had spotted the paw, he would raise his hands to beside his shoulders, curl his fingers, and snarl his face, just so that you could be in no doubt about what the item on his stall actually was. It makes you fear that some endangered species don’t stand a chance – if this is in the open on the stall, what other horrors are available in the traditional medicine shops?

Tiger’s paws and trinkets

Tiger’s paws and trinkets

Half a screen is a disaster

Half a screen is a disaster

Tamar suffered a very personal tragedy while we were in Chengdu – her most beloved Sony E-reader (electronic book) died and had to be replaced without delay to limit the distress. A day of internet research and the wonders of Amazon on-line ordering and the void in her life was re-filled with a new Kindle Paperwhite just a day later. Using the internet as we know it, isn’t easy in China though. China has recently blocked all things Google, so the Google search page is off limits, as are Gmail, Googlemaps and all other parts of the G-world. Facebook has been unavailable for years and lots of other parts of what you might be used to using, doesn’t work either. This is where a VPN (virtual private network) comes in handy, but some days even that gets blocked and while you might connect to a server in Hong-Kong or Singapore, 10 minutes later it would stop working and you’d have to swap to a server in Japan or somewhere else, only to have to swap again in a further few minutes. Getting things done on-line was often tedious, but we survived.

Panda on a hot tin roof?

Panda on a hot tin roof?

Chengdu is also famous for the Panda Breeding & Research Centre just outside the city. This link between the city and the big bears can be seen everywhere and there’s even a massive one climbing onto the roof of a shopping mall in the centre of the city.

 
 
 

Could this be a Panda-car?

Could this be a Panda-car?

We would love to return to China someday and cycle from Beijing to Lhasa in Tibet and then on through to Nepal – sadly it’s difficult to predict when this might be possible owing to the heavy restrictions on independent travel in Tibet and the already short span that you can get a Chinese visa for. Here now are just a few more photos from our time in China and Chengdu. Another blog entry will hopefully go up within a few days or a week and that will cover Duncan & Spring’s wedding and time spent with parents over from the UK for the celebration.

You ought to get your ears cleaned out - scene from a Chengdu street

You ought to get your ears cleaned out – scene from a Chengdu street

Cigar sellers

Cigar sellers

A cool Chengdu dog ... or perhaps cosy and warm

A cool Chengdu dog … or perhaps cosy and warm

The sun sets while the bird lands – could that be a Chinese proverb?

The sun sets while the bird lands – could that be a Chinese proverb?

 

Chengdu 10 – 20 February 2013

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Chengdu Lantern Festival

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).

A sea of lanterns

A sea of lanterns

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.
http://beijingcream.com/2012/05/the-basics-of-driving-in-china-a-diagram/

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A night at the opera

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.

Red mask....

Red mask….

 

......transformed

……transformed

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.

From this....

From this….

....to this!

….to this!

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).

Any ideas?

Any ideas?

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.20130217-32_CN-ChengduSichuanOpera-sml

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.

Abba's Chiquitita has never been sung with so much passion.  L-R: Tamar, Matt, Duncan

Abba’s Chiquitita has never been sung with so much passion.
L-R: Tamar, Matt, Duncan

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.