Wind roach and gooselips
Trip Start Jul 2003
50Trip End May 2005
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Golmud is in the depths of the Tsadum Desert, and is the world's largest metropolitan area with an average half a square mile per person. Surrounded by vast areas of dry mud and sand, the quickest way to reach the next town is 14 hours by train. Despite having a large sign proclaiming 'Top Tourist City of China', it has no English speakers and, apart from a vast potash plant on its outskirts, has nothing of interest to the tourist. We did, however, locate a large indoor market where we rooted about in stalls of toads, pig faces and assorted seaweeds/fungi. Finding a delicious looking piece of smoked pork amongst the carnage, the cleaver wielding stall keeper deftly hacked it to pieces, mixed it with so much garlic, roast soya beans, chilli etc and presented it to us with five pairs of chopsticks
Locating a station of the world's greatest invention (the train) we set off in some considerable luxury to Chengdu in the Sichuan province, and the spicy food capital of China. Back on the Silk Route again we spent three days travelling through increasingly fertile country. Well, it was only fertile due to the incredible efforts of millions of workers who had carved thousands of acres of tiny terraced fields into the creamy-soft, sand mountains. And for three days the mobile food festival continued: from trays of roast duck, noodles, rice and apricots to several unrecognisable things all washed down with Chinese beer. Bed, compared to the sub-continent version, was the very comfortable 3-tier hard sleeper. When we awoke on the 2nd day, the desert was gone and we found China as it is supposed to look: deep green fields full of (Han) Chinese in straw hats. One problem with the overland route is that when you don't plunge straight into the heart of things nothing actually appears to really change. Despite crossing oceans, vast deserts and huge mountain ranges we still seem to be sitting here in the same clothes, with the same bags, the same as when we got on the train in Halesworth, England over a year ago.
Chengdu is a big city, and with our major interest in food we weren't disappointed: we had no idea just how wide the thin edge of the weird wedge would get. In no order of importance, here is this month's menu (only those items that we could name, recognise or describe):
- the chafing dish of old turtle
- snake pot (expensive)
- jumping frog
- wind roach
- bean curd bullfrog
- fish backbones with chilli
- frog, duck and gooselips
- spicy fried beef, duck or goose intestines (is this sometimes called sausages just to fool us?!)
- spicy pig's tail
- masses of seaweed and fungi
- several types of jelly tofu (green, black and white)
- bee liquer (with a thick layer of either bee pupae or just bees)
- green pea ice lollies (or were they soya beans?)
- deep fried bamboo silkworm
- leg of dog and goose
- asparagus with lily (delicious)
- stir-fried pear flowers
- fresh Sichuan noodles eg buckwheat and pugai (fantastic)
- various eggs, from translucent to black
Although five of the above weren't managed, some of the other items were really quite good, following the Scottish logic of 'the weirder, the tastier'. To put it scientifically, 'protein, fat, carbohydrate: down the hatch'. The Sichuan hotpot involves a large gas burner hole in the middle of the table. A large (24" diameter) pot is lowered in and filled with a lightly boiling stock of spring onions, 50+ scotch bonnet habanero chillies, prickly ash (local anaesthetic) and other spices (good, so far). Then people wander past and slide things in - bony fish heads, eels, snakes, brains, cigarette butts, empty beer bottles (that was about all we recognised). The other option is to approach the huge range of 'things on skewers', try to spot something recognisable and just fire it in there. Never before have we on so many occasions wanted to make a dash for the door, throwing excessive money into the air before running down the street screaming. Then we met John and Olga who knew at least five words of Chinese (and actually how to say them) and things didn't look so bad.
A few crazy bars are waiting to entertain the confused diner once the escape from the restaurant has been effected, including cocktail bars where all the cocktails involve physical activity and most of the bar staff. One bar boasted an all-English theme, and popular English pastimes such as pool, darts and shrimp fishing. If you find an Australian called Peter wandering lost and celebrating his 60th birthday, please send him home to Queensland.
Kunming has, over the last few decades, been completely destroyed and rebuilt. We met one Chinese girl who cried on returning to the city after a few years' absence. The province of Yunnan, bordering Burma and Laos, has some of the most picturesque topography and diversified cultures in the world. It was the original home of the Thai people, who emigrated south following Mongol raids in the 13th century. Their close relatives, the Dai, remain, wandering freely between the three countries along with at least eight other costumed hill tribes. Interestingly, some of the tribes seem to follow a matriarchal society. Here, the word 'female' makes a word more powerful, whilst the word 'male' makes the word weaker. For example, female + stone = boulder, whilst male + stone = pebble.
Prone to landslides at this time of the year, we simply settled into a couple of towns to enjoy the food. And just in case you're imagining a couple of chubby, giggling fools rolling about Asia, over the past year we've somehow lost over 5 stone between us.
A hair-raising bus journey through the rain and landslide stricken night was made even more terrifying by the continual rolling around over other equally shocked passengers on the communal 5-person bed at the back of the sleeper bus.
Having worried about it for the past month, we presented our suspicious looking piece of paper (currently serving as a Chinese visa) to the border guards. Because we had entered through Tibet, there were supposed to be no Chinese stamps in our passports. Unfortunately, someone had sneaked an entry one in there at some checkpoint or other. And of course, two wrongs don't make a right so we couldn't get an exit one. And you just can't have an entry stamp without an exit stamp. Anyway, at 7am a few words of praise about the young officer's English (it was terrible) worked wonders and we were told that if it was ok with us we could just go (supposedly very un-Chinese in their world of apparent bureaucracy). Of course, we then became trapped in no-man's land on the newly rebuilt 'Friendship Bridge' as we couldn't enter Vietnam without officially exiting China. The whimperingly lame excuse of 'maybe the Chinese have made a mistake' went down surprisingly well and into Vietnam we strolled, somewhat bemused.
China, the home of the nail clipper and the world's biggest smokers, has been great and we'll definitely be back.
Sichuan Willie and Chopstick Whems