Chengdu is the capital of the Sichuan province in southwestern China. What it is most known for nowadays is that it is the global home of the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base…the launching point for the world’s largest (Leshan Giant) Buddha…and the home of Sichuan (or Szechuan) cooking. All of these things you would probably have seen on documentaries of lifestyle type programs on the box.

We arrived on a national holiday weekend so the place was nutty and we hid from the crowds for the first couple of days. Planning the next legs of the journey which seems like it will take us into Kyrgyzstan for my birthday in downtown Bishkek. Added to this Jill downloaded the bits that she needed for her next assignment.

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Sichuan province is the home of about 80% of the 1500 pandas that are alive today. It is also where they established a breeding research base about 10 km from the middle of town… which is awesome. It costs about $10 to spend a day there, but the early mornings are the best time as they are up and about and active. For about $120…($140 on weekends) you can volunteer providing keeper duties (shovelling $hit and lugging bamboo…I presume) and be shown through some of the studies…and get a certificate. For double the price…you can do it for two days. For under $350 (2000 yuan) you can have your photo taken cuddling a baby panda. In any case your $10 buys you great views of lots of adult and baby pandas doing panda-esque activities.

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The Leshan Giant Buddha is a 71 metre tall Buddha carved into a cliff face and is the tallest Buddha in the world. Wiki tells me that construction started in 713 and finished 90 years later. A Chinese monk named Haitong hoped that the Buddha would calm the turbulent waters that plagued the shipping vessels traveling down the river. As it happened the carved away stone removed from the cliff face got dumped in the river below…changing the currents…making the water safe for passing ships.

The Buddha was pretty darn big and the hike from the top to the bottom and back up again was not too onerous. It was however made amusing by a hoard of Chinese women attempting to do it in the ridiculous high heeled stripper shoes that they all tend to wear. This is a common theme of hikes within China…Chinese women attend in short skirts and 4 inch+ high heels and climb mountains etc.

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Sichuan (or Szechuan) cooking is possibly the hottest food on the planet. The use of spices and rear splitting chillies puts shame to the hottest of Indian vindaloo’s. The real issue is that everything on the menu is like this…so there is absolutely no respite from the chilli onslaught.

Our first night we hit a joint around the corner and pointed at the pictures of what seemed like three fairly innocuous dishes. The first we both agreed was a photo of crab claws…what arrived was the skull of a small mammal… drenched in chilli and oozing chilli oil…Jill laughed and left it to me…I ate it…and we took the photo back to the hostel to ask the guys there to name that animal…it was a rabbit…much happier now.

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The next was a mushroom dish that had large red and green chillies and seeds throughout… Jill managed three mouthfuls of this while I ate bugs’s skull…before she quickly began downing her amber ale. After splitting the skull apart and eating the meaty bits I moved to the mushrooms which were milder than the skull…then our main came which was a pork and mushroom deal…OMG…this one had a bite to it…

Safe to say that not one of Jill’s side of the family would survive here…some of my lot would be ok…but even the kamikazes will find this joint on the challenging side. The key issue is that there is no respite and the cumulative effect is debilitating. In addition to the chilli there is a special Sichuan pepper which adds another numbing dimension. We did another cooking course…where we learned to use the murderous items from the night before. So upon our return (whenever that may be) we are equipped to replicate some of these gems…any volunteers?

I hate to admit this but I am actually developing a taste for eating tofu… Tofu for me was always tree hugging, hippie, vego freak, meat substitution, rubbish to be mocked mercilessly…along with the people who eat it (cos they don’t get enough protein so are too weak to lift their arms in objection to the mocking). It actually tastes ok when done right…don’t get me wrong… big slabs of cow is still king…but maybe the mocking will be reserved to the stuff like tofurkey or faken.


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