I woke up in Chengdu and immediately realized I should get a Chinese SIM card, as well as a bus ticket to Kangding. The SIM card seemed more immediately approachable, and I walked out the door in search of one of Asia’s ubiquitous, usually slightly cleverly-concealed cellphone shops. 100 RMB later, I had a SIM card for my iPhone with a nice 3G data plan. I suppose I had expected to have to fill out paperwork and then being yelled at by someone in a starched Mao suit in exchange for the privilege, instead of handing a lady a bill and being up and running nearly instantly.
It was already lunch-time and high time for touristing, and so I hopped in one of Chengdu’s pleasantly cheap cabs and headed for the Chengdu Museum, continuing my life-long love affair with provincial museums with dodgy signage.
In search of a pre-museum lunch,I briefly walked along the river and looked through Chengdu’s interesting antiques area, which is spread along the water and featured many interesting small things, from jades to black beaded necklaces to vintage Communist literature and posters. No restaurants or snack stalls apparated, though. I tried the string of restaurants across the street: one featured real Sichaunese food downstairs and was totally full, with Western food for depressed tour groups upstairs – no go. Another had excellent looking food that only came in party-size portions. I finally settled for a Xinjiang place, where a very loud and very good-natured Uighur man served me an enormous bowl of pulled noodle soup for 14 RMB.
I crossed the semi-deadly street to the museum, which was thankfully emptied out of tour groups in the late afternoon. I was even more pleased to find that the ticket was free after I flashed my drivers license. The collection featured a T-rex skeleton in the basement. More gorgeous ivory carvings of bug-infested vegetables, a beloved motif in fine Chinese art.
However, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I usually do, as was distracted and increasingly concerned about my inability to speak Chinese. This was compounded by my inability to find anywhere I could buy something approximating a phrasebook. I began wondering if I was going to starve to death on the Tibetan plateau, unable to say anything but “Thank you” and “where is the bathroom?”
There wasn’t too much time for language based existential terror, however, as a friend of a friend via Twitter had answered my request for assistance with navigating the vast territory that is Sichuanese cuisine. That’s how I met up with Kevin Lee.
A young Chengdu native, Kevin is one of China’s few Mormons, a fact he volunteered eventually as I asked him about his years of life in the Mountain West of the United States – he was attending university at Brigham Young University’s Idaho branch.
. Being a Mormon in China, he said, was not a very comfortable business. “You can’t really talk about it. If you’re talking about what you believe, you can mention you’re a Christian and then say you’re a Mormon, maybe.”
Attired in a white polo shirt, Kevin spoke with a California-accent with a vague Mexican inflection and plenty of entirely current West Coast slang, picked up from his overseas mission in the Sunshine State, prior to his enrollment in BYU. In fact, he had served in Sacramento, which happens to be where I went to high school – one of those bizarre geographical confluences I’ve become almost accustomed to in the course of international travel. “Oh man, Inn and Out Burger,” he said, a look of profound nostalgia on his face. “I get those whenever I go to Utah. Bomb-ass food.”
The other food in the West, he said, was less compelling. He admitted to going to Panda Express, but only because there were no other options. He also had taken to driving and road-trips, although he said that driving in Chengdu – in the midst of a sea of new drivers with a very limited understanding of road rules – was too much for him. “I do have a car. No other way to pick up girls for dates, right? You can’t just call her up and ask her to pick YOU up.”
He hadn’t been back to Chengdu in about three years but was happy to be home. “The city has changed so much,” he said, referring to the madcap pace of expansion and the immense and light-festooned buildings that were sprouting in every possible direction. “I mean, there’s as many people here as New York City.”
We hopped a surprisingly clean, if crowded bus, which cost 4 yuan, and headed to Wide-Narrow Street, a walking and shopping area of long-standing that has been renovated and airbrushed into a major tourist attraction for China’s many domestic travelers.
True to the name, there were two parallel streets, one rather narrow, and one considerably wider, with cobble-stone floors and traditionally built buildings. The businesses were rather less old-fashioned, with an exceedingly elegant Starbucks, various and sundry fancy nightclubs with young Chinese men belting out American songs, and a sea of luxurious looking restaurants. We stopped for a snack of an entire potato deep-fried on a stick with chili powder, and watched various tourist demonstrations of tea-pouring, traditional candy making in the shape of crabs, phoenixes, and oxen, and the production of Chinese crafts.
For dinner, we stopped at a very popular and very large hot-pot restaurant. Kevin was surprised I was interested, noting “My Mexican friends love hotpot and spicy foods, but the white kids…man, they don’t like it.” (I ventured that this was at least in part a function of being in the Mountain West in the US, the land where Flavor Goes to Die in Solitude and Disrepute).
Many of the male clients had taken off their shirts, a seeming prerequisite to successful hot-pot consumption. We ordered tofu, beef, pork meatballs, bean sprouts, mushrooms, and bacon, which were brought to the table raw. The half-and-half hotpot came out in a ying-yang shape, with one side filled with a mild pork broth with green onion, jujube, and spices, the other side filled with the vaguely evil looking Sichuanese standard of chili oil, Sichuan peppercorns, dried chilis, and onion.
In the evening, we headed to the Jinli Walking Street, which was recently renovated. “It definitely wasn’t like this five years ago,” said an obviously impressed Kevin, as we walked down alleys filled with craft-makers, designer clothing outlets, fast food restaurants, and yet another very high-end Starbucks.
There were yet more expensive pubs, including one where a handsome young Chinese man sang American songs in front of a Confederate flag. I’m guessing they’re not aware of the context, though to be fair, it seems many Americans aren’t either.
We were far too full to eat anything, but we were both impressed by the long strip of snack places, featuring the full range of Chengdu specialties. “I want to come back here and eat everything,” said Kevin. I seconded that emotion.