Chengdu, Sichuan: Hotpot, pandas, and ear cleaning

hotpotWithout much clue about what there actually was in Chengdu (capital of Sichuan province) besides a panda reserve, I bought a train ticket there from Xi’an figuring it was worth a look. The first day there I met a Chinese couple in the hostel and we went out for traditional Sichuanese hotpot, or huoguo, which consists of a fiery, boiling, oily liquid to which you add whatever sort of assorted foods you order. Not being able to read Chinese, I left it to the couple I was with; we ended up getting rabbit kidney, beef cutlets, lotus root (still not sure what it is), lamb cutlets, a few types of mushrooms and vegetables, and a particular kind of small fish that only lives in rice paddies.

It started out tolerably spicy, but after a while the spice built up until I could barely taste anything. There were definitely a few breaks in the middle of eating to recover and sip on rice milk to cool the palate. Chatting with the couple, they actually started talking openly and without prompting about the student protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and complaining about the government in a crowded restaurant. Chengdu has a reputation for being a relaxed place, and it seemed that they were also relaxed about following the party line.

The following day, the hostel that I stayed at had a free walking tour in the countryside. It started by a dam a bit north of Chengdu, and wrapped around some small villages and a school full of kids that ran up to the locked gate at the school when we passed by. We eventually ended by walking though a market area that seemed to be the preferred place for young people to take glamour shots in elaborate dresses and costumes. There was also a nearby tea garden packed to the brim with elderly playing mahjong and Chinese checkers/chess, drinking tea, and smoking away their retirement years. There was also a nearby Buddhist temple that we stopped by.

The next day I went to the Panda breeding sanctuary, which was exactly what you would expect a panda breeding area to be. It was a series of different enclosures where you could see some pandas just basically eating and sleeping, apparently not very different from what they do in the wild. I was surprised, though, to learn about red pandas, which vaguely resemble foxes and raccoons and are more kinetic than the giant pandas. There was also a really poor museum and very weird, Asian-y interactive games where you could mate pandas and either get healthy panda cubs or “genetically defective” cubs which were no different looking than the animated healthy ones except they had crossed eyes. They basically admitted at the museum that pandas are an ancient species (8 million years) that have long outlived the average evolutionary species cycle (about 5 million years). It seemed like they were just breeding them for the tourist dollars, and I took it as an implied assumption that they wouldn’t really care about pandas if tourists didn’t think they were adorable and foreign governments didn’t dump money into the country for “habitat protection” and “research”.

Wandering around the huge city of Chengdu was also nice, with the central park packed on a Wednesday with a ton of people whiling away the afternoon drinking tea. There were also many groups dancing around the park, males and females separated, doing coordinated dance routines. I figured they were practicing for some sort of performance, but apparently just dancing for fun is a popular pastime. There were also a handful of groups singing old Communist hymns (read: statist propaganda) about everyone working together to become rich and healthy. The park was also known for its ear cleaning specialists and it was about $3 for a 15 min ear cleaning, so I obviously had it done while drinking some tea. It started out with long metal instrument with a flattened end to scoop out any wax, and then progressed to a softer tip that sort of massaged the inside of the ear canal, and then finished off with a tuning fork that vibrated the tip in my ear. It may have been bizarre, but I can’t deny that I loved every second of it. Next Stop: Yangtze River and the Three Gorges

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