Archive | April, 2012

The pandas and the poo of my weekend in Chengdu

28 Apr

Chengdu's food is famous - yet I was on the yoghurt and rice

There is one force that can single-handedly destroy every stunning landscape, every unspoilt corner of local culture and je ne sais quois and every ounce of rugged traveller instinct – diarrhoea.

And diarrhoea it was that lurched from me like the monster in Alien with the evil mission to quite literally shit all over my trip weekend in Chengdu.

It wasn’t the Sichuan hotpot that floored me. In fact, since hitting the adapting-to-Chinese-food wall  in about week two of my time in Beijing, my digestive system seems to have converted itself into a nuclear disposal site. I can eat any manner of dodgy street food, wilting lettuce, and yoghurt from the back of my fridge with the mould delicately scraped off, without so much as a squelch.

But Air China’s cling-film-packed prawn salad was more than even my brick bowels could take. It didn’t help that we had already been delayed for three hours due to a monstrous thunderstorm in Beijing, which meant I had chewed through an entire packet of chewing gum in boredom.

I arrived at the Mix Hostel in Chengdu at about 2am (ETA had been 10.30/11 pm) and promptly destroyed the toilet on the landing. After guiltily confessing my crime to the man at the desk, I proceeded to patronise two other toilets to similar effect. God, I hate Air China.

Sichuan Province is famous for two things – pandas and food. I like pandas, but I had been particularly looking forward to the latter, eagerly  delicacies like rabbit head and firey Sichuan hotpot. Compared with these, my Chengdu eats were, in general, well… bland.

I won't say he went bananas, but...

Together with my friend Dan (who was also feeling a bit bowely), I chomped my way slowly through three bananas, three yoghurts and a mouthful of bread on day one. Even they were disappointing. Chengdu apparently has the highest fruit prices in China; every street seller charged us around 3 or 4 kuai per banana. The yoghurt was the usual excessively sweet Chinese variety, and the bread was soggy steamed mantou, served without the condensed milk dip that is usually the only good thing about mantou.

As Chinese cities go, Chengdu isn’t the most exciting either. It has the usual noisy town centre, impassable main roads, and spitting from every angle.

However, it is is well-suited to slow walking and a lot of tea drinking. We hobbled to a tea house in People’s Park and sat for a good hour or so, watching weekend park-goers row boats on the lake with extraordinary incompetence, and smiling benignly at “masseurs” who  proffered their metal ear-cleaning picks at us.

We left the park and headed to a river, where we found yet another teahouse. This time we actually began to drift off, listening to the jabbering group of women next to us as they chain-smoked and chain-ate sesame seeds – and of course chain-drank tea, just as we were doing.

The sun was shining and if it hadn’t been for my cramping stomach, it would have been a fine day. I forced my upper lip to stiffen and told myself that I would be fine the next day. Tomorrow, I decided, was the day of the rabbit head.

It wasn’t.

I awoke in the same crippling agony that had characterised the day before and nearly passed out on the way to the shower. Determined not to let this totally ruin my weekend – and not wishing to let Dan see that my guts had turned into Dante’s Inferno – I forced down a bowl of muesli in a performance of gay abandon that would have put Laurence Olivier’s acting skills to shame. Then we headed on a hideously complex quest for a bus station in the middle of a building site to find the bus to take us to the town of Pingle.

I sat fairly silently for most of the two-hour coach ride. We had been drawn to Pingle by the Lonely Planet description of unspoilt farmland and bamboo rafts on rivers. But there was a riverside tea house about 10 minutes away from the bus station, and that was where we ended up for the next two and a half hours.

It wasn’t a total disaster, however. In fact, in many ways Pingle was the perfect place for someone suffering intestinal lurgy.

Chinese nutters splash in less-than-clean river

The tea house was pleasant. The entertainment was even better – hordes of hyperactive Chinese teenagers leaping around in the river with supersoakers. I did manage to gather the strength to wander a little way into that countryside, and the LP had been right – it was beautiful, it was peaceful, and it took just 10 minutes of very slow walking to get to it.

But the best thing about Pingle was – incredibly – the food.

Unlike gut-wrenching Sichuan hotpot, Pingle’s local “delicacy” was seemingly designed to induce constipation – crispy, very dry sweetcorn bread rolls.

"Oh my God... Ellie... it's..."

I was happy. Dan was ecstatic. After weeks of flaccid and sweet Chinese bread, the discovery of something halfway close to a baguette was like stumbling upon El Dorado. “Oh my God – Ellie,” he said in hushed tones after the first nibble. “Ellie. It’s bread. Just ordinary bread. Oh my GOD. We have to get like 10.”

And lo and behold, the next morning – barring the slight twinge – my stomach was tickety-boo.

I practically waltzed to see the pandas and ooh-ed and ah-ed at how cute they were without the

Obligatory snap of me and a panda

slightest distraction from down below.

We pottered to Kuai Zhai Xiangzi, the “Wide and Narrow Lanes”, and managed to consume a gelato and a frappe in quick succession. We gave it an hour or so of drifting past pleasant little artsy Indie stalls and cafes in this attractive part of Chengdu, and ascertained that there really had been no ill effects.

And so we threw caution to the winds – and went for Sichuan hotpot.

I won’t add my drivel to the reams of literature about how spicy Sichuan hotpot is – especially if you manage to inhale one of the numbing Sichuan peppercorns, and feel as if your oesophagus is trying to vomit itself up through the back of your neck. But I will say that, spice aside, I survived the experience and came out the other end totally diarrhea free.

I guess there’s one conclusion we can take out of this whole sorry saga. Chengdu is nice and worth a visit, especially if you like pandas and tea.

Just don’t fly Air China.

Or if you do, lay off the prawns.

Can’t see the trees for the tourists

19 Apr

Photo flower photo photo

Spring, spring has arrived in Beijing… and my, hasn’t it arrived with a vengeance?

They never do things by halves here, and the weather and the seasons are no exception. Within the space of about a week, huge puffer jackets and multiple layers of tights had been discarded in dusty corners of apartments. Out came the cotton blazers, the cardigans, and yes, even the flip-flops.

It wasn’t only the good folk of Beijing who changed their clothes. The trees too clad themselves in every cliché relating to spring in the Orient.

Ah… the blossom… the Chinese porcelain cherry blossom… no picture-postcard image of China is complete without it… And so, last Saturday, I went to stalk said blossom in the most reputed location in Beijing – Yuyuantan Park.

Of course, my experience last Autumn at the not-so-Fragrant Hills should have taught me NEVER follow the crowds in China. But, like a fly constantly bashing into window glass, I just never learn.

The blossoms were nice, it was true; on that hot weekend (28 degrees – who would have believed that two weeks ago?), the fragrance that was steamed out of the flowers was incredible.

Come for the blossom, stay for the paint-your-own figurines

But you had to get through several thousand greasy dough stick stalls, coconut shies and hawkers and pedlars screaming out their various offerings of shredded, dried meat and grim-looking sausages before you got to any actual trees.

Even when you did make it, anything remotely tree-like was so surrounded by Chinese tourists screaming at each other, posing in identical one-foot-up-head-to-one-side-blossom-in-hair poses, and snap-snap-snapping away on their cameras that the trees were somewhat lost in the fray.

I did, however, get my blossom fix. Later. By going local.

Down the road from my house is a section of the 9-km long Yuan Dynasty City Wall Ruins Park. Lawns, hillocks and (bizarrely) giant stone and bronze statues of horses and Peking opera characters skirt the river running through it. The river freezes in winter and becomes foetid in summer, but somehow people insist on fishing in it all year round. I once bought a fish for my supper from a nearby market – and had a minor freak-out that it might have actually come from the river. I ate it anyway and lived to tell the tale, so I can only presume my fears were unfounded.

Stinking waters and rancid fish aside, this park has been the saving grace of my sanity during many a lunch break. Lunchtime on Monday this week was no exception. My head buzzing with (naturally utterly unbiased) articles about the Huangyan Island dispute, I went to take a break.

Aaah, that's more like it!

I could smell the blossom before I even got close to the park. I descended the steps by the collection of weirdly-named restaurants at the entrance (“Blue Wish Chaffy Dish”; “Yunnan Edible Wild Mushroom”) and was confronted with trees thick with all the colours that blossom ever could or should be – red, white and every shade of pink in between. The air too was filled with feathery wisps of pollen that got into your hair, eyes and mouth – unless, like every Chinese woman walking past, you tied a huge scarf around your face. Even the stinking river had been transformed into a carpet of petals.

Cheery Chinese frau poses for the foreigner

Of course, the park wasn’t exactly empty either. Someone had spread the word that spring had come to this unfashionable spot between the third and fourth ring roads, and the digital snappers were out in force. But without a tour bus or a tour guide flag in sight, it felt much more good-natured. There was even space for the park’s usual tai-chi-ers and fan dancers to carry on practising.

By Wednesday, the smog had returned to Beijing. It had failed to clear by Thursday, despite the best efforts of a spectacular thunderstorm on Wednesday night.

Maybe that was it. Maybe that’s all we’ll see of spring before Beijing’s summer unleashes its 38-degree heat and recurrent bouts of food poisoning.

So what? At least I grabbed the City Wall Ruins blossom before the tourists really caught the scent.

Beijing bike: my chicken wheels take their first spin (and palaver ensues)

19 Apr

Mabel in action

Ah Mabel. My two-wheeled, rusted-up purple beauty, star many a great City University video journalism assignment (i.e. one). Many have been the nights in Beijing that I have waited for hours desperately trying to hail taxis  that I have longed for the wobbling saddle, lethal brakes and complex three-padlock anti-theft system of my beloved bicycle back in Blighty.

Nothing could ever fill the void left by her creaking spokes.

Nothing, that is, except a free Beijing bicycle, kindly donated to the Chicken Feet cause by legendary China Daily photographer, Mike Franklin.

Mandy (with new basket)

Like her English counterpart, Mandarin Mabel (Mandy?) is rusty beyond rust. She creaks like a traction engine at every pedal. But like Mabel, there is a charm to her rickety being that makes all fixies and BMXs pale in comparison.

In many ways, Beijing is perfectly designed for cycling. It is pancake flat, which means none of the hideous London hills that leave your legs screaming for mercy and your face drenched in sweat. Beijing is also a doddle to navigate, built as it is in a north/south/east/west grid structure.

Even so, Beijing comes complete with its own brand of cycle hazards.

The rules of the road are somewhat flexible. Bikes, cars, pedestrians, tuk-tuks, motorbikes will all dither up and down lanes, usually but not always in the correct direction.

There are wide cycle paths along most main roads, much more extensive than  London’s “cycle superhighways”, but electric dustcarts, scooters and often cars  see no reason why they shouldn’t use these too as a short cut.

Whereas in London, cyclists, motorists and pedestrians see themselves as engaged in an active, aggressive road war against one another, Beijing drivers simply choose not to see cyclists. To them, as my friend Nathan pointed out, cyclists are like pigeons. You drive towards them. If they move, they move. If they don’t, who cares? There are plenty more cyclists where that one came from.

Luckily, nobody drives very quickly. Despite the seemingly incessant beeping, no one is that bothered if you make a mistake or drift into their path. In London, I was shouted at and sworn at by car drivers, pedestrians and other cyclists alike; once a lorry driver tried to drive me into the side of the road. This would never happen in Beijing. No one is bothered enough to engage in proper rage.

Negotiating these hazards is not exactly easy on the pile of rust that is Mandy. But so far, the combination of Beijing’s traffic chaos and Mandy’s less than reliable wheels have brought me nothing but good things – helped by the fact that we’ve been blessed with some picture-book, blossom-filled spring days recently, which have made every ounce of palaver along the way seem like peanuts.

The first time I took her out for a spin, it turned into an afternoon on the pull.  I was forced into a seriously hipster bike shop because Mandy’s saddle was painfully low (we’re talking knees up by ears here). My damsel-in-distress act drew the attention of a seriously hipster and seriously attractive English lad, who turned out to live round the corner from me in London. Dates have ensued. Thank you, Mandy.

Last weekend, the thermometer climbed to 28 degrees, and I climbed aboard Mandy for a Saturday of cycling. Birds twittered, the sun shone, and I pointed my wheels westwards and towards Yuyuantan park, famous for its cherry blossom in Spring. A light spring breeze whipped my hair as I merrily cycled alongside massive trucks past Tian’anmen square, and then my basket (which was stuffed to the gunnels with handbag, water, cardie, map, scarf and vocab books) crashed from its mount and began to drag along the front wheel of the bike.

After a failed attempt at make-do-and-mend involving my China Daily swipe card lanyard, I pulled up beside a roadside bike repair shop.

Bicycle Repair Man - but how?

These places are all over Beijing – a small metal cabinet on a street corner, a few cardboard boxes of screws, some bent wheels, and a couple of other odds and ends mark the most efficient cycle repair studios imaginable. The dumpy bike repair woman, clad in a plastic Pleasant Lamb apron, slapped a brand new basket onto Mandy for 30 kuai with one hand. As she worked a second customer arrived to buy – of all things – two boxes of TCM back medicine. She took up a pew on a small deckchair by a stack of tyres and engaged in a good sesh of complementing me on my Chinese and bitching about other foreigners in Beijing.

I cycled off, proudly sporting my new basket – and promptly got a flat tyre. Back I went to the lady in the Pleasant Lamb apron. Then I gave in. I went for an all-out pimp of my bike – new tyres, a new saddle, even a brand new pink bell. It came to about 68 kuai – the equivalent of 7 pounds.

But pimped rides and English pretty-boys aside, Mandy’s biggest achievement to date has been to restore my faith in human nature – or at least to be involved in the faith-restoring process that resulted from my biggest biking palaver yet.

One Saturday evening, I cycled down to Gulou. I got properly sozzled on prosecco and stuffed on dumplings, and eventually decided it was time to head home.

Drunk cycling is an odd thing. However plastered you are, you feel remarkably sober once you are behind the handlebars. More than sober, in fact. Your legs  gain superhuman strength. I beasted it back up to Huixin Dongjie.

Somewhere around Lama Temple, my bike seat gave an almighty clunk. The dodgy set of screws that the aforementioned hipster god had tinkered with finally gave up on me, meaning that my knees were now somewhere around my earlobes as I pedalled.

Undaunted in my inebriated state, I kept on pumping away and was home in about 10 minutes flat.

It was only then that I discovered my Chinese brick of a phone was missing, along with every single one of my China contacts. I rang it. It rang through. I called the Orchid. They couldn’t find it. I reasoned that a) it was still ringing so it couldn’t have been stolen or crushed under a lorry’s wheels and b) no one would want to steal a Samsung Anycall anyway.

I went to bed.

At 6.45 am the next day, I sat bolt upright in bed. “Fuck,” I thought. “I really need to find that phone.”

I hurled muesli down my throat and leapt back on board Mandy, beating my drunken speed-cycling by several kmph as I pelted back to the Orchid. I took out my English phone to start the call-and-locate process… and found a text on it from my Chinese phone:

“Hello. I am student at Communications University. I find your phone at Yonghegong Lama Temple yesterday night. Please come to collect.”

Later that day, in the middle of nowhere where the Communications University is based, I was desperately trying to thrust 100 kuai onto this selfless, wonderful Chinese teenager. He blushed and refused.

My faith in human nature was restored. My faith in my own ability to look after myself was once again shattered.

But my cycling will continue. Like everything in Beijing, my biking exploits are turning out to be chaos-ridden and bizarre – but in a bizarrely enjoyable way.

One date, one bitching session with the fishwives of Yuyuantan, one lost-and-found phone and one nicest person in the world who found it… I’m well up for more cycle rides like these.