I had forgotten how much I had yearned to go and discover a country that could deliver beauty, a blood-soaked, epic love story to rival La Reine Margo, and music to break the heart, piece by little piece in my favourite film of recent years – The House of Flying Daggers.
Of course, the film is a beautiful and historic fiction, set long before the Cultural Revolution. And yet, the opportunity to go and explore China after Mao proved irresistible. Would beauty still exist? And would I find the spine tingling, melancholy music and soul of China? Two weeks later I was on a plane to Chengdu via Beijing.
The first thing you have to get used to in Chengdu is the weather. China’s fourth city might be the Chicago of the Orient, but it is also stuck in a vast basin and has a sub tropical monsoon climate. So it rains a lot, the sky is an ever-constant blank white and you seldom see the sun.
Despite what some might see as a disadvantage, Chengdu has a myriad of attractions and you will soon forget to long for blue skies and sun. For a start, it is a magnet for Chinese wanting to relax, take a holiday or just go out to play. I loose count of the number of times I’m told that Chengdu is a ‘City of leisure’, but they are right.
On my first night in China we head straight for Jinli Street – this is Chengdu’s Covent Garden. A teeming street of tiny turrets, magic lanterns and China in repose. A place where the locals and a few savvy western tourists go to socialise, play cards, watch the famous Sichuan Opera and graze on all manner of far too exciting street food that makes a hot dog look tame; – anyone for chilli octopus, turtle skewers or Chinese candyfloss?
This is a good point to talk about Chinese food and Sichuan food in particular. Sichuan cooking is all about spice and heat, although it is perfectly possible to eat out and avoid chilli, you just need to make this very clear from start. The second point is that the Chinese will happily eat anything. So when you go and sample a feast in a traditional Chengdu restaurant don’t faint when the chicken legs, intestines and a Duck’s bill fly past your chair.
I was taken to the ravishing Jiu Yi Town where the food was as interesting and colourful as the opulent, embellished dining room in which it was served. This is a glimpse into China’s luxuriant, mysterious and imperial past. If you enjoy food as theatre and tastes you have never experienced before this is a must. Dishes are served at the centre of the table and you can pick out those that appeal as they go by. There are plenty of delicious but more sedate offerings such as Spider crabs legs in gently spiced breadcrumbs, vibrant jade greens, melting morsels of pork with velvet smooth Shitake mushrooms and assorted seafood delicacies. I tried the local rice wine, but preferred to drink the wonderfully refreshing jade green kiwi juice that flowed like wine. The meal came to a finale with a selection of sticky, jewel size sesame pastries and fragrant flower tea.
Despite the city’s shiny new status as a Unesco ‘city of gastronomy’, some of my Chinese friends have started to complain that standards have slipped, and that the food isn’t as extraordinary as it was when the country first opened up to the west in the early nineties. Now they say you have to pay dearly to eat very well.
My best tip is to eat where the locals eat, and avoid the self-styled hot pot restaurants aimed at tourists. I had a wonderful lunch at Shun Xing Old Tea House, hidden away in a vast conference centre. For about 200 Yuan for two (£20.00) my Chinese guide and I feasted on steamed pork with fried sugar, sweet lotus roots stuffed with rice and a delicious mound of jewel bright greens and flowering cabbage.
Then we moved to a quiet, cloistered booth to sample some wonderful local tea. Soon, I loose track of time, as I learn about the art and ritual of tea drinking in this strange and fascinating land.
Tea drinking is a serious business. Four hundred years ago the emperor would secretly visit the teahouses to spy on his people and see what was happening. If he wanted more water he would knock three times or to show his appreciation. Today, Chinese people love the idea of tea that has positive health benefits.
So to my tea of choice? – The celebrated Flying Snow Flower Tea from Mengding Mountain – it is used as a digestive and to cleanse the palate. First let it brew for five minutes. Use the delicate lid to remove any stray petals that have floated to the surface. Take small, delicate sips with the lid slightly ajar. Then sit back and prepare to listen to a hundred fascinating stories…
For more information about Visiting Chengdu, China visit – www.pandahome.com
Credit Picture of me in Jinli Street, Chengdu, by Duncan Mills
To be continued…..