Pandering to the Tastebuds

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It may be a special skill for dealing with colossal catastrophes or it could be the invigorating food, but the stoic folk of China’s Sichuan Province on the rim of the Tibetan Plateau know a thing or two about survival.

With eight major earthquakes in the southwestern province in 73 years, the most recent in 2008, there’s been a whole lot of shaking going on in Sichuan.

After the latest 6.1 magnitude bang in 2008 and more than 400 aftershocks, the provincial capital Chengdu emerged virtually unscathed, apart from a few cracked buildings, and still maintained its claim to be China’s most carefree city.

Chengdu is envied throughout the country for its leisurely lifestyle, vibrant street life, some of the country’s spiciest food and its countless atmospheric teahouses where locals wile away hours upholding the traditional art of idle conversation and indulging a fixation with mah-jong.

Landing in Chengdu on a rainy afternoon, I melted into the crowds in the huge pedestrianised Chun Xi Plaza, a classy shopping centre in central downtown and one of the busiest in China.

I munched on “Strange Taste” peppery peanuts and taro ice cream and watched well dressed, well-heeled Chinese browse the latest offerings in the myriad boutiques, jewellery shops, beauty salons, enormous department stores, electronics emporia, restaurants and snack food stands.

Unfortunately, Chengdu’s headlong dive into modernisation has obliterated much of the city’s beautiful old architecture but, as if spurred by pangs of guilt, the authorities have rebuilt some areas in a close approximation of the authentic ancient style.

Behind a large archway with six pagoda-style roofs, Qin Tai Road, once the jewellery quarter, has been remodelled along Han Dynasty lines. Lanterns hung from anything that would hold them outside clothing shops, teashops and fancy restaurants serving the lava-hot Sichuanese cuisine tempered with the slightly anaesthetic Sichuan pepper.

After a vegetarian lunch at the Lotus Blossom Floating on the Fresh River Restaurant, I noticed others that specialised in Sichuan hotpots, steaming little cauldrons of flavoursome soup stock with layers of chilli and Sichuan pepper floating on a thick top layer of oil into which morsels are plunged for cooking and seasoning and startling the digestive system.

Outside Long Sen Garden Restaurant, a plush, upmarket place, half a dozen staff hovered to greet a line of BMWs and Mercedes Benzes discharging diners, an indication of the likely size of the price tag.

Around in the Wen Shu Fang (City Recreation District), cheaper and more interesting food was displayed like a gigantic outdoor buffet. Restaurants, cafes and street vendors offered a smorgasbord of highly spiced food generating a fantastic blend of exotic aromas and weird looking things.

I considered a tray of bamboo pith fungus, briefly, before I followed an attractive fragrance and found an attractive girl frying a mixture of onions, chilli and Sichuan pepper on a hotplate to which she added unattractive little bony bits of meat.

Her sauteed sparrows turned out to be a popular local delicacy, one I passed up in favour of fiery hot pork kebabs cooked over glowing coals.

Clutching half a dozen of them and dripping bright red chilli sauce I strolled around streets lined with faux antique buildings, from Wen Shu Fang’s Cafe Street into narrow claustrophobic Jin Ma Alley where dark shops and teahouses dripping with red lanterns seemed to close in on all sides. It was like walking into an ancient history book.

So was Jing Li Street. I walked with a somewhat measured pace along its 350m of “ancient” wooden teashops, hostels, taverns, bars and puppet shows after a sign at the entrance warned “No Striding”.

The original street was one of the busiest commercial boulevards of the Shu Kingdom in the 3rd century AD, reconstructed in that style in 2004 to become one of the city’s prime tourist traps.

The following chilly spring morning, I joined an orderly group of tourists filing through the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding toward enclosure number one where a large handsome specimen was sitting back on a rambling bamboo structure like a portly old gentleman contentedly munching bamboo.

Pandas, I discovered, can spend up to 12 hours a day eating between 12kg to 38kg of bamboo and nothing else, although for the fortunate ones in captivity that rigorous diet is augmented with fresh fruit and vegetables.

Other pandas leant against trees eating bamboo, one lazily scratched its ear eating bamboo, more reclined like overfed beachgoers eating bamboo while another, at mid-morning when pandas are supposed to be at their most active, was still fast asleep clutching a stick of bamboo.

By mid-morning the tour buses had arrived and I joined a growing throng at another enclosure where half a dozen cubs wrestled with each other, played on recreational rubber tyres and swings, climbed trees, hung from trees, fell from trees and pushed each other around in scenes resembling a unruly schoolyard.

Their wild cousins aren’t always so lucky. Apparently panda mums usually produce and raise one cub but often give birth to twins, deciding within minutes which one to rear. The rejected cubs don’t survive long but, in captivity, nursing the little fluffy orphans to maturity has been one of the breeding program’s great successes.

The technique involves tricking the mother by regularly switching cubs with her, allowing both to experience the intimate benefits of motherhood.

Walking along a pathway lined with lovely pink flowering peach blossoms I found another enclosure where a family of the giant panda’s smaller, less famous cousins, the rare and endangered red pandas that the Chinese call hun ho (firefox) frolicked in the thin sunshine like four-footed celebrities in a David Attenborough doco.

A bit bigger than domestic cats and resembling racoons, the endangered red pandas are also bamboo eaters and native to the Himalayas in Nepal and southern China.

But the star attraction was Jing Jing, named after the 2008 Beijing Olympic mascot, who entertained a crowd of flash popping tourists with her skills on a large wooden swing before lumbering over to the fence to inspect her audience more closely.

Born on August 30, 2005 when she weighed just 152 grams the cub had to wait 10 weeks for the identities of the five Olympic mascots to be revealed so she could be named after the panda logo, although living in the lap of luxury she probably wasn’t too bothered.

After a wonderful, mouth-searing dinner of Ma-Po’s bean curd and highly spiced pork, I arrived at the Shu Feng Ya Yun Teahouse in the Chengdu Culture Park on Qin Tai Road. At least it was a teahouse once and an assembly hall for the actors of the famous old Sichuan Opera.

Now recreated for the benefit of tourists, the nightly China Sichuan Opera Unique Skills Performance usually sees the old teahouse packed to the walls.

At the cafe I bought a bottle of Great Wall red wine which was surprisingly drinkable, found my reserved seat near the front, declined the offered services of an itinerant ear cleaner and settled back in the large auditorium to watch the performance of the famed Sichuan Opera which has been a hit around Chengdu since the 14th century.

Playing to a packed house of mostly Chinese, there were no dulcet sopranos and towering tenors here, this was all banging drums, squeaky music, fire-breathing demons, incomprehensible storylines and an unusual, if disorienting, skill reputedly unique to Sichuan known as face-changing in which performers switched elaborate face masks in a fraction of a second, an admirable talent but one which made it difficult to follow who was who.

Culturally replete, mouth numbed by the Sichuan pepper and with ears still numbed by pounding drums drums, I returned to Chun Xi Plaza and the plush lobby bar of the Crowne Plaza Hotel for a cold beer and some quiet down time when, by the foot of the staircase, a beautiful young woman began playing a traditional zither-like zheng.

With her gentle music tinkling around the peaceful lobby like a lullaby, it was difficult to imagine the violence of one of those colossal catastrophes that so frequently demolish this place.

Story and Images ©Copyright David May 2014 (Copyright Agency Limited)

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