Sichuan Food: Getting to Know You

Finally, we’ve reached the end of our posts about China! And it’s fitting to end with an article about Sichuan food, which in some ways is like China’s essence distilled – for it is something very intense and in-your-face, but also deeply nuanced in ways that we Westerners might have difficulty grasping. Sichuan food, in short, is one of the things we’ll always remember about our ten weeks in China. Indeed, our experiences with this spicy fare comprise some of our fondest memories of the country.

[ptcPhoto filename=”SichuanDinner.jpg” title=”Dinner” caption=”Sharing a meal in Beijing. Notice the bibs and plastic gloves.” position=”center”]

A little about Sichuan food, aside from its infamous level of heat: It’s a style of cuisine that originated in the Sichuan Province of China. Countless dishes make up the Sichuan pantheon, but all of them have a similar flavor profile that includes pungent, spicy, sweet, sour, bitter, aromatic, and salty elements. The Sichuan pepper itself isn’t spicy so much as tingly or numbing. But make no mistake, many of the dishes you order will set your whole face on fire.

[ptcPhoto filename=”SichuanClass2.jpg” title=”Spices” caption=”Some common Sichuan ingredients (the peppercorns are top-left).” position=”center”]

Way back in Beijing we took a Sichuan 101 class at Hutong Cuisine Cooking School. There we learned how to make several key dishes including mapo dofu (cubes of tofu in a spicy sauce), fried green beans with chili and Sichuan pepper, and Sichuan stir-fried beef. It was a fun activity for us since we were later able to identify some ingredients in meals we ordered throughout China.

[ptcPhoto filename=”SichuanClass1.jpg” title=”Cleaver” caption=”We fell in love with this style of cleaver and took one home.” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”SichuanClass3.jpg” title=”Cooking class” caption=”The finished dishes.” position=”center”]

All of this is fine and good, but our favorite Sichuan food has to be hot pot – an interactive meal where you cook meats and vegetables in hot broth, fondue-style.

[ptcPhoto filename=”HotPot3.jpg” title=”Goji” caption=”A split pot. Goji berries float in the chicken broth, adding a sweet departure from the spice.” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”HotPot1.jpg” title=”Beef” caption=”Rolls of thinly sliced beef.” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”HotPot2.jpg” title=”Mushrooms” caption=”Mushrooms soak up the fiery broth.” position=”center”]

Some restaurants allow you to order the hot pot itself and then walk around and choose your favorite dippers. The “DIY” style of restaurant gives you the freedom to try a lot of new things you might not order otherwise.

[ptcPhoto filename=”HotPot4.jpg” title=”Buffet” caption=”This restaurant had a huge array of dipping options.” position=”center”]

We found that it’s best to come prepared with tissues and lip balm. And make sure to order some beer to cool down your mouth, since water just doesn’t cut it. Oh, and TUMS. You’ll know it’s good if you start getting heartburn before you even get up from the table.

If you go to Beijing, you have to try the Sichuan food on Ghost Street – namely the restaurant Jingui Xiaoshancheng. Trust me on this one. In the event that we return to Beijing I’ll be eating at this restaurant every day even while the food is so spicy it eats a hole in my stomach.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GhostStreet.jpg” title=”Ghost Street” caption=”Lanterns set off an eerie glow down Ghost Street.” position=”center”]

We had hot pot in a lot of other places: Shanghai, Sanya, Taipei, and even in Sichuan Province itself. But we didn’t find any other restaurants that achieved the same depth of flavor and such a perfect balance of hot and numb-y.

JX also has something called ma xiao, aka spicy little things – crawdads stewed up with a scandalous amount of peppercorns and garlic, all swimming in a pool of bright red chili oil.

[ptcPhoto filename=”SpicyLittleThings.jpg” title=”Spicy little things” caption=”They take a lot of effort to eat, but they are SO good.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”SpicyLittleThings1.jpg” title=”The claaww” caption=”A close-up of my scorchy little friend.” position=”center”]

A big thank you to Rachel and Logan over at Boots in the Oven. Without your tip we never would have found Jingui Xiaoshancheng!

Lots of Giant Panda Photos

Pandas are pretty amazing. Like most people, we really, really like them. So we were thrilled to visit the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, which is basically the Panda Mecca of the world.

[ptcPhoto filename=”PandaClimb.jpg” title=”Remnant” caption=”It is estimated that less than a thousand giant pandas still live in the wild.” position=”center”]

Located in the Sichuan Province of China, the Research Base houses upwards of 100 giant pandas – the largest number ever to be held in captivity. The base is also home to other rare species like the black-necked crane and a whole sleuth of red pandas.

[ptcPhoto filename=”RedPandaColony.jpg” title=”Red pandas” caption=”Although, let’s be honest. No one really comes here for the red pandas.” position=”center”]

To visit the pandas, make sure to arrive early when they’re most active. We were fortunate enough to go on a tour with our hostel that arrived before eight in the morning, so we had the place to ourselves. The center itself is really well-maintained, and there’s a lot of English signage and an educational video. And the entry fee is under $10, making this a really affordable attraction.

[ptcPhoto filename=”PandaWalk.jpg” title=”Bamboo” caption=”Bamboo-lined walking paths at the research base.” position=”center”]

If you’re rich (or just really into pandas), you can also spend the $300 to hold one. You only get enough time to snap a few photos, though. So if you’re just in it for the souvenirs you might be better off dropping that dough in the panda-themed gift shop instead.

[ptcPhoto filename=”PandaSleep.jpg” title=”Sleepy” caption=”If you arrive late, you’ll probably just see a whole lot of this.” position=”center”]

For decades China has led the way in panda conservation. Not only do pandas represent peace in Chinese culture, but they also serve as an important tool of diplomacy with other countries.

[ptcPhoto filename=”PandaFight.jpg” title=”Rawwr” caption=”This says that Emperor Huang employed pandas to fight for him. We find this very unlikely.” position=”center”]

The Chinese have had the most success with breeding pandas, which, it turns out, are very stubbornly opposed to having sex with other pandas.

[ptcPhoto filename=”PandaEating.jpg” title=”Pricey” caption=”It costs five times more to house a panda than an elephant.” position=”center”]

So why is it that pandas have such difficulty breeding? It would seem that male pandas have very little interest in propagating their species. Breeding centers employ extreme measures like panda massage and electronic stimulation to arouse a male so they can artificially inseminate a female. And yes, panda porn is a very real thing.

[ptcPhoto filename=”PandaContemplate.jpg” title=”Alone” caption=”Being solitary creatures makes them more vulnerable in the wild.” position=”center”]

As for the females, they’re only fertile for two or three days out of the entire year. Gestation lasts for three to six months depending on the mother’s ability to find food, and many cubs are born underdeveloped. Sadly, more than half of cubs in the wild die either from disease or from being crushed by the mother. This seems far-fetched, right? Not really, since babies are born 1/900th the size of an adult panda. In human terms, that’s like being born to a 7,200-pound mother.

[ptcPhoto filename=”PandaBabies.jpg” title=”Babies!” caption=”All cubs are born premature, bald, and blind.” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”PandaBaby.jpg” title=”Crawl” caption=”They can’t crawl for the first few weeks, and depend on the mother for up to two years.” position=”center”]

Many experts agree that the giant panda is a remnant species – meaning that even if habitat infringement weren’t an issue, they probably still wouldn’t survive without human intervention. On an evolutionary scale pandas have been around for a very long time, and species do go extinct naturally. It’s hard to say what their status might be if humans never interfered.

[ptcPhoto filename=”PandaGroup.jpg” title=”Fun” caption=”I can’t imagine they have this much fun in the wild.” position=”center”]

Here’s a video of them playing. Try not to succumb to cuteness overload, there’s still more to come.

Another fun fact about giant pandas: They actually have the digestive tract of a carnivore. Their penchant for plants in lieu of protein has resulted in several evolutionary adaptations, such as a sedentary lifestyle, a “thumb” for eating bamboo, and their very large size. Unfortunately they only absorb 20-30% of the nutrients in bamboo and have to eat every waking moment just to survive.

[ptcPhoto filename=”PandaEating2.jpg” title=”80″ caption=”An adult giant panda eats up to 80 pounds of bamboo a day.” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”PandaStillEating.jpg” title=”Still eating” caption=”Which results in them going to the panda bathroom dozens of times a day.” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”PandaFriends.jpg” title=”Hibernate” caption=”Their low-fat diet prevents them from hibernating in the winter.” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”PandaStillEatingDontJudge.jpg” title=”Still…” caption=”Yeah, I’m still hungry. Don’t judge.” position=”center”]

In recent years there’s been a lot of debate over whether it’s worthwhile to conserve the giant panda. The effort and cost involved in breeding the species is astronomical, and perhaps some of the resources would be better spent on other endangered animals, or even on projects that improve the human condition. As for us, we lean towards putting those resources elsewhere. But pandas, man. They’re so damn cute. They make us so happy.

[ptcPhoto filename=”PandaEnd.jpg” title=”Paws” caption=”Maybe we should save them after all.” position=”center”]

China Costs: $86 a Day

We weren’t sure exactly how much to budget for our ten weeks in China, but we wouldn’t have guessed it would cost as much as it did. Economic growth and the improvement of infrastructural elements like trains and roads have made it a more appealing tourist destination in recent years. China has a ton to offer any type of traveler, but rising prices mean traveling there isn’t the same bargain it once was.

Just want the numbers? Skip to the bottom.

The good news is that the booming tourism industry in China is creating competition amongst hotels and restaurants and driving up the value. Almost every one of our hotels had a somewhat comfortable bed and hot water – two things that can make or break a stay. Lodging would probably be cheaper if you could speak to locals and find the best deals, but we that found Mandarin Chinese is an impossible language and relied heavily on for booking hotels. Touristy towns like Xi’an and Yangshuo will have good deals, as will the tiny guesthouses in rural areas.

[ptcPhoto filename=”RusticRoom.jpg” title=”Baishutai room” caption=”This was our cheapest room in China. Let’s just call it…rustic.” position=”center”]

Beijing and Shanghai hotels are predictably pricey compared to the rest of the country ($40 to $50 a night), so budget accordingly if your itinerary is city-heavy. Remember to check out couch surfing as well – there are many expats in China, as well as locals who want to practice their language skills. In Kunming we stayed with Olaf, a new friend from Germany who offered up his sofa and some great information on the city.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Olaf.jpg” title=”CS Kunming” caption=”He also took us to a fun expat bar. Thanks, Olaf!” position=”center”]

One nice thing about a country of 1.35 billion people is that services tend to be really inexpensive. You can get a haircut (including an indulgent scalp massage and up to three shampoos) for as little as $5. Massages cost around $6, however, be prepared for something more painful than relaxing. In Chengdu you can have your ears cleaned in the park for $2. Eric said it wasn’t the most pleasant experience ever, but it’s definitely a cultural one – and a bargain at that!

[ptcPhoto filename=”DentalWork.jpg” title=”Dental work” caption=”Need new dentures? This bus stop shop uses a Dremel to achieve a custom fit.” position=”center”]

When it came to food we tried to be adventurous eaters and go to local restaurants where the prices are lower. It’s hard to go wrong with Sichuan food, Peking duck, and soup dumplings. But once we were out of the big cities there was very little English spoken, and if we just pointed to random items on the menu we almost always got intestines or chicken anus. How does this happen! So the truth is we often played it safe and defaulted to Western-style restaurants in the hostels, whose prices are of course inflated. We also ate more fast food than I’m comfortable admitting. Once again, I’m sure knowing even a tiny bit of the language would go a long way.

[ptcPhoto filename=”ChineseFood.jpg” title=”Chinese food” caption=”Our very first meal in China, ordered from a picture menu.” position=”center”]

China is huge and transportation costs add up quickly if you want to see a lot of it. Which makes sense, since going from Beijing to Guilin to Chengdu is something like traveling from New York to Austin to San Francisco – only more affordable, actually. The high-speed train system covers the eastern half of the country and offers several seat classes. If you go with hard sleepers you can save a lot of yuan. I get pretty grumpy without sleep so we always bought the soft sleeper seats. Make sure to compare flight costs to trains; depending on the distance, flying might be cheaper.

In the southwestern and more rural parts of the country we relied heavily on buses. In general a bus between two cities that takes 3 – 8 hours would cost us around $5 – $10 each. Our hotels also helped us set up some shared rides in vans with locals, which can be the cheapest (and sometimes only) option.

[ptcPhoto filename=”SharedVan.jpg” title=”Shared van” caption=”There won’t be heat, but they’re often hot-boxed with cigarette smoke.” position=”center”]

The daily average cost for our visit was $85.78 (or $42.89 per person per day).

Here is a breakdown of all our costs during our stay. This table does not reflect costs to enter the country, which include $383 in visa fees and $94 in flights (we used miles and only paid taxes).

Type of Expense Total Cost
(for 71 days)
Daily Average Notes
Lodging $1,859.54 $26.19 Our lodging choices ranged in price from $8 in Baishutai to $51 in Beijing.
Food $1,902.22 $26.79 Breakfast buns can be found for as little as 10 cents; most of our meals averaged around $10.
Transportation (within country) $1,402.02 $19.75 Buses tend to be the cheapest form of transportation, but given the great distances we did take some trains and flights.
Entertainment $376.07 $5.30 Includes the Great Wall, Terracotta Warriors, Tiger Leaping Gorge, Chengdu panda tour, Great Buddha, a cooking class, and the Rice Terraces at Guilin.
Alcohol $366.96 $5.17 640ml bottles of beer usually cost less than $1.
Incidentals $183.91 $2.59 Includes the costs for items like sunblock, internet, clothes and donations.
Grand Total* $6,090.72 $85.78 *Total reflects expenses for two people. It does not reflect costs to enter the country (i.e., visas or airfare).

Some Examples:

Average cost of a sit-down dinner for two – ¥90 ($15)
Entry ticket for the Forbidden City – ¥600 ($10)
Local bus fare in Chinese cities – ¥1-2 ($.15-.30)
A kilo of oranges – ¥4 ($.60)

The Faces of Litang

Just when we were starting to doubt we’d ever fall in love with China, the landscape started to change. The area near the Tibetan Autonomous Region, with its Buddhism, huge mountains, and a cold, arid climate, is a world away from the cities back east. Some will tell you that the towns bordering the TAR have more authentic Tibetan culture than Tibet itself, both because of Tibet’s growing tourism and also because the Chinese government has moved a lot of Han Chinese people to Tibet in an effort to integrate the population.

The TAR was out of our reach due to visa and time restrictions. But Eric had read an article online about traveling to Chengdu overland on the Tibet-Sichuan Highway via towns high on the Tibetan Plateau, and he convinced me it would be a good time. He was wrong. Ever wondered what a chew toy feels like when it’s being launched to-and-fro in the jaws of a rabid chihuahua? That’s pretty much what the roads were like after we left Baishutai.

[ptcPhoto filename=”HighwayView.jpg” title=”Highway view” caption=”Our view for days on end. (This patch of road was quite nice).” position=”center”]

So the highway itself was no fun. Honestly, sometimes the roads were so riddled with washboards that we felt like we were being repeatedly punched in the stomach. But here’s the thing: If it weren’t so torturous a location the area might be overrun with tourists like so much of the China we saw. This is probably as far off the beaten path as we’ve been on the whole trip, and it was totally worth it.

[ptcPhoto filename=”HighwayCurve.jpg” title=”Highway curve” caption=”The road to Litang is very high in elevation. There are no guard rails.” position=”center”]

Two days into our trip to Chengdu we stopped in Litang, perched 13,000 feet high on the Tibetan Plateau. Fun fact: Chinese people really don’t like using heaters. If you’re lucky, the temperature inside shops, restaurants and hotels is the same as it is outside. But I swear sometimes it’s even colder indoors. Up here people wear a lot of yak fur and drink a lot of butter tea (literally melted butter and salt in a cup) to stay warm. Thankfully most hotels provide heated blankets. Which basically means that you never want to get out of bed, but that would be a waste after traveling so far.

[ptcPhoto filename=”HighwayYak.jpg” title=”Yak” caption=”Yak grazing along the highway outside of Litang.” position=”center”]

Litang is a really interesting city. It’s a major center of Tibetan culture and home to the Ganden Thubchen Choekhorling Monastery, founded by the third Dalai Lama. The city also tends to be a hotbed of political unrest and protests against the Chinese government, meaning that there’s a noticeable police presence there.

[ptcPhoto filename=”LitangPolice.jpg” title=”Police” caption=”Two Dalai Lamas were born in Litang. Photos of them are technically illegal.” position=”center”]

The best part of our visit was undoubtedly the people watching. And they’re incredibly nice, curious people who usually don’t mind striking a pose if you ask politely. They really helped me overcome my fear of asking permission to take photos.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Litang4.jpg” title=”Monk” caption=”A young monk from the local monastery.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”Litang9.jpg” title=”Little girl” caption=”Smiling for the camera.” position=”center”]

You may have noticed by now that we take a lot of pictures of other people’s children. But it’s only because they’re so inquisitive, expressive, and generally more open to having their photos taken. I promise we aren’t trying to be creepers.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Litang2.jpg” title=”OPC” caption=”I interrupted his breakfast.” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”Litang10.jpg” title=”Children” caption=”The only English phrases most kids seem to know are ‘Hello’ and ‘I love you!'” position=”center”]

Remember how we visited Shangri-La? If there really is such a place as Shangri-La in China, this is it. Don’t tell anyone though – if the secret gets out the place will be ruined.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Litang7.jpg” title=”Temple wheel” caption=”A smile and a spin.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”Litang3.jpg” title=”Prayer wheels” caption=”Many people here go about their daily lives just as they’ve done for centuries.” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”Litang1.jpg” title=”Nomads” caption=”Tibetan nomads come into town for supplies and trade.” position=”center”]

One random thing: It’s possible to witness sky burials here. This method of burial (which is really just placing bodies out on the grasslands to be eaten by vultures) isn’t uncommon in areas like this that are frozen and above tree line. We didn’t go see this since something about touring death scenes seems wrong. Pretty fascinating stuff though. (Please note that this link and any Google results will show graphic images.)

Our favorite place in Litang was the Chorten Karpo, a busy stupa on the west side of town. Inside devotees of all ages spin a massive golden and bejeweled prayer wheel. The whole scene – the meditative chanting, the heavy smell of incense, the solidarity of purpose – could be described as spiritual.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Litang14.jpg” title=”Curious” caption=”He didn’t know what to make of us.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”Litang15.jpg” title=”Blue head wrap” caption=”En route to the temple.” position=”center”]

Between the dusty roads, wandering animals, and barren plateau of a landscape, Litang is already reminiscent of scenes from the Old West. But on top of the city’s facade, people dress in wide-brimmed hats, ponchos, and tall boots that bring the point home: Being here is like walking through a Tibetan Spaghetti Western.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Litang12.jpg” title=”Old West” caption=”Like a Tibetan cowboy.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”Litang17.jpg” title=”Potholes” caption=”Going for a stroll.” position=”center”]

Some more photos:

[ptcPhoto filename=”Litang13.jpg” title=”Old lady” caption=”Never too old to spin the wheels” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”Litang5.jpg” title=”More OPC” caption=”Peering out from the temple.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”Litang11.jpg” title=”Water” caption=”A team effort.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”Litang16.jpg” title=”More nomads” caption=”More nomads in town.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”Litang8.jpg” title=”Tibetan woman” caption=”This lady is just beautiful. We can’t stop looking at this photo.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”Litang6.jpg” title=”Litang dogs” caption=”Dogs at the monastery.” position=”center”]

If you want to experience a different kind of China (or get a taste of Tibet without the hassle of the TAR), Litang might be a good place to start. Just make sure you dress for the weather!

Back to China: Yunnan Part Two

We felt rejuvenated after our hike through Tiger Leaping Gorge and continued on by mini-bus through Yunnan to the tiny village of Baishuitai. Literally translated, Baishuitai means “White Water Terraces”, and it was these terraces that drew us to this secluded part of China.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Terraces1.jpg” title=”Terraces” caption=”So secluded, in fact, that we were the only people there.” position=”center”]

The idyllic limestone terraces are formed by fresh mountain water that trickles down from Haba Mountain. Deposits from calcium bicarbonate in the water took form over millions of years, giving us the pale stepped landscape you see here.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Terraces2.jpg” title=”Terraces2″ caption=”We loved the wide open spaces.” position=”center”]

Somehow we missed the entrance to the terraces, which turned out to be immediately across the street from our guesthouse. As a result we tramped through a farmer’s field complete with cows, thorn bushes and plenty of patties. Our trespass did save us the entry fee, though. Even if the official pathway to the terraces is crumbling from neglect, the terraces themselves are spectacular and pristine. All in all an enjoyable side trip, although it’s definitely out of the way.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TerraceStairs.jpg” title=”Path to terraces” caption=”Make sure you don’t fall through the boards!” position=”center”]

From Baishuitai we braved one final 8 hour bus trip through some of the most beautiful and unforgiving countryside in China. Sadly, the complete lack of road maintenance prevented us from taking any photographs on this extremely bumpy ride.

Next up was Shangri-La. Described by author James Hilton in his 1933 novel Lost Horizon, Shangri-La has become synonymous with an earthly paradise. It conjures images of a Himalayan utopia — an isolated and permanently happy land where people live for hundreds of years.

[ptcPhoto filename=”ShangriLaStreet.jpg” title=”Shangri-La street” caption=”Is this town from Lost Horizon?” position=”center”]

The town itself is criss-crossed by hilly stone pathways leading to restaurants, stores with Tibetan jewelry and crafts, and the central square where locals and tourists dance every evening. Shangri-La is also home to the world’s largest prayer wheel. We were able to turn it with the help of about two dozen other people.

[ptcPhoto filename=”PrayerWheel1.jpg” title=”World’s largest prayer wheel” caption=”Turning the prayer wheel was one of our more memorable experiences.” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”ShangriLaTemple.jpg” title=”Shangri-la Temple” caption=”The temple is nice if you can get up all those stairs at this altitude.” position=”center”]

We splurged one evening on a Tibetan hotpot, which is a hearty meal of yak meat and vegetables. Shangri-La also has a local brewery with very decent beers to wash it all down.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TibetanHotPot.jpg” title=”Hotpot” caption=”There is no shortage of yak in this area of China.” position=”center”]

Unfortunately, the reality is that this Shangri-La was so named for tourism purposes in 2001 and doesn’t quite live up to the paradise that Hilton described. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a nice place to visit. Western-style restaurants abound (at least in the touristy old town) and it’s quite clean and well maintained. But again, it lacked the authenticity were were searching for.

[ptcPhoto filename=”ShangriLaYak.jpg” title=”Shangri-La Yak” caption=”Anyone up for a yak ride?” position=”center”]

Will we ever find a true, untouristed Chinese town?? Stay tuned as next time we head further into the Himalayas in our quest to find authentic China!