Our train arrives at Chengdu station at around noon and we immediately head to the booking office for our depature tickets. We’re hoping to take a sleeper on the 24+ hour train to Guilin on Saturday. No such luck, only “hard seat” with the next sleeper available Monday night.
To hell with the train. We go back to the hostel and start looking at flights. We find one leaving Chengdu Saturday night and returning 1.5 hours later and it’s well within our budget. I purchase it online and Bob’s your Uncle (I say this to Sara all the time, it drives her nuts. See post: My marriage may be over by December).
Cleaned up after long train ride (and hostel with no hot water the day before) and feeling fresh and new. We enjoy a beer and a nice meal at the hostel. I check my email and discover our flight is sold out. Lovely.
I start searching for new flights and it doesn’t look good. Meanwhile, Sara had rushed up to the hostel travel services desk (a great hostel, will post Sara’s review when available). As the woman at the desk scans flights, Sara overhears the people beside her asking about a sleeper train from Chengdu to Guilin. She knows where this is heading.
Our agent discovers our previous flight is indeed available, but only three seats remain. Sara runs to find me hoping the other couple doesn’t discover the flight. We decide to go for it, Sara rushes back, tells the agent, and the flight is settled. All the while, she’s dying because she has to pee. But she got the tickets first. She will be my partner on Amazing Race.
* * *
We’re in Sichuan Province and so we’re eager to try the local cuisine. We head off to a Sichuan hotpot restaurant recommended by a helpful agent at our hostel.
We walk up the stairs and see a large room with large round table that seat 10 or 12. Two of these tables are filled with groups of men, pouring each other drinks, eating, laughing. Piles of napkins and empty bottles are strewn about on the floor below.
We stand awkward at the door and a waitress spots us and leads us to a seat at a smaller table to the side looking out on the street below. Our waitress – or rather the only girl in the restaurant who can speak a little English and has been designated to deal with us – asks, “Hot, medium, half?”
“Half”, we say, not quite sure what she’s talking about.
We sit and wait. And wait. The girl returns. Apparently you have to go up to a counter at the back and select your food. We choose bamboo shoots, some sort of Chinese turnip thing that we had before and liked, shrimp dumplings and spicy beef (it is Sichuan after all, we had to go spicy).
We return to our table to find a large metal pot separated in half. One side yellow and the other bright red with all sorts of chilis and peppers bubbling up to the surface. Medium and hot.
We have our food and this bubbling pot and we don’t know what to do next. A waitress sees the clueless Canadians and tells us to wait until a certain spice about the size of a gumball breaks apart then dump everything in.
So this is what we do. After the food has boiled for a bit, we try the spicy meat in the spicy boiling pot. And, yes, it is spicy. As soon as you put it in your mouth you can feel your lips tingle and tickle. Soon enough the whole mouth feels like this. It’s very hot, but not in a jalapeno sense. It’s different and difficult to describe, but so flavourful.
We sweat and feel our sinuses clearing and by the end of the meal, our mouths are almost completely numb. The tingling would last an hour longer.
A satisfying end to our first day in Chengdu. Tomorrow, there will be pandas.
Sara about to eat a bamboo shoot from our Sichuan hotpot. Spicy and delicious.