CITS (China’s official travel agency’s description of an L Train 临客)
“L – Temporary Train In Chinese: LinKe (临客) L trains operate only during the peak travel season, such as the Chinese Spring Festival and the National Holiday. These trains are not listed in the official fixed train schedule. It is not advised to take L-trains if you have other options as they are known to be relatively slow and regularly subject to delays”.
“46 hours”. I doubted my Chinese at that moment, but the ticket seller repeated the departure and arrival times, there was no mistake. Bagging next day hard sleeper tickets from Beijing to Chengdu can be a taxing experience at the best of times, but in early August, you’ve got about as much chance as winning the lottery. Unless … unless, of course, you are willing to take the slow train 临客 , or L Train as it is known in China!
We got two middle berths, which are the best, as during the day you can escape the crowded lower berths, where everyone sits, and they have more space than the often claustrophobic upper berths.
Pandemonium broke out when the gates were opened at Beijing West Station 北京西站 to allow the passengers on. Those without reservation ran frantically, pushing and shoving the old and weak out of the way, to grab one of those precious seats. It was a simple case of survival of the fittest; get a seat or stand for 46 hours.
With a reservation in our hands, we took a more leisurely stroll to the train. Unfortunately, we found a family, consisting of two adults and 5 unruly children (not sure how that is possible in one-child China), occupying the 4 other berths above and below us.
Yushu (Qinghai) to Serxu (Sichuan) is an epic high altitude journey. I could see the doubt in the driver’s eyes. Either he thought Christmas had arrived early, or, more likely, he was contemplating some grim and rapid end to his life. What we had proposed was the following: Yushuto Manigango in a day, with stops at Serxu Gompa and Dzogchen Gompa. His reservation: his claim that Sichuan Tibetans were not honest like the Tibetans who lived in Qinghai. The word ‘Manigango’, he repeated it several times with distaste, evoked some kind of hellhole from which you’d never return. “Bandits, the lot of them; what if I just drop you at Serxu?”, he protested. His incentive: The 1,000 Yuan I was offering, plus food and accommodation in Manigango.
I pointed out to him that we had been to Manigango in 2004 and found it quite safe. Even though we too had heard numerous stories of pillaging bandits around Manigango, these seemed to belong to an era long gone. Still, I remembered that Manigango had felt like a real Wild West frontier town in 2004.
The main problem was that I had no option: the altitude sickness was playing havoc on my body; five days without sleep and the Tibetan medicine and the oxygen tank were having little or no effect. Serxu, at 4,200 metres above sea level, is another 500 meters higher than Yushu; lingering around, counting on dodgy bus schedules, didn’t appear to be the best option. So, basically, the upshot was: “Either you take us or we’ll have to hire another car”. The first leg of the journey
Price agreed and the driver’s mind set somewhat at ease, we set off at 6.00 am.
The road followed what was now familiar territory, passing the Mani wall, Domkar Gompa, the turn- off to the Leba gorge and finally Continue reading “Yushu (Qinghai) to Serxu (Sichuan)”
Jiude buqu, xinde bulai (If the old doesn’t go, the new won’t come)
A Melancholy Trip Down Memory Lane
It was February 1991 and we had arrived the night before, after one of those long bus rides from hell, and quickly installed ourselves in the comfortable Traffic Hotel. The weather in Chengdu was cloudy and grey, the sun was never to show its face for the whole week we were there. There was a slight winter chill in the air and we kept expecting it to rain, but it never did. Our first impressions of Chengdu were not overly enthusiastic, it seemed like most other Chinese large cities at that time, drab and featureless. Sterile government buildings lined the main boulevards, a testimony to the worst of Soviet style architecture. However, as we strolled aimlessly around, it quickly became obvious that the real Chengdu was just around the corner. And literally! Diving off a main street into a side ally you would find yourself in the midst of bustling street markets, full of the hustle and bustle of frenetic street trading. Vendors sold everything from black-market jeans and watches, to bags of freshly crushed chillies and pungent pickles. Street artisans plied their ancient trades, from basket weaving to dentistry, and small home industries ground sesame oil or produced vinegar. The smell of kerosene from the impromptu food stalls filled the air. The whole city beyond the main thoroughfares heaved with tremendous vigour. Every street offered something different, enticing the curious traveller to delve in and discover something new.
Huanglongxi: Where Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon was Film
Huanglongxi: China’s Little Hollywood: Close to Chengdu is the town of Huanglongxi. Though not on the foreign tourist map, it is definitely a must for domestic tourists. Huanglongxi has been the stage set for many of China’s most famous soap operas, TV series and historical dramas, as well as some of Hong Kong’s biggest Kung Fu blockbusters. More recently, the box office hit ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ was partly film in Huanglongxi.
Huanglongxi: China’s Little Hollywood
It is a small town with a number of perfectly preserved streets and traditional Qing dynasty houses. Unfortunately, some of the streets have become slightly tacky, due to the proliferation of souvenir stalls.
Nonetheless, if you stroll a few hundred meters away from the main tourist drags, you will find yourself in equally beautiful, but quiet, back streets that even now preserve their artisan shops.
You’ll find places where they build paper spirit-houses, make bamboo fans, crush chillies and braid rope from straw. If you’re lucky, you may catch an opera performance in a side-street teahouse, or musicians rehearsing with traditional instruments in a back room.
While at weekends and lunchtimes the village can be a bit overrun, we found our afternoon visit rather relaxing. Next to the river are a host of teahouses, where snacking on spicy shrimps and fried fish and slurping gallons of tea are the order of the day.
Huanglongxi: A good place to Chill Out
Most of these places will also do a good cold beer, if you fancy a change. Besides the teahouses, traditional architecture and flagstone streets, Huanglongxi also has a few interesting temples that are definitely worth a visit.
In fact, one of these temples boasts a real theatre in its courtyard, where you can partake of tea on the stage. This is also where they shot some scenes in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Dazu Town – 1991 When we first arrived in Dazu on a damp, cold day in January 1991, after a long but uneventful bus ride from Chongqing, we found ourselves in a small, grubby market town under a grey sky and a light drizzle. A couple of grotty, but overpriced hotels were the only evidence that Dazu might be home to something more than the abundant vegetables found in its markets….
In September 2005 we returned to Dazu and discovered the town had changed beyond recognition. These days, Dazu is another example of a Chinese boomtown: new white- tile apartment blocks springing up like mushrooms after an autumn shower, a modern, bustling pedestrian shopping street where the old market area had been and plenty of shiny hotels. The local residents had undergone a transformation too: instead of Mao-suited peasants, there were now hip and fashionably dressed youngsters, wielding mobile phones. The newly refurbished Dazu Hotel was ready to cater to the whims of any fussy and…..
Huo Guo 火锅, the fiery hot pot from Sichuan and Chongqing, is undoubtedly one of those great culinary experiences you should try when you visit China. It’s not a meal to have on your own, but something to share and savour in the company of friends. I’ve found that between 4 – 6 diners is about the perfect number, but on many occasions it’s simply a case of ‘the more the merrier’.
What exactly is a Huoguo?
A Huoguo is a giant pot of boiling broth to which you keep adding the fresh ingredients you have previously selected from the menu. Accompanying the Huoguo there are a variety of dips into which you dunk the ingredients, once they are cooked. The creamy, sesame sauce dip is the most popular and definitely our favourite. However, in Chengdu you will often find a sharper, sesame oil dip, heavily laced with garlic.
The original hot pots from Chongqing
The original hot pots from Chongqing only came with one option: a bubbling bowl of red- hot liquid filled with chillies, Sichuan peppercorns and other pungent spices. In fact, it was a real case of ‘the spicier the better’. The massive increase in domestic and international tourism in China has resulted in a number of adaptations to the original Huoguo, with many hot pots having their spiciness toned down to suit the palates of the uninitiated and inexperienced; those people whose stomachs would be at serious risk if they were to eat the original thing.
Nowadays, a typical Huoguo bowl comes with a partition: one side is red and hot, while the other is a white and mild broth with hardly any spices. This type of Huoguo goes under various names, such as ‘Hong-Bai’ (Red & White), or ‘Yin and Yang’, as the bowl resembles the Taoist symbol. Moreover, many waiters and waitresses will discuss the required degree of spiciness with their customers, as if they were asking how the customer would like their coffee.
The foremost and original Huoguo ingredient is meat (in fact, the traditional Mongolian hotpot, which is slightly different from what I’m describing here, is almost entirely meat-based), wafer thin slices of either lamb or beef, although nowadays you can put almost anything in a hotpot. Popular options include prawns, squid, fish balls, tiny eels, boiled quails eggs, different types of mushrooms, cabbage, cauliflower and other vegetables, as well as thin noodles. The noodles usually go in last and are drunk with the remainder of the broth as a soup.
Types of Huoguo:
There are different types of Huoguo restaurants. The cheaper ones, which can be found all over the smaller streets of Sichuan’s cities and towns, as well as Chongqing and its environs, are generally run in two ways. Your first option is a buffet, where you pay a fixed price which covers the Huoguo itself and as many ingredients as you wish to put in: you just go up to the buffet table and take whatever you want, and you can repeat this process until you are ready to explode.
In the second type of establishment you take a basket and fill it with your choice of ingredients, all of which are stuck on skewers, and cook them in your hotpot. When you ask for the bill, the waiter counts the empty skewers and you pay according to how many you have taken. Some skewers are marked, so that for example a skewer with prawns will cost more than one with seaweed. It is always cheap, but you might want to establish the price first before going over the top. A spicy chilli oil or sesame sauce dip will accompany the food.
The more upmarket Huoguo restaurants give you a wide choice of soup stocks, such as fish head, hot and sour, extra hot, etc. and a wide range of dips. There is usually a menu card on which you tick the ingredients and the number of portions you want. These menu cards can be a bit daunting if you don’t speak Chinese, but you can always point to what other tables have ordered!
Beware of the Beer Girls!
A common feature of Huoguo restaurants in Sichuan are the ‘beer girls’ (pijiu xiaojie). As soon as you sit down, you’ll be mobbed by skimpily clad girls, most of them in cowgirl outfits complete with mini-skirts and boots, fighting over the right to plonk bottles of beer on your table. Each girl represents a different brand, and before deciding on which beer to order, ask about the price first, as these can vary considerably, depending on the brand and type. Also make sure it’s ice- cold (bing pijiu), as lukewarm Chinese beer and a Huoguo are not a good match. Come September, it gets increasingly difficult to persuade the Chinese that a beer has to be cold and once winter has arrived, you can just about forget it.
My Favourite Huoguo Restaurants:
Chishui, Guizhou Province:
A big modern Huoguo restaurant near the Chishui river. The only pure vegetarian Huoguo I’ve ever had. The friendly owner understood my question and prepared a spicy broth from vegetable stock. The ingredients were incredibly fresh and varied.
Leshan, Sichuan Province:
The street Huoguo in any of the small side streets, all of these are of the ‘grab-a-basket and pick-and-choose-your-skewer’ variety. Choose the first one that grabs your fancy and join the locals for some serious noshing and beer drinking.
Anshun, Guizhou: I had this Huoguo at the night market, it wasn’t my favourite, but the hottest by miles. We realised we were in trouble when the cook dropped a great lump of solidified chilli oil into the pot and we watched in disbelief as it sank beneath a sea of floating chillies and Sichuan peppercorns.
If you’re in Beijing and fancy trying a Huoguo, the restaurants on Dongzhimen Xijie, known by the locals as ‘Gui Jie’, are the best place in town. There are loads of restaurants to choose from, all of which stay open until late at night, and even in 2006 it remained an authentic Beijing-er eating area, though you can find expats and tourists as well. Beijing people are extremely fussy when it comes to food, which is why the quality of the ingredients here tends to be excellent. Moreover, some of these restaurants are taking the hotpot to new culinary heights, with three or four different stocks in one pot!
It may look like Pork, taste like Pork, but it sure isn’t! In a country where nearly every part of an animal is eaten and where nearly any animal is seen as edible, it comes as a surprise to find so much good quality vegetarian food.
There are few pleasures more enjoyable in China, than reclining in a bamboo chair sipping freshly brewed tea from a porcelain cup in an traditional, old teahouse. Whether you are just people-watching, reading a book, planning your next destination or chatting with friends, it’s one of those memories that will stay with you, long after you have left China. Teahouses are commonplace throughout China; Beijing, Shanghai and other big cities all have their own, and many are extremely fashionable, but it is in Sichuan where you will find the genuine article. Many Sichuan teahouses have managed to retain the timeless atmosphere we associate with Ancient China and continue to form part of people’s daily lives.
Teahouses in Sichuan can range from the humblest hovel to a restored Qing mansion, a converted old theatre or a Buddhist or Taoist temple. The simplest teahouses are often set in rickety, old, wooden buildings on the verge of collapse, they…