Where the people speak Sichuanese & the kids eat peppers as snacks

Culture | by Susan Cheng
Posted: October 19th, 2012 | Updated: October 22nd, 2012 | Comments
After spending five days with some friends in the quaint yet lively city of Chengdu, located 1,966 km (1,222 mi) southwest of Shanghai, I’m now back in the bustling metropolis of Puxi. And I long for those Sichuan nights we spent exploring the city, sipping on bottles of Xuehua Beer (Xuěhuā Píjiǔ, 雪花啤酒) without a single care in the world. In just five-days-time, we managed to explore most of the streets of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, stopped for afternoon tea at Du Fu’s Thatched Cottage, and, of course, paid a visit to our furry friends at the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base. Though I left Chengdu satisfied that I had taken on and conquered a Chinese city completely unfamiliar to me, those five days were definitely, at times, a bit of a struggle.

Speak my language, please!

So there I was, about to leave the airport, riding shotgun in the mint-green cab, relieved to have finally reached Chengdu. I looked back—my three friends were squeezed in the backseat, staring at me wide-eyed and bushy-tailed. Like lost children, they were all depending on me to communicate and to get us from the Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport to the Shudu Mansion Hotel, located in the heart of the city. No problem, right? "Take us here," I instructed the cab driver in Mandarin, showing him the name and address of our hotel. "Eh?!" he bellowed, responding in a guttural voice and dialect I could not understand. Now, when I don’t understand someone, I sort of just pause and stare until the person realizes I don’t comprehend. Usually, it works, but this guy just continued to yell at me in Sichuanese. Whether he was actually "yelling" at me, I don’t know, but it was sort of shocking... after a month of living in China, I was finally experiencing this concept they call a "language barrier." Go figure. Somehow I gathered the courage to shout over him, "Nǐ kě yǐ shuō pǔ tōng huà ma (Can you speak Mandarin)?" Things got a little easier from here on, but his Mandarin was coated in such a heavy accent that I still could hardly make out what he was saying. It didn’t help that he would resume yelling every time I failed to respond. This occurred again on our journey to the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base, located in middle-of-nowhere-Chengdu—and again on our way to Jin Li, an ancient street packed with restaurants, bars, stores and vendors selling all sorts of snacks and souvenirs—from hand-made cigars to little wooden toys. One thing I noticed right away about the people of Sichuan is that they’re definitely more aggressive than your average Chinese fellow. Not only are they louder (oh, it’s possible), but they’re also much shorter with you. Even local shop owners don’t mess around. Don't get me wrong—they're really nice people, but they’re just all about their business and rarely have time to chitchat.... Must be all that spicy food. And just for the record, it usually only costs RMB 50 to get from the airport to the center city. If the cab fare is anything more than RMB 70, then you’ve probably been taken for a ride....

Authentic Sichuan hot pot

Speaking of spicy food, however, I'm happy to say that we got to try some authentic Sichuan hot pot (má là huǒ guō, 麻辣火锅) from a fancy place on Qintai Road (Qíntái Lù, 琴台路). If you've never had spicy hot pot before, it's essentially Chinese fondue, consisting of a boiling pot filled with hot and spicy oil. The pot is placed in the center of the table, and you dip an assortment of ingredients—anything from leafy greens and mushrooms to beef, pork, chicken, seafood, even exotic eats like monkey's brain—into it until cooked. The oil is made of Sichuan peppercorns, bell peppers, and chilies so that you get this numbingly spicy-yet-satisfying sensation on your tongue. Rule of thumb: once you start eating, don't stop. It's when you stop eating that the sensation kicks in. Based off my first and only experience with spicy hot pot, some tips I have for future foodies are 1) eat your hot pot with some kind of starch, whether it be noodles or rice; 2) don't drink water with your meal (water spreads the spicy sensation); 3) beer helps. Peep below for some other shots I took during my adventures in Chengdu, and check back next week to read about our trek up Emei Shan!
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