By the time we arrived in Chengdu, we were exhausted. We'd been traveling for weeks, and the only real break we'd had was the time we spent on Ko Phi Phi in Thailand. (I know, poor us!) I felt bad for letting our great experiences wear me out, but there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Especially if that good thing involves a lot of overnight trains and communicating in hand gestures. So when we found ourselves staying in a cozy hostel equipped with a dvd lending library and a bar, it's not surprising that we succumbed to spending a day lounging in the garden reading and drinking Tsingtao.
Luckily, Chengdu is a great city to be lazy in. First, you have as your example the laziest creature on earth, the Giant Panda, which can be viewed up close and personal at the Chengdu Panda Base, a research and breeding center. You do have to get up pretty early to catch these guys at their morning feeding, however, as it's the only time of the day that they begin to approach frisky: the rest of the day they are napping, so they can digest their fibrous feed.
Second, one of the central features of Sichuanese society is the teahouse. While you can find these pleasant enclaves all over China, Chengdu is particularly well-known for them. I was especially fond of the many outdoor teahouses, like this riverside establishment. The best part is that once you select the kind of tea you want and hand over some cash, you are presented with a giant thermos of hot water and left to lounge with your effectively bottomless drink for as long as you like. Greg and I played hand after hand of cards, read our books, and dozed in the warm, hazy sun. Every teahouse has its own vibe, whether it is quiet and relaxed like this one, or full of chatter and the clatter of mahjong tiles.
Lastly, if you are feeling sort of sedentary, you can make up for it with some culinary adventures, thanks to the Sichuan pepper. Sichuan pepper, was, until recently, actually illegal to import to the US, so I was totally unprepared for it, despite having read descriptions and tasted a mild version of the tiny red-hulled seeds. The best way I can describe the experience of eating Sichuan peppers (or, more accurately, their husks) is that it is like having a mouthful of bees: your mouth actually vibrates with the fuzzy numbness of the peppers' heat and anesthetic properties. I made the mistake of putting four of the little berries in my mouth at the same time and biting down, after which I had to sit very still for several minutes for fear of vomiting because of the intensity of the sensation. It felt like an electric current was running through my mouth.
If you are smart, however, and eat your Sichuan peppers as they are served, in a mixture with other foods, rather than popping them in your mouth like candy, the buzzing sensation is quite mild and pleasant, and is accompanied by a woody, herbal flavor that melds nicely with chilies. In our first couple meals in Chengdu, we had Sichuan peppers in two very famous Sichuan dishes: hot pot and mapo tofu.
We had our mapo tofu at Chen's, an establishment that apparently dates from the mid-1800's. We tried to order several other tofu dishes there too, but they seemed to be out of most of the things we had considered, so we hurriedly picked out some replacement dishes. We ended up with these (slightly overdone but still addictive) deep-fried cakes served with sweetened condensed milk, and this thick-sauced chicken served over crisped rice. The mapo tofu itself had all the elements of a fantastic comfort food, particularly if you find spiciness to be comforting. It is oily, smooth, and a little mushy, sort of like a pudding or a porridge, exactly the sort of thing you'd crave when you had a head cold.
Hot pot is a popular dish with many variations, and while its history is murky, Sichuan province often comes up in discussions of hot pot, so I was excited to try it in Chengdu. We saw hot pot variations all over northern China, from the "Mongolian" style we tried in Beijing, to restaurants in Xi'an where trays of ingredients on skewers were presented buffet-style and your bill is calculated by the number of skewers littering your table at the end of the meal.
In Chengdu, hot pot broth is liberally stocked with peppers, both Sichuan and chili, and the ingredients are as varied as your imagination. In addition to the flavorful broth, you get a dish of soy dipping sauce, which you can doctor with garlic, sugar, and other additives. We ordered a variety of vegetables, lamb and beef, and (after a brief argument with the waitress) duck intestines. The duck intestines, by the way, had a nice snappy texture, and tasted more like chicken than duck to me &mdash although they were, of course, smothered in numbing, burning spices.