Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Well, I'm Back

Hi everybody, I'm back! I've had some very strange and unusual culinary experiences during my absence. I went to MacDonalds, KFC, and even Starbucks! Weird stuff, man. I mean, have you ever seen what Starbucks call a macchiato??!

Seriously, I've had a fascinating and amazing trip, but the food was mostly not amazing at all but quite disappointing. I was on a "Wendy Wu" tour, accompanying my mate Beth, who was in turn accompanying her sister and niece. It's not the type of tour either of us would normally pick: far too regimented and westernised and bland for my taste. And despite being classified as "active", it wasn't. Very lazy, very plush, very easy. We had an octagenarian on the trip, the easy going and charming Lesley, who managed it all with no problem, except for the very steep Great Wall climb.
I'm downloading my 1300-odd photos as I write this, and I will try to do a more comprehensive post soon. I'm about to go out for a birthday lunch though (CHEEEEEESE!!!!!), so here's just a couple of summary points.

We went to
* Chengdu - pandas, Szechuan food.

* Lhasa, Shigatse and Gyantse - temples, monasteries, soldiers, mountains, yaks, bad chinese food, occasional glimpses of Tibetan food, and one Nepali meal. Also, yak bolognese.

* Lhasa-Xining train - amazing views, mountains, yaks, surprisingly excellent railway food.

* Xining - Qinghai lake, bizarre Chinese Butlins-style resort, more yaks, peculiar local food and more bad Chinese.

* Xi'an - terracotta army, wild goose pagoda park, great hotpot dinner. And oh, those gorgeous honey rolls!

* Beijing - forbidden city, summer palace, temple of heaven, hutongs, great wall, massive crowds, huge apartment buildings, olympic tat. Dodgy food and not even proper peking duck. Excellent pizza, though!

I am going to come back and edit this post with some pictures and more detail, but I'll pop it up all incomplete right now, just to say hi!

First update: Chengdu
Pandas are the big thing here. We visited the panda research and breeding project and I took at approximate count a brazillion photos. It's a very nice spot, green with large enclosures and lots of play space for the young ones. They do seem to keep the animal welfare firmly in mind.

On the food front, this was probably the best we had. Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan, more often known to us as Szechuan. Not the spiciest food in China, as Hunan wins that one, but still powerful stuff. We got split into two tables: spice-lovers and others. Our spicy table got the best Kung Pao chicken and Ma Po tofu I've ever had. The famous szechuan pepper, when fresh, has some amazing citrus and cardamom notes, as well as its mouth tingling properties. We also had some delicious fried corn cakes, the fresh corn niblets barely held together by the least light batter. Yummo. I was surprised at how much corn and potato showed up. The Chinese in general seem to have really taken to these foods.

Unfortunately, the Kung Pao chicken never left us. It got progressively dumbed down as we travelled - still quite chilli fiery in Tibet but less szechuan pepper; then even milder as we went along, until finally in Beijing we got a version with no chilli at all, and cucumber instead of celery. And we had it every sodding day, at least once and often twice. AAAAARGGGH!!!!

More updates to follow...

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