Wednesday, 14 August 2019

Sichuan, China - Summer 2019

Schezwan Shredded Beef
Sunday, 9 June

Before coming to China, Schezwan (or Sichuan as I now know it) was the word that meant "spicy" on a Chinese Take-Away menu.  Though so much of the British Chinese menu is incredibly inaccurate to actual Chinese cuisine the association of the word Schezwan and chili could not be more accurate.  "Schezwan shredded beef" was a favourite of mine growing up but you would probably not be surprised to hear that I did not find a single shredded beef dish in my time here.  When I say that a typical dish in Sichuan would have around 30 chillies in it that is no exaggeration.  If anything it is an under estimation.  In fact, some dishes are nothing but chili (right - a bar snack of stuffed fried chillies).  I am in Chengdu on my own and I intend to push my bowels to the limits! 

My first activity surprisingly had nothing to do with chili and instead had me waking up at 6am (having only arrived at the hotel at 2am...) and taking a Didi straight to the Giant Panda Breeding Centre.  If you do not have Didi (the local equivalent to Uber) then you will have to get your hotel to sort you out with some transport.  The gates opened at 7:30 and I arrived at 7:00 to a horde of people already defying all basic queueing rules.  I bought my tickets using a self service machine using Alipay which, again, if you are coming from abroad you will have to find another way.  Most foreigners that haven't bought their tickets online will have to wait for the ticket office to open which annoyingly opens just as the gates open at 7:30.  I must point out that I am here during a Chinese public holiday which is generally very much not advised.  As the gates opened the 3 million Chinese tourists charged to the nearest Panda enclosure.  Following the advice of a colleague I spent the first 15 minutes marching to the very last panda enclosure in the park.  This gave me 30 peaceful minutes alone with pandas that were no more than 5 meters away.  It was awesome and I happily spent the entire time just staring at the pandas interacting with each other, eating bamboo and generally being lazy.  Lazy is the single word that describes Pandas best.  They reminded me of humans having a lazy morning in their pants after a heavy night drinking.

I left the Pandas at around lunch time which was the perfect time to head to Jinli Street, better known as "Snack Street" - My new favour street in China.  Not only does this street have a massive range of Chinese delicacies it is also stunningly beautiful.  It is filled with bright red lanterns, overhanging trees, old (looking) wooden buildings and the odd water feature here and there.  Although I was wary that I was booked onto an evening food tour I really could not help myself buying a new snack the second I finished my previous one.  I started quite heavy with a paper cup filled with a variety of skewers dipped in a deep red, numbing chili oil.  It is known as boboji(钵钵鸡) and is utterly addictive.  There have been reports of this kind of chili oil having opiates in them which definitely explains why you can't get enough of it's fiery goodness.  In total I ate 5 different snacks of which the most fascinating one had to be the rabbit heads.  Spicy rabbit's head is a very popular snack here so I had to give it a go.  Perched on a littler wooden bench by a stream I began my attempt at munching every tiny morsel on little Thumper's skull - without making a mess.  It really was not easy and after breaking poor Peter's jaw open and scraping the brain out with it's own bottom teeth I couldn't help but feel a little bit psycho.  With 30 minutes gone, hands covered in brain and beard drenched in chili oil it was time to move on to Roger... I knew I shouldn't have bought two.

From Snack Street I cycled, using a public bike, to the People's Park (人民公园 - ren min gong yuan).  Chengdu is filled with beautifully maintained parks and the People's Park is the largest one.  The Teahouse culture here is a revelation as I happily sat there reading a book and people watching for a good hour or so.  The Teahouse in the People's Park is over 100 years old and they serve a flask of hot water and a cup of whatever tea leaves you ask for.  I hadn't quite mastered the art of sipping the tea without getting a mouth full of leaves but sitting in the shade of a tree and overlooking a tranquil koi pond it really was the perfect spot to relax.  It was full of Chinese people sitting and chatting but with a gentle hum of a busy library; a million miles away from how it would be in Beijing.  Another popular thing to do here whilst sipping your tea is getting your ears cleaned which I was a little nervous about but thoroughly enjoyed it.  Followed by a mini massage I could have stayed there all day.  One cup of tea leaves can make up to 7 cups of tea and so I topped up my tea until I finished the flask of water - the only reason I left the tea house was because I needed to pee.  Also, I could not pass on the opportunity of feeding the Koi Carp using a baby bottle attached to the end of a stick.  The best 10rmb I ever spent!

Still quite a bit full from my 5 snacks earlier, it was time to head onto my food tour with Lost Plate.  I have used Lost Plate in Beijing and knew that I was in for a real treat.  Lost Plate specialise in visiting proper authentic local food stops using rickshaws as the mode of transport.  What makes it extra special here in ChengDu is that rickshaws have been banned in the city except for the very few disabled drivers in which the ban would have meant having an extremely low chance of being able to support their families.  Our guide was called Bo and he handed us a cold beer on arrival.  What better way to spend an evening?!

Our first stop was a famous street vendor who has been making this particular kind of pancake for decades.  The vending cart that he used to lug around and sell on the streets back when it was allowed now makes the counter at the front of his hole in the wall shop.  With a reminder from our guide that "don't feel like you have to finish it as we have 4 more meals to come" followed by "there are three very popular fillings, which one would you like?" I was put in a very difficult position.  I went for the spicy, sticky pork filling and devoured it in seconds.  It would have been rude of me to just stand and watch the others who chose to eat their's in a much more reserved fashion so I figured that I would ask for one more.  Noticing my keenness the guide brought me two more - one spicy green bean and one shredded potato with another reminder of "don't worry about eating them all it's just for you to try".  The spicy green beans were slightly pickled and crunchy and the shredded potato was savoury against the slightly sweet pancake.  I finished both.  "Oh and they do a slightly less traditional filling of peanut butter and chocolate if anyone wants to try?" Bo happily informed us.  No but I will have another sticky pork if you're buying another round!  I ate four pancakes and cemented a strong impression on the group.  Bo explained the concept of "Fly Restaurants" which tend to be family run restaurants in what look like family homes.  They are known as fly restaurants as these hard to find spots in residential blocks do not advertise their whereabouts, but simple word of mouth spreads so quickly people flock like flies to these hidden restaurants.  We queued outside one such restaurant that was famous for their Chao Shou (抄手) Dumplings and sat in what was definitely once a bedroom and sampled all five kinds of dumplings that they made.  We then exited through the living room window that had stairs on the other side onto the street.  My favourite stop was probably the noodle restaurant where I got to stuff my face with all the famous noodles of Sichuan.  Dan Dan Mian (担担面) is probably the most famous but Tian Shui Mian (甜水面) or "sweet water noodles" stole the show for me.  Don't get me wrong, every noodle dish we ate was utterly scrumptious and I would have licked every bowl clean had I not been in public, but the Tian Shui Mian was different in taste and texture with thick chewy noodles in a fiery but sweet sauce.

After yesterday's busy day on 4 hours sleep it was a joyous moment when I heard that if I wanted to visit the giant budha without 4 hours of queuing I'd better catch the 7am train to Leshan.  Factoring in getting to the station and buying a ticket in plenty of time meant a 5:30am wake up.  I almost considered just taking the 4 hour queue and having a lie in but deep down I  knew what a mistake that would be.  I got there early and still queued for a good 2 hours.  As I was leaving the park the mildly fiendish side of me cracked a smile at the queue that had grew at least 4 times the size.  You can see the Giant Buddha from the top of it's head without any queuing at all but the view from the bottom was completely worth the wait.  Maybe not the 5-6 hour queue midday but I certainly took my time at the bottom marvelling at the world's largest Buddha.  I didn't hang around for too long afterwards as there seems to be very little to do in Leshan outside of Giant Buddha based activities.  I could have taken a boat to get another perspective from the river but that was another queue I didn't fancy tackling.  Instead I managed to find the one remaining noodle dish on my list just outside the park before catching the train back to Chengdu.  These slippery noodles are made out of mung bean and drenched in the standard Sichuan spicy, nutty, garlicky and sour sauce.  Utterly impossible to eat without slurping which luckily in China, much like burping and farting, is not rude at all.

Back in Chengdu for my final evening I decided that I couldn't leave without eating a hotpot.  Hotpot really isn't something you do by yourself but in the end I decided that on a good day I can eat for 2 or 3 people so figured what the hell i'll treat myself!  Another bonus is that my spice tolerance has grown to "Te la - 特辣" which stands for especially spicy or the hottest they go which I probably couldn't go for if I was sharing the pot.  I absolutely love hotpot and everything that comes with it - it's a full on experience every time.  First you select your cold items that you want to put in you bubbling pot, then you mix up you sauce bowl from the massive selection of sauces, spices and garnishes.  Sesame paste is your standard but if you are doing it properly like a local "成都人" you need to empty a full can of sesame oil into your bowl too.  I took my time and endured an hour of sweating and, though I may not have looked like I was enjoying it, I really would do it all again.  Hotpot is the ultimate example of the Mala (麻辣) effect that will make a masochist out of anyone; it hurts so bad but for some reason you can't help yourself but wanting more.  It was the spiciest meal I have ever eaten and I left having eaten 3 peoples worth of food.  My stomach wasn't uncomfortable but I could definitely feel the warmth of a small internal fire brewing.  Did I spend a disastrous evening on the loo? No! Did it play havoc on my early morning flight? Surprisingly not.  In fact I had absolutely no ill feeling whatsoever.  Some of the best food I have eaten in China has been in the last two days.  Sichuan food is everywhere in Beijing and people will literally queue for hours to get their mala kick.  It's not for everyone though and if you don't like your spicy food then I really don't know what you would do for food here.  I however loved every last bit! :o)

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Thailand, Chiang Mai - Spring 2019

Captain Carp
Sunday, 7 April

Who is this Captain Carp and why is everybody talking about him?!

There are few countries that I have chosen to holiday in twice, but having only seen the beaches and small islands of Thailand I feel like I was missing out on true Thai culture.  Flight tickets to Chiang Mai were also really cheap...  an amazing AirBnB with a swimming pool split 6 ways was pretty cheap too!

It was just the 3 of us boys for the first 2 days and so we tried to minimise our activities to things that the girls would probably not want to do or things that we would happily do again.  Full body Thai massage anyone? Twice?  The first one was at Lily's Massage on our first day to help us ease into our holiday.  The second one was in a woman's prison... actually, full on inside the prison bars! It being a prison we weren't allowed to take anything inside but we managed to snap this shot of us looking like prisoners before we went in.  Given that a Thai massage can often feel like getting beaten up at the best of times we were not surprisingly nervous about getting the same treatment from prisoners.  There was no need to be nervous; they were all super friendly and the massage was awesome.  It really was a great experience and we left feeling like we were supporting a worthy cause.

We got the early plane mainly because we wanted to see the Walking Street Market which only opens on a Sunday evening.  It is an enormous market that covers several streets selling all sorts of food and nik-naks.  If we limited the market to have zero repeated stalls then it would probably fit on one street but where's the fun in that?  The "flash mob" of when everyone stood still for the National flag to come down was interesting.  My first proper Thai meal here was what I would call my favourite salad in the entire world with Myanmar's Green Tea Salad coming a close second.  Som Tam is fresh raw papaya that is shredded and mixed with raw green beans and maybe a few bits of carrot and tomato here and there.  Most importantly is the raw garlic and however many fresh chilli's you are willing to brave.  The chilli and garlic are pounded in a wooden mortar with ingredients methodically added every few bashes.  Nowhere will you find a more perfect balance of salt, sweet, hot and sour.  The market doesn't break the mould of your standard Asian night market but it's an interesting thing to do for an evening.  I bought nothing but food which suited me just fine.

The trick to a proper chill-out holiday is planning 1 activity a day and having the rest of the day taken up by waking up late, sleeping on a flamingo lilo in the pool, massages and maybe even some gaming on the Switch that we brought with us.  No matter what, the day must finish with a nice meal and somewhere we can have a drink outside.  The brain knows that if you have a beer in hand and your outside then you must be on holiday.  Monday's activity was Prison massage and evening beer was on the Walking Street market - though I must point out that drinking whilst walking was strictly forbidden.  We sat at a small bar owned by an old transgender lady who you just knew had a fascinating life story.  Not that any of us dared to ask about it.

Tuesday's activity was an evening cooking class with Thai Akha Cooking School.  This being our activity, our nice meal AND our evening outdoor beer all in one I didn't actually leave the house for most of the day.  In fact the above picture represents my day pretty well.  The cooking course was brilliant.  I did a Thai cooking class last time I was in Thailand but Northern Thai food seems so different.  I learnt a lot about the Akha people from our main host and enjoyed that we all got to pick what we wanted to cook from a list.  Having done cooking classes in Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand I can tell you the number one rule in all South East Asian cooking... Blenders are for wimps.  They seem to swear by using a pestle and mortar over a blender and not just so they can make their cooking course last a little longer.  You couldn't possibly put all 10 ingredients required for a green curry paste into a blender.  You must add them one by one and bash them with your pestle (or mortar?  I'm not sure which is which... but you'll get the same result either way!).  I have read people say that you can taste the care that has gone into the curry which I do like the idea of.  I also like the idea of using a blender and then saying I slaved for hours over my pestle and mortar.  You will still taste the care that went into it even if it's a lie.

Wednesday's activity was by far the most incredible activity of the trip.  One that I had to research a lot in order to find an ethical day with Elephants.  Clearly the Social Media train hit hard here as all the brochures confirmed and double confirmed "no riding" and "no hook" and 100% rescued elephants.  The one I booked did not say any of this but the online reviews more than confirmed that the Karen's Tribe Native Elephants were possibly the happiest elephants in Chiang Mai.  Our guide, a local Karen tribesman, was very honest with us from the start - these were not rescue elephants.  Elephants are part of the Karen tribe's daily life and treated very much like a member of their family.  The tribe had owned this family of elephants for many generations and knew absolutely everything about them.  They compared it to owning horses and how there is absolutely nothing wrong with riding these elephants.  These elephants are not wild and so the infamous "Elephant Crushing" that goes around on social media is not a thing for an elephant born into the tribe.

Each pair was assigned an elephant to look after for the day; mine was called Melanjai (most definitely spelt incorrectly) and he was awesome.  Their baby elephant was called David and the tribe explained that he was fearless and just wanted to treat you like his elephant friend and so be prepared to be headbutted and barged every now and then.  We started by putting on some Karen Tribe outfits so the Elephants recognised us and then to make the Elephants like us we fed them two entire buckets of banana, sugar cane and what seemed like a full tree's worth of leaves.  Me and Melanjai were like this *crosses index and middle finger* within the first hour.  Next up was giving Melanjai a wash in the stream using the soapy bark of a special tree.  This is when the guide told me to climb up on it's back to scrub his head and so I nervously climbed up - managed to sneak in a few hugs whilst scrubbing his head, Melanjai was loving it!

Lunch was in the Karen's tribes village which was a short elephant ride away.  No guide required to lead an elephant that has grown up with humans.  I just jumped up on its back and it followed the rest of the elephants.  The only indication to me that he knew I was on his back was him lifting his trunk up to me every now and then for me to pass him a banana.  Lunch was super tasty and filling and then we had a final couple of hours to make elephant medicine (in an elephant sized pestle and mortar of course...) and hug our elephants goodbye.  At the end we even got a CD with high quality photos that one of the guides had been taking throughout the day.  For free!?  No picture or review will explain how wonderful this day was.  Hanging out with the elephants was of course incredible but hanging with the lovely tribe really added to the amazing day.

One epic day followed by another as I had booked myself on to a full day of fishing.  Nobody else fancied it so it was just me and the fishing guide - a new friend for the day.  I read that you could half the price if you went to the fishing spots yourself but the convenience was far better with a guide.  I had a morning fishing in a stocked lake for giant catfish followed by an afternoon fishing in a reservoir for giant Snakeheads.  I caught 6 catfish in a morning which means it is a very well stocked lake!  Many fishermen would turn their noses up at this but not I...  it was exhilarating every time my rod went.  These fish were enormous, easily the biggest fish I have ever caught.  A Chinese man next to me had his entire rod taken in a blink of an eye.  What was crazy is that the last fish I caught brought his rod along with it!  He was very grateful.  The reservoir fishing was also pretty cool even if the fish were not nearly as big.  The fact that they had teeth and were called Snakefish was enough to keep my adrenaline pumping when I hooked one.  I got so close to catching a great big momma too and have actual video evidence so you know that genuinely the biggest fish did really get away!  I could have cried.

We ate at Dash! (I'm not shouting, there's actually an exclamation point in the name) that evening and I sampled the amazing Khao Soi; a dish created here in Chiang Mai.  It is a steaming bowl of creamy coconut chicken curry with noodles and a whole bunch of small side plates to make your dish as spicy, sweet or sour as you want.  I threw it all in and didn't regret it.  Dash! was the number 1 hit on Trip Adviser and I definitely recommend a visit.  It is in a nice area for pre and post drinks too so easy to make an evening of it.  Just as we were about to head home we found a vendor of possibly the best dish in the entirety of Thai Cuisine - Mango Sticky Rice!  There is something so inexplicably comforting about the combination of 3 very simple ingredients.  Warm rice steamed in coconut milk along side cool, perfectly ripe fresh mango, drizzled with sweetened, condensed coconut cream.  It is absolute heaven that is uncontrollably devoured in seconds.  After a 10 hour fishing day, this was everything I needed in an evening out!

For our final day we had lunch at "Nun's Restaurant" which is a sweet little concept though none of us were overly impressed with the food.  Nun is the chef, waitress and owner who simply enjoys cooking and wanted to share that with everyone.  My Pad Thai was a bit over cooked and stodgy; the outcome of trying fry several portions of Pad Thai in one pan.  I made the mistake of looking over curiously at the plate of bugs being eaten on another table and so Nun brought us our very own plate of bugs. For free!  I was picking hard, spiky bug legs out of my teeth for hours.  One last Lily's Massage followed by a stroll around Ploen Ruedee Night Market finished our final day.  Ploen Ruedee night market feels quite different to the other famous ones and a nice change of atmosphere.  Food was very good too as I shared an enormous seafood medley followed by yet another mango sticky rice.

Being in Thailand (or anywhere in South East Asia for that matter) and not seeing the sea certainly felt a bit strange.  But, where else can you eat your meal and have a fish foot spa at the same time?!  Where else can you get massaged in a real life prison? Where else can you catch a giant catfish and hug an elephant in 24 hours? Only in Northern Thailand!  What Chiang Mai is lacking in a beach it more than makes up for in culture and incredibly unique experiences.