Back to blog index

Ten Must Try Foods in Sichuan 十大不容错过的四川美食

I feel like a little culinary anthropologist some days, trekking around China to all sorts of odd places, snapping photos of foods I’ve tasted and then trying to discover more about them.

Sichuan though, was relatively easy – everyone in Sichuan is an obsessed food fanatic and food is a constant topic of conversation, so I had my many questions happily answered.

Sichuan cuisine has been unfairly pegged in the Western world as consisting of nothing but mouth-numbing sichuan pepper (hua jiao) and paralytic amounts of chili. Not so – Sichuan cuisine is complex and diverse, using sour, sweet, salty, astringent and spicy flavours, and many dishes are – gasp – not spicy at all. As the locals say, it’s all about balance.

Again, this is not an exhaustive list of famous Sichuan dishes, although some on the list are very well known and can be found all over the province. It’s simply a list of ten foods I enjoyed so much I’m desperate to try them again, and I hope you enjoy them too.

有时候我觉得自己像一个烹饪专家,行走在中国各色稀奇古怪的场所,对着我品尝过的食物一通猛拍,试图发现更多的美味.

在西方,川菜被认为除了令人满嘴发麻的四川胡椒(花椒)和数量惊人的辣椒外,别无长处。但这不客观。必须说川菜是复杂而多样的。川菜用了酸、甜、咸、涩、辣和苦等各种调味料,很多菜肴不仅仅是辣味。就像当地人所说,达到了滋味的平衡。
此外,以下并不是一份详尽的川菜名菜谱,尽管这份菜单上的一些菜非常有名,可以在这个省的任何地方找到。它仅仅是一份只有十种食物的菜单,但是我非常喜欢,忍不住想再次尝尝。




1. Sichuan Hotpot 四川火锅

Like a rite of passage for every visitor to Sichuan, there is no way to ease yourself into Sichuan hotpot – you just have to go for it, boots and all and curse and sweat as your mouth goes numb, your eyes water and your nose runs. And still you can’t stop compulsively dipping more things into that pot to cook.

The pot arrives – the surface slick with red chili oil and hundreds of chilies bobbing up and down in the soup stock. (In our case we took the coward’s option and ordered a big pot of mild stock with a smaller portion of devil-red chili soup in the centre.) The pot goes on the burner in the centre of your table and when steam starts to rise from the surface you can dip in pieces of meat, vegetables and noodles to cook in the fiery soup.
Once cooked, your dipping sauce is an individual choice, concocted from sesame oil, finely chopped garlic, scallions and coriander.

All around you are pillars of steam rising from each table, red, sweating faces, loud conversations and gallons of beer being consumed to assuage the heat. It’s an experience not be missed.

对于到四川旅游的游客来说,四川火锅就像是一种仪式,是没有办法避免的。你只能努力争取,手脚并用,咒骂,大汗淋漓,与此同时,你的嘴会变麻,眼睛会潮湿,同时鼻涕横流。即便如此,你依然抑制不住将更多食物放到火锅中涮的冲动。
火锅里边,光滑的表面漂浮着一层红红的辣椒油,数以百计的辣椒在汤锅里上下翻腾。(我们这里做了比较胆小的选择,只要了一个清汤,在中间有一小部分是红色的辣椒汤)火锅放置在中间有火炉的桌子上,当汤表面有蒸汽升起时,你就可以将肉呀,菜呀,面条什么的泡到热汤里涮着吃了。
在吃涮锅的时候,每个人的蘸酱是不同的,蘸酱由香油,蒜末,葱花和香菜调制而成。
在你周围,有无数道蒸汽从每一张桌子升起,所有人都满脸通红满头大汗。大家大声交谈,畅饮沁爽的啤酒。绝对是令人难以忘怀的经历。





2. Braised Pepper Rabbit 烧椒兔
Rabbit is popular in Sichuan – braised, grilled, barbecued or in hotpot – and is just as tasty as could be because Sichuanese chefs have a way of transforming what can be a dry and tasteless meat into something tender and juicy.

This dish – shaojiao tu – of finely sliced braised tender rabbit with hot green chillies char-grilled until the edges blacken and they take on a sweet, smoky taste, is dressed with sesame oil, a hint of sichuan pepper and the barest touch of soy.

吃兔子在四川很流行,无论是炖、铁扒烤、烧烤还是下火锅煮都能体现出兔肉的美味。这是因为四川大厨在把干而无味的东西变得柔软而多汁上很有一套。
烧椒兔中的烧椒要把青辣椒烤到边缘变黑才能使它有种甜甜的烟熏的味道。炖得柔嫩的切片兔肉,加上烧椒,配上芝麻油、少量的四川胡椒粉和酱油,味道更出众。


3. Tea-smoked duck 樟茶 
Not all Sichuan food is spicy, and zhāngchá yā or tea-smoked duck is a great example. The duck is smoked until the skin is sweet and crispy, then finely sliced and served cold. The smoky taste is far from strong, just giving the meat a subtle richness.

并不是所有的四川食物都是辛辣的,樟茶鸭就是一个例外。鸭肉被烟熏到表皮甜而酥脆后再细心切片冷冻。菜中烟熏的味道并不强烈,仅仅使鸭肉增添一些淡淡的丰富味道。


4. La Rou 腊肉

La rou is preserved pork – salty, fatty, and smoky – a little but not quite like bacon and often a revelation for people who like to eat their meat completely lean.

Sliced wafer thin,Sichuan la rou is stir-fried until the fat becomes translucent and the edges crisp and curl, together with sweet fried scallions and smoky dried chilies, the fat lending a richness without being oily. It’s also used to season soups and braises, adding a strong, salty meat flavour. 

四川腊肉切薄片后油炸翻炒直到肥肉部分变称透明且边缘开始变得脆而卷曲,肥肉部分流出油脂。腊肉可以用于煲汤和炖菜,同样有种浓郁的咸肉的风味。

腊肉,虽然翻译成培根,却远不是我们所熟悉的培根,而是腌制的猪肉。这种很咸很油腻且带着烟熏味的腊肉适合一些不喜欢食用那些完全没有油脂的瘦肉的人。

5. Dou hua 豆花
A soft-set tofu made fresh daily, dou hua is a popular breakfast food in rural Sichuan where it offers a warm, savoury and filling start to the day, served with lajiao (chili paste) and scallions for extra taste.

Home-made tofu tastes nothing like the bought variety, with a soft smooth texture and a very comforting slightly nutty taste.

自家制作的豆腐吃起来不像那些各式的市售豆腐,而是有种柔软滑嫩的口感和非常令人着迷的淡淡的坚果的味道。

柔软凝固的豆腐每天都是新鲜制成的,而豆花是四川人最爱的早餐。豆花给四川人的每一天一个温暖可口而营养的开始,再加上辣椒和青葱味道就更特别了。


6. Fuqi Feipian 夫妻肺片
I’m not a fan of tripe. As a child my mother described in morbid detail the smell of tripe cooking in my Scottish grandmother’s house, the horrid texture and putrid taste, and ever since then I’ve thought tripe and all things intestinal best avoided. That is, until I came to Sichuan, where they make wafer thin slices of beef tripe and ox-tongue taste so extraordinarily rich and spicy, you might just eat a whole plate of the stuff without thinking about it, as I did.

Drowned in slippery chili oil and dressed with a refreshing mixture of chopped coriander, scallions, peanuts and ground green Sichuan pepper, this dish just seemed to finish itself.

我不是一个牛肚的爱好者。自从我小的时候妈妈在苏格兰的祖母家详细描述了烹饪牛肚的气味,可怕的纹理以及腐烂的味道后,我就觉得应该尽量避免牛肚以及所有肠之类的东西。但是,自从来到四川,在那儿人们把圆薄牛肚片和牛舌的味道做的如此丰富和辛辣,你很可能像我一样想都不想就把一整盘子都吃完了。
将材料浸在辣椒油中,并混合有切碎的香菜、葱、花生和四川绿地辣椒,这道菜差不多就大功告成了。




7. Dan Dan Noodles  担担面
Here’s a dish you’re likely to encounter in many overseas Chinese restaurants, but its origins are here in Sichuan. The name comes from the bamboo pole carried over the shoulder by noodle vendors, walking the streets with noodles on one side and sauces on the other.

Traditionally, fine wheat noodles are topped with finely diced pickled mustard tuber, spiced meat, and chili oil in a light broth.

I was served so many variations of dan dan mian in Sichuan I began to be unsure which version was correct. Some were served in broth, some served in noodle water, and some had no soup but were mixed with sesame paste and ground peanuts. Which ever way you prefer them, they all make a hugely satisfying snack.

传统的面条是,在肉汤里细面条上配上切成细丁的腌制榨菜,五香肉,和辣椒油。    在四川我吃了各种各样的担担面,都不知道哪一个才是正宗的。一些用的是肉汤,一些用的是面条水,还有一些根本没有汤,只是混了一些芝麻酱和花生。不管你喜欢哪种方式,他们都能做出令人满意的小吃。

你很可能在海外中国餐馆碰到这道菜,但是它起源于四川。这道菜的名字来自走在街上的面摊贩肩上挑的竹竿,竹竿挑的一端是面条,另一端是酱汁。


8. Sticky Rice Balls  糯米糍粑
Served three to a stick, these sticky rice balls (nuomi ciba 糯米糍粑) are flash-deep-fried then coated in syrup and sprinkled with sesame seeds. The outside has a pleasant crunch and the inside is smooth and chewy. A great food for eating as you walk. 每个棍儿上串着三个糯米球,这些糯米糍粑炸得油亮油亮的,并且涂上了糖浆,撒上了芝麻。外面一层很脆,里面滑腻耐嚼。适合边走边吃。














9. Sweet Jelly with Red Sugar Syrup 红糖米糕
This is the perfect cooling end to a meal filled with spice – a perfectly sized bowl of smooth, cool rice jelly topped with red sugar syrup.  

一顿辣味十足的正餐的完美收官之作,就是这道甜品——上面浇了红糖浆汁的米糕,柔滑又爽口!


10. Salt and Sichuan Pepper Butter Crisps 椒盐酥

There are times when you eat a food and instantly know you’ll spend the next five years trying to exactly recreate the same taste, texture and look, probably unsuccessfully.


The Gongting Bakery, near the Wenshu Temple in Chengdu, is busy from dawn until dusk because their cakes and biscuits are completely addictive.


Their Sichuan pepper and salt crisps – jiaoyan su – are tiny sweet butter biscuits flavoured with ground dark green Sichuan pepper and salt. One makes your lips tingle, and three is the limit before you stop tasting altogether.

The intensity of flavour no doubt comes from using absolutely freshly picked Sichuan pepper, and so my attempts to replicate these back in Australia will go like this:

1. Tries tested and true simple butter biscuit recipe with addition of Sichuan pepper bought in Chinatown. Not good enough. 
2. Has friend send over Sichuan pepper from China – almost good enough, but not quite.
3. Orders Sichuan pepper tree from specialty plant nursery at massive expense, and waits a whole year for the first pepper harvest – perfection at last.


有时你吃过一种你接触没多久的食物,接下来的5年你会不停尝试,只为了准确地再现那种味道,那种口感以及外形。

他们的椒盐酥是一种又小又甜的黄油饼干,上面会加一层深绿色的川椒和咸盐来提味,吃一块会让你的嘴唇有刺痛的感觉,你一次性最多只能吃三块    口感如此之重由于全因他们使用的是最新鲜的的川椒,所以在澳大利亚我尝试通过这种方式复制这些味道:

成都文殊庙附近的宫廷面包房从早忙到晚,我知道他们为什么那么忙,因为他们的蛋糕和饼干真的是太好吃了。

我试着将从中国城买的川椒添加到简单的黄油小饼中,但还是不够好。朋友从中国寄来的川椒,应该是是足够好了吧,但是还是不够。花大价钱从专门的植物园订购了川椒树,到第一次辣椒成熟等了整整一年——总算完美了。



You might also enjoy:

Ten Must Try Foods in Shandong

Ten Must Try Foods in Shanxi

Ten Must Try Uyghur Foods

Ten Must Try Foods in Yunnan

The Leshan Giant Buddha 乐山大佛


I like to think as an Australian I have a degree of expertise in large things, because my home country takes a particular pride in its ‘bigs’ – the Big Apple in Tasmania, the Big Prawn at Ballina, the Big Sheep, the Big Cow, the Big Mower (at Beerwah). I’ve climbed to the top of Big Pinepapple and ridden on the Macadamia Nutmobile (eight giant brown nuts weaving through the macadamia trees!), and walked through the middle of the Big Banana in Coff’s Harbour…the list is endless. Kitsch they may be, but they’re colourful and hey, they’re BIG.

我喜欢像一个澳大利亚人那样来思考,对于大的东西我都有一定程度的专业知识,因为我的国家特别引以为豪就是众多的大个子塔斯马尼亚岛的大苹果,巴利纳大对虾,大绵羊,大牛,大割草机(在比尔瓦)。我爬过巨大的菠萝灌木,乘坐过澳洲坚果的列车,穿梭在的巨大香蕉树丛中,由于不断的有新的大个子出现,这个名单也是没法列完整的。


All this big-ness expertise, though, left me unprepared for one of China’s bigs. Turns out the Chinese have been doing big since AD713, when monk Haitong at Leshan had the idea of carving a giant seated Buddha into a cliff facing the confluence of two rivers, a site with powerful currents and lethal for boats. He hoped the Buddha would be able to tame the savage waters.

虽然有了这些专业知识,然而出乎我意料的是中国的一项大工程。从公元713年起中国人就开始做这个大工程,当时,乐山的海通和尚有个想法,想要在悬崖中雕刻一个巨大的坐佛,面向着两江汇流处,这个位置处在汹涌的河流交汇处,对过往船只的安全影响极大。他希望佛陀能够驯服汹涌的河流水域。


The Buddha is best seen from the water amid those exact same savage waters, but we don’t initially know this and decide to tackle the Buddha head first so to speak, climbing up moss-covered stone stairs through a lush green rainforest to the cliff top temple, level with the top of the Buddha’s tightly curled black head. 

When we reach the top though we can see bugger all – there are around two thousand people here on a weekday morning. Over the heads of the crowd I can glimpse his right eye and his nose but little else, and photo touts have commandeered the only viewing platform, charging 50 yuan to have a photo of yourself taken standing on a stool and appearing to pinch Buddha’s nose. Classy.

Thank goodness we didn’t try to visit during Golden Week (China’s main national holiday, in the first week of October) as had been our original plan – we would have been crushed to death by the enthusaistic crowds.

最好的观佛的位置是在河流上,但我们最初不知道这一点,我们起先决定爬到佛像顶部,我们穿过茂密的热带雨林中覆盖着苔藓的石阶,攀登到在悬崖顶部的寺庙,在这里我们可以看到佛像紧密卷曲的黑色头型,右眼和鼻子,仅此而已。有承包了观景台的人在兜售拍照, 收费50元可以照出自己捏佛像鼻子效果的照片。路上的游人摩肩接踵,大家排一个小时的队去观摩佛像的剩余部分沿着石阶走下,穿过他的肩,肘,搭在膝盖上的他的手,最后到他巨大的脚,每个脚趾有一辆小面包车那么大。


Everyone is thronging to join in the hour-long queue to see the rest of the Buddha – to climb down stone steps on the inside of the cliff he’s nestled into, past his giant shoulder, his massive elbow, his hand resting on his knee, then lastly his enormous feet, each toe the size of a minibus.


The queue snakes back and forth between eight rows of barriers and eventually we reach the front, only to find we are now pushed forward on a see of people dangerously jammed into a tiny viewing platform where we can barely breathe. We can see below us to the next platform where children and the elderly are being squashed sideways by the surging crowds. 



After the taking of this photo – over the heads of four Chinese women pinned between the railing and us – we hold a brief and urgent family conference, held under the armpit of a large Chinese man who is trying to clamber over us, and decide to give up and view the Buddha from the deck of one of the less crowded boats we can see below us.

在八排栅栏间队列如蛇形迂回,最终我们到达前面,才发现,我们身处危险,被挤进一个很小的观景台,可以看到我们下面的下一个观景平台,儿童和老人被汹涌的人潮挤到一边。经过短暂的家庭会议后,身旁就是一个魁梧的中国男人,他试图插到我们前面去,于是,我们决定放弃,同时看到的下面有很多船只,我们觉得在船只甲板上也可以观看佛像。





The boat is a much better plan, even though we have to hand over another fistful of money to get on one. There are even, unusually, lifejackets, and we can’t board until we are each wearing one. Once we reach the Buddha though, battling against the swift current at full throttle in order to stand stationary for a few minutes, our fellow passengers abandon the ugly padded orange lifevests so their photos look better.

This outfit may actually have been improved by a lifejacket….

The view from the river gives you an idea of the full majestic height of the Buddha – his ten giant toes, truly like ‘ten minibuses parked side by side’ according to my daughter. 

The huge elegant hands rest gently on his knees and it seems amazing that this was accomplished with human hands alone more than 1200 years ago. As the boat finally overcomes the strongest currents and we head back upstream I catch a last glimpse of  the Buddha’s beatific face, calmly serene despite the ant-like humans swarming past him in a never-ending file, and the turbulent waters rushing past.

选择船只绝对是一个更好的计划,使你对佛像雄伟的高度有一个完整的认识他有10个巨大的脚趾,按照我女儿的想法真像是十辆并排停靠的小巴。巨大优雅的手轻轻地放在他的膝盖上,这看起来太不可思议了,这居然是1200多年前完全依靠人类的双手完成的。当船终于越过强劲的河流返回上游时,我最后凝视着佛像喜乐平和的面庞,尽管蚂蚁般的人群永不停歇地拥挤穿过,尽管狂暴的河流在它面前汹涌奔腾,他的面容依旧安详从容。



Leshan Giant Buddha 乐山大佛

Leshan, Sichuan Province

Open daily 8am – 5.30pm
Admission 90 yuan adults, 45 yuan for students, under 1.2m free

Boat rides
70 yuan per person

The Chengdu Spice Market 成都香料市场

 

You can smell the Chengdu Spice Market from way down the street as you pass the Wukuaishi Bus Station, thronging with tiny Sichuanese farmers from out in the country come to Chengdu to look for work – baskets filled with belongings on their backs, or rucksacks made from worn denim, wearing the farmer’s uniform of a worn brown suit jacket, rolled up navy blue suit trousers and rubber-soled khaki gym shoes.

当你穿过成都五块石汽车站的时候,远在街道的尽头就能闻到成都的香料市场,这里聚集着从乡下到成都来找工作的四川农民工——背上背着装满东西的筐子,或由旧牛仔裤做的帆布背包,穿着农民工特有的制服,一身很旧的棕色西装外套,卷着边的藏蓝色西服裤子和一双卡其色胶底运动鞋。

Traffic is mayhem at this spot as bus passengers with bags and boxes weave in and out between vehicles and buses, taxis cut in on one another to vie for passengers, and three-wheeled modi taxis crowd the pavement, calling for fares. There are a lot of horns honking and raised voices, and between all this street vendors have carved out their own slice of pavement and are selling roast sweet potatoes, corn-on-the-cob and spicy cold noodles in cardboard tubs. It’s complete chaos.
Then suddenly the astringent smell of Sichuan pepper goes right into your nose and hits that spot reserved for wasabi or horseradish, clearing your head, and you keep walking.

这里的交通看起来就像是被蓄意破坏过,拎着大包小包的旅客在车辆和公车间迂回前进,出租车彼此加塞争夺乘客,聚集在人行道上的三轮摩的,不停地讨价还价。喧嚣的喇叭声和大嗓门,在这条街上的小贩们已经开拓出他们自己的那片区域,卖着香甜的烤红薯,玉米棒和快餐纸盒装的辛辣凉面。一片混乱。然后突然四川辣椒的呛味儿会进入你的鼻子,芥末和山葵会触碰到的那个敏感点,使你的头脑一下子清醒,接着走下去。

It’s great to be back in Chengdu (and back on the road) after nearly two weeks of sitting still in Shanghai waiting for the campervan to be repaired. I’m not that great at sitting still, preferring to keep moving, keep doing, keep seeing new things, a trait that is exhausting at times for me and everyone else. For once I really needed some quiet downtime to recover from the previous couple of months of very rugged and challenging travel, and you know, eat some familiar foods. Wear clean clothes. Have coffee with friends. It was delightful.
We arrived in Chengdu feeling completely recharged and re-energized, and ready for new places, but before leaving town I wanted to visit the Spice Market where I’d heard Sichuan’s famed hua jiao pepper and chillies are bought and sold. It’s a massive place taking up a whole block, divided into sections for chillies, peppers, dried spices, dried mushrooms, dried seafood and fresh garlic and ginger. 
It’s an Aladdin’s Cave for lovers of spice, and I spent hours there chatting with the vendors and wiping my streaming eyes.

在上海呆了两周,待房车修好后,再次回到成都(回来的路上)的感觉太棒了。我不擅长静坐等待,更喜欢继续前进,继续做点儿什么,继续看到新的东西。有一点我和其他人一样,有时候会感到筋疲力尽。这一次我真的需要一些安静的停工期,从之前几个月的颠簸和刺激(挑战性)的旅途中恢复,而且你知道,吃一些熟悉的食物。穿着干净的衣服。和朋友一起喝喝咖啡。这确实令人心情愉快。我们回到成都,感觉完全充满了电,注入了活力,准备去新的地方,但在离开城市之前,我想参观的香料市场,我听说在那里买卖四川著名的花椒和辣椒。


The main hall of the market is a vast space stacked from floor to ceiling with bags of chillies – from Xinjiang (curled and crinkled), from Hebei (straight and dark) and from Henan (straight and plump). Each has a different taste and degree of heat, although if you really want to maximize the heat you can also purchase sacks of chili seeds (above).

 The air is full of the acrid smell of dried chillies and it makes your eyes water and your nose run. I developed a tight cough, the kind you get when you fry chillies at home and the kitchen fills with the aerosolized chili vapour. The chili vendors (and their children) seemed completely immune to it though – playing cards, eating lunch and gossiping amongst the red-filled sacks.

市场大棚下地方很宽敞,从地板到天花板堆积了大包小包的辣椒 有来自新疆的(表皮皱且形状卷曲),来自河北的(形状直且色泽深),来自河南的(外形笔直且饱满)。每种辣椒都有不同的味道和火辣感,但如果你真的想体验最大限度的热辣,你也可以买上几包上述几种辣椒的种子。空气中充满刺鼻干辣椒的辛辣味儿,它使你不停地流眼泪和流鼻涕。我会很紧凑短促地咳嗽,就是那种当你在家里炒辣椒,厨房里充满了辣椒雾气的情形下,使人产生的那种咳嗽。辣椒供应商似乎完全不受它影响在装满红辣椒麻袋间打牌,吃午饭,闲聊。

The Sichuan pepper hall was next – hua jiao 花椒 (flower pepper) is the tiny outer husk of the seed of the prickly ash bush, and for those who’ve never had the pleasure of trying it, sichuan pepper is unique for its mala or numbing spiciness. Not numbing in the way eating raw chillies numbs your mouth, but truly numbing, in an anaesthetic sort of way. 
Chew one sichuan pepper and you taste a pleasant, peppery, slighty citrus medicinal flavour. After a minute the tip of your tongue feels a little numb and there is a pleasant tingling on your lips. Eat two or three and the rest of your tongue and lips now feel quite numb. The effect is fleeting and not unpleasant.
Sichuan pepper is used with enthusiasm is Sichuan cooking for flavouring soups, hotpots, braises and more. Until I visited the market I was unaware that in addition to the red variety, Sichuan pepper also comes in a dark green variety (qing hua jiao 青花椒) with a slightly different tatse and more powerful numbing properties.
接下来是四川花椒大棚花椒(花椒)是美洲花椒灌木的种子,有着很小的外壳,这些东西没人有兴趣尝试,四川花椒由于它的麻而独树一帜。吃生花椒来麻木你的嘴的时候不会感到麻,但以麻醉的方式食用会感到真正的麻。嚼一个花椒,感觉还不错,有点辛辣,略微的柑橘类药物的味道。一分钟后,你的舌尖感觉有点麻木,嘴唇有舒服的刺痛感。吃两个或三个,你的舌头其余部分和嘴唇,会感觉相当的麻。这种感觉是短暂的,不会不舒服。花椒被使用的非常广泛,在四川烹饪中,调味汤,火锅,炖煮等等很多。我走进市场才知道除了红色品种,花椒也有一个品种是深绿色的(青花椒),它有一种略为不同的口味以及更强的致麻感。

The dried spice hall was extraordinary, filled with intoxicating smells of star anise (above), cassia quills (below), bay leaves (used extensively in Chinese cooking – a surprise to me), turmeric, dried ginger and cloves. It’s the first and probably last time I will see someone purchase 10 kilograms of cloves at once! There were so many more I couldn’t begin to name, trying to guess their uses by their smell.
干香料大厅真是不可思议,充满着醉人的香味,八角(上方),肉桂(下方),月桂叶(在中国烹饪中用途广泛我很吃惊),姜黄,生姜还有丁香干。这是第一次也可能是我最后一次看到有人一次购买10公斤的丁香!还有很多我叫不上名儿的香料。

The last hall holds dried goods like mushrooms (forty varieties) and seafood – tiny translucent dried shrimp, flat tentacled squid bundled together like cards, silvery dried sardines. 
最后一个大棚装满干货,像香菇(40个品种)和海鲜微小的半透明虾干,像扑克牌一样捆绑在一起的扁平触手的鱿鱼,还有银色的干沙丁鱼。

The vendors of the spice market are its lifeblood, a hard-working, cheery bunch who toil seven days a week. Chengdu people are very friendly, but the vendors at the spice market are almost overwhelming in their enthusiastic friendliness, and it’s a place that sees few foreign visitors.

A group of chili vendors trailed me around the market, explaining to everyone who I was and where I was from. (Australia? Wow! Lives in Shanghai huh? Ooh. Interested in Chinese food? Of course!) I was delighted by their hospitality and good humour – I think my eyes streamed as much from laughter as from the chillies.

If you’re ever in Chengdu, yes, be sure to see the pandas, but don’t miss the Spice Market. It’s unforgettable.

香料市场的供应商是它的生机的来源,这群活泼的人努力工作,一周7天辛劳的工作。成都人都很友好,但香料市场的供应商在热情这个方面几乎是力压群雄,这里几乎很少看到外国游客。在市场里 A组的辣椒供应商一直跟着我,和每个人解释我是谁,从哪来。 (澳大利亚?哇哦!住在上海吧?嗯?哦。对中国菜感兴趣吗?当然!)我很高兴他们的热情和良好的幽默感我觉得我笑出来的泪水和辣出来的泪水一样多。如果你要去成都,没错,一定要去看看大熊猫,但千万不要错过香料市场。这绝对是个令人难忘的地方。

Chengdu Spice Market 成都香料市场


2 East Saiyuntai No 1 Road, Chenghau District, Chengdu (about 500m from the Wukuaishi bus station)
Open seven days 8am-4.30pm

成都香料市场
成都市赛云台东二路2
赛云台东一路(距离五块石汽车站大约500米)

开放时间 一周七天上午8下午4点半

Driving Around China: The Nuts and Bolts (but mostly the nuts)

Little campervan, I miss you!

I’m sitting here in Shanghai waiting for the call from the mechanics in Chengdu telling me our campervan is fixed and thinking, what can I write about?

The travels have been suspended for over a week now while they work on the damage caused by months of shaking and rattling on Chinese roads – the popped welds on the water tank, the leaking sink, the cupboard doors that unscrewed themselves and fell off.

Driving through Aksu, Xinjiang: dustiest town in China

Not to mention the damage caused by weeks of driving in high-dust desert conditions – the clogged spark plugs, the blocked exterior locks, the shrivelled windscreen wipers, the floor that continues producing its own volumes of dust every day from unseen reservoirs, so when we lift the carpet we find an even layer of pale silt thick enough to sweep into small hillocks.

Then there’s the damage caused by none of these things – the bathroom roof vent smashed when a tyre mechanic was up there ‘just having a look’ and put his foot straight through it, the extractor fan splintered when a branch fell into it from a nearby tree.

Worst of all, we have somehow sheared off the two outlet valves underneath the van for clean waste water and dirty waste water (er….sewerage), so now the waste goes straight through onto the road like a Chinese train toilet. Not good. Certainly we can’t use the toilet whilst parked anywhere, and using it while moving is logistically difficult on very bumpy roads. We don’t even know when or how it happened, but probably a rock was involved, or bottoming on a huge pothole.

The wily Mr Chen tells us over the phone this is definitely not covered in our insurance policy:

‘It’s an accident if you hit a car, yes. But not if you hit a rock.’

It seems unnecessarily specific, but then, I know nothing about Chinese insurance policies. Is it OK if you hit a cow, for example? Or a fence? But not a telephone pole? He doesn’t come outright and say it, but I know what he’s thinking – that we got under there and sawed off those outlet valves ourselves with a hacksaw, then claimed it was an accident. Foreigners are sly like that.

So as I sit here waiting and waiting I think: I haven’t written much at all about what it’s really like driving around China. And this is definitely something you need to know, should you ever decide to let go of your good sense and drive around this country.

So here it is: the no holds barred, bumpy truth.
I advise you to do as the sign says:

1. The Roads

Mountain road with snow, for added difficulty. Sichuan.
Imagine you’re climbing a steep mountain pass, a precipitous drop to your right with no barrier to guard the plummet downwards should you stray too far to the edge.

Just as you near a blind uphill hairpin bend, the three-wheeler truck behind you (an unusual breed of small cheap blue conveyance beloved of Chinese farmers) overtakes you towards the hairpin. At that moment a passenger bus full of people overtaking a petrol tanker rounds the bend from the opposite direction on your side of the road. It looks grim. It’s a narrow two lane road and there are no less than four vehicles battling for space between the mountain and the drop-off.

But something miraculous happens – instead of a major collision and a fatal fall down the mountainside for one or more of you, the tricycle truck zooms into the space in front of you created when you moved as far to the right as possible, the bus slides into the small space left by the tricycle truck, and the petrol tanker, having pulled on the brakes a little for good measure, gives everyone involved a friendly toot on his horn as he rolls past down the mountain. After all, he’ll repeat this scenario every few minutes on his journey.

This is just a normal day on country roads in China. Character building. You’ll get used it.

The roads themselves are a different matter. Graded into national (guodao 国道 – G), provincial (shengdao 省道 -S) and county roads (xianxiangdao 县乡道) the number of lanes and quality of the driving surface decreases accordingly. Most maps fail to include my own grading – mud trails (B – for bog risk) goat tracks (C – for carnage, as in when you run into one of those critters) and corrugated potholed dirt roads (T – for tractors only).

What I’ve come to enjoy is the sheer novelty value of some of China’s roads – like this dirt track in Inner Mongolia. For reasons known only to the locals, a 2.8m height barrier was necessary right here in the middle of nowhere, preventing trucks and buses (and campervans) from passing. 

Then they just went and made a barrier-free side road, for everyone else. Does it make sense? Of course not. Did it make me laugh? Yes.
2. Tolls
Every decent road – and despite what I’ve said there are quite a lot of them in China – has tolls. Every time you come to a provincial border or a highway intersection there’s a toll booth. Charge depends on vehicle size and distance travelled, as well as road quality (a new bridge will have a higher toll than an old highway, for example) and which province you’re in.

It varies from the cheapest at 6 yuan (Qinghai) to the most expensive at 33 yuan (Shanxi) for every 100km travelled.

The toll booth operators have usually never seen a campervan before, so we’re used to a protracted Q&A before the correct toll amount is assigned.

‘Are you a goods truck?’
‘No, a campervan.’
‘A what? A bus?’
‘No, a campervan.’
‘A what??? Let me see your vehicle registration licence.’
(now on radio to friend in next tollbooth) ‘Xiao Wang! Get a load of this! It’s a CAMPERVAN!!!’

3. Road Signs
Road signs on all major roads are usually helpfuly bilingual, although this gets less helpful in places like Inner Mongolia where the two languages are Chinese and Mongolian and the signs look like this:

Can you read this? I didn’t think so.
In Xinjiang, far western China, the road signs are bilingual in Chinese and Uyghur and look like this:
Still can’t read it. But there is something coming in 11km, then nothing for another 251km.

China also has the best road safety signs in the world:

And sometimes the message is the same but the Chinglish differs:

4. Police

To be honest the one thing I was really worried about, like, waking up at night worried, was Chinese police. I had heard dreadful stories about unprovoked police brutality, about bribes, about deaths in custody. Custody was one place I had tried to avoid all my life, and I didn’t want to find out if the rumours about police custody in China were true.

So the first time we were pulled over by the police I was understandably anxious. We were diverted off the highway in Inner Mongolia into a lay-by filled with policemen and women. A senior officer approached the driver’s window and looked at us with a stern face, his eyes narrowd, his posture ramrod straight.

‘Licence’ he requested, briskly.

My husband handed over his licence, a small navy blue plastic holder with the licence inside behind a clear plastic cover.
He took it with his white cotton gloved hands and tried to open it, but the gloves were too slippery and he couldn’t get a grasp on the edges of the smooth plastic. He sighed.
He handed it back to my husband, who was about to put it away.

‘No! Wait! Let’s try that again’ he said.

‘Pardon?’ I said.

‘Hand it to me again.’ he said, taking off his gloves and putting them in his pocket.

‘Licence’ he requested again. I wasn’t sure what the hell was going on.

Then I realized we were being filmed by a three man film crew. We weren’t in trouble – we were part of a police training video for highway patrols.

We did one more take, all smiling this time.

Then the entire film crew and all the police took a tour of the campervan.

I’d like to say this has been our only experience of police in China, but in fact we’ve now been pulled over dozens of times for licence checks or vehicle registrations. The police presence in Xinjiang is impressively oppressive, with bunkers, camouflage gear and gun-toting batallions of police manning every checkpoint, of which there are many. At these points, you must complete a registration (dengji 登记)and show your passport as well as your licence. Spot vehicle inspections are common.

In other parts of China there is a lack of manpower in the police force, made up for with these:

Police Officer, Inner Mongolia

5. Fuel

Fuel stations are magnificent entities in China. The best are in the east and north, where they span both sides of the highway and encompass acres of grounds, a restaurant, a supermarket, a souvenir shop, a motel, public toilets and a place to buy petrol. Giant hot water canteens dispense boiling water for all your travelling tea and instant noodle needs.

In other places, the fuel stations sell nothing but fuel. They’re so remote the staff usually live on site, and behind the fuel pumps is a vegetable garden where they grow vegetables when they’re not pumping gas.

Prices are pretty fixed across all of China, given that most fuel stations are state owned.

Some handy fuel phrases:

Petrol = qi you 汽油
Diesel = chai you 柴油
Fill ‘er up = jia man 加满

6. Water
I never thought that our biggest problem with the campervan would be finding water. The van has a 120-litre capacity water tank for showers, washing, and flushing the toilet. Divided by four people, 120 litres doesn’t go very far and we usually need to fill our tank every day.

At home, and in other countries, this would be accomplished with an outdoor tap and a hose, available at every single fuel station. Right?

But this is China. After finding that only tap in most fuel stations is indoors, inside the manager’s private bathroom, we often manage to convince staff to run our hose from it to the van by parking close to the building like this. It doesn’t always work, but mostly the staff are terribly helpful and only too happy to oblige.

We have to disconnect if the manager wants to use the bathroom though.

In drier parts of China where rain is scarce we usually have to buy water, from a roadside jiashui 加水 (add water) stall. These take many forms, and the water might be trucked in, pumped from underground reservoirs, or from nearby canals. The well water is best and technically drinkable. Canal water is usually dirty and undrinkable. The price for 120 litres varies with demand – the cheapest is 5 yuan, and the most expensive, in the deserts of western Gansu, is 20 yuan.

Roadside Add Water, Xinjiang
Cave house Add Water, Shanxi

Satellite Add Water, Hebei


7. Mechanical Assistance
What exactly do you do if you break down in the middle of nowhere?

Luckily for you China has a system of roadside assistance as complex and provincial as you might imagine. Here’s how it works:

Roadside assistance is tied to your insurance policy, so the first thing to do is call your insurance company’s 24 hour assist number – if they have one – and get them to help. If you don’t speak Chinese, you’re stuffed. They will then contact the local roadside assist provider to come and help you, usually a guy in a minivan with a few tools. One of the worst possible places to break down is on an elevated highway, where there may be an emergency parking lane but you’ll be sitting in the baking sun for hours while you wait with no way to get off and find food or water.

If you’re on a smaller road help will be available close to a fuel stop, and China is absolutely riddled with vehicle mechanics in little shacks just like this.

Mechanic’s shop, Inner Mongolia
Please don’t be put off by the ramshackle appearance of these mechanic’s shops. They can fix anything, and they manage to keep all of China truck fleets going from one end of the country to the other. 
For the sake of simplicity, when we’ve had breakdowns (not many, thankfully) we’ve kept insurance companies and roadside assists out of it and just used what’s available nearby, like this tyre repair tent on the road from Xinjiang to Qinghai. The tent is spray-painted optimistically with the characters for ‘shop’.

It sure didn’t look like much but but when we had a tyre blow-out and couldn’t get the hydraulically-tightened wheel nuts off the wheel, the tyre shop tent mechanic could and did. Repairs are also inexpensive: the standard rate for a tyre change across China is 50 yuan. 

Once the flat tyre is removed you can then take it to a different kind of shop – a butai 补台 – tyre patch -shop like the one below inside a cave house in Shanxi, and have on-the-spot repairs in the middle of nowhere….
….by these guys, the tyre patch men. They’re just sitting around highways all over the country waiting for your business. 
Makes you want to go right out and get a flat, doesn’t it?

So there you have it. All the helpful information you might need for a road trip in China. Should you be going on one, I happen to know where you can get a campervan reeaaal cheap. Call me.

Yu’s Family Kitchen, Chengdu: A 34-Course Feast For The Senses

After weeks and weeks in the remote wilds of western China, riding camels, sleeping in yurts, trekking through bazaars and witnessing unusual sacrifices, we finally made it across Xinjiang, Gansu and Qinghai to Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province and city of spice. 
It was a complete and utter shock as we tumbled frizzy-haired and wild-eyed out of the campervan and into a major centre of civilization, a place with clean sheets and freshly brewed coffee, without yak hair blankets or animals grazing outside the door of our room. And people spoke Chinese there! No surprise really, given that Chengdu is in China, but so are Xinjiang, Qinghai and Gansu – and yet we went for days at a time without meeting a single person who spoke anything but the local Uyghur or Tibetan language.
Chengdu is smack-bang in the middle of China, a fine city with parks and tree-lined streets where the entire population is obsessed with food and eating. I’d been preparing for our arrival by researching the best places to eat and snack, and the best districts for streetfood (a great place to start is Jenny Gao’s blog Jing Theory). The list was very long indeed, and very spicy. You can smell the zesty fragrance of Sichuan pepper as you walk the streets, where every second doorway is a snack stall or a tiny restaurant with their chili-drenched wares displayed outside on the pavement.
I decided we should just dive right into Chengdu’s civilised food culture and eat at Yu’s Family Kitchen, with a 34 course degustation menu from one of China’s most talked about chefs, Yu Bo.
Belying its humble name, Yu’s Family Kitchen is set in a restored mansion house in one of Chengdu’s most vibrant street quarters, the revitalised Alleys district.
The entire meal was a study in new and interesting flavours and contrasts of taste and texture. I have only a limited understanding of Sichuan food so I approached the meal purely on the basis of taste and appearance. Those more knowledgeable about the culture and history of food in Sichuan would no doubt find more layers of meaning and reference in the dishes, but fortunately for me the flavours and tastes were strong enough on their own to make this a memorable experience from start to finish.
After being ushered into our private dining room on the upper floor – a simply furnished library full of cookbooks – Yu Bo’s wife introduced the meal to us, patiently helping me with the Chinese for any dishes I didn’t understand. 
To commence: sixteen cold vegetable appetisers. Cold dishes always start a Chinese meal, preparing the palate for the more complex tastes to come. These were spanking fresh and perfectly reflected the season, some served unadorned but cut into exquisite shapes, others with simple dressings.
From top, L to R: fresh beans with ginger and soy, smoked tofu, braised eggplant, bitter greens 
Pickled baby ginger, quail eggs with quivering jellied whites, red and green peppers
Wood ear fungus with curls of burning chili, tiny perfect red tomatoes, steamed pumpkin, bamboo shoot
Cooling xi nan hua, xi hu gua, sweetened peanuts, spheres of foshou gua (alligator pear)
Then came the slow procession of the next eighteen courses, taken as slowly as we needed, with plenty of time to talk and watch the street life below from our private balcony.
Left: a tiny egg and truffle cake topped with a sliver of truffle and gold leaf. It looked beautiful but sadly the cake was dry and the truffle lacked punch. The night’s only minor disappointment.
Right: A single clove of hei suan – black garlic – slow-roasted in its skin, then smoked and cut open like a delicate lotus flower blooming. The garlic was soft and rich with the texture of chocolate fondant and a deep, sweet, smoky taste. I’m still thinking about this single small culinary feat.
Ginseng root, two slender pieces, crisp and dry with a taste like fresh-baked biscuit, and powdered sugar.
Yu Bo’s signature dish – calligraphy brushes made from crisp pastry filled inside with pork floss, dipped in a sweet tomato ink. Spectacular and clever.

The little details that add to the experience: every dish is served in a different vessel, beautiful fine porcelain, hand-painted. Had I remembered to take a photograph before leaping into this abalone on cubes of richly spicy mung bean jelly you would have seen the inside rather than the outside of the dish.
Hairy crab meat and roe in crab shell, encased in a fine sheet of soft pastry. Served with aged warm Shaoxing huang jiu – rice wine, flavoured with slivers of ginger, and with a traditional accompaniment of vinegar with fine grated ginger, and a cup of chrysanthemum tea.
Left: a single butterflied shrimp, crisp fried in a crunchy batter and topped with nutty, fiery green salsa.
Right: All I caught when this dish was announced was ‘yu’and ‘tang’ – fish soup. So I dipped into the rich milky broth expecting to find flakes of fish and instead found something I couldn’t initially identify. It tasted like fish, but had a much firmer texture and in one bite could have been squid. Hmmm. I quickly did a search on my phone dictionary and showed Yu Bo’s wife when she returned. She nodded, smiling, because it was in fact eyu 鳄鱼 crocodile, farmed in Guangdong province. 
Smoked fish, pastry twists, and roasted chili dipping powder

Left: pumpkin puree with tapioca balls, smooth and warming
Right: Jiangxi bamboo shoot braised with sichuan pepper, the only very spicy dish of the evening
Served on a calligraphy brush stand and looking a little like a butcher’s shop at the market with cuts of meat hanging in the breeze, this was a dish of pink and tender tea-smoked duck slices with small steamed buns, scallions, and home-made hoisin sauce. Delightful and just too much to finish by course twenty eight.
A masterpiece of dumpling art – a hedgehog dumpling filled with red bean paste, two tiny black sesame seeds for eyes. And so began the dian xin or dimsum. Some sweet, some savoury, all six intended to lightly end the meal.

Zong shuijiao – two folded dumpling crescents with a light pork filling and a rich soybean sauce
Left: beef noodles with braised mushrooms
Right: taisui baicai – white cabbage in a light chicken broth
Left: sweetened, soft glutinous rice jelly rolled in peanut starch powder. The coating had a slight oily crunch as though the rice jelly had been flash deep-fried before being rolled in the powder. I don’t know how that would be possible but if anyone can achieve it, Yu Bo can.
Right: huajiao pingguo three globes of just-in-season apple, poached in a syrup scented with the light fire of green huajiao or sichuan pepper.

And the very final dish: a perfect white porcelain teacup decorated with two lucky goldfish and filled with ripe, luscious globes of pomegranate.

What a meal to remember, and so wonderful to see local, seasonal produce at its finest. I hope you get a chance to visit someday and experience this wonderful place for yourself.

Yu’s Family Kitchen 喻家厨房

43 Zhai Xiang Zi, Xia Tong Ren Road, Chengdu
 喻家厨房 四川省成都市青羊区下同仁路窄巷子43

Open daily for dinner between 5pm and 9pm. Bookings essential.
0086 (028) 8669 1975

Cost for a set 30-34 course degustation menu depends on number of diners attending:

1-2 persons: 1000 yuan ($150) per person
6-7 persons: 600 yuan ($100) per person
8 persons: 300 yuan ($50) per person

Waiting for the Living Buddha

‘We’re all waiting for the 活佛 huofo‘ the young woman told me. I nodded, pretending I had any idea at all about what she was talking about.
We were at the De’er Monastery in Gansu, drawn in by the enormous gathering crowds we’d seen as we drove past. 
‘It’s a fair!’ the girls said from the back of the campervan, seeing a line of tents and some smoke in the distance. 
一个年轻的女子告诉我"我们正在等活佛的出现。"我装作听懂了一些她所说的话,点了点头。我们正在甘肃的德尔隆寺,途中看到拥挤的人潮,我们的车就在人流中缓缓开动。房车后面传来女儿们的声音"是集市!"我看到远处有一排帐篷,炊烟袅袅升起。人们骑着摩托(车上至少骑着四个人),开着拖拉机(至少载着六个人),或是敞篷三轮卡车(没有至少,每辆都达到了最大载人量)从四面八方赶来,看起来就像是赶集。

It certainly looked like a fair – people were arriving from every direction by motorbike (minimum four to a bike) by tractor (minimum six to a tractor) or by open-backed tricycle trucks (no minimum, or for that matter, maximum number).
Those arriving were dressed in their finest and most splendid Tibetan dress – long woolen coats lined in silk brocade or fur with sleeves that hung almost to the ground, velvet jackets, silk tunics in bright colours, red silk sashes, belts studded with rows of raised silver discs, heavy coral and turquoise earrings, heavier strings of amber and coral beads, felt hats and leather boots. And that was just the men. 
The women were dressed even more ornately with heavy silver tassels hanging from their belts, their black hair parted and plaited into two long plaits falling down their backs. Those with insufficient hair of their own supplemented their plaits with coloured silk, plain black wool or black yak hair.
那些赶来的人们都身着最好最隆重的藏族服饰人们穿着以丝绸或是织锦滚边的羊毛长大衣,袖长几乎触地;天鹅绒夹克,丝绸束腰上绣着绚丽的云朵;红色的丝制肩带,腰带上镶有成排的银质圆点;戴着厚重的珊瑚石和绿松石耳环,以及更重的琥珀和珊瑚石串,头戴毡帽足蹬皮靴。而这仅是男子的装扮。女子的装扮更为华丽,她们的腰带上悬挂着银质流速,黑色的秀发被分编成两股垂在背后,头发不够浓密的女子们则用彩色丝线,黑色的羊毛或牦牛毛装点秀发。

Spectacle doesn’t begin to describe the procession of rich colours, textures and decorations. Most arrived in extended family groups with grandparents, parents and children together carrying bags of apples or jujubes, with picnic rugs and umbrellas.
Whatever was happening, it looked like a lot of fun. Could it be the inauguration of a new temple building? An annual harvest festival? It’s tricky though, when you don’t speak the local Tibetan language and you really have no idea whether this is someone important’s birthday party, or a very upbeat funeral.
We could figure this much: the focus of the event was definitely the temple, and the crowds were beginning to seat themselves on the ground radiating out from the central low temple building decked with orange, white and red flags. Something might be about to happen!
色彩之灿烂,质地之丰富,装饰之繁复难以绘制于笔端。大部分人都是祖父母,父母和孩子一大家子出动,带着成袋的苹果,枣子,还有野餐的毛毯和伞。不管在发生什么,场面看起来都乐趣无穷。这是不是一所新寺庙的落成典礼?一场年度丰收庆功宴?尽管很微妙,但当你不说当地的藏语,你就不知道这到底是某位重要人物的生日聚会还是一场乐观的葬礼。
或者,都不是。我们找到一小块空地坐下,就像摇滚音乐会上一样,观众们满怀期待地等着,而不知道乐队已醉倒在别处酒店的房间里了。
我边等边寻找线索(十名僧人突然出现走向高台!这意味着什么?),同时给坐在我们身旁的华美生动的藏族家庭拍照。天知道他们眼中的我们在做什么。我们能推测出:活动的焦点毫无疑问是寺庙,寺庙的低矮建筑装点着橙色,白色,红色的旗帜,拥挤的人群正陆续围绕寺庙席地而坐。即将发生一些什么事情了!


Please somebody, tell me what this happy occasion is?
Or….not. We found a patch of ground to sit on, and waited expectantly, like being at a rock concert where the audience are as yet unaware that the band are passed out drunk in a hotel room elsewhere.
I passed the time looking for clues (a sudden movement of ten monks towards the upper platform! what could it mean?) and taking portraits of the wonderful and beautiful Tibetan families seated near us. Lord knows what they thought we were doing there. 
然后我们的运气来了。在两万名极少有人会说汉语的藏传佛教徒中,有一位来自邻近城镇的十五岁女孩发现了我们,她找到我们然后和我们练习她有限的英语,她的老师让她这么做的。她很高兴我们会说汉语,然后给我们提供了即时的事件信息,那可帮了我们大忙了,因为我们对眼前的情况仍一无所知。
"活佛来了!"在我绞尽脑汁想这是什么意思的时候,她又说了了一遍,最后我只能放弃,掏出了我可靠的苹果辞典,上面说:
活佛:活的佛陀。
现在你可能会认为,我们已经在青海和甘肃的藏区呆了数周了,活佛听起来那么重要,我们应该知道活佛是什么。但是我们仍然没有头绪。他是一个婴儿吗?我问道。他年龄很大吗?我的丈夫问道。他带着王冠吗?我的女儿问道。藏族女孩笑道:他就出来诵读一段很特殊的经文!我环顾四周,人们都满怀期望地注视着寺庙,四周洋溢着兴奋的味道。
那么……你知道他具体什么时候会做这些呢?我问。哦,非常非常快!她回答。因此,为了目睹一些极不寻常的事情,目睹一位活生生的佛陀,我们等了下去,等待,再等待。……还要等多久?几个小时以后我问道,我并不想在如此虔诚的场合表现出不耐烦的迹象。但是在海拔那么高的地方,烈日炎炎,我们渐渐感到饥肠辘辘。



Then we got lucky – one of the very few Chinese-speaking people in the assembled crowd of twenty thousand Tibetan Buddhists, a fifteen year old girl from a nearby town, spotted us and sought us out so she could practice her few words of English like her teacher had told her to do. She was delighted to discover we could speak Chinese and began to offer a running commentary on what was going on, which was terribly helpful because we still had no idea.
‘The huofo is coming!’ she said again, as I racked my brain to think what it might mean and finally gave up and pulled out my trusty iPhone dictionary. It said:
Huofo 活佛 :  Living Buddha
Now you would think after several weeks spent in this Tibetan part of Qinghai and Gansu we might know what a Living Buddha was, and he certainly sounded really important. But we were still embarrassingly clueless.
‘Is he a baby?’ I asked.
‘Is he very old?’ my husband asked.
‘Does he wear a crown?’ my daughter asked.
‘He comes out and reads a very special sutra to the people!’ she laughed at us.
I looked around me. People were expectantly watching the temple. There was a building sense of excitement.
‘So…do you know what actual time he will do this?’ I asked
‘Oh, very, very soon!’ she said.
So in anticipation of seeing something quite extraordinary, a real live Living Buddha, we waited. And waited. And…..waited.
‘Um…how much longer will he be?’ I asked after a couple of hours, not wanting to seem impatient in the presence of such devout attention. But we were getting dreadfully hungry and very sunburnt at that high altitude.
‘I think we should just go’ said my husband. Now, he has a habit of leaving right before something really exciting happens. We once left a town in Thailand just two hours before the arrival of the KING, something people in that town had waited for ALL THEIR LIVES but we couldn’t wait TWO HOURS for. 
‘You mean we’ve just waited for three hours to see the Living Buddha and now you want to leave FIVE MINUTES before he appears?’ I hissed under my breath.
My husband turned to our young friend. ‘When exactly will the Living Buddha appear?’ he asked, rather bluntly I thought.
‘Today. Or tomorrow. Or the next day!’ she replied.
‘This goes for THREE DAYS?’ said my husband.
‘Three days!’ she said, smiling happily.
Well that certainly put a different spin on things. Three hours, OK, but three days might be a little long in anyone’s books, even for a Living Buddha.
We made our polite excuses about miles to go and roads to be covered etc etc and left. We stepped over the feet of hundreds of families settled in on picnic rugs and under umbrellas, with babies and small children, their faces full of extreme patience. We bustled past thousands of people standing on dirt paths, on the edges of walls, and in ditches, faces turned towards the temple.
I felt really, really bad. And very un-something. Un-zen, I think. Certainly im-patient.
我丈夫说:我觉得我们该走了。现在,他有一个习惯,就是每每在一些真正让人兴奋的事件发生前就离开。我们曾经在泰国的一个城镇,就在我们离开后两个小时,国王光临了那个镇子,镇子上的一些居民等了一辈子就为了见国王一面,而我们却连两个小时都等不了。
你的意思是为了见活佛我们已经等了三个小时,而现在你想在活佛出场前的五分钟离开?我咬牙切齿地说道。
我丈夫转向我们的年轻的朋友问道,活佛究竟什么时候会出现?我觉得他的口气太直率了。
今天,或者明天,或是后天!她回答。
这要持续三天?我的丈夫说。
三天!她开心地说道。
那就有点问题了。三个小时,好的,但是三天可能在任何人的书中都有点长,包括等待一名活佛。我们小心翼翼走过人群,离开。我们跨过数百个家庭铺好的野餐毛毯,穿过他们的阳伞,还有婴儿和小孩子,他们的脸上充满了耐心。我们匆忙穿过数千站在泥土小道上以及站在墙边和壕沟上的人群,面朝寺庙。我感觉非常糟糕,一无所获,我觉得自己没有慧根,当然也很没耐心。



We reached the far edge of the field and had just opened the doors of the campervan when I heard it, a sudden profound hush in the crowd followed by the deep, throaty sound of a single chanting voice. I spun around. On the far, far, far-off platform of the upper temple building I could just make out a tiny crimson speck. 
It was the Living Buddha, and we had MISSED him. My shoulders sagged.
‘Onwards and upwards?’ said my husband, trying to soften the blow.
‘Onwards and upwards’ I sighed. And off we went.
当我们走到场地的边缘处,刚打开房车门,我听到了一个深沉的咏诵声,以及随后人群中突然爆发的欢呼声。我转身,在遥远的寺庙上部建筑的平台上,我仅能分辨出一个深红色的斑点。
那就是活生生的佛陀,我们错过了活佛。我一下子就垂头丧气了。
勇往直前?我的丈夫试图挽回点什么。
勇往直前。我叹息道,然后我们离开了。

I wait three days for the Living Buddha and just when I go to get a sandwich he decides to appear! Damn!

Labrang Monastery – Sorting my Karma from my Mantra

I wake up after yet another night of catastrophic dreams brought on, I tell myself, by the high altitude – which seems to do all sorts of odd things to your perception as well as your breathing – rather than the genuine and quite real worry of some unsolveable problem happening to us in a remote place where no-one speaks Chinese, let alone English. 
It’s freezing cold and raining when I wake up in the small town of Xiahe in southern Gansu province, part of the Amdo Tibetan region spanning three provinces outside of Tibet itself and full to the brim with Tibetan people speaking their own distinctive local dialect. It’s high in the mountains, reached by a hairpin descent from an even higher mountain pass winding up and through the clouds, and down again into a broad alpine valley filled with small farms and fast-running mountain streams.
Today we need to be up early to catch the English language tour at Labrang Monastery on the western  edge of Xiahe – a sprawling miniature city surrounded by a wall and bisected east-west by a road. The tour is the only way to see inside any of the monastery’s gold-roofed buildings and I’m intrigued to see the place where more than 1400 monks live, work, study and worship.

The monks are all of the Yellow Hat (Gelupga) Sect of Tibetan Buddhism, named for the striking yellow headpieces worn during ceremonies. The Yellow Hats originated as a school around six hundred years ago and you might have heard of their leader – he’s a well travelled fellow called the Dalai Lama.

At the monastery gates we meet our guide – a young crimson-robed monk who giggles at everything we say- a little disconcerting – and speaks in such heavily accented English it’s practically impossible for us and for the French couple joining us to understand a word. It’s made worse by the confusing array of names and terminology which have Tibetan, Sanskrit and Chinese variations, and rapid-fire delivery of these in quick succession. I decide to learn with my eyes, because my ears are failing me.

Crimson-cloaked monk are everywhere, going about their daily routine. It’s helpful to think of the monastery as a school or college, full of men being educated in philosphy, Buddhism, astrology, traditional Tibetan medicine and of course theology. The monks are all ages, from small boys to old men, all dressed alike.

For large Tibtan families (unrestricted by the one child policy) having one son attend the monastery is reasonably commonplace, and we see many young monks attending to chores, rushing to class or doing what young boys do best – horsing around, whipping each other with the ends of their robes made wet in the rain, and laughing at each other’s jokes. But only when the senior monks aren’t looking.
Our giggling guide takes us through a series of smaller halls, each one filled with the smell of smoking fir branches, incense and burning yak butter candles, and surrounded by worshippers doing their clockwise daily kora, or pilgrim path. The halls – squat tan and ochre buildings with simple circular designs in black and white – have different purposes but are often places of combined worship and learning. Our guide shows us a sutra, written in Tibetan script, from which the monks study.

The multi-purpose nature of some of the halls is eveident when we visit one housing the precious stone encrusted stupas of four famous and long-dead lamas. Around the edge of the candle-lit room are twenty monks eating their single meal of the day. All the while there is an endless stream of worshippers weaving their way in and out of the hall with candles and food, and small knots of visitors with guides, like us. Between all these come lines of benefactors with small bags of ten yuan notes, passing them out to each monk in turn. It feels like a cross between a temple, a school, a canteen and social club as the monks greet their benefactors in turn. No photography is permitted indoors, so you’ll have to imagine the whole yak butter-scented scene for yourself.

We make our way to the Grand Sutra Hall where the monks are now gathering for morning prayers, called there by the sound of long Tibetan horns. Outside are black yak fur-lined black boots, discarded at the door. Inside gilt statues of Buddha and hundreds of yak butter candles line the outer perimeter, and the main part of the darkened hall are rows of heavy columns and line after line of low coloured cushions, on each of which a monk sits cross-legged, chanting.

It’s a low guttural sound, reverberating through the darkened candle-lit room, rhythmic and mystical, repeated mantras echoing from the columns. Time passes slowly. The monks’ breath can be seen in white puffs in the cold air.

We’re permitted to stand quietly on the hall’s perimeter. Between the rows young monks arrive to pour bowls of hot tea for their elders, keeping hands warm. I look outside through the main door where it is still pouring, to see the last few monks arrive late, robes pulled over their heads to keep dry.

In this day and age seeing a sight of massed faith like this is not a common sight, nor is the thought of so many young men giving over their lives to religion. But here in Xiahe it’s just the way it is.

Later that afternoon once the freezing rain has stopped, the clouds on the hills above Xiahe clear to reveal a sprinkling of fresh snow – the first of the season. I go out to walk my own kora around the monastery, now I’ve thawed out after a bowl of hearty hot Tibetan dumpling soup.

The kora winds its clockwise path past the back of the golden prayer hall when I suddenly hear the murmur of distant chanting, and far below the path is a semicircle of monks seated on the ground, praying together. It’s a most extraordinary and uplifting sight.

Labrang Monastery
Xiahe township, Gansu Province

Admission and English language tour 50 yuan adults, children free
English tours daily at 10.15am and 3.15pm.

Passing the Point Of No Return 不能反悔的关键点

Today’s post is short, because, well, it’s been a tough week of rough roads, high altitudes, low spirits, mechanical problems and illness. For the poor old campervan and for us it seems like everything that could possibly go wrong, has – the brakes, the watertank, the windscreen wipers, the heating, the plumbing, our plumbing. 

But today is an important day as far as The Great China Road Trip goes.

Years ago I watched Pole to Pole, a documentary in which the irrepressible Michael Palin, born-again traveller, is adventuring from the North to South Poles, a hell of an achievement. In the final leg of the journey he must reach Antarctica by airplane from South America in a fifty year old lumbering Douglas DC-6 without cabin service, luggage holds or other such niceties, built to withstand the rugged flight and ice landing.

这似乎是一趟可怕的飞行,气流颠簸很厉害,为数不多的几位乘客在没有座位的机舱内颠来倒去。帕林对着镜头说:飞行员说我们正在踏上不能反悔的道路!那就是一条无法回头的路——我们的燃料不够了,所以我们只能一直向前!"他仍旧很开心,但我们这些电视机前的人很想知道,要坐着一架老旧的飞机横跨广阔的南太平洋,并且深知不论天气多糟糕,引擎有无故障除了向前飞别无他选,因为绝不可能返航,这到底是什么样的感觉。

数年前我曾看过一部记录片,开心但急躁的迈克尔帕林,改过自新后成为了一名旅行者,他从南美搭飞机到南极。他乘坐的是既没有座位也没有其它舒适设备的货机,飞机隆隆作响,航程颇为艰辛。


Some hours into the turbulent flight Palin says:

“We’ve reached what the pilot drily refers to as P.N.R.”

Just as we’re all wondering what that means he continues cheerfully –

“That’s the Point Of No Return – we no longer have enough fuel to get us back to Chile.”

It’s a rather sobering thought, even from the position of a comfortable armchair, as those of us at home wonder what it must feel like to fly in an aging aircraft over the vast expanse of the Southern Ocean, knowing you have no choice but to go forwards through violent storms or engine trouble, because turning back is simply impossible.

That comment has stuck with me for many years, because it applies to so much in our lives – points at which we must take a brave leap forward and continue, because there is no option to reverse our steps.

We reached our own P.O.N.R. this last week – or rather, several points of no return, when after weeks of journeying further and further west in China we reached the westernmost point of our travels, a small Kyrgyz village on the Karakoram Highway. I didn’t really mark it with much thought at the time, being too busy dealing with the high altitude and the practicalities of travel, but I have given it more thought today as we pass the exact halfway mark of our travels, three months and more than 17,000km after setting out.

在我们一路向西的数周后,我们抵达了我们的不能反悔的关键点,在上周我们到了我们行程的最西部喀喇昆仑高速上的柯尔克孜小镇,随后我们会掉头往东,往南进发。在当时,我忙于旅途的诸多杂事,所以并没有真正意识到这点,但是在最近的这周我对此进行了不少反思。

For us it’s nowhere near as dramatic as for Palin – we have abundant fuel, and we could turn back at any time, just park the van by the side of the road and take ourselves off to the nearest airport for flights home. In less than eight hours I could be back in my living room in Shanghai, watching TV, and calling Mr Chen to let him know where to send someone to collect the van. 

And yet…even during the hard weeks like this one, the difficult times, there has always been some unseen force pushing us forward to complete the journey as intended. Partly it’s a wish not to fail, not to admit defeat, but mostly it’s because the travel – as well as being fascinating and wonderful – feels transformative: a test of character, a building of patience and endurance, a revealing of strengths. Not just for me, but for all of us. The gains are too great to turn back now. 

This week we’ve seen what I think is the most beautiful part of China yet – the Amdo region, an area spanning Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan, and peopled by ethnic Tibetans, most of whom are practicing Buddhists.

信众每天绕着当地的佛教寺庙的朝圣小道步行一周,在今生为来世积功德。你可以在一天中的任何时间从环路的任意一点开始或结束。我曾看过那些人们——年轻人,老年人,病人,残疾人——不分四季,从早到晚,在绕行,在祈祷,在思考,在转着祈福轮。显然,他们的祈祷之路没有终点,只是一种纯粹的信仰。这个星期我们看到了我认为是至今为止中国最美的地区——安多地区,她横跨青海,甘肃和四川三省,居民大都是身体力行信奉佛教的藏民。
Every day the faithful walk a kora – a circular pilgrim path around their local monastery to generate merit in this life for the next. You may begin and end the path anywhere along the circle, but once you’ve begun you must continue until the circle is completed. 


I’ve watched them – the young, the very old, the sick, the disabled – from dawn until dark, in all kinds of weather, walking the circle, praying, thinking, spinning prayer wheels. Ultimately, their long pilgrim path has no destination, but is simply an act of faith and a kind ambulant meditation.


I’ve come to see our circular journey around China as a kind of moving meditation too. I’m learning to let go of the questions I constantly ask myself like ‘Where are we going next?’ and ‘Why are we doing this? What is the purpose?’ There is no definite destination. There is no particular purpose. 
There is only the act of moving forwards, not backwards, of looking ahead, not behind, of keeping an open mind, of time to think and reflect. Of being brave enough to pass the point of no return, and not regret a minute.

我开始反思我们犹如朝圣之路的的逆时针环中国游。没有特别的目的地,也没有特别的目的,尽管路上有不期而遇的困难和生活的挫折,我们的旅程都是一路向前而非后退,我们都抱有积极而非消极的想法去面对,都在思索和应对度过,都勇往直前毫不迟疑地走过我们不能反悔的关键点。