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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.



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.


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.


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.


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. 



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.



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.


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。


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.  


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.


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:



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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.

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. 

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


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. 

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.

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!

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. 

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.

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.

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.



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.


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.

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.