Weeks 7-8: Sichuan

Well, its been more than six months since the last post about this trip and we've already returned back to New York.  As we settle back into working world, we're really starting to miss being nomads again.  Now looking back to Sichuan I have such vivid memories of two things: the food everywhere and Lugu Lake.
From Lijiang in Yunnan, we embarked on one of the least comfortable legs of our entire trip en route to Lugu Lake, which is on the border of Yunnan and Sichuan.  Our hotel in Lijiang suggested a day tour operator in order to have a more comfort and flexibility.  This led us to leave at 5:45 A.M. to make it to Lugu by mid-day.  We crammed in a small van and embarked on our trip in the freezing dark.  The van decided to stop for breakfast 2 hours in for 45 minutes in the cold.  I think this was to wait for the sun to rise because the remaining 5 hours of the trip was through some winding mountain roads.
Despite the uncomfortable journey, Lugu was and still remains one of the most beautiful and peaceful places we visited in China.  The remote location gave way to few tourists compared to Lijiang and Dali and also had an amazing mix of Tibetan, Naxi, and Sichuan food.  We spent an entire day motorbiking around the lake visiting a few of the small villages.  In one village there was a cable car to the top of a mountain where there was a Tibetan temple and cave system that people lived in several hundred years ago.  The view was spectacular and the air was the cleanest out of anywhere we went in China.
We stayed in a house on the lake and ended up having all of our meals there because the Auntie and Uncle who ran the place cooked comfort food and took care of us the whole time.  Every time we came back they forced us to have oranges and tea so we weren't malnourished (a Chinese trait I would come to learn a lot about when we ventured to Jess's hometown).  We had a lot of great stir fry, mapo tofu, soups, steamed buns, and more.  Aside from this, the only other place we ate was a street stop on the side of the lake where we ate the best Chinese sausage and liang fen overlooking the lake.
When it was time to say goodbye to Lugu, we were taken to the bus stop by our friendly hotel owner and bid adieu.  We took the bus to Xichang, a small city in southern Sichuan that serves as a transport hub between Sichuan and Yunnan.  We spent one night there and had our first Sichuan eating experience.  I would say this bowl of dao xiao mian was the best we had on the entire trip, although it was intensely heavy.  It was extremely numbing and spicy and was a great indicator of what was to come on the rest of our time in Sichuan!
The following day we embarked on our one and only long distance train trip in China from Xichang to Emei.  We were foolish to buy hard seats despite it only being a 6 hour train.  The car was filled with people eating all types pickled and fermented animal parts, and since we were sitting near the door, everyone was smoking around us.
Just a short line...
We spent several days in Emei to see the mountain and also visit Leshan.  On our first day we took a short bus ride to Leshan town and spent the morning exploring the area around the Giant Buddha and the Buddha itself.  We didn't think it out very carefully because we were there on a Saturday so had to wait over an hour in line just to go down to see the Giant Buddha (which was actually the least impressive part of the area).  This was a preview of the tourist hoards of China that felt mostly non-existent in Yunnan.
At the Summit
The following day, the tourist hoards were even worse on the bus up Emei Mountain.  Originally we were going to spend a whole day on the mountain, but ended up only spending half a day at the summit. All the tourist books and information really underestimate how challenging this trip is, both in terms of the transport and the hiking.  To reach the summit without climbing it, you have to take a 2 hour bus trip to near the peak, where there is snow most times of the year.  From there you then can hike up 5km or take a cable car to the very top (along with most of the Chinese tourists).  The snow on the steps makes it quite challenging but you use crampons sold by just about everyone in town.  Despite the challenges, the view at the summit is breath taking and it can be a very spiritual experience.  You could spend 3-4 days hiking from the base of the mountain while visiting a number of smaller temples, but we just didn't have the right gear or enough time.
Since we had a few extra days we decided it would be worth taking a trip to Chongqing, a 5 hour bus ride from Emei.  We weren't aware of anything in particular to see there, except that it is one of the biggest and fastest growing cities on earth.  It did not disappoint in that respect, and we did have some of the best meals of the whole trip there.  On the first night we had chuan chuan xiang which is a form of hot pot where you dip skewers in the broth rather than throwing everything in and fishing it out.  This was unbelievably tasty and spicy, and the skewers were only 0.4Y each (or 7 cents), so we had about 50 with beers for about $9.
On the second night in Chongqing, we also had a form of hot pot, but this time it was essentially a confit whole duck that you pick apart and eat.  I think I would have enjoyed this more as a group with some other lighter side dishes, but since it was just the two of us we ate most of the duck ourselves.  Fortunately, Chongqing is really mountainous and we walked a lot to burn off all the oil.  During our stay here we also had a lot of amazing soup dishes such as chao shou (wontons) with mala sichuan sauce, homemade tofu, and fried corn with sichuan pepper sauce.
After Chongqing we ventured onwards to Chengdu, a place we had been dying to visit for years.  We decided to spend extra time here since we had been moving around for 2 months.  The highlight of Chengdu was undoubtably seeing the pandas.  Sichuan has historically been the natural habitat of -pandas, but because of their dwindling numbers, many now live in the Chengdu Panda Conservation Center.  We spent the better part of the day there, viewing the babies, teenagers, and adult pandas, as well as some of the red pandas, which we learned are closer in species to raccoons than actual bears.
Chengdu also provided us with a number of amazing meals.  We had a Valentines Day of authentic Sichuan hot pot, which was an extraordinary experience.  We selected a combination of hot and mild broths, both of which where delicious and rich with flavors.  While the hot one was extremely spicy and numbing, it wasn't as intense of an experience as I was expecting, although that may be because we had been warming up for this moment for several weeks already.

Now all spiced up, we moved on to Shanghai to re-live 2009 and ring in the new year of the Goat!


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