It's all in Chengdu!
10.29.2011 - 10.29.2011
My first introduction to Chengdu involved tea, appropriately so, since the city is famous for its tea houses, tea shops and tea drinking relaxed culture. One of my roommates was a man from Taiwan named Valence who was staying in Chengdu for 5 months selling Oolong tea. Within a few mintues, I was sampling some of his tea (he had an electric kettle and several cups in the room) and he was telling me about how Taiwanese Oolong tea is superior to all other green teas. The tea was good, but I'm no connoisseur. He also had this special coal-infused bamboo "magic" cup as he called it which does something to the tea chemically to make it feel smoother when you drink it. And that it did.
He also told me about a procedure in Chinese traditional medicine called cupping. From what I gather, the belief is that if you have certain bad health symptoms or even things like acne (which is how this conversation started when he commented on the fact that I had some zits. Nice to meet you too, sheesh) they are caused by having what they call too much "fire" inside you. Cupping means placing small plastic suction cups on your skin, pumping an attached vacuum until the skin bubbles up inside the cup. You let the cups stay on your skin like that for 15 minutes yikes. He said with some people there will be "mist" inside the cup. The mist is the fire escaping your body. He has his own pump with suction cup that he uses multiple times a week on himself to remove the "fire" inside of him. He demonstrated, and it looks painful to me, though he says not and I was anti trying it on my skin - the thought of all those burst blood vessels makes me cringe.
Valence then took me to lunch nearby for some traditional spicy Sichuan food. Chengdu is part of the Sichuan province of China and is known for its tongue-numbing foods. He ordered us 3 typical dishes: pork with green peppers, kung pao chicken (though different than the kind they serve back home) and spicy tofu. I started with the pork, which wasn't too spicy (also they don't eat a lot of meat here, but when they do it's often very fatty so wasn't so keen on this). The kung pao chicken was good and also not overly spicy. They had some diced green bits in it (bitter melon i think?) that are in a lot of dishes here that were pretty yummy. Then there was the tofu. Seemed harmless. I thought I cold handle spicy food since I love Mexican, Indian and Thai food. But the spicy peppercorn powder they put on that tofu here is on a whole other level of spiciness that I've never experienced before. It numbs your tongue, lips and anything that contacts it for a few minutes. You feel your lips tingling, nay throbbing even. It leaves a strong aftertaste too making anything else you eat taste of fire. I actually felt my stomach lining burning after lunch. And then later I had to hit the toilet...it was that bad. Welcome to Sichuan!
We rounded off that spice fest with more tea. Valence took me to a tea shop where a woman and her family make clay teapots and cups by hand - they only shop in Chengdu, or maybe even Sichuan, where they still make everything by hand. We sat at a big wooden tree stump table with stump stools while the tea master girl poured us tea cup after tea cup after tea cup. There is a platter on the table where the teapots are that catches the water. They use a brush, like a paintbrush, to sweep the water off this platter and down a little drain in the table which is connected to a tube that runs into a bucket under the table.
We drank their Chinese green tea. Then we drank Valence's Oolong tea. The tea master washes your tea cup with the hot water first, dries it, then hands you the cup with some wooden tongs. They first rinse the tea leaves. Then they pour the tea in one pot into an empty pot through a fine strainer, to weed out any excess tea particles, before filling your cups.
We stayed for over an hour I think. I bought a couple handmade tea cups as souvenirs. The teapots were beautiful, but too expensive for me and too delicate to carry around backpacking. I thought I was all tea-ed out, but Valence took me to another shop owned by a Taiwanese man. There we continued the same kind of process for another hour plus. I have never drunk so much tea in my life. I thought my head would explode from all the caffeine. But it was very mellow and enjoyable, even if I didn't understand what people were saying most of the time. Valence would translate a few times for me thankfully. Final stop on my tea tour was this famous tea house where they have several different style private tea drinking rooms. Valence knows the girls that work there and they weren't too busy, so they showed me several of the rooms and let me take photos.
If I were to live in China, it would definitely be in Chengdu: the tea drinking, mellow pace of life, people actually talk softer here, there is much more greenery in this city than any of the other ones I've seen in China, and I think it's even cleaner