We probably never would have gone back to Ciqikou were it not for punk rock. The Chongqing version of the ubiquitous replica “ancient” town doesn’t really invite repeat viewing, and the hostel there is too far from the city’s central peninsula to be convenient. But, it’s not far from Chongqing’s Shapingba district, home of the Nuts Club, host of this April’s Chongqing Punk Festival. When we heard about the concert, we had a reason to return. And this time around, we were quite charmed by the neighborhood.
It started when staying in such a touristy area meant that I could actually tell cab drivers where to go, instead of thrusting a page of scrawled out characters in their faces, which is my usual move. I feel so cool when I can talk to people!
After we settled in at the hostel, we ventured back out into Ciqikou for some Chongqing hot pot. There’s something of a rivalry between Sichuan and Chongqing (which used to be part of Sichuan but is now its own municipality) as to whose hot pot is the hottest, and there’s a hot pot restaurant pretty much every few feet in Ciqikou. We chose one that was just outside the neighborhood’s entrance gate, because it was the most crowded with people looking like they were having the most fun.
This here, that’s only Meiguo spicy.
So, I’ll put it up front, Chongqing hot pot is SPICY! Spicier than we’ve had in Sichuan Province. They really aren’t messing around. They even held back on us, I think, seeing our non-Chinese faces. (Which, honestly, was a good call on their part.) We saw other tables’ pots packed with chili peppers — also a healthy scoop of lard, which initially surprised me, but accounts for the richness of the broth.
We got our usual array of vegetables, plus a few wild cards: rolled-up tofu skins — which weren’t a hit — and something that turned out to be the Mexican fruit! When that was delivered to our table, I pulled out my translation sheet and copied down the relevant menu item. Our waitress watched over my shoulder, cheering me on. Generally, I get a lot of smiles when I pull out this sheet — mostly copied from the menu at Tofu Hot Pot.
On our way home, walking through the closed down and mostly empty Ciqikou streets, we heard the sounds of Radiohead wafting on the breeze. This was a surprise, because most of the music we hear while out and about in China is of the terrible pop variety. It was even more surprising when we realized that it was live.
Without really even discussing it, Peter and I both turned down the small alley from where the music was coming. The alley ended in a series of stairs leading to a giant temple, but just before the temple entrance was a small bar. Led inside by our ears, we found a Chinese band playing American rock hits. It was magical.
Unfortunately, it was also quite short. We arrived almost at the end of their set. “I’m sorry, it’s over,” they said to us in English after they finished their last song. We were the only people besides the employees in the bar, so I’m not sure who was more disappointed in our timing. But we had a drink and a good time anyway.
Hey! There’s a wedding outside our window!
Saturday we took it easy, resting up for the night’s concert. We breakfasted on roti pancakes, and coffee from a cute little coffee shop near the front gate of Ciqikou. After a quick Carrefour run to replenish our stocks of foreign herbs, spices, and olives, we mostly lazed about in the hostel, enjoying both the English-language channel on the TV, and the view of the river from our window. There was a giant inflatable slide set up outside, and we watched babies and their mother teeter up to the terrifying top and then make their dizzying descent. It was more exciting that it had any right to be. We also watched a wedding take place on the top floor of one of the floating seafood restaurants in the river. It was a big day for someone!
Fridays, we teach Juniors, and it’s Peter’s earliest day. His first class is second period, 8:40am. For me, it’s my sleep-in day; my first class isn’t until third period, 9:30am.
The kids today are more rambunctious than usual. Opening class with “How are you?” gets me answers of “Unhappy!” and “Terrible!” Their parents are coming in for school conferences.
I hear more about it at lunchtime. Peter is taking a nap and I am done for the day, so I walk down the hill with my student, Amy. She is wearing a shirt that says, “We are all greedy bitches.” I know that she knows what the word “bitch” means, because she keeps calling her history teacher one. “I know what the rules are! I never break them,” she complains to me, her voice quivering with the rage of the unjustly wronged. And yet, her history teacher yells at her a lot, and will presumably give a bad report to Amy’s mother and father. Amy is also worried what her parents will think about the 0 she got on her math exam. “I don’t like math,” she says in defence. She did, however, get a 95 in English.
After we say goodbye, I go up to the track. On my second lap, a Senior 3 student, Zhang Rae, joins me. We try to run together every week, and he’ll practice his English on me. He tells me he really liked the movie “Silence of the Lambs.”
We discuss films, future plans, Chinese history … everything. “Many young people think Deng Xiaoping was a great man,” Zhang Rae says. They don’t like Mao. But, he adds, Mao was a great man.
On my way back to my apartment, I’m met by one of my neighbors, an older man in his 70s. With Zhang Rae’s translation help, we have our first conversation: He sees me running all of the time! Would I like a plant that will cure my freckles? Chinese people really don’t like freckles.
Curious, I take him up on his offer. The plant turns out to be aloe — my neighbor is cultivating, like, hundreds of aloe vera plants. He chops me a few stalks and mimes rubbing them all over my face. When I run out, I am free to pick some more, he tells me.
After the lunch break, Peter goes to his final class. Ten minutes later, he returns. It turns out parent-teacher conferences are happening during afternoon classes. Not for the first time, our classes are cancelled without anyone telling us. But it’s a hardship we’ll bear. The internet is out, so we spend all afternoon reading comic books and playing cards.
For dinner, we are meeting a new friend, Melody. She spotted us at chuan chuan a few weeks ago and introduced herself. Her English is really good. She’s actually a former English teacher from our school, and these days she does private tutoring while she stays home with her baby. She keeps current on her English by watching and reading American TV and books.
While we wait for Melody, at the corner near chuan chuan, one of Peter’s students spots us. Walking with her father, she proudly says hello. They disappear around the corner … and then she comes running back. She offers us a bag of delicious flaky pastries filled with red bean paste. We eat two on the spot and have the rest for days.
Before dinner, Melody takes us to get Chinese massages. These are the best massages either of us have ever had. More theraputic than, like, a pamper-yourself spa package, they treat all of our aches and pains. As we’re finishing up, Melody asks if we’d like to try cupping. “Does it hurt?” I ask. Not really, she said.
Left: Peter’s post-cupping back. Despite the welty look, it doesn’t hurt. I promise. Right: Melody and me, and the many fine cuts of beef we ate.
Cupping is one of those things that the hosts of Chinese travel documentaries have to try out, always with an air of, “Isn’t Chinese medicine wacky?!” But it didn’t really feel any stranger than other poking and prodding I’d been through in the name of beauty and comfort. I was thinking of Gwyneth Paltrow, though, the whole time the cups were suctioned on my back. In the end, I felt great and Peter said that his 22-year-old back injury felt better than it ever had.
In this state of bliss, we go on to dinner. Melody takes us to a new hot pot restaurant that specializes in beef. We get individual pots, and a large spread of delicious food. They also have a spice bar there, and Peter and I go a little nuts. Looking at our bowls, Melody says she can tell we are newbies because we took so many different things. But I need garlic, peanuts, oil, 2 kinds of peppers, tahini AND sesame seeds!
The conversation is equally as delicious. We talk about what it means to live a good life and how to follow your heart, both philosophically and pragmatically. We also talk English; Melody asks us what a trust fund is — something she’d come across in her reading. “The characters are always saying, ‘Don’t touch my trust fund!’” she says. She’s surprised when we tell her that not all Americans have trust funds.
After dinner, we say goodbye to Melody and cap off the night at Manchester United. They always have interesting music there. Tonight on rotation: “Rock and Roll All Nite,” KISS; “Personal Jesus,” Depeche Mode; “Get it On (Bang a Gong),” T.Rex. Why? Who can say. That’s just China.
So, you may know that we got to see a different version of “Iron Man 3” over here, with some extra special Chinese scenes. It was pretty easy to tell what those scenes were, because they were all in Chinese with no English subtitles. And they seemed to be spliced in from a different film.
We went last Saturday afternoon — opening weekend, of course — and the theater was packed. Not quite sold out, but the most people we’d seen there in all our movie-going adventures. We were an excited and attentive audience, and the film just dived right in with no previews. It was awesome and exciting, and if you’re a fan of fun, you should go see it.
But, given all the hype (but none of the advertising), I was expecting a lot of the action to be set in China. *Spoiler alert*: It wasn’t. The Chinese bit was really just tacked on at the end. Tony goes to China for heart surgery, and the doctors — played by well-known Chinese actors — trade quips as they scrub up. The audience laughed, so it must have been funny.
The Chinese moment that got the biggest reaction, however, was completely unintentional: There was a widely reported bit of product placement for a popular bean drink, and when it showed up on screen as one of the doctors’ drink of choice, we all roared.
The double-whammy of it all is that not only is Chinese really difficult, but my natural tendencies toward introversion mean that every conversation with a stranger is one I don’t want to have. The other night at dinner, I told Peter that if I could just have someone else order beers for us — something that I’ve had more than a year of practice doing — I would do anything for that. Anything but ask, that is.
Given this reality, it’s really very easy for us to fall into a rut. When we order the same thing at the same restaurant every night, they bring us what we want without anyone having to say anything! It’s so comfortable … but also so limiting. Enduring a little social discomfort opens up exciting new worlds of food and vocabulary for us every time. So this Anglophone introvert has to keep pushing herself.
Travel is the obvious way to shake things up. In Zigong, of course we wanted to try the hot pot. There is intense regional competition regarding whose food is the best/freshest/spiciest, and we want to judge them all.
After a meander through the narrow market streets near our hotel, we found a clean, well-lit little place with the tell-tale burners sunk into the tables. “You want the spicy broth?” the server asked, I think. Whatever she said, I said yes. We also ordered cukes, lotus root, winter melon, cauliflower and potatoes. Delicious, and a whole different spice than our Luzhou usual. Hot, but we could handle it.
The night of our return from Zigong, emboldened by our recent, we set out to try out one of the Pot Pot restaurants by the river. We had no idea what 锅锅香 was, beyond the fact that a meal seemed to consist of a shallow pot of food atop a bucket holding a heat source. But we had been curious about it since we’ve arrived here, and we were feeling brave.
One of the hostesses beckoned us to her restaurant — there’s a cluster of about five or so in this particular area— and we obeyed. I picked at random one of eight options, and ordered up the beer: 4 bottles, cold please. They brought us out a bucket containing a red hot brick (yes!) and a small pot of pork belly (OK!). It also came with sprouts, cabbage, winter melon, potatoes and glass noodles. This dish, for a change, was not spicy, but more like a hearty pork and beans stew.
This place … is not yet a favorite. The broth and fixins we got were fine, but pork belly is so fatty and I just don’t have a taste for it. I left behind an embarrassing pile of blubber.
But, we went back a second time. This time I ordered spare ribs, which were fantastic for me … but that soup didn’t really come with enough vegetation for Peter. When we’re not Jack Sprat and his wife, sometimes I think we might be Goldilocks.
We’re determined to keep going back, however, in search of the perfect dish for both of us. There are six more things to try. And they already know how we like our beer.
Our arrival in the big city is heralded by bugs and rain
Our hotel room wasn’t much larger than the bed, but it was a place to stay out of the rain.
Sarah was baffled that we were going to stay on in Zigong for not one but two more nights — “I’ve already shown you everything!” — but she helped us check into the Rongguang Business Hotel anyway. Our accommodations were basic and small, but cheap and clean. And the TV had CCTV-News. Luxury!
Nestled in the elbow of the Fuxi River, we were ideally situated for tourism Emily and Peter-style, which involves wandering around until we get lost and/or find something interesting, and then seeing what we could find to drink. Our plans were thwarted, however, by the unrelenting swarms of bugs that were everywhere. Seriously, Peter was wearing a bright yellow T-shirt, and every couple of seconds it was completely covered in black. It was almost Biblical.
We found many treasures at the bookstore, including this Spider-Man puzzle!
The problem was, the aforementioned river was running quite low, and the marshy exposed banks were a fertile breeding ground for these icky little guys. The whole region, including Luzhou, had had quite a dry spell, and for weeks the cities had been trying to seed the clouds for rain, our boss Linda had told us.
We took cover from the bugs in a western restaurant, and while we were testing the bartender’s ability to make every cocktail pictured in the menu, the rain finally came. And did not stop until we caught a cab for the bus station out of town two days later.
But, damn the rain! We came here to see Zigong. We grabbed umbrellas and got walking.
The small hill in front of our hotel led up into a pedestrian path lined by small shops. This eventually tapered off into a small market street. Taking a zag up to the main road, we walked by the bigger chain stores that you see pretty much everywhere: Spider King (shoes), Aiyaya (make-up), Septwolves (men’s clothes), KFC (chicken) … All in all, slightly different scenery but pretty similar to Luzhou.
On the way back to the hotel our first evening, a young man greeted us in English. It turned out that this young Zigonger attended the Luzhou Teachers College, where I taught a course this summer. (He wasn’t my student.) We asked him what he thought of Luzhou. “The buses are very crowded,” he said.
Just after we exchanged numbers with our representative of This Small World, we got a flurry of text messages and calls from different Chinese friends. Melody sent a text asking about dinner plans. Young Jane called demanding to know where we were. (For the life of me, I could not get her to understand the word “Zigong.” When I saw her later that week, she told me that she thought I was saying the Chinese for “fish pond.” Also back in Luzhou, Tina told us that one of her classmates had seen us cavorting around the city.) It was a fun moment, to be on the road and realize that we’ve actually made a home in China. And that it missed us.
Every place in China seems to have a claim on something they do best. (Maybe this is true of every place in the world.) Usually it’s food related. And in Fushun County, according to Sarah, it’s the bean curd and rice breakfast. You can find it other places, but it won’t be as good, she said. It’s something in the water. (Hmm … this is sounding a lot like New Yorkers and their bagels, or Sicilians and their pizza … )
We’re still a little baffled by Chinese breakfast, and we weren’t sure of what to expect from tofu for morning meal, but it was actually pretty good. It came with a spicy dipping sauce that had hints of anise, and extra bean curd juice served up hot as a beverage. Sarah scolded us for our cold Vitamin Water that we had brought with us … but soup is not a drink!
Sarah, above, shows us around her hometown; some guys in the background do a double take at the foreigners.
So the actual reason we were on vacation, the Qingming Festival, dates back thousands of years. It’s a day to pay homage to your ancestors — sweeping graves, burning spirit money, pouring out a little wine. A very solemn Confucian holiday in a country that is officially atheist.
Qingming Festival has only been a public holiday on the Mainland since 2008. And while some families do observe the holiday by visiting the gravesides of their elders — news broadcasts warned of the risk of fire from people burning incense and such in rain-deprived areas — a lot of the holiday traffic (and there is a lot of it; when a billion people go on vacation, there’s going to be traffic) is people using the time to travel and sit down to a meal with their living relatives. Actually, no matter what the traditions are, this is what a lot of holidays in China seem to be for: dinner with the fam.
As our families are so far away, there’s not a whole lot of celebrating we can get up to by ourselves. We celebrated Spring Festival this year in a closing restaurant, for goodness’ sake! Occasionally, though, we have friends to include us in their fun. And, for Qingming Festival, in addition to being our tour guide extraordinaire, Sarah was also a gracious and welcoming holiday host.
Business hotels in China are cheap and functional, but lack the charm of youth hostels.
After showing us around her Fushun County hometown, she set us up in a business hotel down the block from where we’d be having dinner that night. Mr. Wang picked us up at 6, and drove us the few hundred feet to Thousand Spices, Hundred Taste, the soon to be site of our hot pot dreams.
The family had a private room in the back of the restaurant, and Sarah’s parents and sister were already there. More of Sarah’s siblings would join us as the night went on, as would relatives of Mr. Wang. They were a close, happy family, Sarah told us. Her parents, who are in their eighties, still cook together and walk together every day. They’re very much in love, she said.
Above right: After more than a year, we found the delicious and cheese-like Sweet Tofu, nestled right in between the imitation crab and pork dumplings.
First timers at the spice bar, we may have gone a little overboard mixing up our dipping sauces, but each of our mixes were fantastic.
Brief introductions made, Sarah sent us out to pick out what dishes we wanted. Usually, the host makes all the decisions, but thinking of our American paletes and half-vegetarianism, she wanted us to make sure to have food we liked. Out in the main dining hall, there was a row of refrigerated cases full of delicacies. On Sarah’s prompting, I grabbed a big tray, which was immediately taken from me by a server who accompanied Peter and I down the row of food. We grabbed so many plates of vegetables and tofu, and a few meaty dumplings for me … and Sarah encouraged us to get even more.
While we waited for the pots to boil, we all sampled some of Sarah’s father’s homemade grape wine. It was really nice, like a sweet liqueur. Mr. Wang brought out a bottle of baijiu, and they got some beers for us. Throughout the meal, there would be much ganbei-ing.
Oh, but before we started eating, we needed to prepare our spice bowls. When you eat hot pot, you get a small bowl of oil, peanuts, scallions, red peppers, etc., in which to dip each piece of food before you eat it. In most places we eat, these are prepared ahead of time, or you mix your own from a small number of ingredients. At Thousand Spices, they had a whole spice bar where you could assemble your bowl. There were peppers, pickled peppers, smashed peppers, sesame seeds, sesame paste, sesame oil, peanuts, garlic, pickled garlic, infused garlic, vinegar … so many choices. Everything looked and smelled so good. And this was just the garnish.
Back in our room, the pots were starting to boil. Each pot had a center bowl with a mushroom and chicken broth set inside an outer ring of red-hot spicy pepper broth. Peter and I alternated between the two, because the red broth burned our faces off but we wanted to eat as much of it as we could.
The mood was jovial and festive at the table, and the whole family was so welcoming and attentive to us outsiders who didn’t even speak Chinese. Mr. Wang made sure to toast us if it looked like we were getting too quiet, and Sarah’s mother offered us more and more food, as if we weren’t gorging ourselves already. The evening reminded me of holidays spent with my family and the happy chaos of a full table.
Food-wise, everything was fantastic, but the big star was the sweet tofu. Soft and textured almost like fresh mozzarella cheese, we had had it once before — more than a year ago — and it blew our minds. We hadn’t been able to find it since. Huzzah!
Before returning us to the hotel, Sarah took us to see her Fushun home. Her place is a few floors above where her parents live with her sister. Both apartments were big and open, with four bedrooms each, and spacious, jealousy-inducing kitchens. “Chinese people like to be comfortable,” Sarah told us.
I tried hard not to compliment everything we saw, because we’ve heard that if you admire something in a Chinese home, manners dictate they offer it to you, and it’s impolite to refuse. But I managed to say I liked a piece of art that one of Mr. Wang’s students had made for him, without incident.
We sat for a while and had some flower tea in Sarah’s parents’ apartment. They turned on CCTV News for us, the English-language channel. And then Sarah and Mr. Wang walked us home. It wasn’t my family, but it was nice to spend holiday time with a family nonetheless.
And so it was, on Wednesday, April 3, we were about to hit the road for our most spontaneous road trip to date. We were looking forward to bumming around in a new city for a couple of days, and, having been underwhelmed by much of the tourist must-dos in China, we were giving ourselves a break on the culture stuff. Basically, the idea was to find a Zigong beer and 火锅 place and relax.
We lucked into a ride when we asked our boss Sarah for help making hotel reservations, because she’s from Zigong, and Qingming is a major holiday and of course she was going home. When we met her at the car on Wednesday afternoon, she had an idea that she was really excited about. On the way to Zigong, she and Mr. Wang — her husband — could show us a couple of sights. And we could stop in her hometown Fushun County for dinner. And … we could stay the night and she’d take us to Zigong the next morning!
And I said, “Why not! Let’s see what will happen.”
What happened was we kind of got stuck in a loop of hospitality and politeness. But we definitely saw things that we wouldn’t have otherwise.
Longchang Ancient Town
This was our on-the-way stop, a recreated ancient city of Ming- and Qing-style architecture, much like Chengdu’s wide and narrow alleys. At it’s center, however, were 18 original stone gates built in 1696-1887. Each archway commemorated a different thing: A man who lived to be 100 (at a time when the average life span was 40), filial piety, chastity, and so on.
After viewing the gates, Sarah stopped to buy us a snack. The man chiseled off some bits from a big beige pillow covered in sesame seeds and bagged it up for us. We each sampled a small piece — it was sticky and chewy and way better than it looked. “Do you have this in America?” Sarah asked. Peter explained about taffy: that you twist and you pull and pull and twist, demonstrating the action with his hands. Sarah said that was how this was made, with sticky rice. We each took another piece. And another.
Confucius Museum and Buddhist Temple, Fushun County
Fushun is about a half hour outside Zigong, and “county” in the Chinese sense refers to an area that is smaller than a city, but larger than a village.
In the old part of the county, there is a Confucius museum, that at one time was a real working temple. Faded English placards gave information about the various buildings and halls, some of which were built as early as 1291. It was all very Chinese looking.
The highlight of the museum is the small statue of a naked boy perched atop the Chongsheng Hall. A telescope is set up for viewing, next to a card explaining that the statue was discovered during restoration in 1986, this sort of thing is not traditional and no one really knows why he’s there. Archeological mystery!
Outside the museum, Sarah gave us a quiz: “This building is painted red. Do you know what that means?” We didn’t. “Power,” she said.
We took a taxi over to the Fushun Buddhist temple, which was under construction. We bought tickets and went inside.
This temple evidently receives a lot more love and care. The painting and woodwork are in much better condition than they were at the Confucius museum. The main temple was at the top of the hill — closer to heaven — and housed a Buddha with a thousand arms. There were many monks scuttling around, and there was some significant bell tolling and drumming while we were there. Sarah said that the county’s Buddhists fill the courtyard on holy days.
Zigong Dinosaur Museum
We continued our very thorough tour the next morning. Zigong’s main claim to fame is that it has a ground full of dinosaur fossils. The Zigong Dinosaur Museum is listed in the guidebooks as the thing to do. We had planned on skipping it, but Sarah thought we should go. She and Mr. Wang waited for us outside; they’d seen it many, many times.
The museum is actually a small compound, with a few buildings — one of them itself shaped like a dinosaur — and some outdoor garden spots. One of the latter is filled with large, animatronic dinosaur replicas. They jerk and sway and roar in an endless loop.
All of the most museummy stuff is in one building that also offers dinosaur rides. The coolest thing, however, is the basement replica of an actual fossil excavation.
Sarah was a little surprised that we finished up so quickly — meanwhile, the fact that she and Mr. Wang were sitting outside by the highway never left our minds. “We think it might be for kids,” was Peter’s diplomatic answer when she why we were so fast. She smiled and nodded.
Sanghai Salt Well, Zigong
Zigong’s other big deal is salt. From ancient times, the traders traveled from all over to get some of this valuable mineral. And these days, there are not one but two different institutions wherein one may learn about its production.
Mercifully, we only stopped at the Sanghai Well, which is still in operation. It’s old and it’s deep, and while we were there we watched two sweaty guys shoveling crude salt into boiling tanks and pulling it back out. That has to be the worst job in all museum-dom.
If you like, you can buy some Zigong salt on your way out. We didn’t.
A last-minute holiday announcement leads to impromptu travel
On April 1, a Monday, our boss Linda gave us the news: We had a school holiday starting Wednesday afternoon and continuing through Saturday! (Sunday, we’d have to teach Friday’s classes to make up some of the time; that’s just how it works sometimes.) This wasn’t a total surprise to us. We knew that the Qingming Festival, or the national tomb sweeping holiday, was April 4, and we were just waiting for word on which days we had off.
So informed, we put in motion our plan to visit Zigong. Zigong is a Luzhou-sized city about an hour and a half from us, and many of our students are from there, as is our boss Sarah. “They have dragons there,” she told us proudly long ago when she was giving us our initial tour of Luzhou. “Not dragons … dinosaurs,” she corrected herself.
Sarah helped us with our hotel reservations on Tuesday — Zigong’s not high on your average international traveler’s China list, and they don’t have an anglophone-staffed youth hostel there — and offered us a ride with her and her husband the following day.
Wednesday morning, you could feel the pre-vacation excitement; our students were practically buzzing. When that last bell rang, kids and teachers flooded out of the school’s doors. We joined the mass exodus, and it was Dinosaur City, here we come!