It had taken us around a month and a half worth of long, cold days on the road, but we had made it through the deserts and mountains of Eastern China just in time to catch our flight to Hong Kong. Senlin, a local cycle tourist, had offered to host us in Chengdu for a few days, and we were thrilled to be meeting him and be shown around.
Chengdu is Sichuan’s capital, a sprawling monster of a city housing between 15 and 20 million people. As soon as we left the mountains we found ourselves cycling through long straight avenues, with a patch of huge apartment buildings appearing at the side of the road every now and then. All the flat areas up to the beginning of the mountains seemed to be earmarked for residential development, with wide new roads already in place, but mostly we were riding along tall grass or bamboo and the odd building housing a restaurant or shop of some kind.
It was very humid and it probably would have been quite hot if it hadn’t been so cloudy. We hadn’t seen much green for months, and the exuberance of the vegetation was a welcome novelty. Maybe because of this, or maybe because by reaching Chengdu we were closing a chapter of our trip, we reached the proper city feeling we were worlds away from home.
To our relief we discovered that navigating Chinese megacities is much, much easier than finding your way around Istanbul or Tehran. Despite its size, Chengdu’s network of radial highways leading in and out of the city and concentric ring roads connecting different neighborhoods made reaching Senlin’s house a surprisingly easy task. On top of that, there are dedicated bike lanes almost everywhere. It is true that we had to share them with electric scooters, but Chinese drivers are respectful enough that this was never a problem.
The city turned out to be pretty monotonous, but there were lots of parks and green areas, so it wasn’t all bad. The streets near Senlin’s place even had some charm, with trees and little businesses lining the streets. Their owners were smoking outside and chatting with passers-by and each other, and it was nice to see that our arrival didn’t cause much effect but for a few stares. With a little help we managed to find our destination and made ourselves comfortable in our host’s living room.
Senlin had travelled half the world on an incredibly loaded bike a few years back, and now he worked in Chengdu, lived with two flatmates and was happy to host some cycle tourists every few weeks and show them around Chengdu. He told us that lots of cyclists pass through the city every autumn and that the Warmshowers community could hardly cope with all the requests, but he enjoyed a lot being around foreign cyclists and sharing stories. After weeks of hopeless conversations through hand signs and dodgy smartphone translations, his good English was a relief to us. Despite being tired as dogs, having found a nice local guy who would answer our ever growing list of questions about China was great, and we accepted his invitation to a nice dinner.
This suited us, because of the many attractions of Sichuan, its food was the one we were truly looking forward to. Without going into much detail, there are four distinct regional cuisines in China (which in their turn have distinct local variations as well). Western cuisine, as the spiciest of them, is synonymous with lots of chillies. The three of us quickly settled on hot-pot, the most famous of the Sichuanese specialties. This dish is prepared in specialised restaurants, and our host led us to one of them. As with many other things in China, names are quite literal, and hot-pot consists of a pot of very hot and very spicy broth in which everyone cooks, boils or dips many different meats and vegetables. It turned out to be quite the social occasion, and people seemed to be having fun at every table.
We let Senlin order, our only instructions being that we liked to try new things and that we could handle spicy. It was a feast: different kinds of sliced meat, a bowl of duck intestines, weird-looking mushrooms, a very strange choice of vegetables that included melon, whole pork brains, congealed duck blood, even some sort of small catfish that were still moving as their heads had just been cut off. Everything came raw from the kitchen and went into the same pot; luckily Senlin knew how long each bite had to simmer in the broth.
It was definitely one of the most interesting meals we’ve had, but at the same time we felt that it was a bit of a waste on our untrained taste buds. Not only was the amount of chilli peppers in the broth ridiculous, but the fact the every single thing had to pass through that hellishly spicy broth made all of them taste just very spicy, leaving only the admittedly very different textures as the main experience to focus on.
On top of that there was something else. The weirdest thing about Sichuanese cuisine is the widespread use of Sichuan pepper, which actually is not a peppercorn but a berry. It doesn’t have much of a flavour, but it numbs your mouth after a few minutes. We had tasted it for the first time in Qinghai on some instant noodles, and the effect was so baffling that we didn’t dare finish them in case something was wrong with the noodles. We eventually read about it, and started encountering it some dishes. We had made an effort to try it a few times, but we hadn’t really seen the point of it. Chinese food is so delicious that numbing your mouth while eating it is probably the last thing you’d want to do. Discussing this with our host he pointed out that numbing your mouth allows you to eat even spicier stuff, which is supposed to be great. Let’s just say we weren’t convinced by his logic.
Nor were we convinced by the effects of the meal on our bellies that night, but luckily we had a proper bathroom. The next evening we went for a stroll “downtown”, consisting mainly of oversized malls where well-known brands advertise and sell at a scale we hadn’t seen before. If there’s something that describes modern urban China, it’s supercharged consumerism. Not only do Chinese people buy at shops all the time, it seems that they shop online even more. This was useful, as our host helped us find and buy a few spare parts in a few minutes, and saved us from having to visit shops around the city. However, it was mind-blowing to see how many packages arrived at the building’s gate everyday while we were there; it had just been November 11th, which the Chinese, with their love of numerology, have turned into a celebration of singledom (11/11 having only ones). Discounts apply to every possible item online, and it is expected of single people to buy lots of gifts to themselves…
We had a day to spare, but instead of visiting the world-famous panda bear breeding centres we just stayed at home and updated our blog. We aren’t that much into zoos, and we have learnt to avoid the top tourist attractions in China, as the amount of local tourists (and selfie sticks) turns them into a stressful experience most times. We did get out of the house, as there was a bar near one of the universities that offered free beer for a couple of hours to foreigners. It seems attracting foreigners to a bar attracts locals, which suited us very much. We weren’t surprised to bump into a bunch of cyclists there, Youri included, and we had a fun night out.
The next day was the 15th of November, and it was time to fly to Hong Kong. On our way to the airport (on a very modern subway) our conversation kept going back to the day we bought the flights, back in Kashgar and just one day into China. It seemed so far away, in time and distance! We realised we had gotten to the point in our trip when we would start looking back more often than we would look forward.
In Hong Kong we met Hector, a childhood friend of ours who happens to fly there a few times a year because of his job. We wandered around all afternoon, catching up with each other while taking the famous ferry across Victoria harbour and marvelling at how some cities manage to be so unique.
Shiny skyscrapers and shabby apartment towers are a short cab’s ride away from each other, and the jungle and the water surround it all. Cars drive on the left amid red double decker buses, metro stations are called Admiralty and Austin and everyone speaks English. However, ubiquitous food stalls and half the population remind the visitor this has to be Asia. The other half is undoubtedly from abroad, most of them not tourists but obviously here on behalf on some financial or commercial corporation. One can almost feel there’s money to be made here, at all levels. Foreign executives and local taxi drivers all share the same sense of urgency.
Hector took us to a fishermen’s village turned into culinary experience, where we could choose lobster and crab and get it sent to a restaurant only to appear at our tables deliciously cooked in many exotic ways. He also arranged for us to go to Macao, a former Portuguese colony an hour south from Hong Kong where now the largest casinos in Asia profit from the Chinese people’s love of gambling, which remains banned in mainland China.
We had an unusual situation before boarding the ferry to Macao. There is a border crossing at the ferry terminal, and since it is a very busy crossing it has been automated. Jordi shoved his passport into the machine and looked into the camera, and was promptly let through. Joan went next, and the machine beeped loudly. He looked at the passport and saw it was Jordi’s, which meant Jordi had just fooled the system using Joan’s passport. A swarm of border officers appeared and started shouting at us, and it took us five minutes to solve the misunderstanding. The ferry was full of revellers heading to the casinos. We caught a few glimpses of Macao upon arriving, and it was a surreal sight, a mix of crammed Asian housing, old Jesuit churches and shiny casinos taken out of a Las Vegas postcard.
A night at the casino, invited by one of Hector’s partners, and a morning of sightseeing were enough for us, and we took a ferry back to Hong Kong to spend a couple of days trying to find alternative activities during the day and blending in with the crowds every evening. Sadly Hector had to leave but our Couchsurfing host Jeff pushed us in the right direction, taking us to a remote beach in the island’s south for a morning of surf. We managed to hike a long way back on a really cool trail and we went to the cinema to watch a Chinese movie. Like many of its directors works, it dealt with the forced adaption of Chinese traditions to modern life, and we were delighted to realise that we were in on many of the allusions to those traditions.
All in all, Hong Kong was a blast, charmingly British in some aspects but undoubtedly Chinese in its love of money and its exoticism. We rushed through everything and tried to sample as much as possible, and whereas on our third day in Chengdu we had felt ready to move on, we could have spent a month in Hong Kong and every day would have been a crazy adventure. We flew back to Chengdu to be reunited with our bikes, and with a few more weeks on our visas we were ready to finish off China.