Cuddly Pandas, Spicy Hotpots, and the World’s Tallest Buddha

The Grand Buddha of Leshan — to get an idea of the scale, look at the size of the people in the top-right corner

Traveling around the world isn’t an easy thing to do — in fact, it requires quite a few skills and talents outside those we would normally utilize on a daily basis.  Beyond the more apparent qualities that first come to mind — adventurous spirit, ability to improvise when plans fall apart, high tolerance for discomfort, etc. — it is often the small, less-obvious characteristics that keep a person traveling when others have hung up the towel and called it quits: things such as the ability to sleep through the deafening noise created by one’s hostel mates at 4am, being able to find humor in being stared at by everyone within eyeshot, and a certain indifference to sanitation concerns when faced with the perils of a public bathroom.  At the top of this list, however, is the ability (or more specifically, willingness) to eat whatever interesting, inventive, or down-right mysterious bit of food has just been slopped down on your plate.  Often, it is only a mental barrier that keeps up from trying a given dish, something that we can all break through with the first bite — after all, a fried grasshopper tastes less like a bug and more like a french fry, goats’ brains go surprisingly well with a saffron dipping sauce, and ant larvae actually adds a nice sweetness to an omelette or stir-fry.  One particularly tough opponent for many, however, is that of the chile pepper-infused, capsaicin injected, tear-jerking pain of that comes as a result of spice.

Luckily, I’m never too worried about finding myself in a situation in which the chef in charge is bringing the heat, as I’ve always considered myself a pro.  After all, I’ve gone toe to toe with the curries of Thailand, scoffed down the Scotch Bonnet infused Jamaican Jerk Chicken, sweated over steaming bowls of Laksa in Singapore and Malaysia, dined on various vindaloos in the Indian-influenced neighborhoods of the world, held my own against the kimchi stews of Korea, created my own Ghost Chile Chili, I’ve washed down a cold beer with a dozen molten hot wings, and I’ve even been known to munch on a few raw jalapenos as a between-meal snack.  All that being said, however, I know I couldn’t truly call myself a capsicum aficionado without first having faced down the tongue-blistering, face-melting power of the Sichuan Hot Pot.  And as such, once my time in Xi’an came to an end, I made a beeline for the city of Chengdu, capital of the Sichuan province, to run the gauntlet of spicy goodness.

The idea of the Hot Pot is pretty simple: take a basic cooking stock in a communal pot, throw in large quantities of chili peppers, set it over a flame until it is simmering, and then allow the diners to cook bite-sized chunks of meat or vegetables in the searing hot liquid.  What this fails to mention, however, is that as the stock continues to cook down, it gets spicier and spicier, as the peppers continue to infuse into the broth just as the water boils away, leaving an even more concentrated concoction.  To add insult to injury, besides simply utilizing copious amounts of capsaicin, the chefs here also like to throw in a heavy handful of Sichuan (or flower) Peppercorns, which actually work to numb your mouth and tongue, subsequently allowing you to unknowingly ingest even higher levels of spice, so have a glass of milk handy:

The bubbling hot pot in all its glory. Knowing that many folks won’t be able to stand the heat, some restaurant actually use a dish with two different wells, one for the spice and one (as seen in the middle here) for a milder broth

Running a ladle through the broth reveals what lies within (the red ones are obviously the chili peppers, whereas the small, bumpy green ones are the Sichuan Peppercorns).  Just looking at this gets my forehead sweating and my nose running

A different variation is seen here, where each diner has their own personal burner with a cooking stock customized to their tastes

In you go, oh tasty morsel of pork

Moving beyond the hot pot, but still equally as spicy, is the other famous Sichuan dish of Mapo Tofu (sometimes written Mapo Doufu): small cubes of tofu simmered in a thin, oily sauce of chili peppers, black beans, scallions, and a few other choice aromatics

Gong Bau Ji Ding, or chicken cooked with cucumbers, peanuts, and chili peppers (also spicy, obviously)

Given’s Chengdu’s proximity to the isolated Western province of Tibet, the city is also home to a distinct Tibetan community (near the Wuhou Temple, for those curious). As such, I had to stop by to sample a few Tibetan staples, such as Yak meat cooked with potatoes, yogurt with a dash of sugar on top, and a pitcher of butter tea

The city of Chengdu has a lot more to offer than just the mouth-numbing culinary treats.  Being one of China’s growing mega cities, it is complete with all of the state-of-the-art conveniences of any modern metropolis, but is also renowned for its laid-back, carefree lifestyle.  It’s no surprise, then, to learn that along with this peaceful attitude towards life, Chengdu is also one of the epicenters for Chinese tea culture, where every neighborhood park is dotted with raucous, chaotic tea houses where the city’s citizens come to unwind, play a lively game of the infinitely popular mahjong, and generally waste away the leisurely afternoons enjoying chatting with friends, not allowing the stresses of the world become too much of a burden.

The most iconic sight of Chengdu is the giant stature of Chairman Mao situated a the very heart of the city in Tianfu Square

The bamboo-laden (and awkwardly named) River Viewing Paviliion Park, the perfect place to spend an afternoon

The streets of the city

The historical Jinli Street District

The chaos and general commotion of one of the city’s many tea houses. This particular teahouse is located in the middle of the People’s Park

Seeing that I couldn’t miss out on this quintessential Chengdu experience, I pulled up a chair and opted for a cup of Wulong Tea (unlimited refills, too!)

A scenic bridge located outside of town

Chengdu also has a strong spiritual and cultural side, as well, with a variety of temples, shrines, archeological, and historical sights to see.  Given my limited time, I wasn’t able to take in all that was on offer, but I did manage to squeeze in a visit to a few of the city’s major temples:

The main hall of the Wuhou Shrine, one of the countries best showpieces in regards to the Three Kingdom’s era of Chinese history

The Wuhou Shrine was built in honor of the likes of Zhuge Liang, Liu Bei (seen here) and Gwang Yu. These names will sounds quite familiar to you if you’ve ever had the pleasure of reading the Chinese historical epic Romance of the Three Kingdoms, or, in a slightly less-refined version, if you’ve ever played the Dynasty Warriors video games

A peaceful bonsai garden within the grounds of the Wuhou Shrine

A colorful cushion upon which to kneel during prayer

A pagoda within the confines of the Wenshu Monastery, a Buddhist temple built during the Tang Dynasty in the Eighth Century

Overlooking the main hall of the Wenshu Monastery

Although the temples and tea houses are quite nice in themselves, there is another sight of a totally different nature just outside of Chengdu that acts as the biggest tourist draw to the area: the Giant Panda Breeding and Research Center.  Long considered to be one of the world’s cutest animals, these elusive, yet cuddly, creatures are virtually nonexistent in the wild and have been on the edge of extinction for some time.  In fact, there is estimated to only be around 1,500 Giant Pandas left on the planet, the majority of which are in and around Chengdu.  So being able to observe the Pandas up close is a rare treat indeed:

Well good morning, how are you?

Pandas are actually quite adept climbers, too, often choosing to take their naps in the tops of trees

The baby pandas ratchet the kawaii index up to an entirely new level

Pandas primary food source is that of bamboo, and given its low nutritional value, the Pandas have to spend virtually their entire waking day munching the fibrous shoots (but they eat it in such a cute way!)

I know big fella, “food coma” is tough sometimes

The Panda Reserve is also home to the Red Pandas, which actually look more akin to foxes than bears

The best part of seeing the Red Pandas, however, is that they are allowed to wander around amongst the paths and walkways, marveling at these big creatures beside them called “humans”

Finally, as a last stop within the Sichuan Province, I had to make my way to the city of Leshan to see one of the more awe-inspiring sights within China: that of the Giant Buddha of Leshan.  Built in the early 700’s AD, the giant sculpture depicts a Maitreya Buddha (seated, hands on its knees) and stands 223 feet tall, making it the tallest stone Buddha on the planet.  Although it takes a bit of effort to reach, and the lines can be notoriously long (not to mention the pushy crowds, so sharpen those elbows before going), it is still worth the journey and stress for nothing other than the initial sight when the entirety of the Buddha first comes into view:

The Grand Buddha, as seen from another angle

The narrow, zigzagging pathway down to the base of the Buddha can be seen against the side of the cliff

Another example of the scale of the entire stature

After the Sichuan Province, I’m off to the posh and luxurious confines of the city of Shanghai.  Until then, cheers from Chengdu!

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About andrewamiet

I'm a 29 (now 31) year-old former desk jockey who is now making my way around the world, experiencing all of the sights, sounds, tastes, people, and culture that the world has to offer.

8 Responses to “Cuddly Pandas, Spicy Hotpots, and the World’s Tallest Buddha”

  1. The Smile Scavenger Reply November 12, 2012 at 2:57 pm

    Fantastic. You have this way of immersing the reader in your experience, for which I am most grateful. It’s like vicarious travel. 🙂

    • Thanks — that’s the best compliment I can get! For a few years before traveling, I just tore through travel blogs, books, stories, etc., dreaming of when I could be doing it myself. So now I’m glad I have the opportunity to allow others to come along for the ride while I travel!

  2. Loved reading your entry. What an adventure

  3. Great post and fantastic pics, you actually have me wanting to try ant larvae! Thanks for sharing

  4. Sichuan dishes are among my favorites. After all, I’m a chili-lover myself!

  5. Drooling over those hot-pots, and what adorable pandas and red pandas! I’ve been to the three Daibutsu statues in Japan, but none of them is so integrated into nature as this giant Buddha is. I especially love your photo of Leshan Bridge. Thanks for the great post!

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