Christmas At The Zoo 四川

There wasn't any snow on Christmas Eve
And I knew what I should do
I thought I'd free the animals
All locked up at the zoo
-Flaming Lips

Have I forgotten to mention that birdMAN is now a high school math teacher?  Working five days a week at an international high school has some benefits:
  1. It's entertaining. Everyday is like a Chinese Saved by the Bell episode, except you are not smooth talking Zack Morris. Instead, you identify more closely with Principal Belding.
  2. American holidays are observed. A full work-free week for Christmas means visiting popular destinations without hoards of Chinese tourists. Everybody else in China is grinding the millstone at their day jobs.
So we, along with fellow expats Xialian and Sweet Plum,  journeyed south to Sichuan 四川. Sichuan people are immensely proud of their province for many reasons, such as having especially nice women. We didn't check out the women, but we did check out three of Sichuan's most famous claims to fame: 1) spicy food, 2) mountains, and 3) pandas.

Don't want to read? Just skip to the pictures:
Click HERE for more pictures of Chengdu
Click HERE for more pictures of Rilong
Click HERE for more pictures of Pandas

Can You Eat Oily Spicy Food? 你能吃辣的吗?

Americans are familiar with the American-Chinese dish Szechuan Beef, a mildly sweet and mildly peppery stir-fry of thin beef and vegetables. Sorry to disappoint America, but Szechuan beef bears no semblance to its namesake's food. Nothing remotely like Szechuan beef is found anywhere in Sichuan, let alone China.

Instead, Sichuan's mouth-numbing peppercorns (花椒, “flower pepper”) and chilies will leave you in a hot sweat and asking the server for more rice.

Eating Sichuan hot pot 火锅 involves sitting around a boiling, potent concoction of spicy oil, peppercorns, and chilies. At leisure, diners toss meat and vegetables into the pot and then use chopsticks to extract cooked pieces. As if the broth wasn't oily enough, a bowl of sesame oil, cilantro and garlic is served on the side.

In summary, boil food in spicy oil. Dip spicy food into “cooling” oil. Then eat oily food. That makes for a very oily and spicy meal. Did I mention that Sichuan hot pot is oily? By the end of the meal, our tongues were numb and we felt—heavy. We later ate McDonald’s ice cream hoping that its creamy goodness could balance out the oil and spice in our oil-laden bellies.

Besides oil pot— I mean, hot pot—Sichuan has a lot of other culinary delights such as beef jerky, fried donuts on a stick, duck tongue, duck neck, and rabbit heads. Yes, that's right: Chengdu is famous for serving up spicy rabbit heads. Regretfully, I did not get to try this particularly unusual snack, but Xialian and Sweet Plum did. For only 5 RMB per head, they chewed on  rabbit face. Xialian said rabbit cheeks are surprisingly meaty. The girls, however, passed on sucking the brain out of the skull. BirdMAN was relieved. He believes that eating brain causes brain disease.

Sweet Plum enjoying sweet fried sweets
The lamb butcher set up shop on this sidewalk
Rabbit head snack

Four Sisters Mountain  四姑娘山

While Xialian and Sweet Plum dined on rabbit heads, birdMAN and I took a 5 hour bus ride west through the mountains. This bus ride is not for the queasy. Roads that were destroyed during Sichuan's 2008 earthquake are now under construction. As the bus navigated around the scores of bulldozers, trucks, rock crushers, conveyor belts, and dusty construction workers wearing anything from suits and sweatsuits, we jostled around in our seats.

We asked the bus driver to drop us in Rilong, a gateway village to Mount Siguniang (四姑娘山, literally “four sisters mountains”). Called the “Oriental Alps”, Mount Siguniang encompasses four peaks, or four “sisters”.  The tallest sister peaks at 6,250 m (20,510 ft) and is the second tallest in the Sichuan province.

Here we sojourned at Aleeben Hostel, a charming guesthouse run by a hospitable Tibetan minority family. Upon arriving, they invited us to lunch—and we never say no to lunch. Soon we found ourselves dining on homemade steamed buns (馒头 ), pickled radish, eggplant, lotus root, and yak butter tea (酥油茶). The yeye (爷爷, paternal grandfather) wearing traditional minority clothing, balancing his 1 year-old granddaughter on his knee and gently feeding her, the iron stove's crackling fire warding off the mountain chill, the faint scent of smoke mixing with the garlic and onion, the yak butter tea—both buttery and bitter—coating my throat and warming my stomach, and shooting the breeze (in Chinese!) about raising yaks —it was surreal.

Yummy lunch
Besides hanging with our new Tibetan friends and chowing down on peanuts, we explored the nearby mountains. BirdMAN and I paid 40 RMB each at the entrance to Haizi Valley (海子沟) and spent one full afternoon hiking along a mountain ridge. We slowly made our way up and along the ridge, breathing heavy, shedding layers of clothes, and keeping the tallest snow-capped sister in view. We also said hi to the yaks and horses.

Later that day we met up with Xialian and Sweet Plum. They too also survived the treacherous bus ride through the mountains. That evening, our hosts whipped a perfect mountain meal for weary and cold hikers: spicy yak meat and carrot stew, stir-fried greens, spicy peanuts with fatty pork, and mushrooms. Again, we ate dinner in the family's house next to the fire.

Stop yakking around!
This is STEEP
Us with the biggest sister

The next day, the four us strolled Changping Valley. Stroll, rather than hike, is the appropriate word. The 3 km boardwalk that stretches along the valley floor is an obstacle-free walk in the park. However, there were plenty of stairs to leave us winded and remind us that we are at 11,000 feet. Entrance tickets were 70 RMB each, which included a 10-minute shuttle bus ride to the valley.

We could not have asked for more pleasant weather—for  December, anyway. During the day, the sun beamed and the skies blazed sapphire blue. Night time temperatures dipped below freezing, which meant our unheated rooms also dipped below freezing. Changing clothes and drying off after showering was an agonizing, polar experience. My fingers were so frigidly numb that I could barely open my lotion bottle or grab my socks to pull them up over my feet. The bed's heated electrical blanket, however, let us sleep like happy, toasty babies.

Since we came during the off-season, half the village was closed and there were only a handful of tourists. Judging from the number of empty guesthouses and empty parking lots, the village has capacity for a lot more people. Incredible scenery, nice people, and a charming village surely draw crowds during warmer seasons.

Stroll Changping
Enjoying the afternoon sun
We taught our little friend how to high-five. She was thrilled.

For more information about how we got back to Chengdu, see One Summer In Asia.

Panda 熊猫

We spent our last day (which was also Christmas day) in Sichuan with its national treasure: the giant panda. Unfortunately, very few pandas are left in the wild. People and their cities have encroached on the giant panda habitat, making conservation programs and facilities necessary for long-term survival.

We roamed where the pandas roamed: the Chengdu Base of Giant Panda Breeding. We saw sleeping pandas, playing pandas, baby pandas, and red pandas. It was pand-awesome.

This panda has the munchies for bamboo
Close encounter with the red panda

The Free Radicals Free Summary

Mix Hostel: Old China charm with modern amenities like wifi and hot water
Flipflop Hostel: hip and groovy, decked out with all things IKEA


Cost: 100 RMB (1 room with double bed)
Amenities: Hot water, soap, electric blanket, flat screen TV with cable
Bathroom Situation: Squatty potty with a shower that drains to the potty
Overall: Clean

Cost: 80 RMB (1 room with two full-size beds)
Amenities: Hot water, electric blanket, old TV with cable
Bathroom Situation: Western toilet and frosted glass walls
Overall: Clean and we love the family!

Mountain area (low season)
Changpinggou: 50 RMB per ticket + 20 RMB for round trip shuttle service
Haizigou: 40 RMB per ticket

Getting there: From Chengdu ChaDianzi bus station, buy a bus ticket bound for Xiaojin, but tell the driver to stop at Rilong (100 RMB per person)
Private Driver from Rilong to Chengdu for four people: 500 RMB

Chinese Word of the Blog: 熊猫 xióng māo (literally, bear cat)
English Translation: panda