Sichuan is heaven on earth. Enter the gates of heaven and you are seduced by the beautiful dancing aroma of slow-burning garlic and mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns. Strange it may be that such a fiery cuisine is akin to heaven, but beneath the bubbling rivers of red-hot chili oil exists a culinary experience that’s so delicious it’s sinful to miss out on.
My journey of a thousand miles (ok, 5143 miles) took its first step last summer, in the sweltering heat of a typical Chinese summer. I arrived in Sichuan enrolled on a university exchange program armed with nothing but a rudimentary understanding of Mandarin. Eager to improve my Chinese, I ventured outside the classroom and immersed myself into the heart of Chinese life, a decision that led to many life-changing adventures. Thousands of miles away back in London, perched in my garden on a crisp spring morning day, a sip of jasmine tea brings back an aftertaste of the days spent frolicking up mountains, playing (loosing in) 麻将 (mahjiang) and huddling around the fiery embrace of a Sichuan hotpot. By the time this cup of tea is finished, with the delicate brush tip of my memory I hope to paint a poetic picture of my midsummer night’s dream, in Sichuan.
As a foreigner whose first experience in China was the cosmopolitan city of Shanghai, traveling to Sichuan was all about delving deeper, to discover a more natural landscape of Chinese culture. My journey (or rather my memory) began as I approached the rather unassuming customs entry at Chengdu airport. Awaiting my arrival were two stern-looking employees who both with amusing synchronisation observed me up and down before swiftly taking my passport to examine. The muddled expression on their faces were quite amusing to me and in the interest of all things humorous I decided to give my Chinese a shot-
‘‘请问，有什么问题吗’’ (Is there any problem?)
What followed was a string of silence before both gentlemen, again with uncanny synchronisation, titled their heads up from my passport and looked straight at me.
‘‘你的中文说的很好’’ (Your Chinese is really good)
At which point it dawned on me, as I discovered in Shanghai a few years ago, that Chinese people are incredibly endeared to those who show an interest in speaking their language. Despite cases of bad public perception and misrepresentation in the West, my real-life experiences with Chinese have been for the vast majority pleasant experiences. Sure, with different cultures there are different societal norms and behaviour but the beauty of travelling is it widens one’s perception of the world. So much so, that my time in China has greatly deepened my appreciation of Chinese and their beautiful culture. Leading back to the airport, after some basic conversation, the gentlemen ushered me in and welcomed me to China. And that was it. With a smile on my face I took the first step of a journey of a thousand miles.
I had hardly ventured further through the airport before I was bombarded by some Chinese tourists, who with no subtly decided to conduct what can only be described as some kind of personal photo shoot (involving myself). And I’m not talking about your run-of-the-mill casual photo, I’m talking about streams of kids being directed to run past myself while their parents stealthily (not so stealthily) took photos! These types of experiences are not uncommon for foreigners in China and for those of us who hail from exotic, mysterious lands like London (…yeah right) this is something you just have to get used to. In 1978 Deng Xiaoping the then leader of the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC) announced an open doors policy ‘改革开放’, which alongside agricultural reforms transformed the shape of China’s economy. In the grand scale of modern globalisation China has entered the playing table relatively recently and this is still reflected across many walks of Chinese life. With this in mind, it becomes easier to understand the fascination that Chinese people can (not always) have with foreigners. Eager to enjoy my 15 minutes of fame, my eyes met with an elegant young woman walking beside me. She casually glanced up at me and her eyes seemed to invite conversation, so I excitedly exclaimed-
‘‘你好美女，这是我第一次来四川’’ （Hello beautiful, this is my first time in Sichuan）
She steadily looked up from the golden brim of her glasses, underneath a pair of bright youthful eyes beamed through-
‘‘你好帅哥，欢迎来到四川!’’ （Hello handsome, welcome to Sichuan!）
After some amusing conversation, it coincidentally turned out she was a business student at Sichuan University. Before we went separate ways we exchanged eachothers WeChat and she invited to show me around the area later that week. Coming from London, simple eye-contact with a stranger on the tube is enough to break the delicate ecosystem of human interaction. Whether it was the intense humidity, peculiar sea-like smell, or just the sunny disposition of Chinese people, it was immediately clear the land of Sichuan was far different to my life back in London.
Whilst briskly walking through the airport the gravity of my travel situation brought me crashing down- I would soon be bravely (stupidly) travelling as the only foreigner in a Chinese-speaking tour group, to remote destinations all over Sichuan. I had arrived early before my studies began at Sichuan University to travel to 九寨沟 (Jiuzhaigou), 黄龙 (Huanglong), 峨眉山 (Emeishan) and 乐山大佛 (Leshan).
I had arranged to stay in an airbnb for a few days and kindly awaiting my arrival at the airport was a young Chinese couple and their small friendly dog. Held in their arms was a sign with my name (ah, so that’s what it feels like!) and with a warm smile they greeted me and took my suitcase. After a short walk to their car I was relieved to sit down and finally be on my way. My hosts were well-seasoned travelers and the journey home was filled with happy exchanges of travel tales. Glancing out the car window as we drove along, I was greeted by a horizon of towering apartments that stretched further than I could see. My gaze was interrupted by the reflection of their small dog in the car window, who seemingly stared at me with the same fasincation as the Chinese tourists in the airport. As his hypnotic brown eyes curiously looked me up and down, my eyes began to flutter and not before long I was fast asleep.
I was woken by the sound of the guard opening the community gate as we were approaching the couple’s apartment. Some locals were outside, doing what I soon discovered was their daily routine, watering the towering plant pots that were proudly displayed around their apartments. They seemed rather excited to see me and chirps of ‘老外’ (foreigner) were ping-ponged from door to door. The community living quarters were very unassuming from the outside, lofty buildings sprouting out wildly like an untamed garden. A short flight of stairs later we reached their appartment. Their door was decorated with Chinese pappercutting patterns and before I could decipher the characters their dog eagerly pushed open the apartment door. The afternoon light poured into the room, illuminating their artistically displayed travel photographs and a beautiful spiral staircase that stood triumphantly in the centre of the room. I was happily welcomed into their beautiful roof terrace apartment and gifted with my own pair of house slippers. Eager to get out of the leather shoes I had been wearing (why in the world I chose to wear those) I happily placed the slippers on and I was kindly shown around the apartment by my lovely hosts. The appartment was a minimally-designed living area with beautiful artistic flair subtly displayed through their choice of decor. After conquering the spiral staircase I was led to their rooftop garden. Awash with sunlight, shimmering golden yolk-like daffodils fluttered in the calm breeze and the age old sounds of birdsong filtered though the paradise-green trees. In the cool shade were four tiny bamboo chairs centred around a small stone table which was accompanied by a petite cast iron fire pot. It was a beauituful retreat from the claws of city life and as I made my way down to my room to rest I was sure I would spend more time there. In the next couple of days I would travel with a Chinese speaking tour group to 九寨沟 (Jiuzhaigou), 黄龙 (Huanglong), 峨眉山 (Emeishan) and 乐山大佛 (Leshan) and in hindsight I needed all the rest in preparation for the absolute craziness that I was about to encounter.
Looking directly at me on the bedroom shelf was a Tony Montana portrait and with a chuckle I began to think what the next few days had in store for me-
‘The world, chico, and everything in it.’- Tony Montana, Scarface