Journeys to China Pt. 2

At the conclusion of Pt.1, it is fair to say that I didn’t come away from my first trip to China with a high opinion of the eating experience. But this was not as much a condemnation of the food and culture as it was about being completely outside of my epicurean comfort zone. For those who already know the whole story of my relationship with Chinese food know that this story has a happy ending. But that enlightenment was still four years into the future. This part of the journey is in 2015 and as I was preparing for my second trip to China, I was already gearing myself up for a week of gastronomical purgatory. As I soon would find out, if Hell were a food, it would be at the bottom of a Chongqing hot pot.

December 2015. Chongqing

The day I arrived in Chongqing was the first time spending a day in China completely by myself. My host colleagues would arrive the next day. No one dictating my schedule or picking my meals. I hadn’t done any prior research and had no idea what was in Chongqing. I had cards prepared by the hotel desk to give to the taxi driver to tell him where to go, and I just had to hope that the calligraphy wasn’t misspelled. Remembering the attention my facial hair got two years earlier in Beijing, I came prepared with about as full of a beard as I can muster. So me and my stare magnet went into full stranger in a strange land mode and started exploring the city.

Chongqing

Chongqing is a massive city of almost 9 million people. Westerners may know the city by it’s romanized name, Chungking, but I can’t help but feel icky… icky like a 1940’s Hollywood actor dawning eyelid prosthetics in a Charlie Chan movie icky… when I think of the romanized versions of Chinese city names. The real pronunciation is more like Chong’-chin where the last g seems to be silent, although I am pretty sure I have been pronouncing it for the last five years.

Chongqing

For World War II buffs, Chongqing has the really interesting distinction as being the London of China during World War II. Like London, it was the military headquarters and capital and was ruthlessly bombed for five years. Instead of Churchill versus Nazi Germany, we have Chiang Kai-shek versus Imperial Japan. Westerners tend to forget that China was an ally. American General Joseph Stillwell was stationed in Chongqing during the war. Two of the main war sites in the city are the Stillwell Museum and Libiza Park – Relics of the Anti-Japanese War. The war is also known as the Second Sino-Japanese War and in fact was already going on by the time Hitler invaded Poland. Then Pearl Harbor happened, and you know the rest.

Chiang Kai-shek in Libiza Park (just kidding)

The main attraction in the city center is the Three Gorges Museum which focuses on the progression of civilization in the region and the natural wonder of its river systems.

Three Gorges Museum and the People’s Square
Chongqing People’s Auditorium

So there I was, having a perfectly good time. Minding my own business, strolling thru the streets and squares, smiling and waving, waving and smiling. Everyone I passed smiled and waved back. I honestly don’t remember what I ate that day. I tremble when I look back at that moment though. Is it my lack of memory or something more sinister? Trauma perhaps? For, the next morning, my colleagues showed up, and behind their cherubic smiles was a diabolical plot to inflict punishment to my digestive system that I could never have possibly imagined.

The Chongqing Hot Pot

What lay before me simmered like a cauldron of Hell.

The hand of Satan himself stirred the steaming cesspit of boiling acid, while a thumbs up mocked me with false assurance. As it reached the height of its venomous frothing, the ingredients of this sadistic meal were placed around it. Each one would be submerged into its vile depths and then consumed. Oh, there were starchy vegetables, bits of beef or pork to lure you, but each meal brought new and nauseating horrors. Pig brains, goose neck lining, cow stomach… And then there was the taste…

Chongqing Hot Pot
Beelzebub
No words necessary
Mmmmm…
Goose neck lining
Cow stomach

The first bite from the hot pot would numb the tongue. Every subsequent morsel became more incendiary than the one before it until the pain spread to the lips. Tears welled in my eyes like I had witnessed a thousand deaths. I tried to swish beer around in my mouth followed by mouthfuls of rice, more beer, more rice. Nothing would ease the searing burn and numbness. It seemed Biblically appropriate that I would endure this assault for three days and three nights.

Taking a bite of pig brain
Taking a bite of cow stomach
Not even Chongqing beer can save you

At the beginning of one of the meals, I was relieved to see something a little different in the center of the table. Like a chicken broth. I thought, salvation! I anxiously reached my spoon towards the pot.

Chicken soup!
A chicken head

Oh, what horror is this?!

Cauldron of Hell

After the third straight evening of Chongqing hot pot, I was mercifully released from the pits of digestive damnation. And if there was a salvation, I wasn’t going to find it in Chongqing as long as my sadistic hosts had anything to say about it. Fortunately I was off to a new place. A place called Chengdu.

December 2015. Chengdu

Beijing may have the most wow sites, but Chengdu was the city that won over my heart. A city of over 10 million people, Chengdu feels cozier than that. It seems to be a city that embraces nature and parks. I was fortunate to have a free afternoon prior to my departure back to Belgium to take a walk around the city. I was enthralled by its beauty. When I look back at all my trips to China, it is Chengdu I wish to return to the most. But my walk around the city did not come without a price. It was this stroll where I noticed an unusual pain in my right knee which would later be diagnosed as a meniscus tear and require surgery in 2016. To this day, I blame it on the Chongqing hot pot and I will take on anyone who wishes to debate me on that. Even without a blue sky, the city was full of autumn-like color… in December.

Chengdu
Chengdu
Chengdu
Game night
Dude photo bombed me
Chengdu

But as much as I enjoyed the city of Chengdu, there was one distinction it holds that was even more memorable. Approximately 80% of the world’s population of Giant Pandas lives in the Sichuan Province of which Chengdu is the capital. Many of these are protected within the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding for the hopes of both preserving the endangered species and expanding the population in the wild. The older I get, the less comfortable I feel about looking at wild animals in captivity, but I always got the feeling that the facility is honestly trying to provide quality living conditions and a natural habitat in an effort to keep this amazing creature alive on our corrupt planet. Does anyone dare to argue that the Giant Panda isn’t the most adorable and cuddly living being that the Earth has ever seen? I thought not. Salvation at last.

Giant Panda

Chengdu saw the return to the normal multi-dish dinner table. No more hot pot to disintegrate my mouth and intestines. It is probably this relief in having normal Chinese food again that possibly foreshadowed the transformation that would come in my next trip to China in 2019. This transformation was imperative to my survival in what would be a grueling business trip. I needed to learn to love the food. I was not introduced to the blue butterfly in December 2015, but I am beginning to feel like perhaps somewhere in all of those amazing and sometimes gastronomically challenging experiences during this trip in 2015 was a humble caterpillar just waiting to blossom.

Hmmm… maybe I am starting to like this stuff
Snow Beer
M.G.G.P.

7 thoughts on “Journeys to China Pt. 2

  1. OMG….pig brains, goose neck lining, cow stomach??? 🙈 This is real horror…😝
    Your expression on your face says enough! 😂
    Great post Matthew! 😅

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh! The ChongQuing hot pot and ALL of the “food” in its vicinity make the squirming potato chips look absolutely mild and delicious! 😂. I’m happy you survived to tell the tale but…Oh! Your face says it all. 😂. I love the note on the beer- Brewed for Happiness. 😂 Perhaps your caterpillar was there all along. The men in the park playing – is that mahjong? You will get no arguments from me about the Giant Pandas. They are without doubt pure wonderment. ☺️ I enjoyed the history as well, thank you. Yes, Matthew, it was worth the two year wait… ☺️

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Suzanne, your comments mean the world to me… I guess the men were playing mahjong but I was more focused on them. Just local friends getting together in a city park. Was such a nice feeling. Indeed, I would rather eat a scorpion than a hot pot 😂 I hope the four year wait is worth it also for the next one 😊

      Liked by 1 person

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