I looked out over the vast expanse of rotting concrete appartment blocks and crumbling office buildings. They peered back from under the blanket of gritty polluted fog that lay over the city. Billious clouds floated low and heavy overhead. The immense hazy city sprawled right out to far horizon and beyond.
We were driving over a multi-laned highway from the airport, raised high above the spread out mass of Chengdu. It was vast, dirty and looked like it had sprung from the dystopian imagination of William Gibson. The food had better be as good as they say, I reflected as the road dipped, and we slipped into the city.
I’ve wanted to visit Chengdu ever since I got my hands on a copy of Fuchsia Dunlop’s recipe book-cum-paean to the city and its spicy cuisine. It sounded exotic, exciting, full of culinary wonders, tea houses by the river and street kitchens blasting out high quality grub.
After the crisp, thin air of Tibet, this heavy polluted and humid soup of an atmosphere was suffocating. As soon as we got out of the car my nose started to run and my eyes watered. Vehicles were whizzing by uncomfortably close. Even the minor roads were many lanes wide, as busy as the M25, but with non of the decorum.
There was a discernible frisson of things happening, deals being struck and great wheels of industry turning. Chengdu is a boom town writ large, 15 million people and growing at a dizzying rate. I got a feel for what newcomers must have felt when they first arrived in Sheffield during the industrial revolution or New York at the turn of the 20th century.
Next to this hungry behemoth, London felt like a sedate, modest county town. For the first time I appreciated what people mean when they talk about China as a rising economic super power. It was overwhelming. The city presses in and down on you, full of the relentless motion and restless energy of somewhere on the make.
But you don’t come to Chengdu to see great sites, although Wuhou temple and Wangjianglou bamboo park are worth a visit, despite the greasy layer of pollution covering every surface. And of course there are the pandas. You come to Chengdu to taste one of the World’s great, and most exciting, cuisines.
And although the rose-tinted tea-house-and-willow-tree specs were brutally ripped off on arrival, the food here really is very good indeed. Wherever we ate, from street stalls to to plush restaurants, the food was uniformly excellent. And extremely spicy.
The street food of the moment was quite definitely grilled skewers. Whenever we turned a corner, someone had set up a grill with innumerable – and mostly unrecognisable – things on sticks, ready to select grill over glowing coals.
But this wasn’t all there was. There were fresh noodles being pounded straight into of cauldrons boiling broth by bare chested young men. Squares of wobbling tofu offered by matronly women, cumin and chilli laced Uighur lamb kebabs from the far west, and hundreds of wee street-side eateries. And all of the food from cold aubergine salads to firey chicken hotpots was brilliant.
Evenings brought the locals out in crowds looking for respite from the steamy summer heat. Tables spilled out onto the restaurants and thousands of people munched their bbq, glugged the local beer and chatted loudly into their mobiles. We dived into a hotpot specialist, and despite having no language – written or spoken – in common, had one of the best meals of the trip.
Pieces of chicken floated in a super-powered broth, the scent of which brought me out in a sweat. With the first bite, a thousand firey flavours invaded my mouth, combining into a wonderful tasty whole. Dousing the heat with beer we forged ahead, finishing the whole thing, much to the staff’s amazement.
On the street we piled up mountains of strange and wonderful skewers, delivering them to be grilled to a fiery and numbing perfection. I recognised chicken skin, hearts, legs, pork, sausages and mushrooms. But what were the squigly orange meaty things, the funny sliced balls, the odd vegetables? Every mouthful was an exploratory tingly delight.
As time went on we discovered some strange sites – wet markets full of live frogs and snakes, stalls with dried pork and fish in piles upstairs. A pet market next door with cute rare breed dogs next to abandoned cats panting in the heat in closed shops. There were streets full of mobile phone shops that would dwarf any UK department store. Cars and multi-lane roads ran everywhere with melon and lychee sellers by the sides, hawking their wares.
After a few days, despite the glorious food, all that noise, dirt and pollution, the whole non-stop don’t-look-back rush of life became too wearying. My throat and nasal passages felt stripped raw, and the unremittingly ugly concrete landscape became too depressing. If we went again, I’d try to find a local to show us round, because in a city of 15 million with no Mandarin, it was exhausting. But very tasty.