Kenji's Excellent Asian Adventures, Part 4: The Long, Smelly Road to Chengdu

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Last year I took a three-month trip through China and Southeast Asia, keeping an on-again off-again diary for the whole trip. This is the fourth part of my Excellent Asian Adventures.

Day 11: I Dream of Xi'An

Location: Overnight train K879, from Xi'an to Chengdu, China

It'll be okay, I'm sure there are plenty of spaces left, I told my wife, Adri, as we joined the massive, jumbled queue at the Xi'an train station's ticket office two days ago to buy our tickets for Chengdu.

Famous last words.

It's difficult to type effectively right now, when your laptop is balanced on a single knee, even when that laptop is a brand new, ultra-light, super-slim, ideal-for-a-traveler-on-the-road, 11-inch MacBook Air (I mention it because this may be the happiest I've ever been with a device, and I'm a device junkie). Why don't I put my knees together and place my computer in my lap like a normal traveling-writer, you may ask? Well, if I were to do that, I'd end up putting my shoes in the puddle of human urine on the floor in front of me, duh.

But we'll get to that.

I haven't been keeping up with my daily updates. It's partly because our internet connection in Xi'an was abysmal, but more because I've been so busy wandering Xi'an,* breathing in the aroma of toasting cumin and smoky chiles that permeates the narrow streets to find the time to sit down and write.

And okay, taking a ride around the Ming-era city walls on a bicycle built for two along with a day trip to see a few thousand ultimately unexciting terracotta warriors.

I have plenty of time now, not to mention a whole different set of aromas.

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Oh, those innocent, halcyon days in Xi'an where the litter of thousands of nightly visitors covers the streets of the Muslim Quarter each morning, the greasy paper bowls that were once filled with spicy noodles or fried potatoes decorating the pavement like cumin-scented votives. If you want to taste the most truly unique food of the region, stuff that makes you cock your head and go "wait, this is Chinese food," then the Muslim Quarter is everything it's cracked up to be. Indeed, it was the first touristy site we'd been to in China that was actually worth eating at. The Muslim population in the neighborhood has been around since the 7th Century AD and has put its mark on the local cuisine in no small way.

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Lamb rouchuan are grilled over charcoal and painted with a thick chili sauce.

The whole place feels like a mix between a North African bazaar, a Hong Kong dim sum shop, and a slightly outdated theme park. Think: overflowing baskets of dried persimmons and nuts wedged in between rickety jenga-like towers of bamboo steamers packed with lamb dumplings. Throw in the ever-pervasive aroma of cumin, chilies, Sichuan peppercorn, and star anise, along with a good deal of live fire and a healthy dose of a taxed sewage system and you're getting pretty close.

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Hand-pulled noodles are made to order and served with a spicy, vinegary beef soup.

Adri and I spent an afternoon and a night losing ourselves in its twisted streets, slurping down hand-pulled noodles, picking fried quail eggs painted with chili sauce off of skewers, chewing through mochi-like persimmon doughnuts, and eating lamb prepared in more ways than we previously knew was possible.

Want more Xi'anese food? Read more about it in my guide to the 11 Must-Eat Dishes in the Muslim Quarter and Beyond.

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Doughy persimmon doughnuts.

Our first stop each morning was restaurant housed in a small painted plywood shack on the corner. Wanna find this particular place? Just look for the two terracotta warrior replicas standing guard and you'll get there (or perhaps one of the thousands of other tiny restaurants guarded by terracotta warrior knockoffs* in Xi'an. Don't worry, it's just as likely to have good food as we found very little bad food in Xi'an, the one exception being a bowl of deliciously chewy and fresh hand-pulled noodles served in what tasted like Campbell's tomato soup).

That, in all honesty, were more exciting than the real thing due to their closer proximity to good food.

Our restaurant had a hand-painted menu on a sandwich board in Chinese, a faded printed English menu laminated in thick plastic that seemed to bear no relation to the Chinese menu, and a variety of food on display that seemed to bear no relation to either menu. This was in stark contrast to the fake brand-name stores all over the city that bear a remarkable resemblance to the real deal. Fake Apple stores even have fake uniformed Apple associates and fake Genius Bars. The only thing that tips you off is the occasional smattering of Chinglish in their displays or major typos in places where there should very obviously not be typos (like, say, in big letters on their front doors).

Fortunately we'd been around long enough to know a thing or two about ordering food in China and we could see the entire kitchen operations from our vantage point on the street: a single propane tank-fueled burner and a stainless steel table with a few aluminum bins of various chopped and pickled ingredients formed their entire selection. Your fingers are your best tools in situations like these.

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Liangpi noodles.

With a bit of emphatic pointing, smiling, and nodding, we'd find ourselves with a big bowl of liangpi noodles, the true staple of the city. They're made by washing dough in water until the starches are completely stripped off. That starchy water is then rested overnight until the starch forms a thick, sticky layer at the bottom. Pour off the excess water from the top, steam the resulting starch-cake, cut it into ribbons, and you have yourself a meal that's eaten breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The noodles typically come dressed with cucumbers, sesame paste, chili oil, and black vinegar, and more often than not you'll find a rou jia mo sitting, flying saucer-like, at their side.

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The breakfast version of this ubiquitous sandwich starts out as a steam-griddled bun split in half with a whole boiled egg shoved into it. After that, you go through a Chipotle-style fixin's bar where you can add your choice of pickled cabbage and long beans, sliced hot peppers, fresh bean sprouts, shredded semi-cooked potatoes dressed with chili oil, pickled shallots, or a pile of dried seaweed. I recommend getting a bit of everything, especially if you spent the night drinking on the street as Adri and I did on our second night.

It was one of our wiser "ah, f&%k it" moves. We had the option of going to bed early and waking up in time for a quiet morning stroll to the old Drum Tower well before the streets started crowding with folks headed to buy genuine iPads from the "Appel Store" or monkey face-emblazoned t-shirts from the "Daul Frank" outlets. Instead, we decided to sleep in and stay up drinking cheap beer with the locals.

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We spent our second night in Xi'an perched precariously on top of little plastic chairs pulled up around a knee-high table on the sidewalk in the alley just outside our hostel. Two terracotta warrior replicas stood guard (these guys are everywhere) as we ordered bottle after bottle of large Yanjings or Snows (I honestly can't tell the difference), feasting on dime-sized chunks of lamb that came skewered onto short lengths of piano wire for 1RMB (about 16¢) apiece. The Chinese have a clever way of keeping track of your tab: you just leave the empty bottles on your table. At the end of the night (or when your table gets too full to use—whichever comes first) you count the bottles, pay your bill, and start again (or, if you're wiser, stumble home). With a choice of only two different types of beer, both of them at the same price (3RMB or 50¢), the math isn't that hard, even when you've had enough ultra low-proof Yanjing to leave you inebriated.

What I wouldn't give for an ice cold Yanjing right now to keep me company through the long, dark, odor-packed night ahead.

Taking a Train in China? Get Your Tickets Early.

You see, I'm currently sitting on a hard wooden seat with at most an inch of useless foam padding. Attached to this plank, at a precise 90-degree angle, is a seat-back that has been custom-designed to be just compressive enough that a train ticket-seller can describe it as "soft-backed," without actually providing any of the physical comforts of a soft back. Seated on the other half of the plank is Adri. She's currently leaning against the window, which is steamed over with what can only be condensed sweat, perhaps mixed with the vapors rising out of dozens of bowls of instant noodles. (My own Spicy Beef-flavored noodles are under my seat, waiting. I'm rationing myself—there's a long ride ahead).

Adri just downed two Nyquil. She says it's to treat a cold, but I have a sneaking suspicion that she's in it for the soporifics. Those sniffles she claimed to have yesterday? She was paving the road to have an excuse to pop these pills tonight and sleep her way through our 16-hour train ride. It was a long con, but it looks like it's paying off.

Our first train experience in China, an overnight ride from Beijing to Xi'an couldn't have been more pleasant. We opted to pony up for the soft sleepers on that 12-hour journey. For a few hundred yuan, you get a spot in an air-conditioned room with a latching door and a total of four bunks. They're dressed with clean sheets, a very comfy bedspread, and a pillow that you can get lost in. Adri and I had the top two bunks (they're slightly cheaper), but if we had been on the bottom bunks, we also would have gotten a small table, along with a never-ending hot water dispenser for making tea or noodles to our hearts content.

That table and hot water dispenser was put to good use by our cabin-mates, the world's sweetest old Chinese couple: A granddad and grandmother who sequentially offered us a bit of every single type of food they carried with them until we finally relented and accepted a cucumber. I can safely say that it was the first time I've ever peeled and eaten a cucumber on a train, and also the first time I've ever accepted a cucumber as a gift. Have you ever said the phrase "accepted a cucumber" to yourself? Now you have. I offered them some of my Pickled Green Peppercorn and Fried Fish-flavored potato chips in exchange, but they politely declined. They were probably more the Grilled Texas Barbecue-flavored potato chip type.*

Turns out it's not just us who butchers their food in the US. The butchering goes both ways! Aside from the obvious oxymoron a Texan would spot in the phrase "grilled barbecue," these particular chips had a distinctly sweet, Kansas City-style barbecue sauce flavor.

I stayed up reading about Xi'anese cuisine in the cool, dry, cabin air until the gentle, silent rocking of the train put me to sleep. I woke up bright-eyed and fresh the next morning to the sound of the old lady clapping her hands across her arms rhythmically while the old man did his morning toe-touches. The Chinese are pretty serious about good blood flow. I was refreshed, ready to tackle everything that Xi'an could throw at me.

That was then and this is now.

About that urine between my legs. It's not mine, if you were wondering.

Granted, it's baby urine, and it was recently emitted by a particularly cute baby (with no warning, I might add. Smiling, gurgling, reaching for crackers one second, giving the floor his own special rinse the next), but still, it's urine, ferchrissakes.

If you haven't been to China, you may at this point be wondering how it is that this particular cute baby's liquidy discharge managed to make it past the absorbent barriers that his parents thoughtfully girded his loins with before bringing him aboard the public transport that is to be his home for the next two thirds of a day. If, on the other hand, you have been here, you'd know that it's perfectly common to see children under the age of five walking around wearing sweatpants that have been neatly split down the center, allowing them to relieve themselves willy-nilly.

So far, I've seen children going on a street corner outside the train station, in the middle of a line while waiting to enter the Terracotta Warriors archaeological site, in pretty much every public park I've been to, and on the floor of a fully-loaded long-distance passenger train. I've even seen a young girl well past toddling-age hike up her skirt, pull down her underwear, and pop a squat in the middle of a paved path in a public park in broad daylight before sprinting off to join her friends.

It really makes you wonder how the housebreaking process goes if children are trained that it's okay to pee whenever and wherever the urge strikes. But come to think of it, just before our train took off, we watched as a railroad worker casually whipped it out to lay his stream on the tracks in full view of the hundreds of passengers currently aboard our train. This at least partly answered my question about housebreaking. Obviously, some folks never learn it.

Things on the train got a little hairier when I had to rapidly tuck my feet underneath my plank seat when the little tyke decided that simply urinating wasn't good enough. In addition to my new laptop, I treated myself to a pair of new hiking shoes (some fabulously comfortable ones from Merrell), and while I fully expect them to get beat up and dirtied over the course of our 10-week adventure, I'm not quite prepared to let them be shat on quite yet.

The odor combination of Roast Pork and Shiitake Mushroom instant noodles (being eaten by the man across the aisle), mapo tofu (being carted up and down the aisle), and baby poop (right in front of me) is not one I've experienced before, and one that I hope never to experience again. I've been put right off the "Finger Licking Braised Pork Flavor" potato chips I was enjoying. And oh god, the mother of the sweet-but-stinky child just opened a banana, the only thing that could possibly make this cacophony of odors any worse.

I lied. Things just got worse. Turns out it's not just the baby who enjoys soiling the floor. The child's mother just dumped out half a bottle of milk directly onto the floor between my feet. Milk! Come on, lady, there's a drain right at the end of the car. Or were you perhaps trying to wash away the urine with your milk? I shot her a sort of incredulous are you serious? look totally involuntarily and she seemed to get the message; she handed off the baby to his grandmother while she walksedoff down the aisle, hopefully in search of a mop. I momentarily consider how humorous life is.

She came back, mop in hand, and oh god, did she just come from that hallway? Please don't be the mop from the bathroom please don't be the mop from the bathroom please don't be the mop from the bathroom, I tell myself as I hold my breath. You know that carnival game where you shoot the stream of water onto the quarter-sized target to blow up the balloon? Now imagine that you're playing that game while on a moving vehicle and instead of a quarter-sized target you've got a hole in the ground that can literally no longer be seen due to the 1/4-inch of brownish sludge covering the entire floor area. You've just totally forgotten where you were aiming that stream, haven't you? Don't worry, you're in good company. The bathroom on this train isn't so much a room as it is a general zone.

I just took a short, exploratory inhalation which confirmed my worst nightmare. Yes, it's the mop from the All-Purpose Bodily Fluid-Relief Area that just dripped its way down the corridor. I suppose a little more urine here or there isn't going to hurt matters.

There was a point to this whole story, and that's that if you plan on traveling by train in China, get to the train station early, and for god's sake, take the sleeper.

I think I'm going to take a stroll down to the end of the car so that I can get a breath of fresh air near the toilets and the smokers. We shall see what the next 15 hours will bring us.

I'm fairly certain that the first shower I take when we arrive in Chengdu will be the best shower ever.