Chengdu. Though many of you will never have heard of this city (5 million inhabitants!), it is located in Sichuan province, north of Yunnan and east of Tibet. Sichuan is a remote province and the site of the deadly earthquakes last year which caused widespread damage and killed around 68,000 people. The epicentre was 80km north of Chengdu. I did not see any sign of the devastation, though I did spot a new subway system under construction and an enormous statue of a waving Mao.

Chengdu is famous for its laidback nature and its spicy food including the Sichuan hotpot which I braved recently, two nights in a row. The phrase burning at both ends comes to mind. In any case, it was delicious and the first time, somewhat sacrilegiously, we ate it vegetarian style, two of our party being sometime vegetarians. This despite the delicious sounding cock kidney, edible fungus, thousand pieces of stomach, white gourd, beef throat, bean moodles (you know it!), swamp cabbage and green cow stomach on offer. In fact the only meat I was actually familiar with was plain beef. The various ingredients are unceremoniously dumped into an enormous pot of red chillies which is placed in the middle of the table over a gas burner and brought to the boil. The bubbling broth looked fairly ominous, resembling a Faustian pit of hell from whence devil chunks of food emerge to wreak havoc with poor Western stomachs. In actual fact the tofu, potato, noodle, lotus root and bamboo shoots are dipped into some oil, garlic and oyster sauce tincture and then consumed; rather less deadly than I had feared. Warm peanut milk was on hand to assuage our throats in case. The second night I thought I’d branch out and chose walnut milk.

Sanxingdui. This is one wicked museum. Actually the best I have seen by far, worth even the usurious Y80 entrance fee (NZ$16). It is a hassle to get to, amazing that I had to take three buses to get there given the importance of the museum, all up about 2 hours in travel time there! Harumph. It’s all in ode to this ancient civilisation, one unknown previous to the discovery of its art and not mentioned in any Chinese literature or referenced in art developed afterward. It dates back over 3,000 years and the most impressive displays were the massive bronze artifacts they found, truly eerie when you stand in front of one and look into its protruding, alien-looking eyes. The artworks uncovered are of a very high quality and reminded me of some sort of 1930s art deco derivative. Highly recommended if you’re in the area.

Destination: roof of the world! Okay so I caved in and decided to splurge outrageously on a trip to Tibet. It has blown my budget but you know, sometimes you just need to take the opportunity when it knocks, in this case gently sidling up to me and suggesting, nay commanding me to go! Eight days plus two on the train all the while generously accompanied by a compulsory guide and driver, our intrepid group of seven (2 Germans, an Austrian, 2 Dutch, one Englishman and a Kiwi) will trek to Lhasa, Namtso Lake, some other places that I can’t recall and finally the border to leave to Nepal. As my confidant Paul Theroux writes, “you have to come to Tibet to understand China. And anyone apologetic or sentimental about Chinese reform has to reckon with Tibet as a reminder of how harsh, how tenacious and materialistic, how insensitive the Chinese can be.” This written in the context of Tibet in 1987, only gradually being rebuilt after the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. I will no doubt have an opinion myself once I return.

I will be praying for all you sinners out there while I have the chance, and perhaps attempt to save my immortal atheist soul. Kieran notes that you go there for the yak butter-covered women as well as the opportunity for infinite contemplation and tasty lentils. I shall see, 45 hours on the train sounds like heaven!

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