Pepper Freedom

Xi’an Bound

If you’re a masochist, I’ve got a tip for you: the Trans-Siberian has little in the way of a challenge. Fight for a train ticket in China and travel during the Golden Week. Killva takes us to the train station with a long face that says either I feel your pain or I worry you won’t make it alive. Before hugging for the last time this doll of a girl, I ask Killva to write in my notebook the Mandarin version of an short text, that I hope will facilitate our access into the homes of notoriously shy Chinese villagers. We are yet to suspect the hilarious effects of this gesture!

The train that takes us to Xi’an is a meaningful conclusion to our journey along parts of the Silk Routes:

– because these Routes transformed the whole of Asia, connecting the Far East to Timbuktu – and now we have that map tattooed into our palms.

– because merchandise and traditions continue to travel along, even if the caravans were replaced by sidecars, rotten buses, donkeys and even the Chinese bullet .

– because after we climbed the alpine trails, the fertile valleys and the snow-capped passes, after we slept in abandoned sand castles, in glorious caravanserais and the humblest nomadic yurts, in ambitious China it’s time to mingle with the working men, who trains home after perhaps their only holiday of the year. And even if the trains looks like it’s 2077, the vibe and sense of community has changed little since 1477.

If the Chinese were extremely shy on the streets of the capital, being inside a tight things unlocks their tongues: we get toddlers dropped on our laps, random strangers shuffling my journal and petting John’s wild mane, and everybody keeps offering us all sort of edibles. Every interaction reverberates to the back of the car that huffs and puffs with laughter and gossip; so by the time the train supervisor arrives, we have become some sort of minor celebrities.

Xi’an is one of China’s oldest and most beautiful cities.

But we admit to have come here for two main reasons: food, and the  Terracotta Army. It doesn’t matter that the ministry of tourism has blown out of proportion the shopping mall that blocks the entrance to the ancient site. What is to be found inside is so worth the effort:

Every face is unique, as if real warriors were magically turned to stone by a mad wizard.

The thousands of visitors are kept away from the fragile army. Even if we cannot stroll among them, the thoughts that these warriors saw the birth of China makes our skin shiver. In the back of the main hall there are some “scientists” who act like they are cleaning artifacts. Most of the terracotta soldiers are still underground!

A few originals can be admired at intimate level in the Xi’an museum, while gypsum replicas are made available for quirky tourist selfies.

The Chinese have invented the ultimate reusable onesie. When night falls, Xi’an’s residents reassemble in the Muslim Quarter, where the cobbled streets bear the marks of millennia old trade. The night market is fabulous indeed, and Alan, a fellow foodie from Xi’an, joins us for dinner.

Every treat you can imagine is found here: there are narrow alleys where the best dumplings are sold – and nobody will give that address in writing! – there are corners where glutinous rice is pounded with coconut into a paste, then lightly steamed in bamboo ans smothered in pistachio. There is the lady who makes the most amazing pastrami sandwich, Tajik bread and dim-sum, there are little balls with congee and goji berries, diminutive doughnuts filled with persimmon and whatnot… you better go and sample, my fiends, ’cause one story and one night in here are not enough.

Darkness alters completely the architectural dynamic of Xi’an city, with the old walls, the watchtowers and the pagodas re-affirming their elegant swagger.

The subsequent night train takes us from Xi’an to Chengdu. Remember we met in Mongolia a Chinese cyclist? He has connected us with a friend who happens to be the most famous bicycle adventurer in the country. This duded knows bikes and he said that in Chengdu we should be able to find what we are looking for. This time the train has its own cheerleaders: we are treated to a demonstration of the correct way to brush your teeth, which ends under a confetti of cheap toothbrushes.

After one night with a couchsurfing host, we move to a hostel, where we bump into a… Romanian. Andrei is now living in Canada, but he is from the same DNA of devoted foodies as Killva and Alan. And where better to practice our common passion than the capital of Si Chuan province. The place is perfect for long walks and large meals, with gentle weather and lovely teahouses.

At every corner there is a stall, a hawker or a little restaurants offering reasons to linger.

Andrei has been studying Chinese for a year. We attempt to learn a little from him, but by the time we leave the city we can barely count to ten.

The Si Chuan cuisine is world famous for very good reasons. The fiery Si Chuan pepper is just one of them: it sets your groin on fire and gets your tears running. But there can’t be a visit to this province and this great city without it and the best way to experience this delicious torture is by sharing a hot pot with friends.Typically a table with a big and flat saucepan is set up on the street, with a large number of ingredients in skewers being cooked in a mildly spicybroth. Customers sit around the table picking up whatever they want to eat. Or you can sit around the pot itself and cook your own selection of food, which can go anywhere between bean curd, chunks of meat, dumplings, fish balls, quail egg, lettuce, lotus root, and even offal.Yum!

If Chengdu markets are a treat by day, by night they transform into a pantagruelic wonderland. When lanterns light up, shame is turned of, and every living souls starts eating to capacity.

Meanwhile we’ve found the bike street our friend talks about and we make our mind fast. We cannot wait to have our own vehicles and be free again. We buy a Giant and a Merida, and John says that the number on this bike testifies that it was destined to be ours.

The tires, saddles and bike bags we brought from home, and John will be using the same Enduristan soft luggage that was mounted on his KTM. Packing goes smooth, as we have gotten so used to living frugally. Even after we load on food supplies, the bikes are still super light. We are quite excited. It’s cute to be a backpacker, but having your own set of wheels and an idea for a plan is another business altogether.

Ready, set…