The nineteen hour overnight train from Guilin to Chongqing had been a multisensory experience. My new collection of horsefly bites, angry red welts, braided around my legs and itched like mad. The squat toilet next door gave off extravagant wafts, which roamed the hard-sleeper carriage hassling its occupants like a drunk. Opened windows, thanks to no air conditioning, brought the amplified shrieks of the tunnels through which we passed.
After a near-sleepless night we were happy to leave the train. But Chongqing greeted us with only grunge and grime.
Formerly the capital of the province of Sichuan — until 1997 when it separated into its own municipality — Chongqin has only five million inhabitants. That’s relatively small by Chinese standards but surrounding villages and towns total 32 million. That day it seemed everyone was contributing to the city’s air, which was like lukewarm gruel.
I believe cleanliness is akin to smelting. The clean you is extracted when the impurities are either burnt off in the extreme heat or washed away with water. This was to be a layover day so the possibility of a shower did not exist. So Marty and I tried another option.
We made our way to Dongtingxian Huoguo, a Sichuan restaurant appropriately located in a former bomb shelter. We were greeted at the entrance, by a lady in a red Chinese Shenyi (the classic full body garment) and shown our way through the low roofed corridor to our seat. Our order was taken — we asked for “zhong la” (medium hot) broth, as with Sichuan food the heat scale is always ratcheted up a few notches. We ordered the ingredients to cook in the broth — lamb strips, beef strips, mushrooms, greens, cabbage and strange egg sheets (something lost in translation). We had gotten the attention of a few of the staff who stood together in the intersection of the two corridors, watching us.
“Do you have the feeling our masculinity is being assessed here?” I asked.
Marty eyed the entirely female staff.
“Yes. Yes I do,” he replied.
Our waiter returned with individual bowls full of yellow oil, a dish of salt and a bowl of minced garlic, which we mixed together. And now the main event, a large steel hemisphere quartered with dividers was placed on the gas stove inset in our table.
Its contents was clearly a portal to the underworld, the bloody liquid began to bubble, throwing up chillies and Sichuan peppers like damned souls in their eternal dance. A yellow froth began to build in from the edges. The ingredients were then brought to the table. We dropped in a few of the beef strips, and then with a surge of bloodlust committed the entire plate. We waited, watched and drank our beer.
The hemisphere’s appetite seemed to be momentarily satisfied as the boiling died down. Then it began to anger again, I plunged in my chopsticks and, after a little bit of feeling about, found a strip. I retrieved it and dipped it in my oil-garlic-salt mix, for a second, then flicked it up into my mouth. I chewed and swallowed. I waited for the flash of fire. Not much there, a bit of a smoulder, a glowing ember maybe but this was offset but the numbness of brought on by the Sichuan peppers. So I got cocky.
Marty slid the rest of the plates into different quarters and we began to seriously tuck in, punctuating each few bites with a gulp of beer.
We were about three or four bowls in when something began to happen. I noticed that my vision had narrowed and my face was wet. My tongue felt tender but I kept eating. There is something unique about the pace of eating a Sichuan hotpot. When you have a meal, which is on your own plate, or even a communal meal, sitting there in front of you it’s all right there just waiting to be consumed. But with Sichuan hotpot when the ingredient falls beneath the crimson gloss it disappears from sight. This makes each one retrieved a successful scavenge.
But there is something else with Sichuan hotpot. It has to do with a delicate balance formed between the heat of the chillies on one hand and the numbness of the Sichuan peppers on the other. The thing is you never realise the tipping point has long since passed while you are eating. Due to the accumulation of chillies in the bowl it is the heat that always triumphs over the numbness. It’s only when you sit back in your chairs and crack your knuckles you realise you’re on fire. So it was with this meal.
Our faces were streaming and suddenly the corridor felt too small, the roof too low. From the rich meats to the mushrooms to the cabbage, all had their distinct flavour enmeshed with the red hordes of chillies in the hotpot. Yet this was entirely peripheral to the main issue now, which manifested itself as a throbbing, whooping, all-encompassing alarm. I looked at Marty. He removed a streamer of toilet paper and rubbed his face, scrunched it up and added it to the large pile that began to spill over onto the floor.
“Time to go?”
“Agreed,” he replied.
We paid and got up almost knocking over the table in the process. Stumbling, as if drunk we made our way to the light at the end of the corridor. It seemed to get a little further away with each step. I imagined a massive set of forceps plunging in from the exit and grabbing me by the head. Eventually we crashed out into the bustle of the street. A bus rushed past and its slipstream felt cold on my face. Was this the way we’d come in or not? It was, but this felt like our first arrival.
K Johnson will be blogging regularly for Crikey while on his six-month trip to the countries most tourists never visit — think Azerbaijan, Transnistria, Iran, Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Kurdistan etc. Check out all the past stories and adventures he’s written about for Crikey here. You can read more about him at his blog Red Ink Run. Photographs by Marty Cullity (except the first one).