Catching up with friends, work colleagues, or local contacts is one of the real highlights of life on the road. Whether it is something pre-arranged or a random coincidence it gives you a feeling of normality that constant travelling often lacks. So when we arrived into Chengdu we were both quite excited about meeting up with Tang Jun.
First things first, neither Natalie or I had ever met Tang Jun before, but we were put in contact with him by one of our close friends and one of Natalie’s work colleagues. Tang Jun also helps out Natalie’s work, Oasis Overland, with organising things in China for their huge Silk Road overland adventure. We had swapped several emails and had decided to meet up on a Saturday night to go out and experience real, local, traditional Chengdu Hot Pot.
Tang Jun and his wife Wendy picked us up from our hostel and we drove down to a street filled with restaurants, “Look for a full restaurant and you know it is a good one”, Tang Jun told us. We pulled up out the front, Wendy ran in and quickly from the doorway waved us all in. With one table left there was no waiting time, a rare occasion in Chengdu on a Saturday we were told.
As we walked in, it was almost as if everyone stopped and stared, Natalie and I were the only non-locals in the whole restaurant, and this was definitely somewhere off the beaten track. We sat down, drinks were ordered, we made a toast (the first of many!) and then Tang Jun explained what traditional Sichuan Hot Pot was all about.
The town of Chongqing is most famous in China for its hot pot with Chengdu a close second. It is basically a silver bowl full of chilli, black peppercorns, several different types of oil, and even more chilli. As it boils away you then put different types of meats and vegetables into the broth and cook them to your liking. Each person has a small bowl in front of them that you fill with sesame oil, chopped garlic and coriander. The sesame oil we were told stopped your stomach getting ill from so much chilli. “You must understand, hot pot is not the healthiest meals for you”, Tang Jun laughed.
Now this is where things got interesting, a huge simmering cauldron full of a bubbling red hot liquid that looked that it had come from the bowels of hell was placed in the middle of the table. In the center was a smaller pot of clear liquid that appeared to have a full fish inside it. Natalie is without doubt one of the most intrepid travelers I have ever met, but there are a couple of things she doesn’t deal with too well. One is dead animals, two is overly spicy food, (China has helped her change her tune a little), and three is random off cuts of meat. So it was hard not to chuckle when first the pot came out and all you could see was chillis boiling away and a dead fish in the middle, but this was followed by a procession of plates of various meats and vegetables to dip into boiling bubbling broth.
Tang Jun emptied a few plates into the broth and told us they needed a little longer to cook than some of the others. He then said to me, “Try this one Dean”, “What is it?” Natalie asked, “Ha ha I will tell you once he has eaten it!”, Tang Jun responded. It was actually pig intestines and I must admit it I quite liked it. We were then treated to pig’s throat, ox stomach, meatballs, beef, what looked like spam and several types of vegetables. As the broth continued to boil away the colour got deeper and the taste got hotter.
Credit where credit is due Natalie tried everything that Tang Jun presented her with and didn’t bat an eyelid (even the fish which she hasn’t eaten for years and was more of a challenge than the offal). Even as the broth got hotter and hotter Natalie kept going, at one point I turned to Tang Jun and said, “You have made my wife do things tonight I could only dream of!” I was a very proud husband to say the least. Perhaps the spiciest little beast was the cauliflower – somehow it absorbed every chilli and spice in the pot and left even me reaching for the water!
It really was an amazing meal, all the dishes tasted great and true to form, the sesame oil negated some of the nasty effects of seriously hot and spicy food. Sadly Tang Jun was not feeling the best that night but promised to be on better form in a couple of nights time when he insisted we go out for drinks. Wendy drove us home and we reflected on our awesome local dining experience.
Two nights later we got the call to jump in a taxi and meet Tang Jun at his favourite bar, The Traveler Bar, owned by a close friend of his Mr Liu. We began with a few local beers and were introduced to the Chinese art of cheers-ing. In China you seem to cheers for everything and everything, I think it is an excuse to get drunk as quick as possible.
We were joined by a couple of his work colleagues, a young girl called Candy who had just joined the business and then his work partner or boss, we never did work it out, Mr Liu (yes another one but no relation) arrived and then the party really started. We upgraded from reasonably low alcohol Chinese beers to extremely strong Bavarian wheat beer, the best you can get, we were told.
We toasted to just about everything, new friends, old friends, the two of us being married for eight months, to China, to Tibet, to Oasis Overland and everything in between. We learnt that the host will always clink his glass lower than yours as a sign of respect, and when someone fills up your glass you tap the table with closed fist, imitating a sign of respect to the Emperor when he was in disguise travelling around. As we meet up on the 30th of December, and we were spending New Year’s Eve on a 44 hour train ride to Tibet at midnight we then toasted to ‘Happy Last Day of the Year’. For us this night was our New Year’s Eve.
When we were sufficiently drunk to our hosts liking they piled us into a taxi back to the hostel. We may have only spent two nights with Tang Jun but by the end of it we felt like we had known him for ages. His hospitality was amazing despite our pleas he would not accept any contribution towards our dinner or our night of drinking, we were his guests in his city and country. We have been lucky to do so many amazing things on this journey already, but our two nights with Tang Jun will live on in the memory for a long time to come. As I said at the start, meeting up with friends, old or new, during your travels is always a highlight.