So here we are, in Chengdu. So, so many changes. On our first afternoon we wandered for five hours in a half-daze, looking for recognizable landmarks. We found only two: the yellow-bricked Jinjiang Hotel and, up the street, the gargantuan statue of Mao Zedong.
But much remains the same. The winter weather -- a damp chill that creeps to the very core of your bones and then, without warning, surfaces in shivers . The old, smoking men playing dominoes and board games in the park by the river. Padded jackets, ear muffs, arm warmers. The easy friendliness of the locals -- which has, to me, always made China's interior 'hinterlands' more pleasant places to be than its capital and coastal cities.
And the xiaochi ('small eats'), unapologetically hearty and unsophisticated.
Ten minutes after dropping our bags at our hotel we were sitting on baby stools just inside the gate of a work unit, where this ayi ('auntie') was serving noodle dishes and dumplings from a single burner and a table just outside the guardhouse.
I struggled mightily with her heavy Sichuanese accent, but we managed to chat a bit about the local love of mala (spicy and 'numbing', from dried chilies and Sichuan peppercorn) and reminisce about lao Chengdu (old Chengdu); she moved to the city from southwestern Sichuan in 1987, two years after we left.
As her 83-year-old mother watched from her chair, ayi made us a mean liang mian -- sturdy, preboiled noodles mixed with garlic, sugar, crushed peanuts, dried chilies in oil, and plenty of huajiao --
suanla fen (or suanla ferrr, as Sichuanese say, hot and sour noodle soup -- wonderfully elastic bean starch noodles, greens, and two kinds of pickled vegetable in a thin broth soured with black vinegar and spicy from dried chilies), and shuijiao (boiled dumplings -- top photo), served with a sweet-and-spicy dipping sauce.
I sat in the wet cold listening to ayi's jokey banter and the click-clacking of mahjong tiles from inside the guard house. I smiled and nodded at a curious older local who wandered over from an apartment block to have a good look at what the two foreigners were eating.
I hung my head in the vinegary, spicy steam rising from that bowl of suanla fer and felt unspeakably happy to be back.
Chengdu has undergone major plastic surgery. But I get the feeling the city's generous heart is intact.
For photos of Chengdu, then and now, keep an eye on Dave's photo blog, which he'll be updating regularly while we're in China.