Blessed to be a witness

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Monday, March 7th

Hot hot hotpot!

Perhaps a little predictably, Sichuan hotpot is hot. Forget your vindaloos and chillis, and ignore the Sichuan dishes you get in your local take-away, this stuff is the real thing, made of fire, and absolutely delicious.

We got our room in Sim's Cozy Guesthouse, which aims to be "the best guesthouse in China" and so far is living up to this desire in our limited opinion. It's spotless, gorgeous, has a TV and DVD player in the room, the toilet works properly, the shower is great, and the western food is about 80% of the way there, and even when it's nasty it comes with a lot of fruit and a salad. We laugh at the attempts at western dishes - for example my 'Swiss style muesli' I had in Xi'an, which was a fruit salad garnished with yoghurt, some oatmeal, tomatoes and parsley - but I could imagine the mess we westerners would make of Chinese cuisine.

Our Scottish friends had checked into a diffrent hostel, but turned up at ours in the afternoon, to ask us to meet them at 'Jade Forest Kebab' in the south of the city to try out the local fare at 7pm. 'Kebab' appears to be a generic Chinglish word meaning 'any food that isn't standard Chinese grub'. So we arrived in the street at the appointed time, and after walking for half an hour, decided it just wasn't there any more; it wasn't even down to a language problem, because I happened to know the Chinese characters for both Jade and Forest. Slightly saddened, we gave up, intending to email the Scottish couple to apologise.

We gave up looking, and wandered to the bank of the Xan He river to pursue a bar where our friend had her photo taken and put on the wall five years ago, with the task of taking a picture of the picture and emailing it to her. As we wandered half a mile down the peaceful tree-lined bank, watching bats flitting around the streetlights as they caught insects, we bumped into our dining companions on their way to the non-existent restaurant, who were running late. A fairly large coincidence in a city of 10 million.

So we set out together to find another hotpot house. And eventually we lighed on a bright, noisy place, open to the street, crowded with enthusiastically munching locals. A bit of negotiating the exceptionally greasy floor, and lots miming later, we had our hotpot. This comprises a gas burner embedded in the table, on which boils an aluminium bowl full of the fieriest liquid ever. Spices, a couple of scallions, and loads and loads of chillis. Not sure what breed, but they looked like scotch bonnets. The liquid had turned black with chilli oil, and it rolled and bubbled menacingly.

In another part of the restaurant was a rack of hundreds of skewered morsels of food. Some of it was recognisable and 'safe' (Chinese sausage), some recognisable and worrying (unrefrigerated chicken liver), and the rest was both unidentifiable and worrying. But we took our courage into our hands, and grabbed handfuls of bamboo skewers to dunk what was on the end into the hotpot until it was cooked through.

It was absolutely fantastic. The little pieces of food seared on the way down, and I made sure not to touch any of the liquid to my lips, but with a bowl of roasted garlic in oil to mitigate it, and a cold local beer, 'Snow' brand, it was just about edible. And seriously delicious. I started with tofu and a few veggies, but then got more courageous and grabbed unidentifiable bits of meat, sausages, pastries, sweet dough and bean buns, tripe (that was a mistake, actually, I thought it was tofu), and finished the meal with the most amazing thing I've tasted for a very long time: a strawberry, boiled through in the chilli. It burst with flavour and juices, and the chilli complemented the strawberry flavour perfectly.

Then we got the bill. Between six of us, for nine beers, a coke, three bowls of fried rice, about a hundred skewers, and the hotpot, the cost was... 59 yuan. Rather less than €90c each. Absolutely stunning, though my intestines are requesting that I don't eat it every day. In fact, not for a while, they're saying.

To the bar, which unfortunately had been redecorated, with only a few photographs left, where we met the owner, a former travel guide in Lhasa, who gave us some excellent advice about Tibet, altitude sickness, and so on. Today we're lazing, and tomorrow morning we're visiting a panda sanctuary.

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