On this morning’s walk to work, J and I encounter two elderly men who are slowly wheeling a bicycle down the road. Attached to the bike is an unusual cargo, even by Chinese standards: a full-sized metal bus shelter.
Perhaps they are mature students on a jolly jape, carting the shelter back to their dorms as some sort of trophy? (Well, traffic cones do seem to be in short supply round here.)
Then again, there’s a bus crawling along behind them in the next lane; maybe it can’t stop until the bus shelter is safely installed. Perhaps this is some sort of traffic calming scheme, along the lines of those chaps with red flags who used to walk in front of early automobiles?
We shall never know. Only in China, etc etc.
Flushed with the success of last night’s sushi emporium, we decide to try the next restaurant down the strip on Wensan Lu. J thinks it might be a Korean restaurant. It looks bright and bustling, with gas rings set in the middle of all the tables (which might be fun) and they have laminated picture menus (which should make things easy).
I’m used to large menus over here, but this one takes the prize so far; the pictures must be well into the hundreds. Unfortunately, they’re also small pictures, with poor reproduction quality, rendering it impossible to guess which dish is which. Some of them do look a bit hardcore, though – and so we decide to play safe, and order the dishes which look the least threatening. One wok dish, to be stir-fried at the table, and two side dishes.
Our waitress, though polite, seems oddly reluctant to take our order. Every time we point at our selections, she hesitates, looks at us searchingly, and says “This is…”, followed by something unintelligible. It’s proving a real struggle to get her to write anything down. Just take our order, dammit! This one! Yes, yes! Good, good! Want, want, want!
The first side dish to arrive looks like a plate of mixed twiglets. Our waitress stands nervously behind us as we taste our first mouthfuls. Yes, yes! Good, good! Xie xie! Eventually, she nods and backs away.
“It’s a plate of twigs, isn’t it?”
“Mmm. They’re, um, a bit chewy aren’t they?”
“Well, they are twigs. Quite bitter, as well.”
“Actually, they’re pretty disgusting. I’m not a big fan of eating wood.”
The other side-dish arrives, followed by the wok: pieces of chicken, mixed with sauce, peppers and various other bits and bobs. The gas ring is lit, and we commence stirring.
“I wonder what they do with the breasts and legs of chickens over here. You know, the good bits. Do they go eurgh, disgusting, and throw them in the bin? Because all we ever get are the gristly bits. What are they, anyway?”
“They look like kneecaps. But chickens don’t have kneecaps, do they?”
“I’m getting the hang of them, though. You just suck them very slowly in your mouth, and the meat drops off. If you try to chew them too quickly, then you’ll get a mouthful of bones.”
“Yeah, it’s a bit like sucking boiled sweets. Gobstoppers or something. Slow food – that’s the point, isn’t it? Meant to be good for you. We Westerners like to wolf things down, but over here, they…”
“Mike, are you feeling all right?”
“Yeah, I think so. Why?”
“Well, I’m starting to feel a bit light-headed. Spaced out. A bit trippy, I suppose. What about you?”
“Actually, you’re right. See that wall next to us? It’s gone all wobbly.”
“Must be something we’ve eaten.”
“Shit, the twigs!”
“So that’s why they were so disgusting. It wasn’t about the taste at all. They’re trippy twigs! We’ve eaten trippy Korean twigs!”
“Which is why they were looking so nervous?”
“Must be. Woo, I’m getting quite a rush from them. Coming up on me twigs!”
“Will K know anything about them?”
“Dunno, I’ll give him a ring… oh, shit. I’ve just realised why I couldn’t suck much meat off that last piece of chicken. Look at it. It’s the f**king head!”
“I’ve been sucking on a chicken’s head! Whilst off me nut on f**king hallucenogenic Korean twigs! Bad trip, man!”
On the way home, after ringing K (“Google for them! Google for trippy Korean twigs!”), I discover that the twigs have a nasty side-effect: they’re also powerful diuretics. Jeezus, I’m bursting.
This is where I make my second discovery: that in densely populated Hangzhou, there’s no such thing as a quiet alley. Having sentry guards posted outside the entrances to half the buildings doesn’t exactly help matters, either. Oh, the agony.
“Look J, you buy any DVDs you like. I’m going to race on ahead, OK?”
Thirty minutes on a full-to-bursting bladder, racing down the street, eyes darting up every dark entrance. Waste of a good trip, man.
J arrives back at the flat bearing DVDs and snacks.
“Look, Mike: I bought these especially for you.”
J’s chosen box of snacks rejoices in the name of LOVELY PUFF. Quick, call the Graham Norton show.
“J, I’m touched. Really touched. What are those?”
“Oh, they’re some sort of sweet doughballs, with a gooey filling.”
I choose from the selection of four DVDs, opting for the last John Waters movie, A Dirty Shame. You know, the guy who did all the classic low budget Divine movies? Hairspray, with Ricki Lake? Serial Mom, with Kathleen Turner? Sick humour but he’s cleaned up and gone mainstream?
Eww. We seem to be back with the sick humour and the B-movie production values. And, well, it’s a bit crap really. I reach for my sweet white doughball. It feels smooth, cold and clammy to the touch. Kind of creepy.
“This doughball is kind of creepy.”
“I know. It’s like a dead woman’s breast, isn’t it?”
“I WOULDN’T KNOW. What makes you say that?”
“Actually, you’re right. OK, so I’m watching a pervy John Waters film, munching on a dead woman’s breast, with a box of LOVELY PUFF beside me, high as a kite on trippy Korean twigs. That’s… fine. No, really.”
“In China, you can be sure that something will happen every day…”
“Yup. Something happens every day. God, this breast is sticking to my fingers…”
P.S. We checked, and the twigs weren’t Korean after all. The restaurant specialises in food from the south-west of China, not sure what district, still none the wiser…