7 Questions with Matt Gross, NY Times Travel Writer on Visiting Chengdu

Several weeks ago I got a call from an old friend and blogger (Dave of GoBackpacking.com) informing me that one of his travel blogger peers from NYC was visiting Chengdu to write about Sichuan food. I figured it’d be a great opportunity to meet a friend of a friend and soak up some wisdom and impressions of Chengdu from a veteran writer and traveler, so we met up. I shared some of my favorite places in Chengdu with Matt and he shared his perception of Chengdu as a newcomer who’s not only spent a lot of time in China, but even spoke some Chinese. Here’s how it went:

1) You’ve traveled around China before, but what’s the most striking thing you noticed about Chengdu?

Wanli Hao

万里号 - "The Boat Building"

You mean besides the Boat Building? I think I just noticed how relaxed Chengdu was, especially compared with cities like Shanghai and Beijing. The rumor was that Chengdu people are happy to drink tea for three hours in the middle of the afternoon, and I found myself doing just that.

2) Did the food live up to or exceed your expectations? What are your favorite dishes?

The food in Chengdu was easily as good as everyone said it would be, but more important for me was to learn how people eat—how fiery dishes are accompanied by simple, almost bland, but delicious things like kai shui bai cai or a little bowl of mian shui. Some dishes, though, I already miss intensely: yu xiang pai gu mian from a place near my hotel, the bai rou at Orange nongjiale, a gan guo with duck tongue. Some I can try to replicate at home, others… I’ll just have to come back one day!

3) You wrote The Frugal Traveler column for years, published in the NY Times – how does Chengdu fit into that theme?

Well, I stopped writing Frugal Traveler in May. (It’s been taken over by the talented Seth Kugel.) But like the rest of China, Chengdu is, on a very basic level, affordable. You can have a great bowl of noodles for 4RMB, stay in a more-than-decent room for 100RMB, and take taxis whenever you like. I can hardly imagine how I might’ve spent more money than I did!

4) Anything you can’t stand, were baffled by or couldn’t wait to write about?

I went jogging as many mornings as possible, so I immediately noticed the air quality. Or really, the lack of air quality. And there is still that Chinese attitude that gets interpreted as rudeness by Westerners: the willingness to push and jostle, to stare at misfortune, to run you down in a truck without a second thought (or even a first thought). My solution, of course, is to jostle back, to gape indiscriminately, and to throw a few choice curses in Sichuan hua at misbehaving cars.

5) I understand that regional varieties of Chinese food are currently popular in NYC (Xianese and Sichuan among them) – how do these compare to the real thing in Mainland China?

A lot of the tastes are similar from NYC to China (we have just about every ingredient China does), but what’s different, and what makes NYC (and American) Chinese restaurants suffer by comparison, is that over here restaurants are pretty much required to serve everything. Whereas in China you’d have a shop that only does a couple kinds of noodles, or mala huoguo, or freshwater eel, in America the menu usually has to include all of the above, which means no one can specialize and perfect recipes. Also, in China I can go to a noodle shop, sit down, order a bowl, eat it and be gone in 10 minutes. In America, the service culture means it takes longer and costs more.

6) Any China author or bloggers that helped you or that you recommend?

Leave Me Alone, Chengdu

Leave Me Alone Chengdu, by Murong Xuecun

Before coming to China, I read a couple of Peter Hessler’s books, River Town and Oracle Bones. He’s a fantastic writer, able to take a half-dozen disparate subjects and tie them all together. Oh, I also read Murong Xuecun’s “Leave Me Alone, Chengdu,” which was fabulously entertaining—a view of modern Chengdu I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else.

7) Are there any travel stories about China that you’d love to read?

I’d be very curious to read stories in English by Chinese writers traveling through China: what do they make of regional differences, of the way the country is changing (or not), of the enormous size and diversity of the place they call home. Know anyone like that?

You can keep up with what Matt is up to by checking out his “Getting Lost” series in the New York Times roughly every two months, and his stories for Saveur and Afar magazines appear intermittently. He also writes a biweekly column called “The Voyager” at GetCurrency.com and you can follow him on Twitter or visit his website, WorldMatt.org.

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About Charlie

Having lived in Chengdu for seven years, Charlie has traveled to every corner of China and back again, calling the Yulin neighborhood of Chengdu his home. He's a part time DJ and full time iPhone game developer, too.

20 Responses to “7 Questions with Matt Gross, NY Times Travel Writer on Visiting Chengdu”

  1. Not fair. I want to visit Chengdu!

  2. What’s the boat building? Something more than a buidling that looks like a boat or …?

    • It’s a building on the river that looks like a cruise ship – you can see an image of it above. Inside “the boat” there are restaurants, bars, clubs and so on. There have been a few large clubs on the ground floor of the boat in the past, also (Babyface and Queen Club).

  3. I’ve read the Frugal Traveler before in the New York Times… Great work, Matt.

  4. Wow, Matt had the courage to jog Chengdu’s streets in the morning, certainly not the most pleasant experience. But a good way to take in the true hustle and bustle of the city, as well as some particulate matter from car and bus exhaust.

    I’ve heard some real dodgy stories about the “big boat” 万里号 being one of those KTV places where malicious males have the pick of the litter on “numbered” private rooms. But the Da chuan 大船 serves as good frame of reference to give to taxi drivers for those headed to Jah bar!

    • I can’t say if the private rooms are numbered, but when I took the elevator to the third floor of the big boat (where I thought I was meeting Señor Moseley), I found myself at the entrance to a bar, confronted by bouncers in bulletproof vests, a metal detector, and a couple of very, very skimpily dressed “waitresses” who’d wandered out to the lobby of this “bar” for a minute.

      At first, I was wondering how to explain myself. Then I realized this was probably not where Charlie meant. Then, as I went back down the elevator, I felt disappointment: Whatever might’ve happened in there would’ve been pretty weird! But also probably not fit for posting in blog comments.

      Jah was fun, though!

      • you should’ve just strolled in and ordered two girls to bring a bottle and fire up the karaoke machine. Sit down and nod for them to start. send charles a message that said:

        “Girls sound great, u in the bathroom?”

  5. shinichi

    yes,people are like to drink tea for the afternoon in chengdu,especially when the weather is nice

    if want jog on mornings,maybe need get up early,4:00-6:30
    will be fresh air, and very quiet.
    do not by bus,its very busy at 7:00-9:30

  6. Why hasn’t anybody mentioned Sichuan Mahjong? That is a huge part of Chengdu’s culture. I learned how to play and every year when I go back I play at Bamboo Park drinking tea and eating snacks for like half a day. Everywhere you go in Chengdu you see people playing Mahjong. I had so much fun that when I got back to Los Angeles I bought an electric table for home.

    • Good question, probably because very few foreigners play majiang, or even know how to play. I learned a few years ago but never played again and simply forgot. I see people playing on my street every day, even now, when it’s pretty chilly outside.

  7. I enjoyed Chengdu when I traveled there in 2006 to visit friends. It is definitely a relaxed and friendly city with excellent, and delicious food! I will definitely go back someday!!!

  8. Enjoyed reading Matt’s recent NYT article on Chongqing. Its nice being able to “hold “articles again. Excellent cover photo of an condemned buildings in CQ, really sets the stage for the rest of the piece. I’ve been to CQ four or 5 times, and was fortunate to have a friend (with a car) as a guide yet I still felt completely overwhelmed.

    • Sure is. I was actually able to “hold it” also. My Mother brought that days NYT with her on the plane from the US when she visited Chengdu because it had an article about Chongqing in it. She had no idea who Matt was!

  9. Vincent

    Hi Charlie, first of all great website! I found some really useful information here. I’m currently living in Chengdu for 4 months.

    Do you have any idea where I can find the book Leave Me Alone Chengdu somewhere over here?

    And what about food supplements such as protein powder? Lol :)

    I really want to try the Chengdu food but I have no idea what or where I should order it, I’ve been eating stuff like Peters Tex Mex and plain rice for almost a week now…

    • Hi Vincent, thanks! Welcome to Chengdu.

      For the book, I’d check at the Bookworm, located right off Renmin Nanlu, parallel to Nijia Qiao road (very close to the Nijia Qiao subway station). They have the best selection of books in Chengdu by far.

      Protein powder isn’t as easy, but you can check in the forum for more information: http://www.chengduforum.com. The only place that I really know if is Watsons, the drug store. It’s a bit on the pricy side but I’m sure that the protein powder they have there is high quality and safe.

      For ordering Chinese food, check out this post and start experimenting! http://www.chengduliving.com/a-chinese-menu-fully-translated

  10. You must have stayed a long time in Chengdu to be familiar with so many things. And to memorised all that food names means that you have an amazing memory.

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  3. Ryan B. - November 12, 2010

    Ahh, the infamous “Boat” in Chengdu… that place is notorious. Not just for being a fake boat.

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