They say that tastebuds are inextricably connected to fond memories.
Makes sense. We visited some of the most pristine alpine meadows in the world, a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its ecosystem of giant pandas and snow leopards. Yet my most vivid memory from Mount Siguniang was the heavenly aroma of Matsutake Mushrooms.
Yes, Matsutake Mushrooms. The exorbitantly priced delicacy featured prominently in the finest restaurants in Tokyo come every autumn, so beloved that it's called the King of Autumn Flavors in Japanese. Except we're 3000km away from Japan, huddling around a primitive electric heater in a tiny Tibetan-run eatery in the middle of nowhere.
As you can imagine we did NOT come for the Matsutake -- we're simply in the right place (Eastern Tibetan Plateau, 3200m above sea level) at the right time (late autumn, just before the first snow). This was Mount Siguniang National Park in ethnic Tibetan territory, at least 5 hours away from the nearest city.
It was a day when NOTHING went according to plan, starting with our morning ride out of Danba. After a 3-day mini-trip to visit some gorgeous Tibetan villages we decided to move to Mount Siguniang via the county capital of Xiaojin, except scheduled buses had stopped running in the off-season. All we're given was a mysterious cellphone number hooking us up with a certain microvan driver rumoured to be doing the Danba-to-Xiaojin run.
So we called the mysterious cellphone number as told, and at 08:15 stuffed ourselves into a clammy microvan with five local Tibetan heading in the same general direction. Some would hop off halfway and others would hop on, but at the end we promptly arrived at dusty little Xiaojin for just RMB 30 (CAD$5.4) per person.
Getting to Xiaojin was just half the journey -- the next scheduled bus to Mount Siguniang wouldn't depart until noon. Miraculously we flagged down yet another microvan, this one heading for Mount Siguniang (a.k.a. Rilong) carrying another group of Tibetans, for only RMB 20 per person! We couldn't have planned it any better, but by 11:30 we actually made it to the hotel we reserved.
Except nothing went as planned -- our hotel's front gate was found chained with a giant padlock, apparently shut down without canceling our reservation. Our disappointment was profound as months of careful planning had failed to secure a reliable 1-star hotel room in this remote town. Thankfully our microvan driver was so compassionate that he took his own time to chauffer us around, and miraculously we did find another hotel room at a reasonable walk-in price. It's been a tough morning, but at least it all worked out so far.
But this is China, and things can quickly change. We originally planned to stay for two nights, spending the first afternoon horseback riding in Haizi Valley and the second day touring Shuangqiao Valley. Except we found out upon arrival that the Tibetan horsemen had apparently closed shop for the winter season starting early November. While it was a shame not being able to ride those alpine trails I had been so looking forward to, we had to move on to Shuangqiao Valley.
We weren't sure if we had enough time left for Shuangqiao Valley, but we managed to flag down a local SUV and paid the owner RMB 20 for the short drive to the ticket booth. We barely made it on one of the last National Park shuttles to enter the valley at 15:30, sitting on an empty bus alongside four people: the driver, a guide, and just two other visitors.
Shuangqiao is one of three long and narrow valleys officially open to visitors of the National Park, and the only one accessible without long treks or horses and thus doable in a half day. 34km of well-maintained mountain roads ultimately led to an exhaustingly high elevation of 3800m, a country of soaring vultures and stubborn yaks.
Everywhere we toured we're reminded by whitewashed Stupas that the valley has been the ancestral homeland of Tibetan nomads, long before it became a National Park and eventually a World Heritage site. Primitive huts remain scattered along the valley, serving as seasonal bases for modern day cowboys and their yaks.
We would have taken advantage of the extensive boardwalks along the valley's prettiest spots if we had a full day. But the moment we decided to visit Shuangqiao Valley in the afternoon, it was essentially a decision to leave town the next morning as we had no intent of hiking Haizi Valley without horses. And the third valley? Judging by reports from the Chinese side of the Internet the Changping Valley was probably the most arduous of the three, and we didn't bother to find out.
The sweeping scenery of wooly yaks grazing on golden alpine pastures was especially charming under the warmth of the setting sun. Shuangqiao Valley had its photogenic side, though it's not quite at the same world-class level as Huanglong or Jiuzhaigou in my humble opinion. But it's still a worthwhile stopover between the Danba Canyons and Dujiangyan on the Chengdu flood plains.
At one point I tried to sneak closer to some semi-domesticated yaks for a better photo, but our driver yelled to summon me back. Apparently the yaks were known to be aggressive against strangers and a few unsuspecting tourists had been gorged. I had to be thankful that I didn't become the next victim, especially on a day full of other mishaps.
It was almost 18:00 when we returned to the park entrance, only to be mobbed by a number of Tibetan hawkers for various local produces. Most prominent were the typical Yak Jerky or the highly treasured Caterpillar Fungus, but we were most tempted by an offer of dried Matsutake Mushrooms for a substantial RMB 750 (CAD$134) per 500g. I have to confess that I considered haggling, but sane reasoning took over and I realized that I had absolutely no idea how to distinguish a real Matsutake in its dried form.
As mentioned we walked into Jiarong Yangguang Hotel at noon and were lucky to get a 2-star room at the same price (RMB 238) as pre-booking online. Sleeping at 3200m above sea level gave us our first taste of mild altitude sickness in the form of rapid heartbeats and difficulties in breathing. In retrospect missing Haizi Valley was probably a blessing in disguise, as we returned to a much lower elevation the next day.
In terms of restaurants we arrived with no expectations for the townful of eateries catering to tourists rather than locals. But we did stumble upon a couple of recommendable choices.
This was a tiny noodles house run by a young couple from Chengdu, specializing in the peasant favorite of Feichang Fen (Rice Noodles with Pork Intestines). The tripes came without any hint of the weird aftertaste typical of the frozen stuff, and the soup was appetizingly spicy at a manageable level. It was a quick, cheap and enjoyable lunch, but it was our restaurant in the evening that really stole the show.
Bill for Two Persons
|Rice Noodles with Pork Intestines (Large)||RMB 13|
|Rice Noodles with Spareribs (Large)||RMB 13|
|TOTAL before tips||RMB 26 (CAD$4.6)|
This hole-in-the-wall eatery is one I would WHOLEHEARTEDLY RECOMMEND to travelers passing by Mount Siguniang. Xiangbala Fandian was a tiny place run by a Tibetan lady and her elementary-school-aged daughter, and here we had one of our most memorable meals of our 18-day trip.
My eyes lit up when we saw Matsutake Mushrooms on the menu. MATSUTAKE MUSHROOMS!! In the middle of nowhere on the Tibetan Plateau! We started with the pictured broth of seasonal wild mushrooms resembling some sorts of chanterelles and porcinis. After one sip of the soup I was fully convinced of the excellent quality of the ingredients -- you really can't judge a restaurant by its storefront.
When I ordered the Matsutake I honestly expected about 5 slices, based on my previous experience in Japan where a 3000yen (CAD$32) order of Yaki Matsutake would typically come in 4-5 slices. While this was rural China where prices should be much cheaper, I didn't know what to expect of our RMB 80 (CAD$14.3) order of Matsutake and Tibetan Cured Ham.
But the portion was much larger than I dared to dream. There must have been at least 20 slices of Matsutake! And I probably had about 15 as my lovely wife saw the way I craved this elusive ingredient and let me finish most of it.
Looking at this picture I still remember vividly that sweet aroma of pine needles in the Matsutake, accompanied by the deep piquancy of Tibetan Ham. It was easily the best mushroom dish I've ever had, in terms of both quality and quantity, and the one dish that made our mini-trip to the Eastern Tibetan Plateau worthwhile. Yes, it's that good.
At the end we paid RMB 124 (CAD$22) for a meal of Matsutake and Porcini that would surely cost RMB 500 in Beijing, and probably upwards of 15000 yen (CAD$160) in Tokyo. My only regret was in listening to the owner's description of her proudest creation -- Slow-Braised Whole Duck with Matsutake -- which we would have no chance of tasting as we're leaving town the next morning.
Bill for Two Persons
|Matsutake Mushrooms with Tibetan Cured Ham||RMB 80|
|Broth of Assorted Wild Mushrooms||RMB 25|
|Stir-Fried Spinach||RMB 19|
|TOTAL before tips||RMB 124 (CAD$22.1)|
On a day of theatrical twists and turns there was one more surprise to come. Chatting with the restaurant owner I mentioned our plan to leave for Dujiangyan the next day, the exorbitant quote of RMB 900 (CAD$160) for a private taxi, and our disappointment at the lack of a bus station in town. The owner listened quietly and smiled, before she finally let out the punchline ...
"I'm the bus ticket agent in this town," she said simply.
So that's the fairytale ending ... an implausible coincidence that could only be explained as blessings from above. We returned the next morning for a breakfast of Tibetan Cheese Curd Buns while waiting for our bus, which would purposely stop in front of the restaurant expecting us. We have much to thank our gracious hostess, for the delectable Matsutake Mushrooms and for delivering us safely to our next destination.
For fellow travelers visiting Mount Siguniang, the location of this ticket agency/restaurant is right below Jiarong Yangguang Hotel on the main highway, just before the turn-off to Changping Valley. As of late 2014 our bus to Dujiangyan arrived at 08:10 and cost RMB 100. A different bus to Chengdu passed by at 08:00. And while you're in town, do your tastebuds a favor and don't miss the Matsutake if you happen to be visiting in the autumn!