Though knocked down a peg or two as foragers, Rory and I are raring to join our two measly mushrooms with the ones sold at the mountain’s crest.
We emerge from the trail and the trees open up to reveal the lush countryside far below, with the largest of the ancient rock carvings looming above. More importantly, two men perch outside the entrance to the pavilion next to green and red crates piled with mushrooms.
Badge Of Honor
Luckily, Shirley is a badass bargainer. First, she speaks Chinese – so there’s an edge, seeing as we’re in China and all. Second, she knows the going rate of these bad boys, so when the two men offer to sell their shrooms for ten times their worth she’s ready to lowball ‘em.
This, of course, is the dream of many white travelers: maintaining and upholding their bargaining badge. (I think we feel that it somehow demonstrates our ability to navigate a culture, which more often means that one walks away, item in hand, feeling vindicated for purchasing a piece of pottery for $6 instead of $8 even though it is sold locally for about 40 cents.)
So I’m not ashamed of needing Shirley, least of all when she negotiates with the pavilion’s caretakers to cook our produce.
Within moments a table set for tea is placed on the courtyard’s porch. I inhale the steam from the warm water as I slowly sip the mild beverage: it is surprisingly refreshing because of the altitude’s coolness. While I watch the old men play mahjong in the gazebo, I realize that Shanghai’s oppressive heat and pulsing life seem a world away in the peace of Yunnan.
I explore the pavilion, finding the man who is feeding the wood fire beneath the woks to make our lunch. He tosses no small amount of oil into the pan, and although I know that my participation can be more hindrance than help, curiosity makes me nosy.
I emerge from the smoky room and approach the women who are deftly cleaning our fungus. The mushrooms get gently rubbed and rinsed and the women show me how to peel off the spongy layers underneath the cap.
Soon my eyes burn from the chili pepper smoke that fills the kitchen (both the famed Sichuan pepper, from a province directly north of Yunnan, and your average red chili pepper).
Fit For A King
Then, it is time. One after another, women and men bring out the dishes, filling up the table – each one looks more delicious than the last.
I spot chunks of something red and dense in two of our plates, and ask Shirley what they are.
“That is Yunnan ham; it is famous,” she replies. And indeed it should be. Slightly leathery, this dry-cured pig is brimming with salty fatty goodness and, paired with the mushrooms, it is most certainly an umami orgasm. I mean, who needs ancient sacred rock carvings when you’ve mushrooms and meat?
We happily dine and converse until I pick up the last salty pork chunk with my chopsticks and pop it into my mouth. Because we have to catch our bus before five, I scarcely have time to scratch my stuffed belly (an attractive trait inherited from my father) before departing. Our entire meal and its preparation costs us an absurd 70 kuai, or around $10 – which makes it around $1.50 per person!
As we traipse back down the mountain, I’m sad to be leaving Shaxi but I feel blessed to have found it in the first place. Yet, there’s always something tricky about losing yourself in the comfortable bubble of impending nostalgia – perhaps it upsets the yin-yang balance of the world; perhaps the cosmos know I do not deserve such satiety. All I know is what happens next.
Now, you know the good kind of salivating – like when you smell mom’s tortillas frying while the taco meat sizzles beside it? Now how about the other kind of salivating, like the kind you feel right after slamming your fourth body shot and realizing you probably shouldn’t have started with those two White Russians and a handful of gummy worms?
The latter is most akin to the sensation I experience as our bus climbs towards Jianchuan. What is happening to me? Is it the delicious Yunnan coffee? The fresh apples straight from the tree? The local Yunnan ham? Could it possibly be…the mushrooms?
Regardless, within moments they all erupt into my esophagus and splatter before me across the pavement. I vomit once on the side of the road, four more times in the van, once crossing the street to the bus station in Jianchuan, two more times waiting for our bus to Dali and then, the best part of all, it becomes what my foul-mouthed friends call vomirrhea (if you don’t get this reference, lucky you).
When the bus is about to depart, my travel companions retrieve me from the stench-filled bathroom where I have to paid 1 kuai to crouch over a communal channel and let loose my innards.
A Friend In Need
On our way back to Dali all I can think as I stare into my blue plastic bag is, “How has it come to this?” But as bad as it all is, my companions – strangers to me just a few days ago – do not distance themselves.
Rather, they buy my bus ticket, they carry my bag, they purchase me anti-nausea lozenges and they dig into their packs and pull out all manner of cure-alls from their stashes. They do this all while entertaining me with stories of their own digestive debacles in China. Rory mentions that on the way out to Yunnan he made his bus stop no fewer than 15 times so that he could empty himself.
Fiona confesses her five-day blockage and its epic end.
And although it might not be what most of us want to hear, as I sit on the plane a few days later I can’t help but think that if my mógu mission had not turned fungal fiasco I might never have made some adventurous strangers into lifelong friends.
- Part 1 of Leigh Bush’s Blog: Mógu Mania: Chinese Culinary Adventures
- Part 2: Mógu Mania: Fungal Foreplay
- Part 3: Mógu Mania: Mission Mógu