Our Chinglish itinerary had once again blown us away with excitement, describing the scale of the Giant Buddha at Leshan as so massive you can have a picnic on his toenail! True, at 71 metres, it was the biggest stone Buddha I’d ever seen, apparently carved by monks eons ago, but since I’ve never been a fan of food and toenails (you know, together), we settled for a walk up and down the steep steps on either side, before getting back on the expressway to Chengdu.

Chengdu is a sleepy little town of 13 million people, selfishly occupying not one but three ring roads to draw you into a maze of massive apartment blocks and spider like flyovers in the city centre. It took us nearly 2 hours, and millions of traffic related expletives to make it to Yingchu’s flat, near the first ring road. And we were late for Hotpot!

Chengdu Hotpot is revered as the best in China, and Tracy, the lady who’d coordinated our trip had invited us for Hotpot before sending us off to see the Sichuan Opera. (Thanks!). Oh my god it was delicious! Plates of meat, vegetables and dumplings were gradually added to the bubbling broth of spicy soup, then plucked and dipped in chilli and vinegar (hopefully long enough to prevent 3rd degree burns). There could’ve been no end to a dish like this for me, but we were late (again) for the Opera… We missed the first few acts, but made it in time to see the hand-shadow puppets – who were amazingly skilful. The rest of the Opera – a traditional comedy about a wife who punishes her husband for something (possiby being a rubbish actor) went over my head a bit, but the final act, where the object was to guess how the actors change their masks and costumes in the blink of an eye was pretty skilled too.

We wandered back through the mild and brightly lit streets afterwards, past the Chengdu Institute of Science and Technology, where an enormous statue of Mao Tsu Dong was planted front and centre. Whilst I was pondering the irony of the placement, for a character who, from an outsiders POV had stifled the country’s progress for such a period, Joe was pondering out loud to our host,

‘That’s Mao isn’t it?’ he asked, referencing the enormous floodlit statue. She looked at it and nodded.

‘Chairman Mao, yes’ she said, with a clammy look of hope that that was going to be the last of Joe’s questions. I knew she wasn’t into politics and didn’t like talking about this stuff. But we were both surprised she’d called him ‘Chairman’ Mao – it begged more questions.

‘So, do people still think of Mao…positively?’ Joe asked tentatively.

She answered very matter of factly.

‘Yes. They think he did a lot for China, for Chinese people. Some people think when he got older he got more confused and made some bad decisions.’

She cottoned onto our disbelieving looks as we stared across the park at the statue.  ‘I guess you think he was a bad guy, right?’ she said, as if we’d somehow given the typical western look of pity. ‘He made some mistakes in his old age, but he did a lot for the people.  Every card has two sides.’

‘We don’t really know a lot about it.’ I said quickly, dropping the subject. Maybe that was true. All my assumptions about China were based on everything I’d read in Wild Swans and everything Mrs Sullivan had taught me in my year 11 ‘20th Century History' class. Maybe I didn’t know the full story. And I couldn’t blame her for being defensive; I knew deep down that no matter what Australia’s downfalls, if someone started questioning its past, I’d naturally be defensive.