4 feet 2 mouths

walking and eating our way around the world

Archive for the category “East Asia”

The Best Thing I Ever Ate (by Carmen)

Yang’s Fry Dumpling

Yang’s Fry Dumpling

That’s it. In the picture. The best thing I ever ate. Specifically, it’s a fried soup dumpling (aka 生煎包 or shengjianbao) from Yang’s Fry Dumpling in Shanghai. The memory of that first bite into the crisp, sesame-scented skin through to the juicy interior. Savoring each sip of the piping hot broth. Even now my mouth waters.

But it was about more than the dumpling. It was the moment, the trip, the city, the people, the cafe, the florescent lighting, the finding of the dumplings themselves – everything contributes to the experience of a true food find. So here is my ode to the holy grail of dumplings, encountered on a rainy afternoon and Huanghe Road in July 2009.

Shanghai French Quarter

Shanghai French Quarter

Alleyway in the French Quarter

Alleyway in the French Quarter

It was Nathan and my first taste of travel in Asia. The weeks before I started grad school we criss-crossed the continent for 6 weeks – Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan, and China. It was a culinary awakening in many ways. The flavors were fresher, brighter, stronger, spicier, sweeter, just overall more intense than I could have imagined. I was loving everything I ate, becoming intoxicated on everything from gula melaka (a rich malaysian palm sugar) to Japanese bento boxes. Our last stop on the itinerary was Shanghai. My parents, who had joined in part of the journey, Nathan and I had lingered in the old French Quarter, ate amazing bbq eel and observed the crazy fast high-rise construction in Putong.

Yang's on Huanghe Road

Yang’s on Huanghe Road

But it was in our first afternoon that we arrived at Yang’s. We were looking for a noodle restaurant recommended by the guidebook and had no luck finding it (this happens a loooot). As we gave up, I looked across the narrow street and saw a familiar yellow sign advertising fry dumplings. It took me a second to realize that I had seen it on TV, Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations to be exact. Nathan and I had watched it to get excited for the new sights, sounds and tastes we were about to encounter. Everything came together at the right moment otherwise I would likely have passed what looked like every other hole in the wall cafe right up.

Workers at Yang's

Workers at Yang’s

Dumplings getting fried

Dumplings getting fried

The bowl of plump dumplings was plunked down in front of us and I gathered my dumpling with my soup spoon. As I took my first bite into the skin, I was careful not to lose the precious broth inside. From the second the flavors hit my taste buds I was floored. A beautiful depth of textures and flavors exploded in my mouth. We all had a collective moment of silence around the table. I’ve commemorated the event with a picture of these glorious dumplings on my living room wall.

Slurp!

Slurp!

My mom always said I’d find true love when I least expected it. She was right. But I didn’t realize her sage words applied to culinary relationships as well. Love at first bite. This love is not only because it tasted phenomenally good, but also because it provided a capstone to the deliciousness I had encountered throughout Asia. This dish inspired me to try more, explore more, travel more and find that next bite to take me out of this world. In short, Yang’s inspired me to dream big eventually leading to the Big Trip of 2012-2013. What power a simple dumpling can have!

Shanghai by night

Shanghai by night

Looking down the core of the Shanghai Jin Mao Tower

Looking down the core of the Shanghai Jin Mao Tower

Shanghai has been on my mind because a friend of ours moved there almost one year ago. Inspired by this blog to do more exploring, he and his wife took the plunge and moved halfway across the world – from Texas to Shanghai. We recently received a lovely email with them complete with pictures of their experiences. I’m so impressed with their adventurous spirit. So this post is dedicated to them, Tomasz and Nicola. To many more adventures – and dumplings.

Note: Yang’s Fry Dumpling is a local Shanghai chain with a few locations. I went to the one at 97 Huanghe Road, just north of People’s Square. It’s labeled 小杨生煎馆 on Google Maps as of June 2014. One friend tried to find this location and was unsuccessful, so you may want to consult the web for other locations.

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Eat Where We Ate (by Carmen)

While I was traveling I started to wonder if I would ever be able to find all the eateries I’ve visited if I eventually returned to a particular city or region. I mean, it seemed easy enough now since it was all relatively fresh in my memory. But in a few years? There are some places I know I will return to and others less so. Just to be on the safe side, I figured I would note down as many of the places we mentioned in the blog as I could whether or not I plan to revisit. Turns out, that was A LOT.  The culmination of this effort: The 4feet2mouths Food Map

I adore maps, old and new - in this case of Istanbul (Sources: Duke University, Rifle Paper Co)

I adore maps, old and new – in this case of Istanbul (Sources: Duke University, Rifle Paper Co)

Memory is an amazing thing (and has fascinated me even more since I read Moonwalking with Einstein). Our brains are incredibly adept at spatial memory. I was astounded how much location-specific information I could recall when I really tried. I even started testing myself with restaurants from earlier travels and found that by studying a google map I could find places without the help of google search. It is probably obvious by now that I am a complete map nerd. Seriously, cartography is absolutely beautiful!

Screenshot of 4feet2Mouths Food Map, zoomed in on Istanbul

Screenshot of 4feet2Mouths Food Map, zoomed in on Istanbul

There’s an added bonus to my map memory game – now you can eat where we ate! I am using this as a tool to make recommendations to others about our favorite restaurants and food stalls (and a few sights as well). So if anyone says, “Do you know any good places in Istanbul?” I can send the link and they can zoom in from there. I have to admit, this idea stemmed from a map my friend Andrew shared about his favorite places in New York. It was useful for me so I hope mine will be useful to you.

Datli Maya in Istanbul is one of 150 listings on the 4feet2mouths Food Map!

Datli Maya in Istanbul is one of 150 listings on the 4feet2mouths Food Map!

Food Map Link

The permanent link will be at the top of the page

So from now on the 4feet2mouths Food Map will be housed on the Eat Where We Ate page of this blog (see the link at the top). It was quite the effort and I’m proud of the result. I will update it periodically as our travels progress. In the meantime, I hope you can enjoy some of our recommendations.

The 4feet2mouths Food Map

Picture 5

Costs of Travel #5 – Real Travel for $50 Per Day, a Summary of Asia & the Entire Trip (by Nathan)

Polaroid taken of us at a party in HK

Polaroid taken of us at a party in HK

I present to you the final installment of our “Costs of Travel” series! Quick recap: the last four months of our trip were evenly split between Southeast Asia (including Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos) and China.  Our final city was Hong Kong, a grand finale to our enormous adventure. We travelled for 410 days and were able to do it for $50 per day. This post will look at the last four months as well as the trip as a whole to provide some advice on how you can get started on your own world tour.

4FEET2MOUTHS Costs of Travel - Regions

(You may notice that the entire trip shows up as $61.60 a day, but this will be explained later on.  We found a way to save at least $11 per day)

Our trip as analyzed through the Costs of Travel thus far:

All this travel definitely made a dent on our pocket book.  We toured 18 countries and explored everything from jungles and mountaintops to pristine beaches and without doubt, it was worth it.  We learned some financial budgeting lessons in South America, we got back on track in the United States and we continued our love of travel into Europe and India.

4feet2mouths Travel Costs - Southeast Asia

It is funny, but Southeast Asia would only feel expensive after arriving from a place like India which is what we did. India is incredibly inexpensive; a few dollars and we were eating like kings.  I am still amazed that we were eating dosas and idli every morning for 50 cents! Where else can you travel to a country for less than $35 per day with flights and visas?  We landed in Bangkok feeling a little awkward in the modernity of a city that is so starkly different from New Delhi.   The contrasts between India and Thailand were so vivid that we constantly grappled in our first few days to readjust to Thailand.  What we quickly learned was that everything in Southeast Asia was twice the price of India, but even still everything was very affordable.

Overall, the costs in the various Southeast Asian countries were very similar and our daily budget was pretty stable at $47 per person per day.  Hostels and hotels were pretty standard at $6-$11 per day and food $7-$9.  That means we were getting all of our basic needs met for $16 per person per day on average.  We did find that every Southeast Asian country had some relatively expensive excursion or activity that we couldn’t pass up: scuba diving, Ankor Wat, Halong Bay and jungle trekking were all wonderful and essential experiences, but they bloated the “Fun” category of our budget.  We also noticed that transportation in the region, both between cities (the Get In category) and within cities (Transit) can easily be done for under $5 per day.  We bused everywhere, with many overnight buses, and I recommend that as the most accessible and comfortable method of transportation.

2012.07.24FEET2MOUTHS Costs of Travel - China & Hong Kong

When we arrived in China it somehow felt more expensive to us than SE Asia.  But when finally sitting down and looking at the numbers it was in fact that same cost – $48 per person per day.  It felt like we were constantly being charged park entrance fees, but those costs rarely compared to the “Fun” costs we had in SE Asia.  A big savings was that we were touring China during winter, which meant that many of the boat cruises and beach adventure activities we were doing in SE Asia were not possible.  It was the buses and trains between cities that were roughly twice the price in China and we typically spent $8 each per day on that transportation, whereas transit within cities was excellent at only $1.34 per day.  All in all, China was extremely affordable. The food, sights and adventure were some of our best memories.

Rainbow currencies of Hong Kong

Rainbow currencies of Hong Kong

Excellent meals at Spring Deer and Da Ping Huo

Excellent meals at Spring Deer and Da Ping Huo

Hong Kong is one of our favorite cities.  We wanted to spend some time there, but at the same time not bust our budget that we had worked so hard to tame.  Hong Kong is one of those cities that must be balanced with one of the more affordable ones.   Planning a trip like ours requires a balance of the “India’s” and the “UK’s;” longer periods of time in the cheap countries provides for a few days in the expensive ones.  After three and a half months SE Asia and China we were ready for a world-class city.   Everything in Hong Kong is about twice the price of China and lodging is quadruple.  We did some pre-planning and found a few friends to host us on Couchsurfing.  It is possible to eat in Hong Kong for under $10 per day, but Hong Kong has one of the most eclectic restaurant scenes in the world so it is worth it to splurge a little.  And as many of you know, food was a quintessential reason for our travel adventures.  Even with succulent visits to Spring Deer and Da Ping Huo we were still able to reach our budget goals.

4FEET2MOUTHS Travel Costs - Every Country

South America was an eye-opener for us; $96 per person per day was not sustainable for a year of travel.  We re-assessed, adjusted and planned a seven month around-the-world trip (Europe to Asia) that successfully only cost $50.5 per day.  We learned that South America is inherently expensive because flights are costly, reciprocity visa fees are prevalent and food and lodging is just not that cheap.  Our revised plan did in fact find a balance of activities, sights and awesome food for an affordable cost.  One reality that we have not addressed was that investing our travel money actually funded major portions of our trip.

4FEET2MOUTHS Costs of Travel - Hypothetical Investments

One of the main advice points of Trip Tip #4 was to in invest your savings before embarking on your around-the-world trip.  I have created a little scenario to prove my point. Suppose I set aside $25,000 each for Carmen and me about one year before we embarked on our trip.  This money would be spent in increments during the trip so would have to be accessible. In this scheme we invested in one of the big Dow companies or in the S&P 500 (an index of the top 500 US companies) that is likely to slowly grow, but not sink.  I ran a scenario where $5,000 was withdrawn at the start of the trip and every three months during the trip.  I chose a selection of companies that everyone has heard of: Disney, Verizon, Exxon Mobile and CocaCola.  If you have a resistance to buying stock, then you are missing out on all the companies that are profiting off of you.  Truth: you are not off the grid. I like to think that I am taking advantage of globalization and the world reach of corporate America by allowing these companies to fund my travel of the globe.  I take my portion of their profits and reinvest it in the local communities I visit by buying food at a street cart or staying in a family-owned hotel.  

My investment scenario shows some amazing findings: two years after deciding to travel and investing the money resulted in thousands of dollars in free money.  Suppose in our investing scenario we did not invest in Disney, but we did earn $4,500 over the course of two years; over 410 days of travel we would have saved $11 per day! Carmen and I did not invest in any of these companies, and I must remind you that there is risks involved in investing, so please research every company thoroughly before you float your life savings on stocks.

Costs of Travel - Everything

So we did it!  Even though we were spending $96 a day in South America, we balanced our trip with some more inexpensive places like the Camino de Santiago, India and SE Asia.  We invested our travel money along the way and pulled it out as we needed it.  Therefore, the $61.60 a day we spent minus the $11 in investment earnings brought us to our goal.  The end result, 410 days, 4 continents, 18 countries at $50.6 per day. 

Check out all of our nerdy fun pie charts here:

The Best of 410 Days of Travel (by Nathan)

Northside of Uçhisar castle in Cappadocia

Northside of Uçhisar castle in Cappadocia

Life without travel, to us, is not life.  In February of 2012 we set out on an adventure beyond what anyone could fathom.  Our destinations would be magnificent and our itinerary complex.  We gave up most of our possessions and set out to explore the world.  I remember our last night in Berkeley, we sat on the floor of our empty apartment eating a fabulous cheeseboard pizza washed down with rosé (from a winery aptly named L’aventure, The Adventure).  Both of us were nervous about what might happen over the next year.  We wanted needed to travel. There is only so much ground that can be covered on two week vacations, so we postponed our careers in search of historical, cultural and culinary education.  We met wonderful people and saw countless jaw-dropping sights.   In total we explored over 100 villages, towns and big cities in eighteen countries on four continents through 410 days of travel.  It was a wild ride of buses, rickshaws, trains and walking on our own two feet.  The best part is that I would not change any bit of it.  Every experience has its place and memory that I love.

Last meal in our Berkeley apartment: Cheeseboard pizza & L’Aventure Rose (perfect)

Last meal in our Berkeley apartment: Cheeseboard pizza & L’Aventure Rose (perfect)

I think the most impressive achievement of traveling is the accumulation of memories.  Every day traveling creates a new experience, a beautiful sight, a peculiar food or an awkward cultural exchange.  Each one of these unique events is stored within my brain like a painting of a vibrant and textured year.  The events shine with such color and flavor that Carmen and I can quiz each other and remember what we ate, saw and did exactly on any day of the last year.  What were you doing last May 7, 2012?  We woke up at sunrise and walked across the Isla del Sol on Lake Titicaca in Bolivia, then bused to Puno, Peru and had Chinese food while watching a Bruce Lee soap opera with a funny theme song chorus.  I look back at my years working and there are a few standout events, work milestones, or an exceptionally fun weekend or a fabulous meal we created with friends.  But for the most part, memories just are not stored vividly because they get lost in the routine of the day to day while traveling provides so many novel experiences.

Nathan taking a rest during a hike

Nathan taking a rest during a hike

Carmen and another day of travel

Carmen and another day of travel

The memories of our trip hit me with amazing detail.  We are constantly asked what our favorite part of the trip was.  It is virtually impossible to compile millions of wonderful memories and synthesize them in a single answer.  We hiked mountains, canyons and through forests and ate dosas, ceviche and hot pot.  And we loved every bit of all of it.  I have tried to go through some of our favorite activities, tastes and sights and tried to compile a brief list of some of the “bests” of fourteen months of travel. 

Rio de Janiero - Ipanema Sunrise

Rio de Janiero – Ipanema Sunrise

Best Big Cities: London, Hong Kong, Istanbul, Chengdu

Best Big Cities: London, Hong Kong, Istanbul, Chengdu

4FEET2MOUTHS Best Big Cities

Carmen and I love big cities.  We love the life that one can feel in a city.  The people thrive with high-rises, public transit, beautiful museums, beaches and sights.  The food tingles with flavors so intense that the tongue and entire body becomes addicted.  And although there may be culture-shock these cities are welcoming and encouraging to be a tourist and maybe an inhabitant.  I loved Rio de Janiero from our week traveling there in March 2012.  The city is beautiful and the music passionate.  I can’t wait to go back.  London and Hong Kong are of course one of our most favorite cities in the world.  Chengdu feels a bit more scattered in its design, but remains one of my favorites for the food alone.  Istanbul is a gem in the world, a perfect crossing point for Asia and Europe with all the delicacies and beauty that make it uniquely Turkish.

Shaxi, our favorite small town

Shaxi, our favorite small town

The small towns often get missed in lists like these.  We visited a perfect little village named Shaxi in between Dali and Lijiang.  It was quaint and picturesque, and a wonderful variation from the Chinese tourist cities that are so common.  Unfortunately it is changing and I expect that it will not be the same when I return.  We visited countless small towns during our Camino de Santiago trek, each dainty or dusty, but fun to explore in search of a café cortado.

Tartine bread pudding with strawberries

Tartine bread pudding with strawberries

Best Sweets: baklava, sweet soup. Mango sticky rice & alfajores

Best Sweets: baklava, sweet soup. Mango sticky rice & alfajores

4FEET2MOUTHS Best Sweets

Amazingly enough we did discover coffee during our travels abroad.  Both Carmen and I appreciated coffee, but refused to be addicted so we drank it very rarely.  Walking across Spain changed that, now we just have to limit intake.  There are few better things to have a coffee with than bread pudding.  Tartine in San Francisco makes my absolute favorite dessert of the year.  We always used to eat here, but after having it again with strawberries, I cannot help but put it at the top of the list.  Other favorites include Honeymoon Desserts’ sweet soup and alfajores.   Mango sticky rice is so simple and perfect that I wish I could eat it every day.  In Turkey we tried to eat baklava every day, which were all phenomenal.  One place, Karaköy Güllüoğlu, created nut and phillo pillows of gold.  The fact is that there are just too many excellent places to eat while traveling.

Gong Bao Ji (Chicken)

Gong Bao Ji (Chicken)

Best Foods: ceviche, rajas y queso, boat noodles & pho

Best Foods: ceviche, rajas y queso, boat noodles & pho

4FEET2MOUTHS Best Food

I still stand my original statement on Chengdu that the gong bao chicken we ate on Renmin Zhonglu remains one of my favorite meals.  I am so happy that we ate there twice!  Another favorite is La Super Rica; you can order blindly here and you will be very happy.  Boat noodles and pho are charactieristic of the flavors of Thailand and Vietnam.  In general, the everyday food in South America is rather mediocre.  Culinary enthusiasts should rightly stay in Asia.  Although we loved the pizzas of Buenos Aires, my real favorite of South America was the ceviche that we consumed in large amounts in Lima Peru.  Survival during travel is not on food alone, it is the sights that often distinguish the destinations.

Ephesus library

Ephesus library

Best Ruins: Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat, Caryatids on the Acropolis, Vittana Temple & carved church in Cappadocia

Best Ruins: Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat, Caryatids on the Acropolis, Vittana Temple & carved church in Cappadocia

4FEET2MOUTHS Best Ruins

In school I never really liked history.  It seemed like such a mish-mash of random wars and crap that never mattered.  Then I started traveling and developed a love of understanding cultures and people and the history leading to their current lives.  I find that I can spend all day bouncing around a set of ruins, crawling around a cave or reading countless interpretive signs.  Seeing a place brings the history to life and ingrains a sense of reality that these events actually happened.  Some of my favorite places were the Inca Trail, Angkor and Athens; there are so many ruins that can be enjoyed and each building, wall and path defines a little bit of history that is easier to understand.  India’s civilization is thousands of years old and the variety of ruins and temples demonstrates a wealth of history.  One of our favorite cities was Hampi, the ruins were spread out, but beautiful and easy to explore.  Cappadocia was honestly unbelievable: underground cities and fairy chimney houses really do exist.

Hagia Sofia, most impressive building

Hagia Sofia, most impressive building

We were doubly awestruck when visiting the Hagia Sofia.  It is old enough to be in ruins, built 500ad, but still remarkably towers above and beyond what many modern engineers are designing.  I was deeply moved and inspired by this magnificent building and I look forward to seeing it and Istanbul again.  Beyond the buildings and the history it was the landscapes that intrigued us and kept us walking and walking and walking.

Grand Canyon Sunset from Cape Final

Grand Canyon Sunset from Cape Final

Best Landscapes: Salkantay, Camino de Santiago, Salar de Uyuni & Cappadocia

Best Landscapes: Salkantay, Camino de Santiago, Salar de Uyuni & Cappadocia

4FEET2MOUTHS Best Landscapes

The landscapes of the world vary drastically.  The contrasts between mountains, canyons and forests are immense, but one thing is for certain: the human heart is sure to skip a beat at certain places on this planet.  We sought out many of these spectacular sights, and some of my favorites include: camping beneath Salkantay mountain on the Inca Trail, The deserts, rocks and salt flats leading up to the Salar de Uyuni and Cappadocia rock formations and hot air balloons.  Grand Canyon, despite its ubiquity as being a beautiful destination, remains one of my favorite places.  We trekked for eight days and loved all the nuances, textures and colors that transition throughout the day.  We experienced so many beautiful things: Tiger Leaping Gorge and Zhangjiajie come to mind in China or Cafayate and Iguazu in Argentina; each is its own special and vibrant memory.

Walking the Camino de Santiago towards Sahagún

Walking the Camino de Santiago towards Sahagún

I value each experience of our trip uniquely, but one was critical to my well-being and my development as a human- walking the Camino de Santiago.  The steadiness of walking, the meditation involved with each step and the time to think is phenomenal.  I finished the Camino confident that I could achieve anything, but humbled that I finished it with someone I love, Carmen.  Walking the Camino de Santiago is special and life-changing for everyone in their own way.  I feel that I could walk it again tomorrow and it would still bring value and pleasure to my travels.

Nathan & Carmen at Condoritos Park

Nathan & Carmen at Condoritos Park

We often get concerns about our travels.  People care to know about muggings, stolen property and the life and death situations that might have caused us head home.  Carmen and I were very fortunate to not have any serious turmoil happen to us while traveling.  Our worst evening was spent shivering on the side of the road next to the Condoritos Park.  We did hear of some friends who had cameras stolen from buses in Tupiza, or friends of friends who were pick-pocketed in Rio, but none of these things happened to us.  We did accidentally leave a nice steel canteen in Sao Paulo and another Nalgene on a minibus in Zhongdian, but that is it.  Carmen and I are very meticulous to carry very little, we pack light and we walk with our hands free and we secure our money when we get it.  We were lucky, but I feel that the people of the world are generally nice and helpful.  People in Vietnam were extremely welcoming and kind to us throughout our trip and we experienced zero hard feelings for being American. In fact, everyone was welcoming; we, for the most part, only encountered nice and thoughtful people.  (That crazy girl in Tiger Leaping Gorge kung fu kicks into my memory.)  Our trip was a great success and I feel confident that we could travel anywhere and have similar experiences and treatment.

Nathan getting a mud cleanse

Nathan getting a mud cleanse

Just as fast as the date came for us to embark, it was time to settle down.  We traveled hard and fast.  We were diligent to explore as many parts of the world as we could.  Language and food was no barrier, and we were entertained by the beautiful sights that both nature and humans have created.  The challenge with any travel is that the world never feels smaller.  The world feels more accessible, but our bucket lits of places to go and things to see has only grown larger than when we left.  The question we have to figure out now, is what country we will travel to next?

Carmen sandbar silhouette in Ilha do Mel

Carmen sandbar silhouette in Ilha do Mel

Many of you have been our readers throughout this journey and I thank you for your support.  For those who have just started following us: there is a wealth of excellent photos and information in our past posts.  Future posts will continue to entertain on the travel and food theme that we all love.

Chinese-isms and Attempting to Understand China (by Nathan)

1763 Chinese Map of the World (Credit: wikicommons)

1763 Chinese Map of the World (Credit: wikicommons)

I think it was Churchill that described Russia as a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”  The idea was that in no way was it possible for Churchill to understand or justify the actions that he was witnessing.  But, what about China? Things have changed a lot in the last 75 years, but I think it is appropriate to say that China is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma with a gold and red bow.  We were definitely challenged in our travels in China. We spent TEN weeks exploring the country; we traveled in six provinces, we visited twenty cities and I feel that I have only grazed the surface of Chinese culture, the food and the landscapes.  China is a country that is magnificent and confusing and it needed a summary of its own.  We saw so many beautiful places and we ate very delicious food, but we also had cultural experiences that left us perplexed.  Occasionally we came across a few good “Chinese-isms” or chinglish that provided some smiles along the way.  I’m posting pictures of some of the best ones as well as my random observations on food, transport, hygiene, speaking Mandarin, translations, censorship, materialism, staring and being a lao wei in China.  Scroll down towards the end for a breakdown of our daily costs in the mainland and in Hong Kong.

I think of Hansel and Gretel with this one, only bewitched stuffed animals were sold inside.

I think of Hansel and Gretel, only bewitched stuffed animals were sold inside.

I love that the words “angle” and “Salisbury” were just added for fun.

I love that the words “angle” and “Salisbury” were just added for fun.

This is not just any trash bin, it is the one where “unrecycling” is necessary

This is not just any trash bin, it is the one where “unrecycling” is necessary

I think that China and I have one of those love/hate relationships.  I think it is a beautiful country that is continuously complicated with all types of irony.  I am completely fascinated and head over heels for Chinese food also all its varieties.  From Yunnan, to Hunan or Sichuan, the most humble peasant shop owner can turn out dumplings and noodles that I still dream about.  Few places on earth have food like China.  The Chinese definitely love their food too.

The is where Jim Carrey created his signature line in “The Mask”

The is where Jim Carrey created his signature line in “The Mask”

We took buses every day in China and for some reason it is a thing for older men to snort and pull up phlegm from their entire bodies then spit it on the floor of the moving bus.  People didn’t just spit on the bus, of course, they spit everywhere.  But it was when it occurred in enclosed spaces, like buses and restaurants, that it was particularly gag inducing.  Seriously, wtf.  Even the excellent and modern long distance trains were not safe.  China has such an excellent rail network.  I love the subtle sway and knocking of trains, even the tiny compartments provide a cozy comfort. We were sitting on a train and I watched a guy sneeze (it was close quarters); he of course did not cover his mouth or nose.  With snot all over his face and shirt he turns to the train curtain to wipe himself off.  It is a bewildering attitude towards hygiene when one sees people cleaning their chopsticks in hot tea before eating but not washing their hands, covering their sneezes and spitting everywhere.  We rarely got sick in the rest of our travels but in China we consistently developed new colds.

It’s a barbecue place with fries?

It’s a barbecue place with fries?

I searched and searched for such a couch, but I only found paintings of “conches.”

I searched and searched for such a couch, but I only found paintings of “conches.”

There is no doubt that I struggled to speak mandarin in China.  In fact, Carmen and I worked pretty hard to learn some key phrases of Putonghua, the dialect of Beijing, but we repeatedly found that the dialects throughout the country vary so diversely that we were lucky if we could get our duoshao chen (translation: how much is it?) understood by the people.  We resorted to copious amounts of pointing and we found amusement in the translations that restaurants and shop owners found for their signs.

Mystical flower shop in Changsha

Mystical flower shop in Changsha

Yay, Chinese shipments of pharmaceuticals directly to my “Little House on the Prairie”

Yay, Chinese shipments of pharmaceuticals directly to my “Little House on the Prairie”

The food better be good here!

The food better be good here!

As it turns out there are thousands of business owners that have included English on their signs.  Unfortunately this does not mean that they actually speak English, but more that they are hip to the fact that English looks pretty cool on a sign.  So it is very doubtful that the pharmacy had anything actually to do with a “little house on the prairie,” or that there was a “yellow brick road” leading to a flower shop.

Honor and disgrace in China, do people really regard their actions as following this?

Honor and disgrace in China, do people really regard their actions as following this?

Three Gorges Dam and “willingness” for eminent domain

Three Gorges Dam and “willingness” for eminent domain

One idea that China challenged me to think about was: what is truth?  Is something true because we are told by a higher authority it is true, or that major news sources report it, or is it because people around us believe it to be correct?  In China, everything was censored, we could not access our blog, Facebook, YouTube, NY Times or BBC as they were all blocked and the only news released in the country is approved by the government.   I was surprised to learn that mainland Chinese people still think that Taiwan is part of China.  There is no concept that Taiwan votes for a president or survives as an independent country. Within China they are told Taiwan is another province of China.  And thus we found subtleties in newsprint and billboards that, to us, feel like major distortions from the news we know, but to others are this is the truth.  I encourage you to read it for yourself, Google China Daily and read a bit; it’s English with a clear pro-China bias. I think it is the hush-hush cover-ups that bother me- the tens of thousands killed in the Sichuan earthquake but the paper says that there was no damage in Chengdu, which is highly doubtful.  Another example was about the three gorges project.  We found a nice little description in a museum describing the excitement of villagers to leave their homeland.  Since when is eminent domain a happy experience?

Friend this oxygen bar!  Why is there a mound of trash then?

Friend this oxygen bar! Why is there a mound of trash then?

I was lost in the national park and this is the map I found.

I was lost in the national park and this is the map I found.

Another thought: what is high quality?  China has mastered reproduction and manufacturing, but at the cost of creation.  As long as it “looks” like a person has an iPhone or a Louis Vuitton bag, a person must be high-class.  There is so much effort in copying everything else in the world that there appears to be a serious loss in modern creativity.  Appearances are everything, which means that clothing and in particular shoes are very important; it does not matter if they are fake or fake leather or that they even last more than a few weeks.  What matters is the tag and how they look now.  During our travels we would encounter other Chinese tourists or locals that would stare at our faces, then our shoes and then analyze our entire clothing.  I think their thoughts were “you are white, why aren’t you rich.”  Our clothes after seven months of travel were not at their best, but this obsession with material glamour is something that I have never understood.

Just one letter off but Antique Cliffy Painting got Carmen's funny bone

Just one letter off but Antique Cliffy Painting got Carmen’s funny bone

Carmen and I were the object of constant staring in China.  Yes, I have blond hair and yes, we were sometimes visiting places that few westerners visit.  But the challenge in China was not that there were a few glances here and there; it was that whole families would stare at us forever.  Imagine being on a bus and every time you turn your head to look along the aisle of the bus there were ten people hard-nose scrutinizing everything about us.  Yes, they were curious; fine I get that, but it never came across as amiable (like it did in India) and it still made me a tad uncomfortable, even after fifty days of it.

Who carries religious list?

Who carries religious list?

When  jumping, one flies in a “parabolic” shape

When jumping, one flies in a “parabolic” shape

It is a subtle euphemism, and again no jumping off the cliff.

It is a subtle euphemism, and again no jumping off the cliff.

It came a sharp reality to me, that in China I can only ever be a lao wei.  I want to be judged by my merits rather than my outward appearance.  This is an ideal Americans hold dear in theory, if not always in practice.  But no matter what I do in China, even if I lived there for the rest of my life, I will always have the label of foreigner plastered across my forehead and would be judged first and foremost by this fact.

So true… suburban lawn owners and golfers unite!

So true… suburban lawn owners and golfers unite!

One of those interpretive signs that means well and says nothing.  Erosion caused the club shape, duh.

One of those interpretive signs that means well and says nothing. Erosion caused the club shape, duh.

All that, and I will still travel in China again, I would even live there! (Carmen is not so sure about that last part.) It is the challenge and the beauty of it that will always draw me back.  There are countless wonderful things about China that far outweigh the spitting and awkward stares.  The infrastructure in China is fantastic.  We took a six hour bus ride that went through over fifty tunnels and bridges!  The metro systems are all new, easy to use and cheap.  I look at San Francisco trying to make a designated bus lane on Geary Blvd and it is painful, but China would have 5 underground metro lines by now!  The natural landscapes are phenomenal, China is growing at a rapid pace, but suburbs in the Western sense are rare; this means that all one billion people are pretty centralized.  This leaves beautiful canyons, forest and landscapes ready for us to explore.  The food, I can’t write about it enough, but it is really that good.  China has five thousand years of history and the last fifty years is a minor blip in a long history of culture and tradition.  There is so much to explore and enjoy; we have only seen a fraction of it.

China in numbers:
51 days in China
6 provinces
20 cities
10 accidental viewings of babies pooping on sidewalk
15 hacks and spits seen per day
42 local bus trips
28 regional bus trips
6 train rides (3 overnight)
20 metro trips
80 photos taken
12 market meals
400 Sichuan peppercorns consumed
90 cheap beers consumed (they only have 2.5% alcohol)
75 bowls of noodles consumed
65 dumplings eaten
35 temples explored

Travel Costs in China

Carmen and I are scrupulous in understanding travel and what it takes to survive a life as a tourist.  Thus I performed a little financial analysis for everyone to learn about what the costs are associated with traveling in true 4FEET2MOUTHS style.  The costs of flights, country visas, travel insurance, bank fees and initial planning costs have been smeared into the whole trip and cost about $15.50 per person per day.  That means it costs only $31.73 to bounce between cities, eat enormous quantities of food and sleep in clean, but small double rooms.  We have an expense that we call “get in” which is the transportation costs moving from one city to another by train or regional bus.  Thus, 50% of our total budget in China is getting to the city we want to see.  Furthermore sleeping, eating, shopping and fun make up the rest.  Entertainment or “fun” to us is any park entrance fee, bars or desserts on their ownPark entrances are exorbitant; we spent over $400 in entrance fees.  Be ready to shell it out in Zhongdian, Yuanyang, Zhangjiajie, Leshan, Emeishan and every other beautiful place China has.  It is a nice pie chart, as a couple it costs us only $94 to travel each day in China.  Who can say they travel for under $100 per day ($50 per person)? We have created one of these charts for every country and we will be sharing them with you over the next few weeks.

Is this HK bus a submarine too!

Is this HK bus a submarine too!

From our 2009 trip to Shanghai:  no shitting in the park (point 2) and no feudalism (point 5)

From our 2009 trip to Shanghai: no shitting in the park (point 2) and no feudalism (point 5)

In some amazing way, Hong Kong is different, the same and unique all at once.  Hong Kong has all the great modernity of infrastructure: buses, metros and bridges with people that are kind and patient to wait in lines.  The food is fabulous and the language is equally difficult to understand.  I particularly like that the double decker buses have a real periscope.  No one spits in Hong Kong, no hacks interrupt ones dining and restrooms have actually been cleaned!  We visited Hong Kong for two weeks this trip and it came as a welcome relief after several weeks of struggling though China.

Travel Costs in Hong Kong

All the glamour and glitz that is Hong Kong comes at a price.  Most specifically, hotels are expensive and there are nicer restaurants fulfill every foodie’s appetite.  Hong Kong is well worth visiting, but the total costs are $70 per person per day or $140 per couple per day. Thus, as you can see eating in Hong Kong is twice as expensive as in China.  Lodging is a whole other system in Hong Kong; the rooms are smaller, cleaner and definitely nicer quality.   We resorted to couchsurfing six out of the 14 nights which saved us $250 ($17/day).  Hong Kong is worth it and much more.

China and Hong Kong are inherently linked.  In 1997 China regained control of Hong Kong as the colonial ties ended.  There is a fifty year grace period as China figures out what to do with Hong Kong’s free speech, capitalism and voting.  This essentially means that all the advancement and human sensitivity that Hong Kong embraces is at risk of being swallowed by the behemoth of Chinese mainland culture.  I love both China and Hong Kong, but I like them different, two flavors that shouldn’t be mixed too much.  I encourage everyone to visit, explore and integrate themselves into China and Hong Kong, it is a complicated but phenomenal experience.

Past, Present and Future (by Carmen)

PAST
Looking back on our trip is an adventure unto itself as it provides me a rapidfire onslaught of memories and emotions.
 We had such a variety of experiences this past 14 months, how do I begin to summarize it all?  Fortunately, we have done a couple summary posts already.  Therefore, I’m going to pick up where we left off.  Here is a selection of favorite memories from the last part of our trip, Cambodia through to Hong Kong:

Clockwise from left: cooking amok, hanging out with Dalat locals, banh mi

Clockwise from left: cooking amok, hanging out with Dalat locals, banh mi

  • Squeezing fresh coconuts for milk and adding it to my fish curry in ultra laid back Battambang
  • That first bite of banh mi in Saigon – crispy, crunchy, sour, sweet, creamy, savory goodness
  • Being invited by locals for watermelon and rice liquor next to Pongour Waterfall near Dalat
Clockwise from left: Halong Bay, Thai stewed pork, mushroom bun, Laotian jungle

Clockwise from left: Halong Bay, Thai stewed pork, mushroom bun, Laotian jungle

  • Chilling on the deck of our boat with Julia and Jonathan in Halong Bay
  • Observing a simpler way of life in the jungle villages of Luang Namtha
  • Being served delicious stewed pork by a street vendor in a cowboy hat in Chiang Mai
  • Sampling Yunnan’s famous mushrooms in steamed bun form at the early morning market in Kunming
Clockwise from left: monastary in Zhongdian, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, stinky tofu, rice terraces

Clockwise from left: monastary in Zhongdian, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, stinky tofu, rice terraces

  • Getting up close and personal with Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and the intense rapids at its base within Tiger Leaping Gorge
  • Devouring dumplings then getting a taste of Tibetan spirituality at Ganden Sumtseling Gompa monastery in Zhongdian
  • Trying to get my head around the incredible rice terraces of Yuanyang while making new friends Michael and Albert
  • Eating the infamous black stinky tofu of Changsha and actually enjoying it
Clockwise from left: hot pot, hong kong high rises, tied tofu skins in Chengdu, tea house in Zigong in Sichuan province

Clockwise from left: hot pot, hong kong high rises, tied tofu skins in Chengdu, tea house in Zigong in Sichuan province

  • Dipping fresh tofu in a bubbling red hot pot while sitting in a converted bomb shelter in Chongqing
  • Hanging out in the convivial tea houses of Sichuan
  • Finding my food mecca in Chengdu – mapo tofu, gong bao chicken, twice cooked pork, fish fragrant eggplant how I miss you so
  • Absorbing the vivacious energy of Hong Kong in its streets, dim sum halls, hidden bars and Michelin starred hole in the walls
"This food will change your lifestyle" from a 2009 trip to Malaysia

“This food will change your lifestyle” from a 2009 trip to Malaysia

Many of my memories have to do with food because I don’t eat to live, I live to eat. Throughout our travels I was struck by how much difference it made to eat a cuisine in the place it had originated. And it’s not just because things taste fresher. It is a about the environment and the people too. Take dosa for example.  I had eaten dosa, the Indian roll stuffed with potatoes and veggies and served with daal and chutney dipping sauces, in Berkeley.  But it wasn’t until I was in India – eating my dosa at breakfast on a metal plate with a metal cup of chai tea, breathing in the thick humid air, watching other groups chatting happily in their sing song accent – that I really got it.  Dosa is filling but not heavy.  Basically, it is a damn good way to start the day.  In each country, I learned more about foods that I thought I had known with the result being that I now have a greater appreciation for these cuisines.

Of course, travel is about more than food.  Travel changes you but not necessarily in a dramatic way.  I had experiences that caused me to do some thinking, yes, but no light bulb epiphanies that changed my life. When confronted with so many new or unique experiences each day it’s hard to gauge change within yourself. Perhaps a better way to put it is a better sense of self.  Because the saying is true – “wherever you go, there you are.”

Sleeper bus to Yuanyang

Sleeper bus to Yuanyang

And we went a lot of places.  Over the past 14 months I have ridden high speed trains, a 27 hour sleeper bus, overnight ferries, small vans overburdened with 22 people, and what I like to call the rickshaw roller coaster. Powered by my own two feet I weaved through traffic packed streets on a bicycle and walked 500 mile across Spain.  My career is in transportation and I can’t help but feel that these experiences brought greater insight to my work.

Women skillfully carrying their goods

Women skillfully carrying their goods in Hubli, India

To remember all these places, experiences and transport modes gives me an immense sense of gratitude.  I know how fortunate I am for the health and resources to do this trip.  As a woman, I’m also grateful for the fact that I was born in the West.  Sexism is alive and well in the USA but I’m happy we got past the women as second class citizens thing.  Not so in many other parts of the world.  It was annoying to see groups of men and women working in China because often the men were sitting around while the women were shoveling or raking or doing whatever job had to be done.  Of course in Turkey there is gender separation as a result of religious norms, though as a tourist I personally did not feel any discrimination. The country we visited where I felt it most was India.  The culture is positively obsessed with gender and the idea that men absolutely can’t control themselves in the presence of a woman.  Women must cover, must hide away, must have their own train car in order to not be groped.  It wasn’t until I arrived in Thailand just after India that I realized how oppressing it all was.  I could finally wear a tank top to deal with the heat and nobody looked twice!  There were more women walking the sidewalks, women riding scooters, women sitting next to the men they didn’t know on transit (gasp!) and life went on.  I do hope that India finds a better balance of equality in the years that come.

This tower of dolma was one of the few things we got to "cook" during our travels

This tower of dolma was one of the few things we got to “cook” during our travels

PRESENT
Given my tales of culture shock and exhausting bus rides, it’s no wonder people often ask if I’m tired of travel. I think I surprise them when I say not really. If someone offered me a ticket to Italy leaving tomorrow, I wouldn’t hesitate to pack my bags.

That said, I am excited to resume some of my hobbies that I haven’t been able to do because of my travels. Cooking and having my own kitchen is a big one. I’m looking forward to have those lazy Sundays when I get to dedicate my day to making a delicious bolognaise. Also, learning about some many cultural histories has me thinking about my own familial one. I’ve always wanted to make a family tree and now I’m more inspired than ever.

Therefore, we are now in the process of settling down. At least for a short while. The big question is where. Part of the impetus of this trip was an was a desire to move from the San Francisco area, where we had spent nearly 10 years. We are looking for a new place to call home. Our main desire is a big city that supports our lifestyle of exploring by foot and eating good food. Will it be New York? London? Hong Kong? I wish I knew! But the main determinant will be where we can land jobs.

In the immediate future, there is our wedding to plan which is both exciting and anxiety-inducing. Meanwhile, we will be posting on some of our local travels to see friends and family as well as advice on how to plan your own trip.

Clockwise from left: the Camino, Hong Kong clay pot restaurant, baklava in Turkey, Santorini, Chengdu delicacies, sunset on the beach in Koh Tao, spring rolls in Saigon

Clockwise from left: the Camino, Hong Kong clay pot restaurant, baklava in Turkey, Santorini, Chengdu delicacies, sunset on the beach in Koh Tao, spring rolls in Saigon

FUTURE
But just because we are staying in one place doesn’t mean I can’t already plan my future travel adventures. Taking a year off just opens your eyes to more places to visit and explore.

My dad asked me where would I return of all the international places I’d been this year, which is much better than asking what my favorite place is (impossible to answer!).  For some places, one visit is enough.  But it’s the ones that call you back that indicate that there’s something special there. Here is a list of places I would return (* means I visited pre-blog):

  • The Camino
  • Greek islands
  • Istanbul, Turkey
  • Southern Vietnam
  • Thailand beaches
  • Sichuan
  • Hong Kong
  • Japan*
  • Anywhere in Europe*
I want to have a wall map in my apartment (photo credit: Urban Outfitters)

I will definitely have a wall map in my apartment! (photo credit: Urban Outfitters)

And then of course there are the places you hear about and see tantalizing pictures of.  A list of countries I have never been but want to explore:

  • Australia
  • New Zealand
  • Korea
  • Western China
  • Nepal
  • The “stans” in Central Asia
  • Russia
  • Croatia
  • Lebanon
  • Jordan
  • Egypt
  • Morocco
  • Botswana
  • Northern Brazil
  • Southern Argentina

It’s time for us to put down some roots and have a bit more routine in our life. But wherever we end up one thing is for sure. A map will be posted on the wall. Pins will be pushed in to the countries we’ve been to, the ones we need to go back to, and the ones we’ve yet to explore. It will serve as a reminder of fortunate we are to have seen all that have as well as an indicator that the next adventure just around the corner.

But this is not the end!  Stay tuned for Nathan’s thoughts on the trip coming up next.

Hong Kong, the Finale (by Nathan)

Soup dumpling at Din Tai Fung

Soup dumpling at Din Tai Fung

The final hoorah to our around-the-world trip was here.  As I described in the previous post, Hong Kong has everything we love about travel.  There is fantastic public transit, jaw-dropping sights and mouth-drooling foods.  So much so that one post couldn’t handle it all.  Here is continuation of the days we spent exploring the ins and outs of the city and the surrounding mountains.

There are numerous excellent restaurants in Hong Kong.  And many of these have Michelin stars.  Since we are traveling on a budget we like to focus on value and Din Tai Fung is one of those amazing places that has fairly inexpensive and high-caliber food.  It was tucked into a mall but the service was top notch even down to the explanation card describing the proper consumption of a soup dumpling.  We dipped the xiao long bao dumplings in black vinegar and chili oil and slurped the soup contents through the paper thin skin.  We also ordered some noodles and seasonal greens, but we wished we had ordered one more bamboo basket of xiao long bao.

Tim Ho Wan dim sum

Tim Ho Wan dim sum

Baked barbecue pork bun at Tim Ho Wan

Baked barbecue pork bun at Tim Ho Wan

We kept on the theme of awesome restaurants and went to Tim Ho Wan, the most inexpensive Michelin star restaurant in the world!  And they sell dim sum!  Their prized piece is a baked pineapple bun filled with barbecue pork.  It was amazing, very sweet, but a nice variation off the cha siu bao we usually order.  The shrimp dumplings and cheung fun (folded rice noodle sheets) were exceptional.  We feasted and stuffed ourselves and waddled our way back onto the street.

Massage chair paper offerings, burn this at your ancestor’s grave and give them a comfortable afterlife

Massage chair paper offerings, burn this at your ancestor’s grave and give them a comfortable afterlife

Around the corner from Tim Ho Wan were a handful of stores selling various ancestral offerings.  One cardboard miniature massage chair could be bought alongside a whole feast of paper fruits, vegetables and meats.  These paper goods are then brought to a relative’s grave and burned.  The offerings are to ensure that they have these items in the afterlife!

Honeymoon dessert

Honeymoon dessert

If I was to die tomorrow I would want someone to bring me a Honeymoon Dessert.  There is something fun about these east/west fusion dessert place.  They make sweet soups of various jellies, lychee, longan and tapioca with coconut cream, almond milk or sesame sweet paste.  We splurged for some with sliced mango and green tea ice cream for some extra decadence.  We loved this place a several weeks ago when we were first in Hong Kong, so it was worth visiting again.

 Harbor at Stanley Beach


Harbor at Stanley Beach

Stanley Beach pier

Stanley Beach pier

This time in Hong Kong we wanted to see some areas that we had never been.  Stanley Market is extremely accessible on a one hour bus ride and seemed to be the perfect place to escape from the high-rises for an afternoon.  We sat on the upper story of a double decker bus that bounced up the mountainside; it was like a rollercoaster weaving and diving through the jungle.  The actual Stanley Market area was very touristy, but the walk along Stanley Beach was very peaceful and the pier had very pretty Victorian wrought iron.

Hong Kong island on a misty night

Hong Kong island on a misty night

Hong Kong Island’s skyline is beautiful at night.  The colors of the ICF tower and Bank of China stand out among the skyscrapers.  The mist of the bay added to the ambiance.  It is always enjoyable to walk along the avenue of the stars in the day time or at night.

High-rise city model

High-rise city model

The view northwest from Hong Kong Island

The view northwest from Hong Kong Island

Looking out from Bank of China building

Looking out from Bank of China building

There are two tall buildings that allow for visitors into the upper levels.  The viewing platform of the Bank of China building looks towards Kowloon and the ICF building has a monetary museum and a wall of glass that looks into the south hillside of Hong Kong Island.  I love the sheer number of fifty story buildings stacked on top of one another.

Lamma Island

Lamma Island

Caught in the rain

Caught in the rain

We explored all corners of Hong Kong so we hopped on a ferry.  Lamma Island does not allow any motored vehicles, only bicycles.  We arrived hungry and had an overpriced seafood meal, but spent most of the time walking up and down the mountains and around the island.  We walked from Yung Shue Wan to Sok
Kwu Wan where we ferried back to Hong Kong Island.  Just as we got off the ferry we got caught in a rain storm.  Not just any sprinkle but a full blown dumping from the heavens.  We had little resistance without an umbrella so obviously we wound up extremely wet.

Chowzhou feast

Chowzhou feast

Us with our friend Franco

Us with our friend Franco

We dried off and warmed ourselves with dry and waterproof clothing and we were back off to Kowloon.  (Of course, now that we had our rain jackets the rain stopped.)  We met with Franco, one of my friends from Cal, for dinner at a restaurant specializing in Chowzhou cuisine from northeast Canton.  We had sweet glazed pork that was one of the richest things I have ever eaten.  We also ordered fried oysters, cabbage soup, roasted duck and donuts with condensed milk.  The traditional tiny cups of Chowzhou tea were fun, especially when we learned that subtle nuances of cup holding can turn into a challenge to fight.

Da Ping Huo place setting

Da Ping Huo place setting

Twice cooked pork

Twice cooked pork

As one of our last meals in Hong Kong we wanted to revisit one of our favorite foods: Sichuan.  The first time we visited Hong Kong was in 2009 and we saw the description for Da Ping Huo in our guidebook.  Under the impression that it was a casual eatery, we made our way to the address in the book.  We searched and searched, but we could not find the entrance (turns out it was artistically hidden behind a sculpture at the time).  We did find a door in an alley that went through the kitchen.  We introduced ourselves to the kitchen staff and we sat down at a table awkwardly.  The place was much more upscale than we thought and we were definitely out of place in our shorts, t-shits and sandals.  Within minutes the dishes started to arrive and the kind owner did his best to explain each element to us.  In the end we had ten courses, each was spicier than the next; our mouth sizzled and tingled with numbness. It was great!  We were overstuffed and out-spiced, but we loved every minute of it.  The chef (the owner’s wife) even came out at the end of the evening and sang us a Chinese opera.  We had to return to Da Ping Huo when we returned to Hong Kong.

Ma po dofu

Ma po dofu

We (heart) Da Ping Huo

We (heart) Da Ping Huo

As all of our readers know, we have been training for this moment for the last year.  I have to say that I was scared to try the ten course meal again, it was not the spiciness, but ten dishes is easily two days’ worth of food and I did not want to feel sick on my last day in Hong Kong.  We opted for the five course lunch menu, which was absolutely perfect.  The food at Da Ping Huo is succulent, crispy and absolutely delicious.  They came with two classics: ma po dofu and twice-cooked pork (our favorites) as well as a chicken and cabbage soup, stir-fried potatoes and jelly soup for dessert.  I love this restaurant and it is essential to anyone’s visit to Hong Kong, especially if you do not make it to Sichuan.

Central market

Central market

It is the buildings that separate Hong Kong from cities around the world.  Few places have a number of skyscrapers that even stand close to Hong Kong.  There are places in Kowloon that have 43,000 inhabitants in a square kilometer!  I think that it is fantastic that even though some of the tallest buildings in the world stand overhead that there are still street side markets that serve every community.  One of my favorites is a series of tiny alleys and streets in Central HK with everything from touristy trinkets to fruits, vegetables and meats.  There are a handful of excellent markets around town- jade market is good for real and fake antiques, the woman’s night market in Kowloon offers some good deals and the Temple St Market has about anything and everything for souvenirs.

Crystal Jade at the airport!

Crystal Jade at the airport!

So, how do we pay tribute to a city that we enjoy and love so much?  While in Hong Kong, we decided that it would be nice to live here someday.  We have begun applying for jobs and hope to begin work this year.  This city has all the excitement that we love about the cities, with plenty of hiking available that us accessible by transit.   We will also be connected to travel more throughout Asia. Even the HK airport had one of our favorite restaurants- Crystal Jade.  We enjoyed a last meal of soup dumplings and spicy beef noodles.  It was bittersweet boarding our plane; on one note we were excited to see our families, but then we were sad to leave Asia and conclude our trip.  We know that travel will continue to be a theme of our lives, and Hong Kong will have a place in our hearts.

Although this post may be a “finale” to the around-the-world trip there is much more to be discussed on the 4feet2mouths blog.  In the next few weeks we will be sharing our summaries of the last seven month trip including our favorite places, experiences and meals.  We will begin a series blog posts discussing the planning, transportation and finances necessary to travel the world for fourteen months.  Do you want to know how to travel around the world on $50 per day?  I believe that most everyone can travel and we’ll show you how.

Eating Our Way Through Hong Kong, Again (by Nathan)

Urban density from ICF building

Urban density from ICF building

Flying into Hong Kong is such a wonderful and exciting experience.  We were both giddy in our seats to return to one of our favorite places on the planet.  We were having a great time in China, but Hong Kong is a magic place that brings out the best of East and West. Let’s recap:  we explored Yunnan and Southern China for a month then landed in Hong Kong to rejuvenate and refresh our visa.  We then when back into China to explore Hunan, Chongqing and Sichuan provinces.  Now, we have returned to Hong Kong as a final hoorah to our around-the-world trip.   In Hong Kong, we could continue eating the phenomenal Asian food we love as well as sample restaurants that pull their inspiration from every corner of the world.  The subway and transit in Hong Kong is one of the best we have ever experienced and it is especially nice to not have to push our way on as we did in China.  Clean bathrooms, English signage and menus and the lack of honking scooters make Hong Kong accessible to everyone.  I particularly love the density of Hong Kong; fifty story building tower in every direction.  People are everywhere, but Honk Kong does not feel crowded; it feels efficient, welcoming to visitors and entertaining in every direction.

View of Mong Kok from our Kowloon apartment.

View of Mong Kok from our Kowloon apartment.

We rented a small, but well organized apartment for a few days.  It was a studio with an efficient layout and plenty of room for two people.  We especially liked that one of the panels of the closet could be pushed inward to reveal the bathroom.  When the door was closed it was impossible to tell that there was another room beyond the wall of cabinets.  The view from the 16th floor was beautiful.  We had a great time watching the tiny ants of people scurry around the city streets.  Or we watched the groups of teenagers playing basketball. It was a cozy apartment in the middle of Kowloon and a fifteen minute walk in any direction would unveil thousands of restaurants.  Thus we had our work cut out for us.

Pork and rice clay pot at Four Seasons

Pork and rice clay pot at Four Seasons

A very busy Four Seasons restaurant near Temple St market

A very busy Four Seasons restaurant near Temple St market

We decided to start with some restaurants that we knew.  This is our third visit to Hong Kong each time we leave we could not wait to come back.  One of our favorite restaurants is Four Seasons Clay Pot.  They have a decently sized menu, but the real challenge is what to get in the clay pot; we ordered one with some Chinese sausage and pork and another with duck.  They bring the fired clay pot and practically slam it on the table.  We opened the lid squirted some soy sauce and hot sauce inside and placed the lid back over the top.  We learned that this is a good way to add some moisture to the pot and loosen the outer edges of rice that get crispy and sometimes burned.  This is a remarkably simple dish but the thirty person deep line outside is evidence that it is worth the visit.

 One of my favorite restaurants – Australia Dairy Company


One of my favorite restaurants – Australia Dairy Company

Macaroni soup, scrambled eggs and steamed egg custard at Australia Dairy Company

Macaroni soup, scrambled eggs and steamed egg custard at Australia Dairy Company

We could not visit Hong Kong without eating at this restaurant.  Australia Dairy Company epitomizes the Hong Kong diner by perfecting comfort food.  Unfortunately when we were here during spring festival the restaurant closed down from a week, but this time we were not going to miss out.  The waiters are a group of hyper attention deficit and gruff men. Within seconds of sitting you down they are hovering over you waiting for your order.  The environment is a little crazy at first, but I have learned to really enjoy how methodical and quick this place is.  We like a set menu that comes with a macaroni and ham soup that is rich well beyond its looks.  The set also comes with toast and scrambled eggs that are so light and fluffy that I have not successfully recreated them.  I think they must fold in beaten whites and fluffed butter into the yolks.  All this comes with a hot milk tea.  We also ordered one of their specialties- a steamed egg custard made from just the whites of the eggs.  We enjoyed our massive breakfast tucked into a tiny corner of the restaurant.  Both the food and the clientele reflected the influence and mix of cultures that makes Hong Kong great.

Peking Duck awesomeness

Peking Duck awesomeness

How could we resist making a duck taco?

How could we resist making a duck taco?

We did not visit Beijing this trip, but Hong Kong has everything, including one of the top rated Peking ducks in the country.  We walked right into this bowtie restaurant not knowing exactly what we were getting into.  Supposedly reservations were essential, but since we were only two people we had high aspirations.  To our great luck they had a table just for us.  We ordered a whole duck and some steamed vegetables to accompany it.  The ducks here are made to order so we had to wait a good 45 minutes for our duck to be injected with air, glazed and roasted.  They seal the duck and fill it with air to separate the skin from the body and create a crispy skin.  One chef is allowed to carve the ducks for the entire restaurant.  He pushes a small cart from the kitchen and sets to work.  He carves 1/4 inch slices starting from the neck and working down the body, each contains a crispy segment of skin.  He flips the carcass and repeats.  The waiters bring plates of cucumber, tender green garlic, hoisin sauce and Peking pancakes.  The round floury pancakes have a very close resemblance to tortillas; we combined all the ingredients and consumed our Chinese “tacos.”

Lin Heung pork and rice bowl

Lin Heung pork and rice bowl

Our last trip to Hong Kong involved one of our favorite dim sum places: Lin Heung.  Of course we returned and ordered a feast of dim sum.  This was a weekday so it was just slightly calmer than the last time we visited.  We ordered our usual array of sieu mai, ha gow, cha sieu bao and one additional pork and rice pot.

Man Mo Temple incense

Man Mo Temple incense

Just up the hill from Lin Heung is a beautiful temple.  The temple has been here for a couple hundred years and is a nice reminder of the traditional Chinese village that existed on Hong Kong Island before it became a financial headquarters to the world.

Delicious shortbread egg tart at Tai Cheong

Delicious shortbread egg tart at Tai Cheong

Flakey crust egg tart from Honolulu Bakery

Flakey crust egg tart from Honolulu Bakery

It was the Portuguese that invented the egg custard tart.  A convent in Lisbon had a habit using enormous amounts of egg whites to starch their habits. They searched for some use of their overabundance of egg yolks and egg custard tarts were born.  When the Portuguese created colonies around the world, they brought custard tarts with them and slowly the dessert made its way into Cantonese cuisine.  Now egg custard tarts are served throughout the world in dim sum restaurants and bakeries.  The tarts we ate in Lisbon were heavenly, but Hong Kong can create a few that are truly decadent.  There is actually an ongoing competition for the bakery that can make the best egg tart in Hong Kong.  We decided to try out two of them: Honolulu bakery, known for the best flakey crust and Tai Cheong, known for the best short bread crust.  Both tarts were phenomenal.  I liked the run-down diner feel of Honolulu bakery, but in terms of flavor I am a sucker for the buttery crunch of shortbread.  All in all, we ate quite a few egg tarts, but neither Carmen nor I could declare a true winner between these two.

Korean awesomeness

Korean awesomeness

After a few days in a rented apartment we decided to save some money and meet some new people.  We moved down the street to couchsurf with a new friend of ours.  He lived in a Korean neighborhood in Kowloon.  There were at least fifty Korean restaurants within two blocks of each other.  We ate kimchi pancakes, bimbibop, bulgogi and sweet potato noodles.  I love how in Korean restaurants they serve the set of tiny dishes filled with pickles, kimchi, radishes and daikon.

Hong Kong history museum

Hong Kong history museum

The Honk Kong history museum is one of the best museums we have ever been too.  It has this amazing layout that teaches the geological origins of the city through its present day modernization.  There is a cultural aspect of the tribes that first settled it and the traditional festivals that still continue.  Both Carmen and I love learning about a city, its origins and its development and learning about Hong Kong, one of our favorite cities, was just icing on the cake.

Checking out the view of Hong Kong Island

Checking out the view of Hong Kong Island

A challenge with Hong Kong, for us, is that there is just too much to do.  There are fantastic museums, exciting harbor walks, island boat ferries, high-rise mazes and exorbitant amounts of food to eat and try. I love Hong Kong, it’s big and beautiful and everything I enjoy about the city.   We conquered most of our favorite places, but now it was time to see some new things.  Of course, that will have to wait until our next post.

Taking a Long Sip in Pingle (by Carmen)

Canal bridge in Pingle

Canal bridge in Pingle

One of our favorite places in Yunnan was Shaxi, a town with maybe a thousand people. The size of most cities in China are jaw dropping. Visiting the tiny towns provides insight to a slower and community oriented side of life. With this in mind we decided to take a day trip to Pingle, a couple hours east of Chengdu.

Pingle street

Pingle street

5D show!

5D show!

Pingle is over 2000 years old and was a stop on the famous Silk Road trade route. Little has changed architecturally since the Ming dynasty – some of the towns trees have even been in the same place for a thousand years. But that was then. Now, everything in China is rapidly changing. While we were there many of the little lanes were under construction to better support the tourist masses. And of course all the tourist junk shops. My favorite though was the Avatar 5D stand. 3 dimensions just wasn’t enough!

Wall of bamboo

Wall of bamboo

Nathan wondering how to climb bamboo

Nathan wondering how to climb bamboo

There wasn’t a whole lot of information on Pingle online so we discovered our activities while there. For example, we saw a sign pointing to a bamboo forest. Plenty of rickshaw drivers tried to take us there but we decided to walk. About 10 minutes later we found a valley filled with a sea of bamboo.

Crossing the stream

Crossing the stream

Picturesque bamboo stream

Picturesque bamboo stream

Most of our walk was along the one road that cuts through the valley. That meant that every so often we had to jump to the side as a car or rickshaw going much to fast sped past us. But for the most part it was peaceful and beautiful. Eventually we found a small path that crossed the river and wound along the stream for a bit. Then we caught a rickshaw back to town.

Roof tiles in town

Roof tiles in town

Riverside tea

Riverside tea

Finally, we drank our tea. This was the real reason we came to Pingle. Nathan and I had so enjoyed the tea houses of Chengdu and Zigong that we wanted more. The ones in Pingle line a calm river where kids played in the mud and casually threw their trash into the flowing water. In the tea houses the clink of mahjong tiles and families having convivial conversations filled the air. It was as chill and peaceful as China gets. The tea was delicious and Nathan and I settled in for a long afternoon of sipping and people watching.

The Real Reason We Went To Chengdu Was To Eat! (by Nathan)

Sichuan snack sampler set (xiao chi tao can) at Long Chao Shou restaurant

Sichuan snack sampler set (xiao chi tao can) at Long Chao Shou restaurant

The pilgrimage continued in a different kind of way when we were in Chengdu.  This city is sacred because it contains one of the most delicious cuisines in the world- Sichuan.  Sichuan literally translates to “four rivers”. These waterways created fertile valleys that supported bountiful harvests and a highly advanced cuisine. When we finally made it to Chengdu we were overwhelmed with choices and the main challenge each day was deciding where and what to eat.  We couldn’t go wrong with Long Chao Shou restaurant that made huge platters of Sichuan street foods for those like us with a sacred appetite.

Wontons in numbing oil and fiery dan dan noodles

Wontons in numbing oil and fiery dan dan noodles

Sichuan peppercorns (photo credit: wikicommons)

Sichuan peppercorns (photo credit: wikicommons)

Carmen already covered what to do in Chengdu.  Those activities were fun, but I want to be honest with all of our readers, we really went to Chengdu to eat.   Sichuan peppercorns, for us, are way cuter than any panda bear.  Our love for Sichuan food actually began in Beijing during a cooking class in 2009.  An Australian friend we were cooking with encouraged us to chew on this tiny little pink peppercorn.  The rush of sour tastes was initially awkward, then later settled with intense salivation and saltiness.  The funny thing about Sichuan peppercorns is that they then numb the entire mouth.  The tingle strangely caught me off guard.  I pulled and tugged at my lips enjoying drunken dumbness of my mouth.  The feeling soon disappeared, but from that taste I was hooked and eager to use Sichuan peppercorns in everything.  We read the amazing autobiography (Sharks Fin and Sichuan Pepper) and cookbook (Land of Plenty) by Fushia Dunlop and our Chinese food skills quickly advanced.  I also threw the kernels in all sorts of dishes like pizza, barbecue sauce and deviled eggs.

Legendary mapo dofu

Legendary mapo dofu

A delicious chunk of gooey mapo tofu

A delicious chunk of gooey mapo tofu

Sichuan food is amazing because of its intense flavors and textures that are only matched by the best of world cuisines (Mexican, Thai & Indian- Sorry France, suck on my chili and peppercorns!).  A classic Sichuan Chinese dish is mapo dofu, tofu tossed into a fiery broth of broad bean paste, dried red chilies and Sichuan peppercorns.  A touch of sugar, dark soy sauce, black vinegar, green onions some ground bacon is all that is needed to make this magic.  The result is a dish that is a touch sour, but spicy and savory with a slightly sweet ending.  The tofu is flavorful and creamy, the peppercorns are crunchy and the green onions slightly crisp.  In Sichuan it was served more dramatically than in the States.  The oils in the bowl are still sizzling the tofu when it hits the table, and the whole thing is topped with an additional spoonful of ground peppercorns and red chilies (and probably MSG).

Twice Cooked Pork

Twice Cooked Pork

Another favorite of ours is hou guo rou (twice-cooked pork).  This dish is basically pork belly or bacon that is boiled, then removed and cooled.  The pork is sliced and wok-fried with green garlic and of course chili peppers.  Yes, it is fantastic and rarely disappointing.  We ate this dish five times while in Sichuan.

The best gong bao chicken we’ve ever had

The best gong bao chicken we’ve ever had

Stewed pork belly, gong bao ji and seasonal greens

Stewed pork belly, gong bao ji and seasonal greens

There is one Sichuan dish that has made it to Panda Express, but don’t insult the Sichuan food gods.  Gong bao chicken (better known as kung pao chicken) is from the heavens and they don’t mess around in Chengdu.  And funny enough we found a crowded no-name restaurant with wooden tables three blocks south of Mix hostel on Renmin Zhonglu.  Their gong bao stands as one of my top three food items of this entire trip.  Somehow it is the simplest and known dishes that surprise us sometimes.  The chicken was caramelized with sweet, salty spiciness.  The peanuts had extreme flavor and crunch compared to the ones I have cooked with.  The dried red peppers provided an easy way to intensify and mitigate the spiciness.  Oh, and there were some green onions in there just because ;)

Sichuan snack shop

Sichuan snack shop

We also found ourselves eating delicious street food served within tiny restaurants.  One classic shop was across the street from the Wenshu temple and across from Long Chao Shou that I described earlier.  They served maybe twenty types of Sichuan snacks from spiced bean jellies, to wontons and what we went for- the heart, and gut of Sichuan food – dan dan noodles.  This noodle dish is basically egg noodles thrown onto a ground pork and red pepper oil.  The bowls are served small, like boat noodles in Thailand, and we found ourselves grabbing a bowl in between meals.

Street kabob on sesame flatbread

Street kabob on sesame flatbread

Like in many Chinese cities, there were a handful of Uyghur kebab vendors in Sichuan.  We could smell this one for several blocks outside the Wenshu temple.  He grabbed a handful of skewers and placed them over the hot coals.  He fanned for the heat and after a few minutes we were given the succulent kabobs and a sesame flatbread.

Made to order Chinese pocket sandwiches

Made to order Chinese pocket sandwiches

Sichuan street sandwiches

Sichuan street sandwiches

Carmen chowing down

Carmen chowing down

I spotted this 20 sqft shop from the bus.  The line of people extended from the restaurant and wrapped around the street.  Another day around the corner I saw two women devouring pita pocket sandwiches, I jealously watched the dripping juices and food moans.  Call it food porn or whatever, but they looked good, the sandwiches I mean.  I had to figure out what they were and where they found them.  To my great excitement we walked by this tiny black sign and there were more sandwiches; to my great excitement this was the place I was eyeing. There are only a couple choices, mushroom, pork, beef and pig ear.  We ordered a couple, and the next day a couple more and the next day I would have eaten them again, but our stupid flight got in the way.  Each sandwich is made right there in front of the customers.  Two street chefs roll dough balls and bake the flat bread over a fire.  Then a handful of “stuffer” chefs toss together shredded carrots and daikon with chili oil and the meat or mushrooms.  Hell yeah I want it la jiao (spicy).  They stuff it into a hot flatbread, wrap it in wax paper and shove them into our hands.  We walk away happy and eager to find a secluded place as it was now our turn to devour these on the public sidewalk.  If you want to try these amazing sandwiches, the closet of a kitchen is called Chuan Bei Famous Snacks and it is on the east side of Renmin Zhonglu just between Hongshizhu Street and Wenwu Street.

Hot pot tofu skin knots

Hot pot tofu skin knots

Our raging hot pot and round three of veggies

Our raging hot pot and round three of veggies

We could not leave Sichuan without revisiting the craziness of hotpot. Hot pot is famous throughout Chengdu and Chongqing and we were feeling pretty confident that we could tackle it again.  We went to Yùlín Chuànchuàn Xiāng, we sat down and we ordered a spicy broth and a couple beers.  It was enormously easier to order here because there was an entire walk-in refrigerator lined with vegetables, tofu and skewered meats ready to be tossed into the bubbling broth.  Our essential favorite was the twisted tofu skin, and we also enjoyed broccoli, button mushrooms, cabbage, meat balls and a whole fish.

Various bowls of wantons in spicy oil, or broth or with cabbage

Various bowls of wantons in spicy oil, or broth or with cabbage

I get hungry just thinking of Sichuan food.  I had read about the food of Chengdu as if it was the stuff of legend.  The flood basin that makes the Sichuan province provides a bounty of culinary abundance truly defining it as a land of plenty.  This essential destination fulfilled our wildest dreams of flavors and textures.  Visiting Chengdu has provided us a context to the food, an experience within the Chinese culture and memory linked to my taste buds. It was difficult to leave, but we’ll be coming back and our stomachs will be grumbling until then.

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