4 feet 2 mouths

walking and eating our way around the world

Archive for the category “East Asia”

Stairway to Heaven in Emeishan (by Carmen)

Stupa at the top of Emeishan

Stupa at the top of Emeishan

We were peregrinos once again. But this time it was a little different. For one, we were in China on the holy mountain of Emeishan. Second, we were only going to hike 50km not 800km. Instead of churches, we would encounter temples. Instead of a bottle of wine with our patatas bravas we would eat a simple bowl of vegetarian noodles and drink tea. Instead of the end of summer we were hiking at the end of winter. All in all, we were ready for these changes and excited to see a more spiritual side of China.

Carved Buddha at trailhead

Carved Buddha at trailhead

Forest steps

Forest steps

Map of Emeishan

Map of Emeishan

Emeishan is one of four sacred Buddhist mountains in China and has been a site of ancient pilgrimages for centuries. A series of temples have been established along the trail to house and feed people walking to the top. A carved Buddha welcomed us at the trailhead and we began to ascend the steps built into the forest. We struggled a bit to find the correct trail since the best map we had was a schematic one from the hostel. But after some asking around and pointing we made our way to the temples.

Tibetan style Shenshui Pavillion

Tibetan style Shenshui Pavillion

 Psychedelic purple cabbage

Psychedelic purple cabbage

One of the first temples we encountered was the Shenshui Pavillion. It was covered in a riot of bright colors, similar to the Tibetans ones we had seen in Zhongdian. We took a bit of a break, then pushed on. Shortly afterwards we saw this awesome purple cabbage plant; nature’s own version of colorful decorating.

Stairway in the forest

Stairway in the forest

Wannian Temple entrance

Wannian Temple entrance

Up and up we went. The stairs through the forest at times seemed never ending. But we kept looking out for the next landmark or temple. In a few hours we were able to reach the famous Wannian Temple

Six tusk elephant at Wannian Temple

Six tusk elephant at Wannian Temple

1100 year old bronze elephant

1100 year old bronze elephant

Wannian Temple is the oldest on the mountain and is dedicated to Bodhisattva Puxian. He liked riding a white elephant and this has become a symbol of the mountain. A giant bronze elephant with six tusks was constructed 1,100 years ago(!) to honor him and bring luck and long life to the people.

Stairway down

Stairway down

Stairway up

Stairway up

And then there were more stairs. We had started the day at 500m (1,650 ft) and our ultimate goal, the Golden Summit, was 3,077m (10,100ft). But it wasn’t one straight up shot. There were foothills to traverse and winding paths that followed the natural contours of the mountains. So we definitely felt like we had climbed all 3000m, if not more! When we couldn’t take the steps anymore, we would take a break. There were plenty of cafes and tea houses along the way vying for our business. We eventually stopped for lunch in a café that seemed to be full of local construction workers. Gong bao pork and stir fried greens is an excellent way to fill up for a hike.

White elephant bathing pool

White elephant bathing pool

Simple noodles at the monastery

Simple noodles at the monastery

Looking down at white elephant temple

Looking down at white elephant temple

Our final destination for the night clocked in at 2000m. The White Elephant Bathing Temple is so named for the time Puxian flew his elephant to a pool at this site in order to bathe it. By the time we made it to the top of the infinitely long staircase, we were exhausted and so happy to the bright red walls of the temple. After checking in for the night, we went directly to the dining hall for a hot bowl of noodles. The cook got a big kick out of the fact that we wanted it lao ji (spicy) – many people can never believe that a lao wei could like spicy. But we piled it on and were very happy and comforted. We then took our large water thermos to our room to drink tea and warm up with our electric blankets.

Sunrise at White Elephant Bathing Temple

Sunrise at White Elephant Bathing Temple

Oil lamps at the rustic Taizi Ping temple

Oil lamps at the rustic Taizi Ping temple

Prayer flags

Prayer flags

The next morning we were on a mission. We stopped briefly at the temples along the way, soaking in each one’s individual flavor. Some, such as Taizi Ping, were very rustic affairs in comparison to the more elaborate Wannian or even Shenshui.  Hidden from the path Nathan spotted enormous curtains of prayer flags that weaved through the forest.

Deep gorge

Deep gorge

Cliff

Cliff

Monkey on the cliff

Monkey on the cliff

As we neared the top, the trees became less dense and we could see the dramatic gorges and cliffs of the mountain. And that’s where we encountered the monkeys. Monkeys are a common theme in many Chinese parks and people love to feed them. It’s odd, though, that they are then terrified of them when they get close. I do not quite understand the Chinese relationship to wildlife – it’s like a mix of entertainment and distrust.

Nathan on the final steps

Nathan on the final steps

Six tusk elephant at the top

Six tusk elephant at the top

Finally, after two days, 50km and 3000m, we were on the final steps of Emeishan. White elephants greeted us as we made our way to the top.

Stupa at the top of Emeishan

Stupa at the top of Emeishan

Us with stupa

Us with stupa

And then we were at the golden stupa. It was installed about 6 years ago so it does not have much historical significance. But I think it adds a lot to the atmosphere and is beautifully crafted.

Golden Summit Temple

Golden Summit Temple

Golden Summit Temple with stupa

Golden Summit Temple with stupa

We were lucky to have such a sunny day as the mists of Emeishan are legendary. And so are the crowds. I haven’t mentioned that 99% of the thousands of visitors that day had not taken a step on the path we took. Sadly, Emeishan has been overrun by the cable car. Many people were there just to take their million photos, including with us, and then they head to the gift shop. I understand that not everyone can hike the way Nathan and I did but it does cheapen the experience when those that can don’t try at all. Is it really a pilgrimage anymore when you haven’t even had time to ponder your journey, to the top and in life?

Father and daughter who wanted to take a picture with me

Father and daughter who wanted to take a picture with me

The one good thing about this easy access to the top is the easy access down. Nathan and I hike an hour down to the bus station and caught a minibus for the 1.5 hour drive back to town. I was mulling over my thoughts and getting over the shock of being in such a tranquil environment during most of the hike and then being jolted by so many people at the top.

That’s when something strange happened. As the driver took a bathroom break at one of the cable car depots, he opened the back door for anyone who wanted to get out. At that point, a lady threw her walking stick out the door. A very old woman then felt around the ground for it and I realized that she was blind. The woman on the bus had given her the stick so that she could resell it later but didn’t even have the decency to hand it to her. Fortunately, the old woman had a companion, another woman of the same age, who helped her find the stick. Together they lifted up empty plastic bags apparently asking for something. It felt like everything was happening in slow motion as I was trying to figure it out. The companion pulled out a plastic bottle and it finally dawned on me – they simply wanted plastic bottles. It was at that moment that the driver, who had returned, shut the door and left them in a cloud of dust. Something about these two women pulled strongly at my heart. Simply based on history, these women must have experienced a lot of hardship in life. They should be honored, but instead were treated with disdain. They were extremely humble to all these people on board who had just paid 150RMB ($25USD) to go into a spiritual, sacred site. I can only imagine what $25 would have meant to them. I thought about these women a lot since I’ve seen them. I had plastic bottles I could have given them but due to confusion and language barriers, I pulled them out too late. I hope they are ok. I wish there was more I could do. And I wish there was more focus on helping these hard working yet destitute elderly woman than building more malls for the nouveau riche… And there is my tale of temples, burning thighs and heart ache on Emeishan.

Visiting the Big Guy in Leshan (by Nathan)

The big toe of the Big Guy

The big toe of the Big Guy

Two visionaries: Nathan and Buddha

Two visionaries: Nathan and Buddha

What an enormous toe!  That is what I kept thinking to myself while standing below the largest Buddha statue on earth.  The toes alone of this statue made me feel small and the towering statue made me feel miniscule.  I guess that is the whole point, the enormity of God and the frivolous creatures that we are as humans on earth.  It was very humbling to enjoy and admire such a creation as this in China. Look at what they carved from a mountain 1,300 years ago!

Stairway along the cliff

Stairway along the cliff

222ft carved statue of Buddha

222ft carved statue of Buddha

The Leshan Dafo is now the largest statue of Buddha on earth.  I use the word “now” because there used to be a bigger one, but it was destroyed in Afghanistan.  I am kinda liking Buddhism and its global respect for humanity versus the religious extremism that so prevalent.  The Leshan Buddha stands 222ft (70m) tall with earlobes as tall as a house.  Long earlobes are often seen throughout Asian statues as it is a sign of long life and prosperity.  We climbed several hundred stairs along the cliff to reach the bottom.  At the base, Buddha sits serenely staring into the horizon and into the souls of all those admiring his grandeur.

Carved hand on the knee

Carved hand on the knee

Tibetan family

Tibetan family

We had a particular rewarding experience with a Tibetan family that had made a pilgrimage here from their homeland somewhere in western China.  They were so courteous and friendly in their “hellos” to us that we were at first taken aback; that’s not our typical reception in China. There is still a clear divide among Tibetan and Han Chinese. While many of the Chinese visitors would do a cursory incense lighting they would then proceed to take pictures of themselves from all angles in front of the Buddha. Many of these visitors dressed in their heels and glamorous clothes trying their best to show off. The Tibetan family, on the other hand, was dressed in thick robes and animal furs that were clearly better suited for a freezing winters than the warm temperatures they were feeling in Leshan.  They did their best to shed clothes, but their main focus was to pray to Buddha. They lit candles and meditated.  It was nice to see people that saw more of this statue than its tourism. I secretly wished that they would invite me for some yak butter tea, but I did not know how to get that across :)

Arch bridge and blossoming flowers

Arch bridge and blossoming flowers

Yellow flower fields

Yellow flower fields

We made our way into Leshan on a bus from Zigong.  The plan was for a day trip to visit the “big guy” and the surrounding temples and then hop on another bus to where we would stay the night in Emeishan.  With great luck, everything went as planned and we were able to see everything, including some beautiful fields of yellow flowers, arched bridges, temples and painted rock caves.  This would not be the end of our spiritual journey through China; it was time to put our pilgrimage shoes back on…

Banging That Zigong (by Nathan)

Zigong lantern festival

Zigong lantern festival

There are countless ways to explore the Sichuan Province.  We considered going west into the foothills of Tibet or to see the turquoise pools of Jiuzhaigou, but to maximize seeing sights and minimize the long bus rides we decided to go South and West.   Our fingers roamed around a map and settled on Zigong, a city of tea houses, dinosaurs, salt mines and light shows.  How could we go wrong?

Sichuan masks

Sichuan masks

Going off the beaten track in China is an excellent way to lose the comforts of the English language.  And, although there is plenty to do in Zigong, we quickly determined that little to no western tourists seem to visit this city.    We knew we were in for a treat when we arrived at the hotel and the receptionist kept pointing at the receipt demanding that we pay an extra $25. We could not understand her or the English translation that was written “kqpdfg mzfbxq” so we refused.  She eventually gave up and we later looked up the Chinese character and found out she just wanted a deposit.  To her benefit, we were nice to the squatty potty.

Two men clean a big pot on the street

Two men clean a big pot on the street

I believe Carmen and I must have been the most interesting people to ever step foot in Zigong.  After six weeks in China we were starting to feel accustomed to the stares and hyper-analyzing we received from many Chinese people.  In Zigong, we turned heads and whole crowds turned to watch the lao wei.  No one had ever seen a foreigner in Zigong?  We would walk along the sidewalks and families would stop eating in the restaurants, babies would stop crying and even at the cemetery the dead briefly stopped dying to watch us.  Maybe that is a bit too drastic, but it is extremely awkward to feel like such a rarity. I gained immense respect for the real first visitors to China in the eighties when Chinese borders finally opened up after forty years of closure.  We too enjoyed some staring when we found these men cleaning (or buying?) a huge pot.  They wondered around blindly and we giggled on the sideline.

Salt mine museum

Salt mine museum

Blossoming flowers and a Chinese backdrop

Blossoming flowers and a Chinese backdrop

Swooping eaves of the salt mine museum

Swooping eaves of the salt mine museum

Our first tourist destination was the Zigong Salt Museum.  The beautiful building was originally a guild hall for craftsmen in Southern Sichuan.  Zigong was the center of the salt mining industry for the last two thousand years.  All of Sichuan is situated in an enormous floodplain at the base of western Himalayas.  Millions of years of runoff concentrated into brine aquifers that still supply salt to present day China.  There were some great exhibits showing how drilling techniques originated in China with some nerdy inventions that only an engineer like me would enjoy.

Bubbling brine caldrons

Bubbling brine caldrons

Salt productions

Salt productions

Further outside of town is one of the actual salt mines.  This derrick was the first mine in the world to exceed 1000m in depth.  The drilling and pumping was once all done with ox power, but now they utilize diesel engines.  We walked our way into the boiling room to see huge caldrons boiling off the brine water and crystalizing the salt.

Interior of the Wángyé Temple Tea House

Interior of the Wángyé Temple Tea House

Wángyé Temple Tea House overlooking the Fuxi River

Wángyé Temple Tea House overlooking the Fuxi River

Historic photo of the Wángyé Temple Tea House and Fuxi River

Historic photo of the Wángyé Temple Tea House and Fuxi River

Sipping tea is an essential activity all across Sichuan.  The Sichuanese are known throughout China as tea drinkers and Zigong is the Paris with some of the most beautiful and picturesque tea houses in the world.  The Wángyé Temple is one of these tea houses.  We strolled along the river walk looking at this beautiful building in the distance.  To our great surprise and delight, we discovered that it was our planned destination.  Inside we were surrounded by rustic woodwork and arched windows.  Our fellow tea drinkers played mahjong or cards with thick clouds of cigarette smoke clouded around them.  We found a seat next to the window and a waitress brought us a menu.  Of course we could not read it, but could get an idea of price so we pointed at two items in a game of “Chinese roulette.” Lucky us, chrysanthemum and jasmine were just what we wanted.  We watched the Fuxi river amazed that this same building was still here eighty years ago.  The tea house was an excellent place to relax, think and plan more of our adventures across Zigong.

Zigong dinosaur museum and the szechuanosaurus

Zigong dinosaur museum and the szechuanosaurus

Carmen and a long-neck brontosaurus

Carmen and a long-neck brontosaurus

Two dinosaur skeletons fighting each other

Two dinosaur skeletons fighting each other

Hell yeah we went to the dinosaur museum!  I really like dinosaurs and I enjoy running around like a crazed little kid.  I went to this museum with very low expectations, China’s exhibitions about the natural world have not been impressive, but I was quickly surprised to find an elaborate display of prehistoric bones and archeological landscapes.  That same floodplain for salt was also collected the flash floods and rivers from the mountains.  Dinosaurs would be swept away into the Sichuan basin and buried in the mud.  Archeological sites surrounding Zigong have found some of the most elaborate collections of dinosaurs on earth.

Bones encased in the mud

Bones encased in the mud

Amazing in-tact szechuanosaurus skull

Amazing in-tact szechuanosaurus skull

Carmen and I and one massive bronze skull

Carmen and I and one massive bronze skull

There were displays of enormous long-necked beasts and tiny high-speed runners.  They even built the museum around an excavation site that contained fifty or so dinosaur skeletons encased in the mud.  Huge stegosaurus bones lay next to szechanosaurus and various other creatures.  I do have to point out that Chinese tourists approached the museum a little different from Carmen and me.  We watched a group of thirty rush into the show room from a tour bus.  The rock barricades were but a small obstacle for the group to touch and poke at the dinosaur bones.  I watched one woman grab onto a 10ft long rib of a brontosaurus and shake it back and forth as if to test its legitimacy of being bone.  I secretly hoped that it was in fact plaster and that the real skeletons were locked away somewhere.  The skull collection was exciting and Carmen and I particularly liked the bronze one at the back of the park.

Zigong street

Zigong street

We left the museum and quickly decided to walk along a small market street.  We were on the edge of Zigong and again we were the object of many stares.  We were two-legged travelosaurs walking and looking for some dumplings.  Unfortunately we were unlucky, we boarded the bus unsatisfied, but we with a better destination in mind- another tea house

Floating green tea leaves

Floating green tea leaves

Carmen enjoying tea at the Huánhóu Palace Tea House

Carmen enjoying tea at the Huánhóu Palace Tea House

The front of Huánhóu Palace Tea House

The front of Huánhóu Palace Tea House

Huánhóu Palace is a beautiful courtyard of overhanging trees and a small pond.  We pulled up bamboo chairs into the sunlight and ordered two cups of tea.  She delivered the ceramic cups and an enormous jug of boiling water.   The tea immediately put us at ease; we relaxed in the warm air and sipped on our tea until late in the afternoon.

Our food in Zigong was out of this world amazing.  We stumbled upon a handful of busy restaurants and market-side stalls, but unfortunately forgot to take any photos.  One favorite was a dumpling and noodle shop that served us pork dumplings in a spicy oil, but our real favorite was yibin kindling noodles- a cold noodle dish doctored with picked cabbage, spicy sauce and peanuts.  One hawker enticed us into her dimply lit vegetable bar.  We filled up a bowls with mushrooms, cabbage, onions, tofu, eggplant, river weed and numerous other things I cannot name.  They stuffed the lot into a bubbling broth and served us the soup stacked with our selection.

Red floating lanterns in Zigong

Red floating lanterns in Zigong

Lantern festival “main street”

Lantern festival “main street”

We did not intend on exploring the lantern festival, but it was definitely a highlight of the entire trip to Zigong.  Huge metal structures created new each year and wrapped with florescent cloth.  Zigong positions the lanterns throughout a mountain top park for all the community and tourists to enjoy.  We bought tickets for ¥20 which was an amazing deal for what is usually tourist rip-off China.

Salt mine derricks at the lantern festival

Salt mine derricks at the lantern festival

Baby lantern with bottomless britches

Baby lantern with bottomless britches

The lanterns were phenomenal.  The colors were bright and the glowing light emanated in all directions.  We wondered through the park enjoying the towers, dragons, dinosaurs, salt derricks, Sichuan masks and even tiny children lanterns with bottomless pants.

Dome light show

Dome light show

Zigong was an exciting city for us.  We had been getting used to a China that spoke some English with enough expats that we could get by.  Zigong opened our eyes to further challenges with living in China and a harsh reality that we would always be a lao wei (foreigner) here.  The tea houses of Zigong are a magical escape where a hot drink soothes the soul and the surroundings are pleasing everywhere we looked.  Dinosaurs and light shows were just added experiences that added to our fun and enjoyment of the city.  We explored all that we could, and I drank a couple gallons of tea by myself.  It was time to move on…it was time to have a moment with the “Big Guy.”

How Pandas Won Me Over (by Carmen)

Happy panda

Happy panda

We were not going to see the pandas. They may be one of the major attractions of Sichuan but we would not be swayed. “They are endangered! They’re so cute! You can even hold one!” These exclamations would not move us. At least we thought.

Panda laterns

Panda laterns in the shopping area

But we had some extra time in Chengdu. In our walks around the city we saw panda faces everywhere as they are the symbol of the region.  Maybe it was subliminal messaging. Eventually a couple of travelers invited us to share a taxi with them and before we knew it we were on our way to watch some black and white bears roll around.

Panda doing what it does best

Panda doing what it does best

Turns out they really are cute. Ridiculously so. These huge bears just sit around eating bamboo all day and seem to smile about it. Despite their size, they almost seem vulnerable with their slow movements and dopey looks. Nathan kept saying they look like giant stuffed animals come to life. An apt description.

Yep, more eating time

Yep, more eating time

They eat about 40kg of bamboo a day which at their pace takes a looong time.  As a special treat the sanctuary gives them little mooncakes filled with grains and vitamins.  I like how the pandas have a Chinese diet.

Progression of baby panda growth

Progression of baby panda growth (Photo credit: Chengdu Panda Breeding and Research Center)

Of course the cutest pandas are the mini-versions – the babies! Well, they’re not cute when they just come out. They are pink little rat looking things.  Pandas have one of the highest mortality rates.  Their cubs are born weighing only 90g (3oz).  The mothers sometimes crush the little guys since they are so fragile.  Oops.

Baby panda at about 5 months old

Baby panda at about 5 months old

Play time

Play time

But then they grow into little fluff balls that just want to climb things and gnaw on their mother all day.  You can imagine the oohs and ahhs coming from the crowd as we all watched this play session.  You are allowed to hold these tiny guys but it costs somewhere around $200 for just a couple minutes of time.

Sleeping in the tree

Sleeping in the tree

Playful teenagers

Playful teenagers

Even the teenagers are adorable and perhaps even more playful. Since they’re a little bigger they can get into some mischief like toppling their sleeping friend out of a tree just for the fun of it.  But they’re resilient.  I watched one fall from a tall branch and just shake it off.

Red panda

Red panda

Did you know that pandas come in red too? Kinda. They are a fraction of the size and remind me more of a racoon than a panda. But apparently they’re related and have a spot at the sanctuary. However, they definitely don’t get the same love as their black and white cousins.

We spent at least 20 minutes here just watching them play

We spent at least 20 minutes here just watching them play

So we didn’t buy any panda hats or sweaters or tails, all of which are available at the many gift shops. Not that we’ll wear out in public anyway.  Hey, it’s easy to be won over by the panda craze.

Chengdu Do (by Carmen)

Mao statue in the main square of Chengdu

Mao statue in the main square of Chengdu

We were finally in Sichuan! Where bamboo forests sweep across the land. Where Tibetan culture lives strong among the rugged western mountains. Where pandas munch away happily. Where the biggest Buddah in the world lives. Where one of the four holy mountains of China juts out of the earth. Where earthquakes show their raw power. And where you can find some of the most glorious food in all the world. Of all it’s attributes, the food is what really drew us in. A whole post could be dedicated just to the food – and that is in fact what Nathan will do in the next couple weeks. But for now I am going to focus on what we did in Chengdu, the lovely capital city of Sichuan.

Grove of trees on Wenshu Temple Grounds

Grove of trees on Wenshu Temple Grounds

Wenshu Temple building

Wenshu Temple building

Most people merely pass through Chengdu on their way to the other sights of the province, but we found ourselves plenty busy in the city itself. One of our first activities was the Wushou Temple. The peaceful grounds of this temple can make you forget your in the city. We walked among the various enclosed courtyards and watched as the orange robed monks were called to lunch via a wooden drum.

Shadow puppets from the Sichuan Museum

Shadow puppets from the Sichuan Museum

Another cool sight was the Sichuan Museum. Quite a few other travelers we have met are anti-museum, considering them to be boring or something. I am definitely not in agreement. I love museums – the calm and quiet atmosphere, the (hopefully) interesting displays, and the act of learning and gaining new knowledge. At the Sichuan Museum we viewed elegant pottery, extremely delicate embroidery, cut paper arts, shadow puppetry and intricate bronzeware some of which was 2500 years old! Through these artifacts I gained a greater appreciation for local culture. All for free – good deal.

Green Ram Temple

Green Ram Temple

Nathan and a grinning turtle at the temple

Nathan and a grinning turtle at the temple

Near the museum is the Green Ram Temple which is part of the Taoist religion. Taoism is not a religion I know much about. From what I read, it is based on a few ambiguous texts written in the in the 6th century BC. But they do embrace the yin yang which I totally decorated my notebooks with in middle school. So I get that ; )

River by night

River by night

By night we did something we had not yet attempted in China – riding a bicycle. Twenty years ago bicycles were the symbol of the country. Everyone has seen those pictures of thousands of Chinese cyclists pedalling down the street. But no longer. The electric scooter has taken over as the way to get around making cycling a less safe endeavour. But we decided to go for it, at night no less, because it was part of a group that our hostel had organized. So the guide, Nathan, me and seven Spaniards crisscrossed the city, avoiding scooters and snapping pictures.

Us with our new friend Eric

Us with our new friend Eric

Sichuan University

Sichuan University

The next day we met up with a new friend, Eric, who we happened to meet while travelling in Yuanyang. He teaches English in Chengdu and graciously showed us around for a day to see some sights including the Sichuan University and the Tibetan neighborhood.

Chengdu market

Chengdu market

Me and my sweet tamal

Me and my sweet tamal

While we were walking around we happened upon a market where they were selling fresh produce as well as a few snacks. Even though we had just feasted on some dumplings I couldn’t pass up a special steamed dough wrapped in a corn husk. It looked like a sweet tamal, one of my favorite Mexican treats. And to my surprise it tasted like one!

Heming Tea House in the People’s Park

Heming Tea House in the People’s Park

Chrysanthemum tea with goji berry

Chrysanthemum tea with goji berry

Crazy bike and scooter parking outside the park

Crazy bike and scooter parking outside the park

Later we chilled out Sichuan style in the lovely Heming Tea House in the People’s Park. Nathan ordered the popular chrysanthemum tea with goji berries which comes out with big rock sugar cubes at the bottom. People love to hang out at the tea houses to gamble, chat and/or get their ears cleaned by the professional cleaners walking around. Everyone who comes to Sichuan has to do one of these things. I decided on the simple tea and chat option.

The regal court in the Chinese opera

The regal court in the Chinese opera

Close up of an opera singer

Close up of an opera singer

Getting ready to shake her feathers

Getting ready to shake her feathers

Sichuan masks

Sichuan masks

Another specialty of Sichuan is the opera. It is supposed to be very dramatic with a special masks painted with colorful, elaborate expressions. They have a technique that allows them to switch the masks in a fraction of a second. And the Sichuan opera has fire breathers and acrobatic flips (take that Madame Butterfly!). We were excited to attend the opera matinee performance but as we settled in for the show we realized we had made a mistake. We were indeed at the opera but it was not a Sichuan one. No masks, no fire, no acrobats…and where’s the fun in that? Instead we were at a simple performance where the most dramatic act was when one character shook her feather headdress at another character. And if you’ve never heard Chinese opera it isn’t exactly melodious. After three hours of tolerating the screeching and hoping for fire, I had to concede that the language barrier had cheated us out of the Sichuan opera we wanted. Oh well.

Funny chow chow

Funny chow chow

Bottomless pants

Bottomless pants

The opera is just one way to be entertained in Chengdu. Another is simply to walk the streets. On our meanderings we encountered plenty of oddly shaved dogs, including a hilarious chow chow that ran inside after we started laughing. And then there are the bottomless children. I agree this is a much more frugal and ecological way to handle child bathroom needs compared to diapers. But I don’t appreciate the fact that parents let their kids pee and poop anywhere they please. It’s simply not hygenic. I don’t know what the answer is but in the meantime being mooned by tiny butts all day is pretty amusing.

Cherry blossoms

Cherry blossoms

Bamboo stand at River Viewing Park

Bamboo stand at River Viewing Park

Tea house at River Viewing Park

Tea house at River Viewing Park

If you’ve walked around too much then it’s time for another tea house. The River Viewing Park was a particularly pretty garden. It was filled with cozy tea corners where one could watch the bamboo grow.

Global Center

Global Center

Urban design to warm up a freeway underpass, complete with mini electric poles to provide a pedestrian scale

Urban design to warm up a freeway underpass, complete with mini electric poles to provide a pedestrian scale

Contrasting to the cozy green parks are the ubiquitous large office parks and freeways at the edge of the city center. This is the case with all Chinese cities but Chengdu is attempting a bit of one-upmanship with the Global Center. We passed it on the bus and it is HUGE. 1.5 million square meters of floor space, which is bigger than the current tallest building in the world. It supposed to be filled with hotels, shopping, fake beaches, and fake villages all lit with fake sunlight. Pretty much the epitome of Chinese tourism.

Bookworm Literary Festival

Bookworm Literary Festival

Serve the People by Jen Lin-Liu

Serve the People by Jen Lin-Liu

Back in Chengdu city center, we had a lucky coincidence. At the expat-oriented bookstore called Bookworm, the month of March is dedicated to hosting a literary festival. By chance, we were in town to hear an author I admire give a talk. Jen Lin-Liu wrote Serve the People, a memoir about life and food in China. I loved how in the book she worked with dumpling wrappers, noodle makers, home cooks and even high end restaurateurs to get the story behind the food and delve deeper into the culture. She is publishing a new book in July about her travels following the origins of the noodle along the Silk Road. Sounds awesome and I can’t wait.

See, even in the non-food post on Chengdu I can’t help but mention it! I’ve covered pretty much all the things we found to do in Chengdu except one – pandas! They were so adorable they’re getting a post of their own. So stay tuned for the rest of our Sichuan adventures.

Why Chongqing Hot Pot Has Ruined My Clothes And I Still Love It Anyway (by Nathan)

The glorious Chongqing hot pot

The glorious Chongqing hot pot

Hot pot is more than dinner, it is an experience, and in Chongqing, it is a ritual.  A huge pot gurgles and spits spicy broth in the middle of the table.  Countless plates of vegetables and meats are ordered and plopped in the broth.  The cooked treasures are then fished out with chopsticks then dunked in crushed garlic and sesame oil and shoveled into hungry mouths.  In our visit to Chongqing we were determined master eating hot pot, which to us, meant getting through the meal without dripping it on ourselves.  I was hopeless and I had to revise my goal to ten blotches; Carmen had amazing skill and grace until I accidentally flung a slippery piece of tofu into her bowl and splashed oil all over her shirt and pants.  Not good when we only packed two pairs of pants.

Chongqing apartment towers as seem from a cable car

Chongqing apartment towers as seem from a cable car

Tiny restaurants fill every nook and cranny

Tiny restaurants fill every nook and cranny

We have tried hot pot before, but no place compares to Chongqing.  This city is the ChongKING of hot pot and everyone in China knows it.  It is a signature dish of the city and hot pot shops around the world try to mimic the deliciousness that Chongqing residents have invented.  Hot pot shops are scattered all over the city.  They are everywhere, but several months ago there used to be even more of them.  A recent law made it illegal to sell hot pot on the sidewalk, thus destroying one of the signature street foods of the world and driving it indoors.  Nevertheless hotpot can still be found in lean-to shacks, high rise towers and even tucked into miniscule inhabitable spaces and bomb shelters.

More glorious hot pot with lotus root, bean sprouts, shaved beef and cauliflower

More glorious hot pot with lotus root, bean sprouts, shaved beef and cauliflower

The whole process starts with sitting down at a table in some run-down restaurant; we found two: YèfùHuǒguō and Dòngtíngxiān Huǒguō (in an old bomb shelter) in a guide book and decided to give both try.  The center of our table had a depression in it and there was a rubber tube coming out of the floor to pump the natural gas to the burner.  Immediately upon sitting down the waitress was hovering over us.  We ordered ours zhōng là which is medium/very spicy (around  7-8 out of 10).  She scurried off to the kitchen and came back with a thick red fluid with thirty or so of dried chilies and hundreds of Sichuan peppercorns. We attempted in both cases to communicate the types of meat, tofu and vegetables that we wanted.  When that failed we resorted to walking in the kitchen to point out a few items that we felt were essential.  Eight or so plates showed up heaped with vegetables and frozen slivers of meat.  Our favorites were the lotus root slices, long-shooted mushrooms, and Dòngtíngxiān Huǒguō had some tofu that was some of the best of my life.

Cooking the ingredients is simple: throw them in the boiling pot, wait, pull them out and eat.  The cooked ingredients come out dripping with flavor and sizzling with heat.  The bubbling spicy fire broth is so hot that I still have not figured out whether it is called hot pot because of temperature or spice, but there were plenty of both.  We enjoyed our feast with our mouths tingling on fire and accompanied by an essential beer.  We walked away dizzy from the heat, stuffed to the brim, with our mouths still numb from Sichuan peppercorns.

Arhat temple tucked within Chongqing highrises

Arhat temple tucked within Chongqing highrises

Arhat statue

Arhat statue

One fun sight to visit in Chongqing is the Arhat temple.  The tiny one-story complex is situated right in the center of town and surrounded by 100m skyscrapers.  The temple is one of the ancient structures in Chongqing at over 1000 years old complete with ancient stone carving and scary warrior gods.  There is a hall inside that houses hundreds of statues of arhats or monks that had found enlightenment.

Chickpea Noodle soup for breakfast

Chickpea Noodle soup for breakfast

Tofu, rice and pickled cabbage breakfast

Tofu, rice and pickled cabbage breakfast

Our hostel was at the bottom of the hill, but close to the garmet distribution market.  We found an excellent food stall around the corner that served up some of our favorite fare: noodles and tofu.  The noodles were pretty standard but impressively spicy and the added chickpeas were a nice change.  We watched the owner scoop out the tofu out of a huge tub filled with water, she served it with some white rice and picked cabbage.

Historic Chongqing housing

Historic Chongqing housing

Traditional four-story home still with residents

Traditional four-story home still with residents

The great hall and plaza of of the people

The great hall and plaza of of the people

Chongqing has a pleasant array of historic and new architecture.  The traditional houses were built from wood stilts that were up to four-stories.  Many of these buildings have been replaced by modern high-rises, but there are a few neighborhoods that have a few leaning and partially condemned buildings still in use.  There is a rather new plaza near the great hall of the people and the three gorges dam museum. The plaza is one of the few places in China that is good for people watching.  There were several groups of people exercising in a way we had never seen before.  They would spin a top on the plaza paving then slap it with a long whip to get it going faster.  The chatter of kids and people talking is shared with the cracking of whips every few seconds.

Two travelers

Two travelers

Man carrying huge package down the Chongqing hills

Man carrying huge package down the Chongqing hills

We immediately fell in love with Chongqing.  Maybe it is the hills, or the spicy food, but everything felt familiar and enjoyable throughout our stay.   I think it was that we were getting nostalgic for San Francisco.  Chongqing is both older and newer than San Francisco.  We watched several Chongqing men carrying enormous packages on their backs up and down the stairways and I wondered if that type of thing existed in SF a hundred and fifty years ago.  Chongqing is about as far away from fixie bike messengers as SF is to having an urban density anywhere close to Chongqing. Differences and similarities are broad, and there is never enough time explore either fully.

Carmen exploring a narrow alleyway

Carmen exploring a narrow alleyway

Yellow Húguang stairway

Yellow Húguang stairway

The city has its share of picturesque alleys, stairways and winding streets.  We roamed up and down the steep mountainside and sniffing at the air every time we passed spicy sizzling food.

Pan-fried Sichuan long beans

Pan-fried Sichuan long beans

Ma po dofu, ribs, rabbit dry pot and pastry; all spicy and delicious at Shùnfēng 123

Ma po dofu, ribs, rabbit dry pot and pastry; all spicy and delicious at Shùnfēng 123

We could not wait to get into the Sichuan region to the west.  Chongqing and Sichuan share their love for spicy food and for many years now Carmen and I have been obsessed with cooking and eating Sichuan.  So we went to a slightly more upper scale place than we are used to going.  I forgot all rules and ordered without abandon with the excellent picture menu. The Sichuan rabbit dry pot was fantastic, but too much work to pull off the meat from the shattered bones.  Long beans and ma po dofu remain one of my favorites and will continue to be ordered over the next few weeks.

Húguang Guild Hall

Húguang Guild Hall

Rooftop daemon

Rooftop daemon

Another cool sight is the Húguang Guild Hall.  This historic complex used to be a meeting place for local and regional merchants.  We explored the hillside buildings and opera stages and admired the ornate carvings and ornaments.

Crazy knife-shaved noodle shop

Crazy knife-shaved noodle shop

Chongqing is simply a great city.  There is history and culture, but few big sights to attract tons of tourists.  It has impressive density and charm that has definitely fascinated us and we will definitely return some day.  We are obviously attracted to crowded places and even more so when food is involved.  We passed this knife-shaved noodle place ten times while exploring Chongqing.  The day we decided to get the noodles happened to be our last few moments in the city.  With our backpacks on we pushed and shoved our way into the tiny restaurant.  We sat in the back and two bowls were dropped in front of us. The noodle was more of a thin sheet of pasta and the broth rich and tangy.  With our hunger filled we boarded the brand new subway to the high speed train station. It was finally time to enter Sichuan and one of our most anticipated cities- Chengdu.

Nathan at the doorway of Yangtze River Hostel

Nathan at the doorway of Yangtze River Hostel

Up and Down in Zhangjiajie (by Carmen)

Snow frosted limestone tower

Snow frosted limestone tower

As we embarked on the China portion of our trip, there were a handful of places and experiences that were absolute musts: hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge, watching sunset on flooded rice terraces, eating lots of Sichuan food, and seeing Zhangjiajie (also called Wulingyuan). You may not have heard of it but you’ve probably seen pictures. The ethereal landscape of towering limestone pillars mysteriously shrouded by mist has become a well photographed corner of China. We boarded a bus from Changsha in order to see them for ourselves.

Mossy stream bed

Mossy stream bed

Monkey considering whether or not to attack

Monkey considering whether or not to attack

After buying the entry ticket and making it through the aggressive vendors at the front gate, we entered a place of quiet and calm. Even the one monkey we saw was pretty chill. I was happy about this since I had read that they like to attack people for food. We walked along a paved path following a mossy stream bed called the Golden Whip. In fact, our entire walk over the next few days would be on paved paths since the Chinese generally don’t care for the whole dirt trail thing in their parks.

Misty cliff view

Misty cliff view

Thin pillar tower

Thin pillar tower

And then we went up. Endless staircases climbed from the stream bed to the cliff edge over 1000 ft (300 m) above. It was so high, we passed the snow line and in the shadows snow crystals would crunch beneath our feet. Breathlessly we made it to the top and took in the stunning view of the canyon.

See the tiny people at the viewpoint?

See the tiny people at the viewpoint?

The viewing platforms the park had built were right on the edge! We lingered to enjoy the views and watched as tour bus groups would rush in, take a zillion photos of themselves, then run to the next platform.

Avatar mountain banshee

Avatar mountain banshee

Hallelujah Mountain

Hallelujah Mountain

Soon enough it was time to find some mountain banshees and fly around the park for a closer look at the towers. Park officials insist that Zhangjiajie was the inspiration for Avatar, though James Cameron doesn’t whole heartedly support this assumption. I could definitely see the similarities. To solidify the connection there was an official ceremony to rename one of the towers Hallelujah Mountain, the name of the fictional floating rocks in the movie. And of course they installed the banshee photo op. Classic.

Number 1 Natural bridge

Number 1 Natural bridge

Locks of love

Locks of love

Thin tower with bridge in background

Thin tower with bridge in background

Shortly after our banshee ride we came upon the “Number 1 Natural Bridge.” China likes to name lots of things “Number 1,” but I might actually agree with them on this. It was spectacular. Walking on it was exhilarating. I suppose since it is such a special spot, people have started placing locks on the fences to symbolize love, friendship or even wishes.

Bench with awesome view

Bench with awesome view

Sunlit tree

Sunlit tree

We walked along the cliff edge path for about an hour enjoying the view. As the sun began to set we made our way to our lodging for the night. Our hostel was a simple one within the park bounds. Since there was nowhere to go at night everyone ate and played in the main common room. We bundled up to survive the freezing indoor temperatures (no heat of course) and played cards while gobbling up some fried rice.

Escher-esque stairs

Escher-esque stairs

Nathan the map reader

Nathan the map reader

Our plan for the next day was to hike to a nearby village in the morning and then head to some eastern viewpoints in the afternoon. The only problem was our map. Even the best map you can buy is mediocre with no real scale or indication of topography. We ended up going all the way back down to the stream bed, then back up almost to the cliff’s edge, then back down, then back up, then…well you get the picture. So. Many. Stairs. It was exhausting and it ended up taking the better part of the day.

Fog rolling in

Fog rolling in

Dramatic cliffs

Dramatic cliffs

For all of our efforts, we didn’t get to see as much as we would have liked as the fog started hemming us in. We finally made it to the main park road and I hopped a park shuttle to the hostel. Nathan pushed on to the eastern views.

Looking down on thin towers

Looking down on thin towers

The Two Towers

The Two Towers

Fortunately, the fog situation was a little better to the east and Nathan got some great shots. It started getting dark and I was relieved when he walked through the hostel door. Turned out he caught the last shuttle bus back!

Me in the fog

Me in the fog

Us with a limestone arch

Us with a limestone arch

Our third and final day in the park we were completely fogged out. Literally we could not see more than 100 feet in front of us and all the viewpoints were simply walls of white. What made it even more sad was that two days later perfect sunny days were expected. Sigh. We climbed down the cliff stairs one final time vowing to return one day to see what we missed.

Market street in Zhangjiajie City

Market street in Zhangjiajie City

Noodles from the classically dingy restaurant

Noodles from the classically dingy restaurant

Our stay in the park was sandwiched between two days in Zhangjiajie City, 40 minutes southwest of the park. We weren’t expecting much from the city as we were only there for the nature but we really enjoyed our stay. A block up from the cleaned up shopping main street was a narrow market street that was just our style. Inside a dingy cafe, we ate some yummy noodles in a slightly tangy broth while rubbing elbows with locals at the one communal table.

Sizzling beef

Sizzling beef

Another fun eatery sat in the middle of a lane just east of the main square. Our hostel pointed us to it on their homemade map and recommended some dishes. A warm plate of beef kept hot with a table burner and a large plate of stir fried greens were placed before us and we did our best to eat it all. Its deliciousness ensured we were extra full that night.

View from our room's balcony

View from our room’s balcony

Complex the Bajie hostel is located in

Complex the Bajie hostel is located in

With full stomachs we slept well at our hostel, the Bajie. It was one of our most comfortable stays in China. I wish we could have stayed more nights there but it’s a little tricky to find. Upon arriving to the city, after walking up and down the street five times in the rain at night we eventually gave up and stayed somewhere else. Those are the not so fun parts of traveling that simply come with the territory.

Finally, we said goodbye to Zhangjiajie. We liked the town and the park and want to return someday. And next time, we will be able to find our hostel!

Chowing Down With the Chairman In Changsha (by Nathan)

Mao's pork belly, the reason to come to Changsha

Mao’s pork belly, the reason to come to Changsha

Sometimes people travel to a place for sights, scenery or culture but we visited Changsha for one single reason- food! Changsha is the capital of the Hunan Province and king among one of the most delectable and delicious cuisines. It is also pretty close to the place where Mao was born, but that had little significance to our trip.

The ultra-modern and brand new Guangzhou high-speed rail station

The ultra-modern and brand new Guangzhou high-speed rail station

We reluctantly left the wonderful and clean Hong Kong to explore more of China. We love many aspects of China, we hate many parts too; Hong Kong allowed us to catch our breath, restore our health and ready ourselves for four more weeks of Chinese mayhem. We boarded a high-speed train from Hong Kong to Guangzhou, then a subway subway to the other train station and another high-speed train. Traveling by train at 380kmh (240mph) is wonderful experience. The hillside farms and villages indiscernibly flutter passed and we sit back comfortably and read our books. In just a few hours the warm humidity disappeared and we entered the cold landscape of south-central China.

Delicious pork and green peppers at Okuwu

Delicious pork and green peppers at Okuwu

We stayed at the one Hosteling International in town. This organization has been failsafe for us to find affordable rooms that are clean. Often there is staff that speaks English and sometimes we’ll opt for the upgrade that has a western toilet :) We roamed the main street for dinner options. It wasn’t late, but 8pm is really pushing it for dinner in China. We walked by an open room that was packed with groups of people sitting at round tables. We squeezed through the chairs, we waved our hands at the sixty people that were now staring at us and we sat next to the wall. The waitress came over with some tea and gave us a crude translation of five dishes on their menu. I opted for the point-and-order-method. I stood up and gestured for the perplexed women to follow me. The table in the corner had some pork belly that looked good. When I pointed at it she waved her hands and gave a cough. I interpreted this to mean that they had ran out (I’m often left guessing in these situations). I opted for the sizzling beef and bell pepper dish on that table next to ours and the seasonal greens that another waitress was carrying. I ordered some steamed rice and we were good to go. The restaurant was named Okuwu and it was a delicious find. The vegetables and meat were fantastic; the service was smiling and friendly. We liked it so much that we returned a few nights later for the pork belly.

Hunan feast at Huogongdian

Hunan feast at Huogongdian

Crispy and fragrant stinky tofu

Crispy and fragrant stinky tofu

The next few days we decided to take a culinary tour of Hunan cuisine. There was supposed to be this amazing museum with a 2,100 year old mummy that is so well preserved that the skin is still supple. Unfortunately, the museum will be renovated over the next three years. With little to do, our thoughts lingered on finding the best Hunan specialties. There is a pretty famous, and rightly so, restaurant named Huogongdian. They serve tapas-sized portions of local favorites. We selected a handful of specialties from the carts and we had to leaned back in awe when we realized the feast we had just ordered. The prize dish at most Hunan restaurants is the mao shi hong shao riu, a red braised pork belly dish in a spicy broth with onions, dried and fresh peppers. It was supposedly Mao Zedong’s favorite dish and definitely one of mine too. We also ordered chou doufu, a fried tofu dish. Not ordinary tofu, but tofu that has fermented and molded with a thick fur then deep fried until the mold turns blackish purple. The pungent smell of this dish is distinctly burned and almost sour; the taste is slightly funky and roasted, but not awful. Most blue cheese is way funkier and the Chinese think westerners are crazy for eating that!

Fisherman in the city park

Fisherman in the city park

 Lake pagodas


Lake pagodas

Locals having a rainy afternoon stroll

Locals having a rainy afternoon stroll

There is a pleasant park in Changsha with a small lake. The park has several rolling hills and plenty of waking paths. We enjoyed watching this fisherman scavenge one of the small ponds for what small carp might be hiding there. There also was a serpentine set of bridges and pagodas that crossed a narrow section of the lake. We strolled on the paths enjoying the remnants of winter trees and cloud-filled skies.

Uyghur woman fans coals alas she grills shish kabobs

Uyghur woman fans coals alas she grills shish kabobs

Fantastic street lamb kabobs

Fantastic street lamb kabobs

One development from our trip to China has been an intense fascination and interest in western Asia. The constant mix of cultures along the Silk Road has created a wealth of history and a richness of food that we want to explore. We loved Turkey and one of our future trips will need to be to Kirgizstan and Kazakhstan. China has a rather large population of the Muslim Uyghur people. They are a significant minority among the Han and are abundant in every city that falls in line with the historic trade routes of the Silk Road. Changsha was one of these trade cities. The Uyghur people we see are most often street vendors, they wear semi-traditional Muslim clothing and are often very friendly to us. They roast shish kabobs of mutton or goat on long wooden skewers over a coal fire. They fan the coals and season the meat with a sour blend of spices and pepper. We grabbed five skewers at the park entrance for ¥10 ($1.50) and we continued our walk through Changsha.

Additional pork and squid kabobs at "food corner"

Additional pork and squid kabobs at “food corner”

In the main downtown, there is an open-air hawker center that mostly sells skewered meats and stinky tofu in paper cups. This was a Chinese version of the Uyghur kabobs that uses similar seasoning, but the use othermeats like pork and squid. These were good, but the woman at the park entrance had created something amazing.

Fresh hand-cut Uyghur noodles

Fresh hand-cut Uyghur noodles

A few dive restaurants had caught our eye walking around. At the front of the restaurant there would be a huge mound of dough sitting on the table and a Uyghur man stretching out huge lengths of noodles. We walked into one of these at lunch time and selected two dishes that we saw other people eating. Mine was a pretty standard beef noodle soup ubiquitous in China, but Carmen had this amazing hand-cut flat noodle with an onion broth poured over the top.

My arsenal of firecrackers

My arsenal of firecrackers

It will be difficult to forget the tastes and variety of food in Changsha. But I will be happy to forget the incessant firecrackers that would go off every morning at 7am. During Chinese New Year, shop owners and families celebrate with reels of firecrackers at all hours of the day. I too am a pyro at heart. Carmen sent me off to go play with the kids down the street. I found three six-year-olds with a lighter more than willing to show me how to light a cracker and throw it in the air. Then I pulled out the 10 inch coffee can sized reel out of a bag. We were all excited; we strung out the fireworks along the playground wall and I lit one end, my friends lit the other. For two to three minutes we watched fireworks explode in the night. The intense sound echoed off the buildings and fiery debris spewed out into the night air. It was so loud and so fun! We were celebrating over a year of travel and welcoming the year of the snake. It will be hard to pull it off, but maybe this year will be better than the last? We’ll at least try.

My ears were still ringing when we boarded our bus to Zhangjiajie. I was excited for the mountain landscape that is one of the most unique land formations in the world…

Feeling Free in Hong Kong (by Carmen)

Spectacular Hong Kong skyline

Spectacular Hong Kong skyline

Hong Kong was the first stop on our Asia trip in 2009 and we absolutely loved it. When people asked what our favorite city of the trip had been, the answer was obvious. From our first dim sum bite, the city enchanted us. With the sky high architecture, and we were awestruck. But just around the corner, amid all the modernity, we would find an old school market that would bring us back down to earth. I always said I could easily live in Hong Kong.

And yet, over time I began to feel a little jaded. Perhaps my memory of Hong Kong was colored by the fact that it was my first time outside the western world. Maybe as a more seasoned traveler, my second visit to Hong Kong would reveal that it was actually too congested or too westernized or too sanitized or just not to my liking anymore. That I had put it on a pedestal that it wasn’t really worthy of.

Hong Kong, how could I have ever doubted you? You are everything I remembered and more.

Dumplings boiled and fried

Dumplings boiled and fried

We needed some food fast when we got off the train and within our first block walking we were drawn to a dumpling restaurant. Backpacks and all, we squeezed our way in for some boiled kim chi dumplings. We also sampled some fried pork, leek and yellow curry varieties. They were simple, fast, great. Wow, HK. You had me at hello.

Our visit to HK was partially dictated by our need to reset our China visa. Because, really, this isn’t the best time to see the city. For one, the new year week is expensive as Chinese tourists flood the city. At the same time, all offices and many family owned shops and restaurants are closed. It’s a strange time. We decided to make use of our visit here to take full advantage of the fast, uncensored internet. Oh my god! It felt like I was re-entering the modern world. I didn’t realize how much I had missed posting on the blog, reading other blogs, reading BBC news, all my Google calendars, docs, etc. This excitement was compounded by what I saw on the street – Belgian beer bars, restaurants decorated with colors other than red and gold – it was exhilarating. Yes, some of these factors are simply the western influence on the city. Hong Kong is not considered “true” China.  All I know is that the city made me feel free.

Fireworks in the harbor

Fireworks in the harbor

There was one benefit of visiting during the new year – fireworks. Nathan and I saw the best fireworks show of our lives! It was even better than Nathan’s previous best at Mariachi USA :) They were plentiful, beautiful and well timed. All of it, of course, with the backdrop of HK Island skyscrapers.

Yumminess at Crystal Jade

Yumminess at Crystal Jade

Crystal Jade on the 3rd Floor

Crystal Jade on the 3rd Floor

There is so much to see in HK but this trip was not for sightseeing. We had a lot of work to do – blogging, wedding planning, trip planning all takes time. The slow internet in China wasn’t cutting it for us so things had piled up again. After a long day at the hostel computer we asked the receptionist for a restaurant recommendation. He directed us to a place just a couple blocks away. Nathan was skeptical, thinking that the rec. was based more on proximity than good quality. But he need not have worried. Crystal Jade, on the third floor of a mall, was delicious. We were seated right away, our tea cups were kept full and the Shanghai cuisine was delightful. Of course we had to eat the xiao long bao (soup dumplings) which are steamed pork dumplings with warm broth sealed inside. We complimented these with more pork in a sweet dough wrap. Then the noodles, with a thick savory sauce that we could thin to our liking with broth.

Honeymoon Desserts

Honeymoon Desserts

Fortunately, we saved room for dessert. Also near our hostel, we had noticed this place because of the crowds. It was a tiny dessert cafe called Honeymoon Desserts.  I opted for mango, pomelo, grass jelly and tapioca balls in a sweet soup topped with a scoop of green tea ice cream. Yum! Nathan had a warm walnut and black sesame soup. Inside hid a few glutinous rice balls filled with ground peanuts. Impressive stuff.

Entrance to Lin Heung

Entrance to Lin Heung

Lin Heung dim sum

Lin Heung dim sum

Siu mai

Siu mai

To start off another “work” day we went to one of our favorite places in Hong Kong. Lin Heung is the real deal. A little grungy, slightly grumpy service and excellent dim sum. On our first visit in 2009, it was a summer weekday. Old regulars were hanging out, reading the paper, as carts were pushed by. In that same trip we visited again on a weekend. The place was transformed into a madhouse of people pushing for dim sum. The carts barely made it out of the kitchen before being stripped bare. On this visit, things were pretty crazy again. The pushing was even more aggressive than I remember. Perhaps because there were more mainland Chinese holidaymakers? Not sure. The dim sum was predictably good but I am excited to visit again when it’s calm.

Under Bridge Spicy Crab

Crispy shrimp from Under Bridge Spicy Crab restaurant

The dim sum held us over until dinner, when we were ready to feast again. Again near our hostel, we went to Under Bridge Spicy Crab Restaurant. As we waited for our table we looked longingly at the crab covered in crispy fried garlic. That is, until we saw the price. A crab for two for $60 (USD). Must have been inflated for the holidays. We instead switched our sights to garlic crusted shrimp which turned out to be an excellent substitute.

Hokkaido Milk Restaurant

Hokkaido Milk Restaurant

Another one of our fave HK eateries is Australia Dairy Company which is unfortunately closed for the time we are here. It is an institution serving amazing fried eggs, toast, coffee, macaroni soup. Yes, doesn’t sound too exciting but there is magic in the way they make it here. To get our fix, we went to Hokkaido Milk Restaurant instead. We didn’t have high expectations but were pleasantly surprised! The eggs were perfectly cooked, still slightly runny in the center, the toast was well buttered, and the macaroni soup deceivingly rich. Made me very happy.

I could have spent more time in HK, but instead that would have to wait until the end of the trip, after the holidays were over. Therefore, we prepared ourselves to re-enter the wilds of China.  Watch out, Hunan, Chongqing and Sichuan here we come!

Our One Year Travel-versary in Guangzhou (by Carmen)

Peach blossoms for the new year

Peach blossoms for the new year

Guangzhou kind of gets a bad rap.  Yeah, it’s not that pretty and there aren’t a great many sights to see.  But I still liked it.  The area was a major trading post for centuries and one can still feel the influence from the mix cultures.  Another winning factor is that Guangzhou is a real city, geared more towards manufacturing than simply tourism.  Add an abundance of dim sum and an excellent subway system and I was sold.

Street side vegetarian dumplings

Street side vegetarian dumplings

BBQ Pork at Guangzhou Restaurant

BBQ Pork at Guangzhou Restaurant

From the beginning, Guangzhou took care of us.  After checking into our hotel and taking a nap I was very hungry.  Just before popping into the subway there was a lady selling dumplings! We bought a half dozen vegetarian dumplings for $0.50.  Good deal.  We then rode to downtown where we walked the lively shopping streets.  I had read a recommendation for an eatery in the area with a straightforward name – Guangzhou Restaurant.  We found it but the garish neon exterior wasn’t exactly welcoming.  We went inside anyway and found a good quality meal of BBQ pork, buns and Chinese greens in a light broth.

Dim sum at Panxi Restaurant

Dim sum at Panxi Restaurant

But what we were really excited for was dim sum.  Many a morning in SF were spent at our favorite dim sum restaurants with old ladies pushing carts of food for us to choose from.  We know the names of the classic dishes – ha gow (shrimp dumpling), cha siu bao (bbq pork steamed bun), siu mai (pork and shrimp dumpling topped with roe).  We were ready.  During our time in Guangzhou we were able to sample two of the most well known dim sum restaurants.  The first, Panxi, served up some excellent quality.  But there were no carts – we ordered from a menu.  Less fun, but even worse was waiting almost an hour for our food!  It’s never easy in China.  The second place was Tao Tao Ju Restaurant. This was also delicious (though we liked Panxi a tad more).  I did like the self-service counters where I could choose my dim sum.  I didn’t recognize anything in the dessert section so I randomly chose a group of deep fried mini-pastries.  To my surprise, it was filled with a warm, sweetened durian custard.  This was a perfect use of the pungent fruit and I hope I can find it at dim sum restaurants abroad.

Shopping street

Shopping street

Guangzhou alleyway

Guangzhou alleyway

Alligator at the market

Alligator at the market

We walked a bit around the shopping district again peeking into the narrow alleyways.  We passed one food market buzzing with customers and couldn’t resist perusing ourselves.  The Cantonese are known for eating everything and anything and this is definitely the first time I saw alligator at the market. But before long it was nap time again.  Nathan had unfortunately come down with a tough illness that required a lot of rest.

Naan at Nur Bostan

Naan at Nur Bostan

Spiced rice and dumplings

Spiced rice and dumplings

Gate of one of the world's oldest mosques

Gate of one of the world’s oldest mosques

But it was our one year travel anniversary!  So Nathan mustered the energy to go to a special restaurant.  Nur Bostan serves Uyghur cuisine from the far western regions of China.  The culture and food there are more closely linked to Central Asia than mainstream Chinese.  One of the biggest differences is their Muslim religion, meaning they don’t eat the pork found so ubiquitously in the rest of the country.  There is a longstanding Muslim community in Guangzhou that I found fascinating.  The people themselves, in their dress and face, looked like a mix of east and west.  We even went to visit the city’s mosque, one of the oldest in the world being founded in the 600s, shortly after Islam was founded.  As for the food, we enjoyed some fluffy naan, hummus, juicy lamb kababs and spiced rice.  An excellent way to celebrate our travel-veresary!

Wuzhanji

Wuzhanji

In the morning we fought for a table at Wuzhanji, recommended for its cheung fan (steamed rice noodle rolls) and congee.  The woman taking orders didn’t even want to deal with us but we persisted and were rewarded with some springy noodles.  We also got some congee with offal.  I think this was her version of revenge but little did she know we actually like offal.  So there.

Chen Clan Association Hall

Chen Clan Association Hall

Unbelievable carving on a minuscule piece of ivory

Unbelievable carving on a minuscule piece of ivory

Now I wasn’t expecting much more from the Chen Clan Association Hall than an atmospheric old building.  But lucky for us it now houses a recently completed folk art museum.  My favorite piece was in the ivory carving room.  There was a piece of ivory no bigger than a grain of rice with Chinese characters carved in red.  Seriously, these characters were too small for the eye to see.  You had to look through a magnifying glass.  What unbelievable skill on the part of the carvers!!  I will never look the same way at those fairground stands that advertise writing your name on a grain of rice.  They don’t even know what they’re up against.

Canton Tower

Canton Tower

Four Seasons Hotel atrium at the IFC Tower

Four Seasons Hotel atrium at the IFC Tower

From the old to the very new, we rode the subway to Guangzhou’s version of Canary Wharf.  Skyscrapers are under construction at every turn but we were here to see two in particular.  The first was the IFC Tower, the tenth tallest building in the world.  It was just finished last fall and feels brand spanking new.  We made our way to the glamorous Four Seasons Hotel lobby on the 70th floor for views over the city.  Too bad it was cloudy!  From the IFC Tower we could see the Canton Tower twisting into the sky.  Pretty spectacular stuff.

Night market crowds

Night market crowds

At night we braved some crowds at a pedestrian shopping street hosting a flower market for the new year.  We then hopped on the subway to our hotel.  At the stroke of midnight we were treated to a cacauphony of fireworks set off by local families (the city did not put on a show).  These were bigger than some of the shows we’ve seen in SF!  We had a great vantage point from our hotel room on the 7th floor of an apartment building.  Our new year’s day (the third in our trip so far after Mumbai and Hanoi!) was spent eating dim sum, reading and sharing a simple noodle dinner with the young hotel manager.  It was a good way to gear up for our next destination, one of the best cities in the world, Hong Kong.

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