4 feet 2 mouths

walking and eating our way around the world

Archive for the tag “Small Cities”

I left my heart in Oaxaca (by Carmen)

Some people leave their hearts in SF, but not me. I left mine in Oaxaca. I’m not sure when I first wanted to go to this artistic corner of Mexico but it lurked somewhere deep in the recesses of my memory. Once Nathan and I narrowed our vacation destination to Mexico, it resurfaced as a top choice. I happened to mention to my parents that we were planning to go to Oaxaca in November and was met with a few moments of silence and then, “Are you serious?”

“Um, yes. Why?”

“We were talking this morning about going to Oaxaca in November, too.”

That’s right. Without even discussing the fact that Nathan and I would be going on any vacations to my parents we had both planned the same trip for the same month. It was fate.

If it hadn’t been for my parents, I doubt I would have booked a whole week for Oaxaca. But I’m so glad I did. It is a beautiful region with so, so much to explore. I already can’t wait to go back, which is rare for me. I’m usually excited to explore parts unknown to me.

Templo Santo Domingo

Templo Santo Domingo

The Tree of Life inside the monastery

The Tree of Life inside the monastery

One of the first things to greet us in Oaxaca was the Templo Santo Domingo. This 16th century Jesuit monastery stands tall and proud with immensely thick whitewashed stone walls. The layout of agave in the front accentuates the simplicity and symmetry of its facade.

Jardín Etnobotánico

Jardín Etnobotánico

Cacti at the Jardín Etnobotánico

Cacti at the Jardín Etnobotánico

Behind the Templo Santo Domingo is one of the most beautiful gardens I’ve ever been in. I am particularly fond of succulents and this sustainable garden was full of native varieties. The jardín etnobotánico was conceived by two artists as the city contemplated converting the disused monastery estate into a parking lot. The result is a stunning compilation of trees and cacti arranged in an aesthetic manner instead of according to biological groupings (like most botanic gardens). I saw plants I never knew existed, including some cacti that were no more than a half meter tall but were centuries old. Just beyond the garden entrance, the Restaurante La Olla was fresh and delicious. It felt like a local hang out despite the fact that I found it through the guide book.

Bride & groom waiting for one of the Oaxaca's many parades

Bride & groom waiting for one of the Oaxaca’s many parades

Fun textures at the textile museum

Fun textures at the textile museum

One of the many reasons I find Oaxaca so enticing is the many cultural activities and sites sprinkled throughout the town. Our very first night in the city, we observed a wedding parade (turns out this is a popular destination wedding location). The parade is lead by two bride and groom puppets, specifically commissioned to look like the bride and groom. As far as cultural sites, the Textile Museum was a beautiful example, full of historic weaved patterns sourced from Oaxaca and the surrounding states. Each tunic and shawl told a story, literally woven into the pattern of the fabric.

Mercado 20 de Noviembre

Mercado 20 de Noviembre

Parrilla hall

Parrilla hall

Every good city has a good market, and Oaxaca is a very good city. My parents, Nathan and I decided we were in need of a market meal. For this we turned to a smoke filled hall at the edge of the market lined with bright red steak and sausage ready for grilling. You pay separately for each service – for the meat, then for the person next to the butcher to grill it (interestingly, some meats, like the sausages were placed directly on the coals), then as you sit you pay for someone to provide tortillas, salsas and other fixings and, finally, someone comes around with drinks.  A unique system, but it works deliciously well.

Queso de Oaxaca

Queso de Oaxaca

Oaxacan food is world renowned with it’s most famous dish being mole. I was excited to learn some of the city’s kitchen secrets to bring back to my tiny NYC apartment so I could try to recreate all the yumminess that surrounded me. My family and I signed up for a class with Seasons of the Heart which took place in small ranch just outside of town. First up was a cheese class where we learned how to make amazing queso de oaxaca, which is similar to mozzarella. He strung it out and eventually wrapped it into this little rosette, a shape he said was a specialty of the his hometown.

Yummy mole

Yummy mole

Nathan entertaining classmates while making tetelas

Nathan entertaining classmates while making tetelas

Delectable smells filled the kitchen as the class divided and conquered under the oversight of the instructors. Everyone was anxious to observe the making of mole (think: Mexican curry) which used a wide variety of ingredients as a flavor base, including almonds, cinnamon, cloves, oregano and thyme. Tetelas were another hit – we each took a turn to flatten the dough, spread some spiced, fried beans into the center and then carefully fold it into a triangle before tossing it on the fire-heated griddle. Our feast was complemented by herbed rice, salad, salsas and fresh tortillas. The culmination was a spectacular bread pudding which, although not a traditional Mexican recipe, used local ingredients like pumpkin and piloncillo (evaporated sugarcane juice). Fantastic.

Memelas

Memelas

Oaxaca has that something special about it. Some magic in the air that makes it both exciting and new but totally welcoming and comfortable at the same time. The food was as amazing as I’d hoped – whether enjoying homemade mole or street side memelas (thick corn disks with toppings, very similar to a sope). The surrounding villages each had their own artistic specialty, whether weaving, pottery or painted figurines, providing endlessly entertaining markets. Mezcal is locally made and abundant. The people were kind.

Camino de Santiago pilgrim

Camino de Santiago pilgrim

And on top of everything I saw a sign from above – literally. A Camino de Santiago pilgrim was randomly painted on the side of a building, pointing towards the heart of Oaxaca, telling me where to go.

I shall return.

Advertisements

Al Pastor in Puebla (by Carmen)

View down the street in Puebla

View down the street in Puebla

There is really only one reason we went to Puebla: tacos al pastor. Given that we already sampled many, many tacos al pastor in DF, it may seem crazy to come 2 hours south to Puebla just to eat more. But this is the supposed home of al pastor. And let’s face it, we’re fanatics.

Inside the cathedral

Inside the cathedral facing the zócalo

So it was with great anticipation and hunger in our bellies that we found ourselves in the zócolo (main square) of Puebla. A city of 1.5 million seems positively tiny after DF (which holds about 21 million). The zócolo had a relaxed atmosphere with families and friends collecting in clusters and balloon sellers meandering around. The centuries old cathedral towers over the south side of the square flanked by arcades full of cafes to watch the world go by.

Las Ranas' version of al pastor

Las Ranas’ version of al pastor

Just a few blocks away was our al pastor mecca, Las Ranas. Al pastor (literally shepard’s style) was brought to the country by Lebanese immigrants. Like donner, thin sliced marinated meat (in this case pork) rotates on a spigot slowly becoming carmelized and juicy. The meat slicers at Las Ranas were pros and we watched them cut the meat into ever so thin slices to be placed on tortillas, queso fundido (melted cheese), bolillos (bread rolls) or pan árabe (literally arab bread; pita). The pita is what really brought home the origins of this specialty – it was soft and a little chewy, perfect with the seasoned meat and spicy salsas. Las Ranas will forever stay in my memory as a place that 1) has some of the best al pastor in the world and 2) made me fuller than I’ve ever been in my life.

Capilla del Rosario

Capilla del Rosario

One of Puebla's many churches

One of Puebla’s many churches

The next morning we discovered more of Puebla beyond its culinary treasures. An important colonial town, the city is full of lavishly decorated churches and religious sites. My favorite was the Capilla del Rosario. It is without doubt one of the most beautiful chapels I’ve seen anywhere in the world. The bright white stucco was shaped into intricate, weaved geometric patterns and then strategically covered in gold to accentuate the design. It was over the top baroque but instead of being tacky it felt fun, as if it were a puzzle to try and decipher the underlying geometries.

Chalupas

Chalupas

Near the church, a group of girls cornered us to ask us questions about America for a school project. They were adorable and very enthusiastic to practice English. One of the cutest moments was when the best English-speaker asked us if we really called calabacitas “zucchinis.” She thought it was such a strange word that she had doubted her teacher’s translation. We asked the schoolgirls what their favorite comida poblana (Pueblan food) was and they responded “chalupas!” We specifically sought these out and discovered that these are comprised of fresh tortillas dragged through rich tomato or tomatillo based sauces and then fried on a griddle. Thanks for the tip, chicas.

Bar in Puebla (I love the dancing woman painted above)

Bar in Puebla (I love the dancing woman painted above)

Pork cemita from Cemitas América

Pork cemita from Cemitas América

Another Pueblan specialty is cemita. What makes these small sandwiches special is the buttery, flakey, spiral shaped bread it sits on. We chose the most hopping cemita joint we could find and ordered two. This place only did one type of cemita – pig face. I like it when an eatery is bold enough to just do one thing well and, in this case, it paid off. Pig face is not for everyone but if you can learn to enjoy the jiggly factor, you’re in for a treat.

At the train museum

At the train museum

Inside a vintage Mexican train

Inside a vintage Mexican train

Puebla continued to charm me with a museum dedicated to Mexico’s basically extinct passenger rail system. El Museo del Ferrocarril (Train Museum) had a collection of old rail cars, some of which you can climb inside. The information signs provide details on the origins of the various cars, how and when they were used and background on the lives of the people who worked them. Inside Puebla’s former rail station, a photography exhibit displayed photos of the many migrants who boarded these trains in the mid-1900s to work in the US. My grandfather was one of these men, traveling from Guadalajara to Chicago, which made the exhibit particularly personal for me. I searched the faces in each photograph to get a sense of both the fear and the bittersweet excitement the men must have felt as they boarded the trains to a such a foreign place and culture.

Quesadilla close up with squash flowers and mushrooms

Quesadilla close up with squash flowers and mushrooms

Heading back to the town center, we couldn’t resist the sizzle of quesadillas on the grill. Ours contained squash blossoms, mushrooms and fresh gooey cheese on a purple corn tortilla.

Biblioteca

Living my librarian dreams at the biblioteca

Directly in the center, we were once again surrounded by colonial splendor. An elegant example of this splendor was the 17th century biblioteca (library). I love libraries. I’ve always been intrigued by becoming a librarian. I think it was the scenes from Beauty and the Beast in which Belle waltzes through the castle library stacked high with leather bound books that influenced me as a child. In short, I was very happy here.

Artsy mole at El Mural

Artsy mole at El Mural

Our final meal in Puebla diverged from all the previous ones we had had in Mexico. Thus far, we had focused on street food and hole-in-the wall eateries to get the most authentic food we could. In general, Nathan and I are weary of white tablecloth restaurants that only the local elite and tourists can afford. But we heard good things about El Mural and we decided to give it a try for breakfast on our last morning in town. They totally had me with their homemade miniature pan dulce. And their café de olla (coffee with spices). And their fresh juices. And pretty much everything else.

Street vendor in Puebla

Street vendor in Puebla

I’m so glad we stopped in Puebla on our trip. It was a charming and calm counterpoint to the frenetic energy of DF yet still had an urban feel. Next up was through the gorgeous four-hour drive through the mountains to Oaxaca.

Road Trip New York & Vermont (by Carmen)

New York in May has been lovely. The warmth of spring has been blissful after such a harsh, looong winter. Summer’s humid heat is just around the corner, threatening to blast my memories of numb fingers and toes into oblivion. So it is strange to think that just two months ago I was staring at a rental car that wouldn’t start, clutching my backpack and breathing fog into a crisp -8°F (-22°C) morning.

View of Poughkeepsie from the pedestrian bridge over the Hudson River

View of Poughkeepsie from the pedestrian bridge over the Hudson River

But let me back up a bit. Nathan and I found ourselves with a few days off around mid-March and decided to make the most of it. We toyed with the idea of hopping the pond to visit a friend in Dublin but the flight prices were just too much to bear. So we stayed local, rented a car and road tripped it along the Hudson River to Vermont. The route was the opposite of most people’s instinct to go south and escape the cold. Our goal, however, was to actually enjoy the winter. Snow and ice in a city context is a nuisance but in more rural settings winter sports become available. Skiing, cross country, snowshoeing, ice skating…the snow was beckoning us to go north.

Icy Hudson River view from the walkway

Icy Hudson River view from the walkway

We had 300 miles to plough through on our first day so we broke it up with a few stops as we drove along the Hudson River. Our first stop in Poughkeepsie found us strolling along Walkway State Park, a former rail bridge converted to pedestrian use five years ago. It offers great views of the icy Hudson River 200 feet below.

Next up was the town of Hudson, where I found the best bookstore in the world. Upon entering, you see the expected shelves of fiction and non-fiction. But look to the left and you encounter a full on bar with interesting drafts being consumed by friendly locals. Patrons are welcome to take their beer with them while browsing the books and thoughtful cup holders are provided so one can flip the pages. There should be many, many more businesses like this.

When we finally arrived in Burlington that night we were exhausted. Thankfully, our Airbnb hosts provided us with nourishing vegetable soup to take the chill off. They apologized that it was only vegetarian and not vegan, which instantly made me think of vegan-friendly Berkeley.

City Market Cooperative in Burlington

City Market Cooperative in Burlington

If I had any doubts about Burlington’s similarity to Berkeley, it was completely erased by a visit to the City Market Co-op. I dearly miss my Berkeley Bowl grocery store with its mountains of fresh produce and generous bulk section. City Market had an even bigger bulk section! And it’s a functioning co-op that provides dividends to its members. I certainly didn’t expect to go grocery shopping on this trip but that’s exactly what we did, at a fraction of the cost of markets in NYC. Take that Whole Foods.

Beautiful fudge at Lake Champlain Chocolates on Church Street

Beautiful fudge at Lake Champlain Chocolates on Church Street

Nathan, expertly snowshoeing at Shelburne Farms

Nathan, expertly snowshoeing at Shelburne Farms

Feeling at home in Burlington, we made our way down the main drag, Church Street. After a stop for a bite of rich fudge at Lake Champlain Chocolates, we walked a few doors down to the local outdoor store to chat with staff about the best places to snowshoe. They directed us to Shelburne Farms, which in warmer times is a sustainable farming education center on the lake. It was designed in the 19th century by none other than Frederick Law Olmsted (of Central Park fame) as a picturesque rural setting. For our visit we didn’t see the farm’s cows but the rolling landscape was covered in fresh snow for us to tromp through. At the farm shop we picked up some of the farm’s delicious cheddar for the road. Not that we had far to go – our next destination was Magic Hat Brewery five minutes up the road. The psychedelic brewery visitor center fit perfectly into Burlington, home of the band Phish. We tasted all the beers on offer and especially enjoyed the passion fruit juice infused Steven Sour.

Walking on (frozen) water!

Walking on (frozen) water!

Wind swept ice

Wind swept ice

Frozen Lake Champlain lighthouse

Frozen Lake Champlain lighthouse

Nice day for bike ride

Nice day for bike ride

At sunset we made our way to the waterfront to take Lake Champlain. The lake was an important trade route between Canada and New York and battles between Americans and British were fought in these waters. In the middle of March, though, the harbor was completely iced in so Nathan and I took a nice walk on the ice to the lighthouse. Later that night we went to the town’s Irish bar to listen to some jigs and reels in celebration of one of my favorite holiday – St. Patrick’s Day!

Cross Country skiing at the Von Trapp Family Lodge - note the metal maple buckets

Cross Country skiing at the Von Trapp Family Lodge – note the metal maple buckets

Our 2nd morning was frigid beyond belief and, as luck would have it, our rented car had a dead battery. Fortunately, we only needed a jump but unfortunately we couldn’t find someone to help us out. We decided to have breakfast at a nearby cafe, the Barrio Bakery. The warm egg sandwich and blueberry scone helped us feel better and one of our fellow patrons eventually gave us a start.

We bid goodbye to Burlington and drove east to Stowe for some cross country skiing at the Von Trapp Family Lodge – yes, that Von Trapp Family. While The Sound of Music was based on a true story, the musical didn’t cover the fact that the Von Trapp’s became a touring singing group that eventually opened a ski lodge. The lodge has a framed picture of Maria Von Trapp skiing the same trails we did.

Glorious Ben & Jerry’s ice cream cone straight from the factory

Glorious Ben & Jerry’s ice cream cone straight from the factory

Working up a sweat on the ski trails meant time for a rewarding treat. And really, ice cream is an amazing thing. Even when it’s so cold outside your body aches, it’s nearly impossible to decline a waffle cone filled with rich, creamy ice cream. We had no chance resisting the pull of the Ben & Jerry’s factory, even with our snowy surroundings and cold start in the morning. I was somewhat shocked to find 20 other visitors with us on a Monday afternoon in March. Twenty more were lined up for the next tour a half hour later. We all scream for ice cream, I suppose.

Covered bridge near Woodstock, VT

Covered bridge near Woodstock, VT

After a pit stop in the state capital, our final night was spent in the tiny, incredibly cute village of Woodstock (but not that Woodstock). We were pleasantly surprised to find an excellent, casual restaurant near the village called Worthy Kitchen. After filling up on shepard’s pie, we tucked in for the night in our B&B.

On our last day we experienced more quintessential Vermont experiences – covered bridges and maple tapping. It being the start of sugaring season the maple trees were just beginning to release their sweet nectar which is boiled down to our favorite pancake topping.

The tastes and views of Vermont were everything I’d hoped for but was over far too quickly. It whet my appetite to further explore New England. Maine lobster rolls anyone?

Vermont humor (Source: Vermont Independent Clothing Co.)

Vermont humor (Source: Vermont Independent Clothing Co.)

Quick trip: Portland & Beyond (by Carmen)

Little white church in the Oregon countryside

Little white church in the Oregon countryside

Wedding guests at sunset

Wedding guests at sunset

Towards the end of last summer we had the pleasure of attending a wedding in the verdant hills outside Salem, Oregon. Oregon in the summer is especially beautiful and, honestly, we’d accept any excuse to go. To be there for a family wedding in a cute little chapel surrounded by old oak trees was even more special. Our flight back to California was via Portland so we decided to spend a day and a half enjoying the city.

Voodoo Doughnut

Voodoo Doughnut

Portland is known for its great food but also for its somewhat alternative culture. Both these aspects were reflected in our trip to the famous Voodoo Doughnut. This was our pre-breakfast (hey, our time in Portland was limited!) and we were jarred by the neon pink interior of Voodoo as we walked in. The case contained a mixture of appealing (maple!) and appalling (bubble gum??) options slowly rotating under florescent light. Although I was tempted by the voodoo doll shaped concoction, I kept it simple with an old fashioned while Nathan tried a yeasted and iced doughnut. The old fashioned was definitely the winner and I thoroughly enjoyed it even though I felt the amount of icing tipped this snack more towards dessert than breakfast. By the time we left there was a line forming out the door.

Scandinavian breakfast at Broder (not sure what's going on in the back)

Scandinavian breakfast at Broder (not sure what’s going on in the back)

Actual breakfast was at Broder, a Scandinavian cafe tucked into a quiet strip of retail in Southeast Portland. As we waited for a table (good thing we had the doughnut to hold us over), we peeked at what people were eating. Everything looked so unique and enticing. Ultimately we tried the “Soltice Bord” (a very European mix of cheeses, jams, yogurt, granola, soft boiled egg, ham, bread, pastry) and a smoked trout hash. The restaurant lived up to the hype and it reminded me to enjoy these simple pleasures more often.

Heart Coffee shop

Heart Coffee shop

The in-shop roaster

The in-shop roaster

When in Portland it’s required to have multiple cups of artisanal coffee a day. We obliged at Heart Coffee shop where part of the entertainment is to watch the in-house roaster spew out fragrant coffee beans ready to be ground and brewed.

Bridge over the Willamette River

Bridge over the Willamette River

Public space in downtown Portland

Public space in downtown Portland

Powered with caffeine we made our way west, past the Willamette River to downtown. We took in the wonderful public spaces in this very walkable part of the city. I love bookstores and insisted we spend a solid hour at Powell’s Books where the cooking section alone took up two long aisles. Heaven.

Salt & Straw Ice Cream (sorry for the poor photo quality - this was pre-phone upgrade)

Salt & Straw Ice Cream (sorry for the poor photo quality – this was pre-phone upgrade)

Double fisitng at Salt & Straw

Double fisitng at Salt & Straw

My favorite bite of the whole trip took place later that night at Salt & Straw Ice Cream. I’ve tried plenty of good, quality ice cream in my life but this might be the best I’ve ever had. The creativity of flavors and freshness of ingredients came together so well. It was unbelievable and Nathan and I are going to attempt to recreate it with our new ice cream maker. Yes, even despite the freezing temperatures in NYC right now.

THE way to get around town

THE way to get around town

Our time in Portland would not have been the same without our excellent hosts Tom and Fontaine. They gave us recommendations, lent us their bikes, introduced us to yummy New Orleans food, and took us to local bars with some heavy handed bartenders. Thank you! Another special shout out to Nalat who encouraged us to try Olympic Provisions and Cascade Brewery – both delicious and worthy of checking out. Reminds me that no matter where we find ourselves, we get by with a little help from our friends.

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.”

A Long Train Ride to Guanxi (by Carmen)

The karsts Guanxi is know for

The karsts Guanxi is know for

A lot can happen in 24 hours. But sometimes, very little does. This was the case on our very long train journey from Kunming to Guanxi province. Why on earth would we take such a long train ride? Well, we had already survived a 27 hour bus journey between Hanoi and Luang Prabang, so we figured that this had to be better. Also, we much prefer train travel over flying. It’s fun to be able to look out the window and see the countryside. And the fact that you can’t do a whole lot forces you to relax. In our case that meant a lot of time to read and work on writing for the blog.

Nathan and his instant noodles

Nathan and his instant noodles

We left bright and early on a Sunday morning. As we boarded the train, we realized that we were seriously low on snack supplies relative to our train mates. Everyone else had large shopping bags full of cookies, fruit and many bowls of instant noodles. We had two bowls ourselves, a few apples and oranges and some sunflower seeds to act as breakfast, lunch and dinner. But hey, we weren’t going to be moving much. How much did we really need to eat? Nathan was pretty excited for his instant noodle bowl. Everyone, and I mean everyone, on the train had brought some for their lunch and dinner. It was definitely richer and tastier than the ubiquitous Cup-o-Noodle in the States. But I still felt a sodium overload as I slurped from my bowl.

Bunks on the train

Bunks on the train

In the end, the ride was over pretty quickly. It was by no means a luxury ride. We slept on the top bunk of a hard sleeper, there was one squattie pottie for our train car and no dining area (only hot water for all those noodles). Our bunkmates were pretty quiet, which we weren’t expecting. The Chinese have a penchant for having loud conversations even when people are sleeping feet away. But overall our experience was pretty good. We rolled into Guilin a little restless but rested enough.

City and nature together in Guilin

City and nature together in Guilin

Red decoration on the top of a karst

Red decoration on the top of a karst

Guilin is the capital of the Guanxi province and provided our first taste of the limestone cliffs the region is known for. This was now our third time seeing these geological formations, having admired them on Koh Phi Phi and Halong Bay. But here in China, they were a little different. For one, the karsts were denser (of course). Also, it was awesome to see the cliffs in an urban setting. Guilin looks like many other Chinese cities but when you round the corner and see a huge wall of rock jutting out of the earth, it just makes you smile. We climbed to the top of one of these cliffs to get a view of the city through the wintery mists. Since it was close to the lunar new year it was festively decorated in red.

20 Yuan Point in Xingping

20 Yuan Point in Xingping

Our true destination in Guanxi was not Guilin, it was the smaller town of Xingping. This is where some of the most beautiful scenery was to be found. So beautiful, in fact, that the area was depicted on the 20 yuan bill! After the viewpoint we walked on along the river, through tiny villages and past karst after karst.

Farm with karst backdrop

Farm with karst backdrop

Grassy meadow along the river

Grassy meadow along the river

The walk was peaceful for the most part except for a handful of experiences. Like so many other parts of China, tourism has made a mark. For example, as we left for the hike we considered taking a bamboo raft to our destination and walking back to Xingping from there. However, we didn’t like the price of the raft so we said no. But the tout followed us for a good half hour trying to negotiate (but never coming close to our counter-offer). It was tiring! Also, we passed a few restaurants on the path geared towards rafts that stop there for lunch. They, too, aggressively tried to get us to eat there. Then one woman followed us for 15 minutes after we passed her restaurant in order to make sure we would take a raft with her friend at the next river crossing. I didn’t like these pushy vendors and the whole situation felt like we were just two big dollar signs. This happens a lot in tourist regions of China and I’m sure we could handle it better if we knew more of the language. But in the end we just gave up with the second raft woman and walked back 2 hours to Xingping. We were tired out anyway and ready to call it a day.

The wide Yulong River

The wide Yulong River

Orange groves

Orange groves

Following the road

Following the road

But not everyone is so rude. We had another river crossing in which the price was set and reasonable. The ferry driver was friendly and said “good bye!” to us. These are the people I like to focus on. They allow us to relax a bit more and just enjoy the natural surroundings we came to see!

20 Yuan Point at sunset

20 Yuan Point at sunset

We approached Xingping just before sunset. Nathan decided to watch it from 20 Yuan Point while I decided to relax on on hostel’s rooftop. They were both good choices – it’s hard to find a bad view in Xingping.

Old street in Xingping

Old street in Xingping

Rustic part of Xingping

Rustic part of Xingping

Guilin noodles

Guilin noodles

We needed something restorative after our long hiking day. On top of that, we were both feeling a little under the weather. In China, comfort is found in a big bowl of noodles. We stopped for some Guilin noodles in the morning. These thick rice noodles were topped with a few bits of meat, a splash of broth, chives, chili and some pickled green beans. All for only $1. A great way to wake up in the morning.

Market frenzy

Market frenzy

Calligraphy

Calligraphy

After our noodles we meandered around the market. There were so many people for such a seemingly small town! On top of that people were gearing up for the new year. The calligraphy stand seemed particularly popular for this reason.

Naan in Yangshuo

Naan in Yangshuo

Next we were on our way back to Guilin to catch the train to Guangzhou. We passed through the tourist town of Yangshuo but didn’t stay long. After our adventures in Yunnan, we knew it would just be full of the same old shops. Instead we picked up some naan bread from a Muslim Chinese stall and kept on moving.

Getting Lost in Lijiang (by Carmen)

Jade Dragon Mountain viewed from the new public square

Jade Dragon Mountain viewed from the new public square

Lijiang is located in a very picturesque setting, which is part of the problem. Chinese tourists love picturesque so the tourism agency has been doing its best to make the town as cute and profitable as possible. This includes building up the old town, charging a high ticket price for the sites and creating non-stop souvenir shops. The commerciality and new structures made to look old reminded us of Disneyland hence Nathan determined we were in Chisneyland.

"Old" water wheels in the new public square

“Old” water wheels in the new public square

Baked egg custard tarts and strawberry shortcake

Baked egg custard tarts and strawberry shortcake

We started our explorations in the new public square just north of the old town. We picked up a few baked goods and sat down to people watch. It wasn’t long before people wanted to take our picture though. The people watchers became the watched.

Naxi women and man performing traditional dances

Naxi women and man performing traditional dances

Naxi writing

Naxi writing

In the square they have elderly Naxi perform traditional dances. The Naxi are the local tribe and have interesting cultural legacies. Especially it’s pictographic writing, which could be compared to Egyptian hieroglyphics. The Dongba Culture Museum compares to two scripts in an interesting exhibit. As for the dancing, I hope they get paid for their work. We saw them dancing in the mornings, afternoons and evenings!

An uncrowded shopping street in old town

An uncrowded shopping street in old town

But most people aren’t here to dance. It seems they are here to shop. There are stores selling clothing, paper goods, jewelry, wind chimes, combs made of horns, yak meat, and musical drums. Repeat this 100 times.

Pretty canal lined with hotels

Pretty canal lined with hotels

Mu Family Mansion

Mu Family Mansion

For me, the real beauty was in the side streets off the shopping lanes. Here we found mostly hotels, tiny cafes and a pretty temple. The meandering paths reminded me of Venice in the utter inability to keep ones orientation. It’s impossible not to get lost. One of our landmarks we walked past multiple times was the Mu Mansion, a historic building to the south where hawk handlers gather for photo ops.

Rooftop view of the old town

Rooftop view of the old town

During sunset we climbed a hill to get a view of old town from above. We found a clearing by a temple and watched the sun cast golden light on the roofs. Since we had a birds eye view we tried to get our bearings within the old town. It was impossible.

Lijiang by night

Lijiang by night

Tibetan veggie curried momos

Tibetan veggie curried momos

At night we just wanted something light, so we sampled the dumplings at a local Tibetan restaurant. The curried veggie momos (dumplings) were simple and good, showing the influence of Tibet’s proximity to India. I also loved the atmosphere at the peaceful, upstairs cafe.

Metal goods at the market

Metal goods at the market

Our favorite place for breakfast is always the market and in the southwest corner of old town we found it. We walked past stalls of pretty copperware before finding the food court. Spicy fried potatoes and beef noodle soup filled us up. When we went to try the local fried bread, called a baba, the vendor had sold out. Sadness.

Jade Dragon Mountain viewed from Black Dragon Pool Park

Jade Dragon Mountain viewed from Black Dragon Pool Park

Cherry blossoms in a courtyard

Cherry blossoms in a courtyard

Small bridge at the park

Small bridge at the park

Exiting the market we reentered Chisneyland and made our way through the maze. We wanted to catch a glimpse of the Jade Dragon Mountain, a set of beautiful craggy mountains north of the city. The Black Dragon Pool Park has a good vista but we didn’t care for the $13 per person entrance fee. As we passed the park looking for a good alternative view two local women told us they’d sneak us in for a fraction of the price. Now, this isn’t something we normally do but I think just for the fun of getting away with something we said yes.  And it was indeed a pretty park with good vistas, but I think I would have been disappointed if I had paid full price.

Clay pot rice with fermented veggies and celery soup

Clay pot rice with fermented veggies and celery soup

As we walked back towards the old town we passed a couple eating clay pot rice and had to have some. It was accompanied with some spicy, fermented zucchini and cabbage as well as a very light celery soup.

Boiled Dumpling Aunty!

Boiled Dumpling Aunty!

For our final meal in Lijiang we really wanted some home style cooking. Miraculously, we were able to locate a dumpling restaurant we had passed on one of our lost walk abouts. I think it was the name the got me – Boiled Dumpling Aunty. Indeed, when we walked in, it was just two ladies, two tables, a blaring TV and a whole lot of dumplings. We ordered a variety of pork and beef fillings and waited with anticipation. They were amazing! Especially when dipped in our sauce that we customized with black vinegar, soy sauce, chopped garlic, chili powder and cilantro. It was a delicious meal that helped redeem a town that tries to hard to impress the tourist masses.

A elder checking out the touring masses in the main square

A elder checking out the touring masses in the main square

Drinking in the Views of Dali (by Carmen)

Dali old town

Dali old town

Dali is a town with Erhai Lake to its east and tall mountains towering over it to the west. It may be small in size but it has a long history. Centuries ago, it was the capital of the Yunnan region. Today, it retains a pretty, old town atmosphere as well as cultural ties to the Bai, a tribe that has lived in this valley for thousands of years.

Brooms at the Bai market

Brooms at the Bai market

Our introduction to Dali occurred with the great hostel search. Unfortunately we got lost on our way to the hostel but we did find a Bai market near the western city gate. I loved the mounds of natural brooms as well as the chili vendors that were grinding fresh chilies into powder right before your eyes.

Beautiful paintings found on our hostel

Beautiful paintings found on our hostel

Our hostel, the Jade Emu, at sunset with the Green Mountains behind it

Our hostel, the Jade Emu, at sunset with the Green Mountains behind it

We finally did make it to our hostel, the Jade Emu, right around sunset. It was a lovely place with special touches for the western traveler. For example, free access to an Internet portal that allows you to view sites typically banned in China! It was also decorated with splendid paintings that we saw on many of the homes in the area.

Tofu, mushrooms and cheese at Cang Er Chun

Tofu, mushrooms and cheese at Cang Er Chun

We quickly left for dinner and ended up at Cang Er Chun. We are trying to maximize consumption of the famous Yunnan mushrooms so we ordered a dish of them, some fried local goat cheese (oddly served with sugar) and ma po tofu. The latter is one of my favorite dishes and I welcomed the numbing spice of the Sichuan peppercorns. Afterwards, we walked around and found an expat bar with a Scottish band playing some songs. Dali definitely has a foreigner presence attracted to its cute surrounds. But this bar had a good mix of Chinese and westerners grooving to the tunes.

View along the south city wall

View along the south city wall

Holy napa cabbage idolization

Holy napa cabbage idolization

The next morning we were ready to explore the old town. Many of the Chinese tourists congregate on the tourist shopping streets, which aren’t very interesting. But it’s easy to get away from the crowds. It was pretty much just us as we walked along the south city wall. At the end was a small temple to overlook the town and lake. Inside the temple, there was a awesome carved napa cabbage at the center of an altar. Evidence of the importance of good food in China.

Buddhist meal at Yi Ran Tang

Buddhist meal at Yi Ran Tang

Near the city wall, a Buddhist restaurant called Yi Ran Tang serves a very inexpensive buffet. You can pile as much as you want on your plate for about $1 but the catch is that you have to eat everything you take. I’m talking every last grain of rice. Nathan and I practiced scooping rice grains with our chop sticks in their peaceful, newly built courtyard next to the buffet.

Bai-style Catholic church

Bai-style Catholic church

Jesus in Dali

Jesus in Dali

We kept the religious theme going by visiting the town’s Catholic church. It was the most unique church I’ve ever been to since it was built in the Bai style of architecture. We marveled at the exterior paintings, which didn’t have much to do with Christianity, and took a peak the blue painted interior. They provided a flyer describing the church’s difficulties during the cultural revolution as well as explaining how “Jesus Christ started the Catholic Church before he died…”. Hmmm. I thought the building was a really cool cultural fusion and is definitely worth seeking out in Dali.

Nathan's drink

Nathan’s drink

As a refresher, Nathan couldn’t pass up a chance to try a sour tamarind drink from a popular street vendor. She spent time on each cup, sprinkling in a variety of a spices and juices, resulting in a nicely sour treat.

The Three Pagodas

The Three Pagodas

Inside one of the temples behind the pagodas

Inside one of the temples behind the pagodas

View from the hill

View from the hill

We saved the afternoon for Dali’s major historical attraction, the three pagodas. The tallest of these is 16 stories and built in the mid 800s! It is amazing it has lasted this long though I’m not sure how many restorations it has had. Behind the pagodas a series of temples stretches at least a kilometer uphill. Each temple ensconced beautiful statues of Buddha, Buddhist leaders or local gods. The ticket was expensive (most are in China) but well worth it.

Spicy chicken, veggies and fried rice

Spicy chicken, veggies and fried rice

We finished off the night by choosing the restaurant with the most diners in it.  Our pointing got us some greens, fried rice and a spicy, garlicy chicken dish.  I liked the chicken but there were so many bones it took forever to eat.  This is true of a lot of Chinese chicken and fish dishes.

Older Bai women on the tourist shopping street

Older Bai women on the tourist shopping street

Our last day in Dali we spent a bit more time in the old town. As we walked around we noticed a group of Bai women moving in a hurry. We followed them as they rushed their way through the main tourist drag, stopping to say hello to a few shop owners. I’m still not sure why they were rushing so, but what sticks out in my mind was a middle aged woman with a deformed foot. She was keeping up with the others by hopping along on her one good foot. I wonder if she didn’t have a crutch by choice or if it was the poor medical care. Probably the latter, which shows the dichotomy of rich Chinese tourists and poor locals. Reminders are everywhere!

Baiju shop

Baiju shop

We did do some shopping ourselves, at the local baiju (rice wine) shop. The owner had created a number of specialty flavors and we settled on a pineapple-rice liquor that had a sour, sweet and slightly fermented taste.

Awesome shao er quai

Awesome shao er quai

Nearby, a woman was selling some delicious shao er quai, a street snack Adam had recommended. It is rice pancake that is grilled and smeared with a variety of sweet, nutty and spicy sauces. This is wrapped around a Chinese doughnut and served warm. Good stuff. This lady was particularly good because she rolled out the rice pancake fresh, instead of having pre-made ones ready to heat up.

Scrumptious coffee and cookies at Sweet Tooth

Scrumptious coffee and cookies at Sweet Tooth

Our final stop was to satisfy our sweet cravings at a cafe appropriately named Sweet Tooth. Our French pressed coffee was great and the tiny cookies were spot on. Chocolate chip, white chocolate, oatmeal raisin…it’s been so long.

Small bus between Yunnan towns

Small bus between Yunnan towns

Before long it was time to board a bus to our next destination, Shaxi. We crowded on to the local bus, chatted with a friendly English speaking local and wound our way higher in the mountains (and deeper into the cold!).

Wat Hopping in Chiang Mai (by Carmen)

Chiang Mai, the square city

Chiang Mai, the square city (photo credit: artandcultureasia.com)

The city of Chiang Mai was born on Thursday the 8th day of waxing moon, 1296AD, at 4:00am, in the year of the monkey. This we learned at the city’s history museum, which explained that Chiang Mai, like people, has certain personality traits as well periods of good and bad health. I liked this personification of cities and I knew Chiang Mai and I would get along just fine. First of all, I liked its shape. Not many cities have such a strong square moat, with remainders of its crumbling city wall still presiding over residents.

Khao Kha Mu

Khao Kha Mu

And, of course, there was the delicious food. Fortunately for us, Julia and Jonathan had been in Chiang Mai just before we got there and provided some noteworthy recommendations. Two were just north of the city gate, at the Chang Puek market. Recognizable by their cowboy hats, the pork choppers at the khao kha mu (stewed pork over rice) stall are working non-stop to fill the mountain of orders. We joined the crowds, got our plate and doused it with a sweet spicy chili sauce on the table. The slightly sweet pork mingled perfectly with the tangy sauce.

Pad thai stall

Pad thai stall

Pad thai close up

Pad thai close up

At the same market, look for the lone man towards the end pumping out pad thai. It was perfect. His pad Thai uses good tamarind paste so is more sour than the ones I’ve eaten in the States. The “original” mix he offered involved tofu, eggs, and dried shrimp. Many thanks to Mark at the Travelfish Thailand blog for pointing out this market!

Wat Phan Tao

Wat Phan Tao

Wat Monthian

Wat Monthian

We were not in Chiang Mai for food alone. As the capital of the Lanna kingdom for centuries, Chiang Mai was also a spiritual center leaving a legacy of wats. Every street seems to have two or three. Some are more famous than others, such as the dark teak wood Wat Phan Tao. But all of them have a beauty to them. We really enjoyed Wat Monthian, on the northern border of the old town.

Buddha presiding over Wat Chedi Luang

Buddha presiding over Wat Chedi Luang

Flags inside Wat Chedi Luang

Flags inside Wat Chedi Luang

The namesake chedi

The namesake chedi

Another one of the well known wats is Chedi Luang. It’s large golden Buddha had a string attached to his finger that wound its way around the temple interior. From the string, people hung flags with images from the Chinese zodiac. It was a peaceful place to kneel below the flags, on the thick carpet, and quietly observing people coming into pray. Afterwards, we went to the back of the wat to see the oldest chedi (sacred site usually in a mound or pyramid shape) in Chiang Mai.

Buns!

Buns!

The next day was an important one. It was Nathan’s turn to celebrate his birthday! So what does one do in Chiang Mai to celebrate? Take a bike ride to a nearby wat of course. But wait! On the way we spied a shop selling a variety of colorful steamed buns. I’m used to these being filled by Chinese style pork or red bean paste, but these were different. There was everything from taro to spinach and cheese filled buns. We opted for pandanus and Thai pork buns. They were both good but the latter was revelatory! The lemongrass in the filling was so good and I was soon dreaming up ways to market these fusion bun treats.

White chedis at Wat Suan Dok

White chedis at Wat Suan Dok

Close up chedi

Close up chedi

We did eventually make it to the Wat Suan Dok. It had a number of white chedis for some fun photos.

Huen Phen

Huen Phen

To add a bit of surprise to Nathan’s birthday I researched a place for a good but laid back lunch. Huen Phen fit the bill and offered some great eats in casual surroundings. My favorite was the amazing Thai sausage. I had read about it online and I think it lived up to the hype. It was super tender and well spiced. Another great dish was the khao soi, a curry based soup complimented with pickled veggies to sprinkle in. We even came back the next day, when the little khanom jeen nam ngiaw place we had looked up ended up being closed. Huen Phen’s version lifted our spirits with its rich pork broth, which Nathan likened to Mexican posole.

After our large birthday lunch, we biked our way over to a Thai massage parlor. They are everywhere and hard to resist! Our muscles got twisted and stretched into loose submission. I looked over to see Nathan’s brutish looking masseuse pulling his arms back with all her might while Nathan winced. As we were getting dressed we realized that our masseuses were former prisoners that had participated in a job training program. That explains a few things…

Happy birthday Nathan!

Happy birthday Nathan!

And then there was cake. Not far from our hostel was the Fern Forest Cafe. It turns out the Thai love their cakes so we had plenty to choose from. We opted for a coconut cake with fresh coconut strips lying on top and a brownie with ice cream.

Mango sticky rice

Mango sticky rice

Night market lanterns

Night market lanterns

But when it’s your birthday, you can eat all the dessert you want. So that night we bought a final mango sticky rice at the Saturday market. Chiang Mai is particularly known for it’s Sunday market, so I was under the impression that the Saturday one would be rather small. I was completely wrong. It took us two hours to walk through the crowds while checking out the merchandise! Amazingly, there weren’t many vendors selling the same thing.

Dumplings at Sompetch

Dumplings at Sompetch

The following morning Nathan went on a nice healthy run while I slept in (this is usually the way it goes). On his way back he noticed people fighting for tables at a nearby restaurant. That was all it took for us to make it our choice for breakfast. And it was a good one! We enjoyed a variety of savory and delicious dumplings as well as some congee.

Temple roof outline at dusk

Temple roof outline at dusk

Our last day was filled with visiting the city museum and then the mother of Chiang Mai’s markets – the Sunday Walking Street. We were prepared for this one because of our experience at the Saturday market. As expected it was huge and glorious with shoppers shuffling en masse down the main drag of the old town. After perusing the goods and soaking in the vibrant atmosphere it was time for us to catch a bus. Goodbye Chiang Mai, it was wonderful to meet you!

Post Navigation