4 feet 2 mouths

walking and eating our way around the world

Archive for the tag “Small City”

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…

Post Navigation