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China

I’m a wordy person.  If you read this blog, you already realize that. If you’ve ever had an actual conversation with me, you’d realize it’s the same long winded kind of storytelling.  A few friends have asked if I put up all my pictures that don’t appear here with snarky captions, so here we go.  As I travel, I have already seen people losing pictures and files when physical items get misplaced so I’ve decided to back up all my pictures on Flickr.

I’m joining Fiickr like it’s the mid 2000’s: Travel Photos.

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Unlike Seoul, which I knew nothing about, I’d only heard negative things prior to arriving in Beijing.  I’d been told to expect heavy pollution causing Beijing to appear a dirty city.  The combined sandstorms and grit of 20 million people definitely shows.  It is a city overrun with people in every way possible.  The roads, the subways, the sidewalks are just crowded with people.  While looking for art and music in Shanghai, I was told Beijing was more of the cultural seat of China.  Unfortunately I decided to check out the heavily commercialized and completely regrentrified 798 gallery area.  This was no better than the stale art I saw in Shanghai and I wish I had more time to look for what else was there.  I would advise skipping the walkthrough with forced street art and galleries that had a depressing sameness.  My one high point was catching a Jean Francois Rauzier exhibit, but he is a French artist that I found in LA and has nothing to do at all with Beijing.  His hyperphotos stitch together so many high resolution photos to create what looks like a real life M.C. Escher, surreal and unsettling with its photo elements.

An ancient city being swallowed up by the cranes of an ever growing modern city.

I did eat well this week.  Like any huge metropolitan area, Beijing had its fair mix of international foods.  Beijing is a hub of delicious Peking duck and wheat products.  The surprising Beijing food for me was all the dairy products.

Available at many small corner stores where you see rows of empties with straws piercing the paper cover. You drink the yogurt in front of the store and return the container.

There is Beijing drinking yogurt, shown in the picture above, which is a gritty thick drink with a slight sweetness.  I liked it but I preferred the fresh milk pudding that was a bit harder to find.  I’m told you make it by boiling milk, skimming the skin that forms, and pressing these skins to form the pudding.  It has a very fresh milk taste.  I’ve always thought Chinese people dislike dairy, and I’ve only seen tofu like pressed cheeses thus far, so it’s very exciting to see so many delicious fresh milk products.

The food was delicious but I’m still in no rush to get back to explore more of Beijing.  I feel like I barely saw it yet I am not itching to see more.  t is a city full of people getting things done running a country full of people getting things done.

I had to sneak in one last Seoul joke.  I had a choice between a quick flight to Beijing or two train rides and a ferry.  Guess which one I chose!  I’ve taken a sleeper bus and a sleeper train.  It’s time for the sleeper ferry.  In America, ferries are small boats that take about 50 people from a short distance to another.  Nope, this was closer to a cruise ship with multiple restaurants, karaoke room, theater showing Closer (really?), and convenience store.

Like the Carnival cruise I went on once, this ferry had gaudy statues. Unlike that cruise, this was in the middle of the ship and not in the "Beauties" club and was surrounded by Asians taking pictures.

I love sailing but I don’t do so often because I suffer from awful seasickness.  Luckily this was a huge boat and I felt great the entire time.  I got into a room with 50+ bunks with curtains to give you privacy and electronic outlets.  This is way superior to the 15 or so Tatami mat rooms where everyone sleeps like sardines.  Compared to the buses and trains, this was the best sleeper option yet with the most room, but also the most expensive.  I settled in for some sea gazing in the strong cloudy wind and for lots of book reading and instant ramen.  I recommend bringing instant ramen, fruit, tea and a thermos to hold hot water for travel in sleeper trains and ferries in China.  Boiling hot water seems to be available at most bus and train stations and on most trains and ferries.

I was told as a kid to never take candy from a stranger.  We’re taught a lot of things as kids to protect us.  While on the ferry, I was across the bunk from an old Korean guy in a big old tour group.  He approached me while I was reading in my bunk and said something in Korean.  Of note, only two people the entire trip tried to talk to me in Korean, unlike everyone who thought I was Korean in Laos.  My bunk mate returned a short while later and said “I buy you ice cream!”  I politely told him no multiple times.  He sat down on his bunk, and a while later offered me what I assume was candy.  I declined this as well.  An hour or so later he came to my bunk waving two popsicles.  When I declined again, he just threw one on my stomach and walked away.  It was a wrapped Lotte brand popsicle.  I stared at it for a bit wondering what the heck to do.  Finally, my refusal to waste perfectly good ice cream won and I happily ate it.  I never saw my bunk mate face to face again as we landed the next morning, but I am thankful.  Awful things do happen but I am constantly wonderfully surprised by the random acts of kindness I receive from strangers all over the world.

Good bye Seoul, you were lovely. On the flip side, I'm on a boat!

From one cold foggy big city I landed in another, Qingdao.  My first sight was the cranes arching over rising high rise buildings, the beacon of modern China.  Imagine my surprise when I arrived at the train station at a huge magnificent European style train station.  Qingdao was occupied by Germans for a lot of the 1900s (even pre world wars) and therefore has colonial architecture and is the home of the famous Tsingtao beer.  Sadly, I did not realize Tsingtao is the best or at least representative of the quality of Chinese beer.  Sorry China, Laos has you way beat.  I don’t think I could’ve captured the charm of the city with its beaches, colonial architecture and Sea World rip off.

I only stayed a few hours before catching a high speed train to Beijing.  Although there are multiple trains a day, all the soon to leave ones were sold out of economy seats.  Given the choice between five hours in business class or seatless, I would have to say a seat sounds way  better.  The train was surprisingly non-smoking, courteous and quick.  I would recommend it.  I had originally chosen the ferry route to get some downtime to myself and it was supposed to be half as expensive.  Due to rising costs (138,000 KRW) and the unexpected train ticket addition, it ended up being the same price as the flight.  Still totally worth it and I would do it the same way all over again.

Overlooking a lush tea mountain jungle.

Shortly after the wedding (all of one day) my tour guide friends got back to work.  We went on a tea tour adventure into the tea mountains of the Pu’er area.  Pu’er tea is a protected area famous for an earthy dry fermented tea that gets better as it ages.

We were rather delayed out first day and barely got out by night to the town we needed to be in.  At dinner we met a young guide who offered to take us to his tea village the next day.  We met him at 8 am the next day and should’ve realized something was wrong when he showed up drunk because he was drinking til 5.  He took us to some mediocre tea before telling us he was going to take us on motorbikes out to a remote are.  That damned drunk kid only got half the bikes necessary and stranded a few of us in the village.  When we finally got bikes to get out there, we realized it was just base camp and we had no idea which mountain he went up.  Luckily some villagers were there and we foraged some greens and enjoyed a lunch of squirrel or tree rodent with them.  I wish I was kidding, they argued about whether it was a tree rodent or squirrel for a while.  A villager came back later with a musket-like gun you need to load from the front.

Picking tea on a bamboo stilt ladder on the hill.

The upside, besides the beautiful lush hill, was getting to see some old tea trees.  They  may not look big but these trees are hundreds of years old.  The motorbike ride was rather adventurous as they were mountain bike style single track trails.  The bikes are generally old in this region as well so I honestly felt like I was on the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland as we slipped all over the place.  At one point my tour guide friends even said “I think we’re out of luck.  Go one without us!”

Luckily the next few days were the more peaceful tea mountain experience I was looking for.  We stopped back in the big town for a night to head in a different direction.  Next stop: minority villages who made different types of tea.

Bulang minority women singing while picking tea leaves on a hill overloooking the village.

The singing was beautiful and I imagine the hills were alive with the sound of music.  The Bulang and the Aini/Akha people we visited both had wonderful singing voices.  I’m not sure if I could get used to the bitter Bulang style tea though.

They carry the tea leaves in big baskets on their back or small ones at their side. The Aini/Akha people carry heavy things with a huge strap on the head.

The thing to remember is that even though they are in rural villages, many of the younger kids are growing up with modern times and leaving to bigger and better places.

You still use cell phones even in traditional garb. The costumes are mostly used for holidays and festivals now.

Processing the tea takes three steps.  It appears different regions grow different types of tea that require different processes to bring out their flavors.

Step one, cut a hole in your giant wood fired stove box. Put a giant wok into the hole, then fry up some tea leaves to dry them out a little. Not too much because Pu'er tea ferments.

Step two, roll the hot steamy leaves in a circular fashion until they get all rolled up into compact twists.

Step three, dry the leaves on giant baskets under the sun.

So why do I call this trip posh?

No one around me understood the irony of this statement on such a crappy bike.

I’ve returned to China to visit my friend’s wedding in her rural village.  I met her weeks ago in my last trip to Xishuangbanna and promised to return when I heard a pig was being fattened for the feast.  Although most of China is Han Chinese (what you’re probably used to seeing), there are 56 minority groups living in the country.  My friend is Jinuo and her fiancé is Yi.  We got to enjoy the drinking customs and dances of both.  I’ll let the photos show the rest of the two days we attended.  It was quite the feast and party.

I’m currently in the midst of a wedding in a minority area of China and learning how to say “Cheers” in so many languages.  Here are the ones I’ve learned or used in the last week:

Chinese: Gan bai (dry cup, meaning finish the darned thing)

Dai (the language used in Xishuangbanna/this wedding): Swae, usually said in 2 or 6.  So we’ve been saying “Swae, swae, swae swae swae, SWAE!”

Aini: Suh (used liked the Dai Swae)

Bulang: Lai

Jinou: Chee bue duh (in Chinese, it sounds like “I don’t remember)

Lao: Nyeok.  My Lao friend says it is often said as “Nyeok Nyeok”, which is some sort of Lao innuendo sound.

Thai (northern?): Lewm

It's a fuzzy picture, but that seems right for an alcohol fueled wedding.

I’m not just learning drinking words either.  My favorite language quirk I’ve learned this week is what people say to get camera targets to smile.  In America we tell people to say “Cheese!”  We tried this in Brazil but no one knew what we were talking about.  In this area of China, they say “eggplant” to get people to smile.  That’s not nearly as amusing as my new Thai friends who told me they tell people to say “Pepsi”.  Pepsi cola has no idea that they’re missing out on the best marketing campaign full of smiling Thai people.

One of the most common questions I get when catching up to people about my travels is “What are you eating?”  As evident on this blog, I do spend a lot of time thinking about food.  For the last few weeks, ever since I got into southern China, the most common answer is rice noodles.  There is a bit of sticky rice now that I’m in Laos and plenty of steamed rice and buns in China, but the dish that comes up again and again is rice noodles.

In America, the closest we see to this style of rice noodles is Vietnamese pho.  The basic idea is the same; you get a pile of rice noodles in a meat based soup broth that you then adorn with other things.  In Kunming, their variation was the across the bridge noodles where you throw everything in to be cooked in the boiling hot soup covered in a layer of oil.  In Dali, there were huge blocks of rice flour that they used a grater to pull long thing noodles off of.  In Xishuangbanna, things got more pho like but the soup was sometimes flavored more strongly like a Chinese beef noodle soup.  The common toppings were ground meat, bok choy or other green, pickled mustard plant, various brown sauces (hot bean paste/soy/unidentified things), and chile pastes.

Rice noodles at the Luang Namtha morning market. There was a pile of ground meat on top but I forgot to take a picture before I mixed it all in.

Once I got into Laos, rice noodles got even more pho like with a light broth, bean sprouts and lots of fresh herbs and greens to put into my soup.  The differences this time were the pleasant additions of fish sauce and pickled chiles.  I am pleased to find out they use the same brand of fish sauce I do back home: Squid brand.  I suspect it might be the cheapest most readily available brand.  Good enough for everyone here is good enough for me in America.  I’ll have to do another rice noodle comparison when I get into Vietnam.