Archive for February, 2007

Happy (Chinese) New Year!

February 24, 2007

My wishes come about a week late, but that is okay because the party is still going strong here in China. I’ve been moving around pretty quickly during the New Year (the Chinese call it Spring Festival) and it has been interesting to see the regional differences and how each place rings in the “year of the pig.” The celebration is quite an event wherever you are, but you can pretty much count on bright neon lights and lots of the noise. Spring Festival is one of the few opportunities the Chinese get to travel and travel they do. There are said to be 4.5 million people taking trains per day during the New Year. I’ve joined in the fun (and chaos) visiting four cities in the past 10 days.

My first experience with the New Year was in Lijiang, a city in the Yunnan province of Southwest China. It is a beautiful old town with cobbled streets and historic architecture. The town is in the process of gentrification and seems to be losing some of its charm to cheesy tourist shops, but it is still a wonderful place to spend a few days especially with the excellent accomodations to be had in the town. I stayed at Mama Naxi’s guesthouse run by none other than Mama Naxi herself. It is organized chaos as Mama runs around referring to herself in the the third person while cooking, booking train tickets, and entertaining the guests. For dinner, the guests of the hostel sit around large tables as Mama brings plate after plate of delicious food. It was great to have other people to share the food with because in China people usually go out to dinner with large groups of people. I was actually denied entrance at a restaurant in Kunming because I was by myself! On the 18th, a special dinner was prepared with traditional foods for the New Year.

Though I appreciated the food at Mama Naxi’s, the noise was another matter. Even the fireworks seem to be louder here. At least they are colorful and fun to look at which is more than I can say for the firecrackers. Turn a corner in broad daylight and BAM! See a couple of innocent looking schoolchildren playing in the street and then BAM! The night of the 18th I felt like I was in a war zone. The firecrackers honestly did not stop; they are said to ward off all of the evil spirits for the upcoming year. I think Lijiang will be safe…

From Lijiang I took my first flight in China to the city of Chengdu in the Sichuan province. Sichuan is known for it’s spicy food, and I was actually introduced to this on my flight. Instead of peanuts, I got fiery hot dried tofu. Interesting was the word that came to mind. The flight was standard enough, but when we hit a little turbulence, the two girls sitting beside me put their head to their knees, closed their eyes, and blocked their ears as hard as they could. I think it was their first flight.

Anyway, Chengdu continued the party, mostly in terms of food. The “civilized tour block–a designated area for ‘good manners’ such as no spitting” had well over 300 food stall vendors selling everything imaginable from the 23 different provinces of China. Some highlights were spicy meat on a stick, a special noodle dish, rice cooked in bamboo, and an ice cream bar in the shape of a Panda. Speaking of Pandas, I saw them in the flesh at the breeding reserve just outside of the city. They are quite cute.

I would’ve liked to spend more time in Chengdu, if only for the hostel. For $3, you get a bed, free internet, free laundry, ping pong, and a movie room with hundreds of DVDs. If you ever make it to Chengdu, stay at Sim’s hostel. He is from Singapore and has a wealth of information about Chengdu and China.

From Chengdu, I boarded another flight to X’ian, a city many of the former dynasties called their capital. X’ian is a huge bustling metropolis. McDonalds, KFC, and Pizza Hut are all here in addition to Louis Vuitton, Versace, and Prada. X’ian’s most famous site is the Terracotta wariors which I found quite impressive. The warriors were discovered in the 70’s by peasants drilling a well, some 2000 years after they were built. X’ian is also noteworthy for its Muslim quarter where food is cheap and delicious. I ate everything, and think my stomach has finally built up an immunity to street food. There is also a mosque which was very interesting. No minarets here; like most things in China, it has been adapted in a decidedly Chinese way.

I now write from Pingyao after a 12 hour train ride. Pingyao is a good stop in the X’ian to Beijing journey and I plan on spending a couple of days here. It is an old city from the Ming Dynasty with all of its walls still intact. It’s more low key than X’ian and I’m looking forward to a day or two of relaxation before starting the big city tour going from Beijing to Hong Kong.

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Drinking Tea

February 21, 2007

Tea is serious business in China. In Kunming, the university quarter is a beautiful area lined with cozy cafes. I happened upon an upscale tea shop and decided to pop in armed only with my Mandarin phrasebook. After a brief browse of some very expensive teas, I was soon invited to sit down and sample some of what was on offer.

Two women began to prepare the tea in the most elaborate of manners. The process is all very ceremonius and probably involved well over 10 steps. The first step is to provide the guest with a miniature tea cup and the server must take care not to touch the cup (she used tongs). From there, the cups are first washed with hot water and then washed with tea. The tea must be washed before drinking. Eventually I was able to taste the tea and it was quite good. I took 5 sips and soon learned I should take three. Additionally, the forefinger and middlefinger should be placed under the glass. I learned these things as I failed hopelessly with my phrasebook.

After about about a half hour of tea drinking, my new friend Lingshuntao came to the rescue. He is a chemist by trade and very well versed in tea (and English). He was soon explaining the healing properties of Puer tea, the most sought after tea in Yunnan. Puer tea is a bit like wine, it ferments slowly and becomes better with age. It is starting to catch on all over the world, but the tea all comes from the Yunan province in China.

Another Chinese customer came in who was in the market for some tea and we were able to sample four different qualities. It was interesting to taste the different teas, though I think my palate needs a little bit of work. After about two hours, I said goodbye and “syair, syair” (thank you) and hopped on my bike to return to the hotel after a full day in Kunming, ready to board the overnight train to Dali.

Always Low Prices

February 15, 2007

Yes, that’s right. Walmart. When I saw the familiar sign (and slogan), I couldn’t help but check it out. Soon I was on an upward sloping escalator taking me to the first of four floors in what is the largest Walmart I’ve ever seen. To my left and right on the escalator were product after product in huge bins. There was also a woman with a microphone barking directions about what I presume to be the use of the escalator.

The first floor leads in with a fresh seafood area. The space is huge, complete with a U-shaped ice display and no less than 40 large live fish tanks. Moving out of the seafood area, I found every food imaginable. I laughed as I passed recognizable meat hanging from hooks–I guess Walmart has a different set of rules to play with in China. It was overwhelming how much food I was clueless about, but in true American style there were tasting stations set up for various places.

The second floor proved a bit more familiar with packaged foods. Kraft is everywhere. You can’t go far without seeing an oreo product in this part of the world. There were also displays on cooking popcorn and blending drinks. In China, they have infomercial type personalities armed with a headset and some sort of made for TV product. This isn’t reserved for only Walmart. Take a left down a sidestreet and you may here someone preaching the virtues (and demonstrating them) of a set of new knives.

I made it to the third floor before I began to get that feeling I usually have being in a Walmart. Exotic foods had given way to Procter and Gamble toiletry products and I decided to leave.

I probably spent a couple hours in Walmart, observing the people and picking up a few purchases. You can’t argue with their slogan. I paid a fourth of the price that I usually pay for a bottle of water here in China. It was probably an interesting time to visit as the Chinese New Year is upon us (February 18th).

As much as I don’t enjoy Walmart in the US, I was rather pleased with my experience in China. How did it all end you ask? I shot baskets at an arcade style basketball hoop set up outside of the store. It was plastered with photos of Yao Ming and as my score continued to rise, a growing crowd of Chinese onlookers watched with interest.

Only in China.

One Big Package Tour

February 13, 2007

After three weeks in Vietnam, I can honestly say I’ve enjoyed the country. Although it has taken me awhile to warm up to the people (it’s not like Thailand where everyone is always smiling at you), I’ve found once you break through the initial barrier and get away from the legions of people trying to sell you something, the people can be quite warm. In light of what our country was doing here just 40 years ago–this is remarkable.

Despite my improved view of the people, I’m still weary of giving independent travellers a wholehearted recommendation to visit the country. Travelling here is like One Big Package tour. Vietnam wants your tourist dollars, but they’ll tell you what to see, where to stay, and how to travel. Buses connect from Sagion-Mui Ne-Nha Trang-Hoi An-Hue-Hanoi. These buses take you to hotels owned by the bus companies and you are encouraged to stay there. Most of the time it is so convenient it is hard not to. From Hanoi, there are more package tours to Halong Bay and Sapa. After a while it feels like you are being herded around like sheep. And don’t get me wrong–sometimes the convenience of it all is quite nice. Some people love the packages, the tour buses and not having to think about what you’ll do next, where you’ll eat, etc. For me, it makes the travel less interesting. I loved my Halong Bay tour, but by the end playing the game “mafia” with 10 other native English speakers seemed out of place.

All of this is to say that if you like tours, you’ll love Vietnam. I don’t and think it is time for me to move on to a new country. My visa expires tomorrow so it is good timing. I’m headed to China by bus, where I’ll probably soon be yearning for the ease of travel that exists in Vietnam. I’m a bit nervous, but more excited. My first stop is the city of Kunming, a city of 4 million people.

A Gastronomic Tour of Hanoi

February 10, 2007

So I know I always write about food, but this time it is with good reason. Watching the Superbowl on Monday morning at the Hilton, I began speaking with a guy from Chicago who is working in Thailand as an executive chef at a four star hotel. He had also spent some time training in Vietnam.

After the game, we had similar plans–each of us needed to visit embassies to pick up visas. After obtaining our visas, we decided to explore the Old Quarter. Hanoi’s old quarter is a maze of streets that are named after the products and services you’ll find on them. There is a shoe street, a towel street, fruit street, etc. It’s a great place to get lost, explore and see the city at work as you try to keep yourself in one piece by dodging the motos that whiz by. There are said to be 4 million people in Hanoi and 2.5 million motos. I believe it. Making matters worse is that sidewalks are more accurately described as store fronts. There is little room for pedestrians.

But enough about traffic problems and onto the food. One particular street of interest for Adam and I was Cha ca street. Cha ca is a fish dish that consists of fresh rice noodles, dill, spring onion, scallions, coriander, peanuts, and mom tom–an incredibly smelly shrimp sauce. The fish is fried with turmeric root giving it a nice yellow color. According to Adam, the traditional way of eating Cha ca is to cook everything yourself in a pot of hot oil presented table side. Just 10 months ago, this is how he sampled Cha ca at the very restaurant we were sitting in. Back then the food stall had a dirt floor and simple wood tables; now it is an elegant restaurant catering to the growing tourist market and the waiter prepares the dish. Things are changing fast in Vietnam.

Prior to our Cha ca experience, we stopped for Bun cho (sp?), another dish employing fresh rice noodles. Instead of fish, marinated pork is grilled and then served in a bowl with other greens. At less than 75 cents, it proved once again that the best way to eat in Vietnam is on the street.

Touring the markets with a knowledgeable chef was a great way to get a sense of the food and culture. Once you know what something is you are much more inclined to try it. And I want to know what everything is in Vietnam. They eat dog on a fairly regular basis. I actually saw a dog get sold for this very purpose, but that is the less appealing side of Vietnam cuisine and I’ll save that story for another time.

We rounded of our day of eating with some excellent Vientnamese coffee at two different places. I’m not a big coffee drinker, but it is some of the strongest and best I’ve had. Looking back, a lackluster Superbowl Monday turned into a pretty good day, although I’m still bitter about the Pats. There is no way Rex Grossman never would have beaten Brady and company.

Tailor Made

February 1, 2007

With Courtney’s departure imminent, we decided to take a few days to relax in Hoi An, a UNESCO world heritage site in the central part of Vietnam.  We had read and heard about the tailoring industry that the town has become famous for, but on the bus ride we each casually mentioned that we probably we would not purchase anything.  Funds were getting tight, right?

On our third day in Hoi An, we weren’t shopping for clothes but rather a bag to put them in!  Each of us sampled having an item or two made before deciding it was worthwhile to get more.  All told, I have a new suit, a new jacket, 5 shirts, four ties, sandals, and a new pair of dress shoes.  How much for all this?  Just about $300.  The experience of the process is great too.  I had Courtney, two Vietnamese girls, and the tailor sizing me up during the various fittings for my clothes.  Even better, the company has my measurements in their database just in case I decide I’d like more stuff. 

When we weren’t shopping, we biked around the town visting museums, old houses, and pagodas.   Of course we also sampled some of the regional dishes that Hoi An is famous for.  My favorite was cao lao which you can read about here.  

Hoi An was a pleasant place with good food, nice clothes and a laid back feel–they’ve even outlawed touting! (a policy that would be welcome in the rest of Vietnam)  I’d recommend it to anyone making a visit to Vietnam.