It was damn cold in southwestern China on April 20th, 2010

Barley Bread and Yak Butter Tea

I could go for some yack butter tea and barley bread right now. Really. We were served the version with honey and not salt, although the yak butter was quite salty, which made a nice balance. The tea, made from smoked leaves of a Tibetan bush, is rumored to give the body strength and energy and warm the soul during cold days and nights. 

It’s a little crazy that at this time last year we were there in a hauntingly beautiful valley in southwestern China.  And it was damn cold. I remember looking for some warm clothes in Chengdu the day before we set out for Jiuzhaigou . We bought a bunch of warm socks (I still have them) and a few fleece jackets. We thought that would be enough. We had no idea how much colder Jiuzhaigou , China is at this time of year. Let’s see, while I’m typing this it’s 11:36 pm there. The sun will be up in 6 hours there. It is 58F today there with thunderstorms. We woke up the second day we were there to snow covered mountains.

Looking outside, it’s hard to believe the winter is over here, but it is. I’ve been running by blooming trees and flowers for over two weeks. Supposedly it’ll get to the low 70’s here today and sunny, while it’s expected to hit 97F in my hometown of San Antonio, TX. Weather is crazy. If we think too hard, we may get overwhelmed with all the crazy variations of weather around the globe right at this moment. Traveling makes you think about these things more often. I’m often wondering what it’s like in some tiny little place we were at a year ago. And with the proliferation of data and the power of the internet, it’s fairly easy to check and be aware at any time of day what is is, wherever. 

I remember the 12 hour bus ride up, which followed the river valleys for almost the entire way to the Tibetan valley of Jiuzhaigou, that is now and increasingly overrun by Han Chinese. If you are middle-class or upper-middle class, heading to Jiuzhaigou sometime in your life has become the thing to do. Our bus trip following the gorges and rivers, passed over the damns and rock quarry’s that supply a lot of the raw material for the vast Sichuan province. Here and there signs of the 2008 Earthquake that rent homes and lives lay amidst new towns and buildings. 

Jiuzhaigou has become a modern day wild west tourist destination and we hopped from the bus to taxi and were hustled down the main road, whistling past new restaurants and hotels that have sprung up over the last 15 years ending at a small village just outside the town.

It was in the hands and open arms of a Tibetan family that we had some of our most remarkable moments in China. The villagers there live with a mix of very old and traditional houses with a few modern amenities. Stark is an understatement. One of the houses we slept in had an outdoor toilet, a hole between old wooden boards, off the edge of the house, a 20 foot drop to the pile below. Wind whistles through the slats. The man that lives there was in his late 70’s, at least. 

But the love and embrace of life there is something I’ll never forget. And thinking back to that time, I get a little warmer thinking of the time we spent with that wonderful family and village. When Lo San the young cousin of our host was gently coaxed by his grandmother inside. 

So, today I took a walk through our not so distant past. Here Lo San, being a terrible two monster of a child looks up into my lens. 

His dad watches proudly while Lo San gets up to something else.

Then we huddle inside, warmed by the fire and the yak butter tea, some relishing it while others look upon with disdain and anxiety. 

Over that 24 hours that was this day one year ago, when looking back over the imagery, it looks as if we floated through the minutes. The day passed here while we went to bed and then rose early to walk the valley and national park in Jiuzhaigou. Here Tracie ponders the stunning quiet found in the noise of a bank of low waterfalls.

We walked a good amount of the length of the park, hopping on the constant hum of trams full of chinese tourists, here and there. We wanted to get our money worth at $50 US each for one day in the park. We strolled for about six hours. 

 

Birds gorged themselves by the dribbling streams

 

Phantoms arose from the mineral lakes

 

And slight changes in perspective, would change everything you saw

 

 

We were welcomed back to the Tibetan village by the prayers on the wind

 

With thoughts of that day we plunge into today.

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The Bagel Lady of Beijing: Part One

Since we’ve returned from our travels abroad, it’s been a whirlwind month of reflection, visiting friends and planning our future. One of the main reasons we set out into the great blue yonder was to gather inspiration for a few ideas that have been rumbling around in our heads. We wanted to visit people on the other side of the world who had similar values or intentions. While we were on our way, Tracie’s sister Sannie emailed us and reminded us that since we were headed to Hong Kong we should really try and meet up with King and Margaret, Tracie’s aunt and uncle’s close friends. Sannie gave us the number and while we were there we called them and asked if they wanted to meet up.

As you know , one thing led to another and King and Margaret pointed us in the right direction for several people to talk to and visit with during our trip. They understood our intentions for the future and got our vision. Like that they put us in contact with Lejen Chen, the Bagel Lady, in Beijing, China. They told us we should look her up when we got there and Margaret even sent off a polite introduction via email. But Beijing was a long way off from Hong Kong. So, we didn’t move too much towards setting up our meeting. We kind of put it off. And that’s too bad, because we only had one lovely day with her. One day was enough, however, to give us a new perspective of what Beijing could be.

We’d been down and out on Beijing. Hating it, in fact. It’s huge. Everything is built to intimidate and control. It all started with the Forbidden city some 600 years ago. To give you an idea of how huge it is, we spent a whole morning there and we only got to the interior wall of the palace – we didn’t even make it to the living quarters. And there are wide expanses of granite or slate pavement that batters your knees and sears your brow. I can imagine a little bit how it must have felt to foreign dignitaries that arrived at the gates. Awestruck is an understatement.

But there is this emptiness to Beijing’s scale and growth. While the history is there in the Forbidden city and other sites around the city, it’s also crumbling as you head to the metro. Vast blocks of centuries-old neighborhoods are leveled while you sleep off your dumplings from the evening before. We wondered if there was any kind of cultural preservation. It seems that everyone and everything is all about making the fastest buck. Nothing slows down. Its all crushing, bearing down on you, hard to breathe.

Then we received a phone call from Lejen, that she was back in town and was going to be available one of the days we had left before we headed out of China. So Tracie put her head down and mapped out a course of action for navigating the Beijing bus system to make our way out past the 3rd ring road where Lejen’s restaurant, Mrs. Shanen’s, sits.

Interior Dining Room at Mrs. Shanen’s

It’s in a mostly expatriate area. I mean, who else would be looking for a bagel? Not the Chinese you’d expect, but she has built a local clientele base, some of whom have “pioneered different preparation techniques” from frying to dredging in sesame paste and butter1. The restaurant is a roadside cafe sitting out in desolate surroundings amidst new outcroppings of expat gated communities and industrial parks. Never judge a book by its cover or its location.

The dining room was one of the most relaxing we set foot into in China. She’s definitely created an oasis in the middle of a desert. It has the vibe of quiet and ancient meditation while still maintaining a upbeat contemporary European look. Step in from the road to fresh lemonade, Arnold Palmers, grass fed burgers, chocolate cake, bagels, Fair Trade coffee and delectable Chinese teas.

Lovely tea sets rest during a lull on the service station shelves

 

Tracie’s Lemonade

My Arnold Palmer

There is nothing like stepping out of the Beijing heat into a quiet American style cafe. Forget the culture shock of China, welcome to the culture shock of little America in China. But Mrs. Shanen’s and Lejen Chen are beyond satisfying an expatriate community in China. They are also enriching a culture that seems lost and a partial reflection of what it could be. Lejen has found a way to fill a need and spread little flowers while she does it, figuratively and literally.

Mrs. Shanen’s is one part of Lejen Chen and her husband Shan En ventures into bringing wholesome good food to Beijingers, expats and locals alike. She launched the bagel factory back in 1996 and has grown the cafe and now is successfully running an organic farm and CSA to boot. As we left the cafe to go visit the farm I remarked on a room off to the side that seemed setup just for kids and she said “Yea, we’re thinking of turning that into a pizza joint…maybe.”

1In
the Industrial Back Alleys of Beijing, a Little Bit of Gotham, Any
Wu, April 19, 1999 Nytimes. 
http://www.nytimes.com/1999/04/18/business/business-in-the-industrial-back-alleys-of-beijing-a-little-bit-of-gotham.html?scp=1&sq=lejen%20chen%20bagels%20in%20back%20alley%20of%20beijing&st=cse

 

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Beijing Is Not Our Best Friend

What can I say about Beijing? Honestly, I'm finding it hard to say something nice about it at the moment. It's HUGE and that's an understatement. The city is on such a monumental, grand scale that it made me feel like I was the most insignificant speck. Every day we were there we walked for hours and we felt like we had gotten nowhere. Blocks of government buildings have been built to intimidate and impress, not to be useful and inviting. Everything's spread out and the city map we had made the distances seem deceivingly short. The traffic (that we've mentioned previously) is horrendous and frustrating and practically unavoidable. There's a neverending tide of people in every conceivable means of transport and on foot. Every major intersection here makes Shibuya seem like child's play because it's literally a free-for-all.

Everywhere we went we were unbelievably frustrated. Take for instance our visit to the Forbidden City. Thinking we'd be clever and to save some time, we decided to take the bus. We got to the end of the line and realized we were at the southern end of Tiananmen Square, not the northern end. All we wanted was to cross the giant ten lane boulevard, either to walk up Tiananmen Square (about 880 meters on one side) or to take a different bus back. We walked around the bus area for literally ten minutes and we could not find any way to cross the boulevard. So we gave up and took the subway (it only had an exit on the northern side of the boulevard if you paid), which took another half an hour to just get to the stop closest to the Forbidden City and was still another twenty minute walk (I am not joking) just to the entrance of the damned place.

By then we were already running out of steam and we were getting run over by hordes of tourists. To us it just seemed like the Forbidden City was a bunch of wide open, weedy open spaces with no places to sit and imposing imperial style buildings in various states of disrepair. Maybe it should be renamed the “Forbidding City”. After walking for another half an hour we finally found some benches in the shade to nap on, and we decided it wasn't worth hanging around so we left to get some food. I had a bunch of restaurant listings and I vaguely knew the street where it was located so we hopped back on the subway. Lo and behold, the restaurant was on the top floor of a crappy mall and of course you had to take eight levels of escalators. Not only did we get stuck behind a family trying to haul a wheelchair up the escalators, we then discovered the restaurant was gone! (Did I mention that this was one giant CCF?)

We took another bus back to the neighborhood where the hostel was and tried to find a place to eat. Finally deciding on one, we sat down and tried to order. You'd think it would have been easy enough, the menu had pictures and all we had to do was point. Of course, the waitress insisted on thinking that I spoke Chinese and kept blabbing on even though I was like “I DON'T SPEAK CHINESE JUST STOP OK??!!” I threw my hands up in despair, we finally got our food, we drank beer. Before we were halfway done they shut off half the lights in the restaurant. We resigned ourselves to the fact that visiting the Forbidden City was a big fail and collapsed back at the hostel.

Almost every day in Beijing had been a comedy (or horror, from our point of view) of errors like that. Every time we felt just confident enough with the buses we would get totally screwed. We took a bus to visit a farm on the outskirts of the city, but of course we accidentally took an express bus (not that there were any signs or indicators there was a difference) that completely bypassed the neighborhood altogether and we had to flag down a cab on a desolate highway. Even getting back to the airport was a nightmare, the bus we took when we first arrived didn't pick up in the same location and didn't even drop off at the terminal we needed to be at. That was another twenty minute shuttle bus ride from where we got off! Luckily we left FIVE hours early for the airport, it ended up being just enough time.  When we've given up on public transportation in exasperation, empty cabs would pass us by, eject us because we weren't going in the direction that the cabbie wanted to go in, or would drop us blocks from the location we wanted to be at because they didn't feel like it. Wayne and I have gotten used to looking at each other, rolling our eyes, and saying “CCF!”

I could go on with the examples (oh wait did I mention the chunks of raw chicken in my curry noodles?) but I think you get the idea. We've had low level annoyances and difficulties in other parts of China on this trip but we've more than managed. We've been able to say, that's not a big deal, we can work through it and brush it off. But for some reason in Beijing it was happening so often that we had a hard time putting a smile on our faces again. I honestly have a hard time understanding how anyone could live here long term, it seems like you develop coping mechanisms to the point where you just don't notice anything anymore. Of course we've had some good experiences – hiking the Great Wall, sharing meals with old and new friends, visiting the Green Cow Farm – but this time the bad has outweighed the good. We were not sad at all about leaving Beijing, we were totally ready to say “Zai jian zhong guo!” and “Ciao Italia!” instead.

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Epic Traffic

You can’t talk about China without talking about the traffic. We’ve
only been in Beijing for a few days and already we’ve been in multiple
traffic jams of epic proportions, where nobody moves for an hour and
everybody is just honking. Yesterday we were stuck on a bus for forty
minutes at a single intersection, we moved no more than a hundred
feet. And it’s not like we could have gotten off and walked, we were
miles from our destination because everything in this city is so
spread out.

Our acupuncturist friends have dubbed situations like this as “CCF”
(China Cluster Fuck), and there’s really no other way to describe it.
Wayne’s already written about how terrible and crazy the drivers are
here, and it’s been true everywhere we went. But the problems in
Beijing are magnified because of the sheer number of vehicles on the
road (apparently the statistic is that 1,000 new cars hit the road
EVERY DAY in this city) and the fact that no one follows any traffic
rules. For instance, we’re not really sure what the cause was of the
traffic jam we were stuck in yesterday. But a bunch of drivers got
impatient because traffic wasn’t moving, so they pulled into the lanes
of oncoming traffic. Which of course blocked everything up even worse
for far longer. A couple of drivers even drove up onto the sidewalk
and started honking at the pedestrians to get out of the way!

It’s not like you can avoid the traffic on the subway either. There
are just so many people crammed into the cars that you can barely
breathe or even get off at your stop. Even with all the new subway
lines, it doesn’t seem to fulfill people’s need for getting around the
city. Most expats that we’ve talked to swear by their bicycles, and
that the only way to get anywhere remotely on time is to ride.

Unfortunately it seems like people here feel like they “need” cars,
and it’s understandable given the distances between things and the
uncomfortable ride on public transport. But unleashing huge numbers of
new (bad) drivers onto the road with no apparent plans for traffic
calming just seems like the craziest, ass-backwards thing to do. I
feel like there had been an opportunity to do something totally
innovative with urban planning and transportation given that ten years
ago the city was mostly filled with bicycles and that there weren’t
any legacy systems that had to be dealt with. But instead it seems
like it’s a headlong rush into crappy car culture that’s just going to
get worse and worse. It makes me appreciate New York so much more –
and the next time there’s a twenty minute delay on the subway, I am
going to thank my lucky stars that I’m not stuck on a bus in a two
hour traffic jam in Beijing.

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All the Tea in China

What is an experience in China without tea? We arrived back in Beijing and we tagged along with some American acupuncturists to visit a tea shop and we learned more about tea in one afternoon than I think we've known in our entire lives. The shop is owned by a family that grows, harvests and packages their own oolong leaves in Fujian province, but they also carry other types of teas like green tea and pu'er. They were the most gracious people and we sampled more than ten teas for four hours! It very much had the feel of a wine tasting without the getting-drunk part. Here's a bit of what we learned.

First off, there are many varieties of tea that come from different plants, and within that different grades. By tasting them side by side, we really got a sense of the different flavors and mouthfeels. You have to follow different brewing times and methods depending on the type of tea. In general, you do not soak the leaves for very long, and you drain the steeped water into a separate glass teapot. One brew/pour of the leaves is called a pao, and how many paos you can get out of a batch of leaves is dependent upon the quality of the tea. You also need the right equipment – those giant English teapots will not do, you need much smaller ceramic teapots or containers to do the initial brewing and small glass teapots to hold the brewed tea. If you do acquire one of the small ceramic pots, you must keep it soaked on a regular basis to keep the pot in good condition, and it gets better with age and usage. 

All tea (except pu'erh) should be stored in airtight containers in the freezer to preserve freshness, and this should keep the tea for about two years. Check the date of harvest to make sure you're buying the freshest tea possible!

Oolong
Oolong tea is a relatively light tasting tea, somewhere in between black tea and green tea. Generally it comes from Fujian province or Taiwan. We tried four varieties of oolong, Golden Guanyin, two grades of Iron Guanyin (roasted over heat), and one baked oolong. The high quality Iron Guanyin was hands down our favorite, as it had a nice balance of fragrance and smoothness. It's also the tea that the tea shop family prefers to drink in their home. Golden Guanyin had a strong fragrant aroma and was more astringent, but apparently smokers and other people who have no tastebuds prefer that one. The baked oolong is preferred mostly by old people as it has less caffeine. Oolong is harvested twice a year, once in May and once in October. The May harvest is considered more fragrant while the October harvest is smoother and more highly valued.
Brewing temp: Boiling water

Brewing method: Use the ceramic cup with a lid, it's about the size and shape of a regular cup. Use about 3 tablespoons of leaves or so. DO NOT drink the first pao, you must rinse the leaves first. Wait about 40 seconds after the first pao before you do the next pao, and make sure all the water has been drained out after each pao. On the second and subsequent paos, wait a few seconds and then pour the brewed tea out into the glass teapot and serve. You can get about 8 paos out of good quality Oolong. Also, you can keep the cap on the ceramic container at an angle.

Green Tea (Dragonswell)
The higher quality dragonswell tea comes from up in the mountains, as the air quality is better. The first harvest of the year on Ching Ming (around April 5th) produces the best and most expensive tea, and as the season goes on the price and quality gets cheaper. We definitely preferred the higher quality mountain tea as it was less astringent. Green tea is considered to have cooling properties, so too much can damage your stomach. It's good to drink in the summer, and you can do a cold steep in spring water overnight in the fridge.
Brewing temp: 70 degrees celsius (boil water and set aside for a few minutes before pouring over the leaves)
Brewing method: Use an open container, like a tall glass, as covering the tea leaves will cook them and change the flavor. So don't cover it! You don't need to rinse the leaves the first time either. Steep for a minute or two and drain. 

Jasmine tea is considered a rather common and cheap tea, as any kind of tea leaf can be used to make it and it's processed, thus not as pure. It doesn't really come in grades, rather just in strength – strong or mild. The tea leaves are sent to Guanxi for the fermentation process because the tea leaves have to be mixed with the jasmine flowers at the flowers' peak freshness and those flowers from Guanxi are held as the most fragrant in all of China. The tea leaves and flowers are smothered together and then baked to remove the fluid. The jasmine tea actually came off as too flowery after trying the oolong. It was almost bubble gum like in flavor and aroma after tasting the oolongs.
Brewing temp: boiling water
Brewing method: Use about two grams of leaves in a small ceramic teapot. It's a short steep,similar to oolong, but it's a bit more forgiving. make sure you cover it when you're steeping. You can probably get about six paos out of one batch of leaves.
This is a dark, fermented tea that gets better with age unlike the previous teas – it's like the Barolo of the tea world, with less risk. The tea leaves come from Yunnan province, the one we purchased was from the Xishuangbanna area in southern Yunnan. It has a strong, yet smooth flavor and can be the most expensive – the older the tea, the more expensive it gets. To save money, you can buy a raw pu'erh and save it for a few years (at least three). It comes in two varieties, raw and cooked, and it's sun dried so this gives pu'erh a particular flavor. It absorbs odors, so make sure you don't store it in the kitchen. Anywhere else will do, literally a corner of your living room is alright. It's a great tea to serve to guests, because it lasts for many paos (15 times for raw, 25 times for cooked) so you can drink it all day and not change the leaves. Pu'erh is also good for your health as it reputedly lowers cholesterol, and it's excellent for old people to drink and to drink in the winter, as it's considered to have warming properties. 
Brewing temp: boiling water
Brewing method: Use a small ceramic teapot and do two rinses before you start drinking. In the first two rinses, make sure the chunks of tea leaves are broken up so that the water steeps evenly. Also, do not pour the tea out from very high. Do NOT cover the teapot when you steep, and it's a quick steep like oolong (a few seconds). Only use the cover to pour the tea out into the clear glass teapot, make sure you drain all the water and uncover the ceramic pot after you're done pouring. 

The name of the tea shop is Lin Xiu Ji, it's located in the tea street. (they picked us up in a van so I really have no idea how to get there.) Their cell number is 1339 197 8916, but no one who answers the phone really speaks English. You can also email them at LinYuanYuanguhuJY@yahoo.com.cn, the person who checks that email address speaks some English.

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Shanghai with no expectations, Part One.

It’s not often one gets a chance to stay in a Tibetan home-stay on the Northwestern edge of Sichaun Province in the Wild West of China. It’s even less often that you then travel across country by train and sleeper car by way of a two days of travel and land in a luxurious “serviced” apartment of someone you’ve only heard about and emailed with, but apparently that is what is possible in this day and age of internet and meeting up with friends of friends. It’s made us realize just how small this world truly is, where a couple from Brooklyn, NY, can travel nearly around the world hosted by a diverse crowd of welcoming strangers.

So, into Shanghai we arrived with little expectations. Sure, some had told us it was too shih-shih and others had labeled it boring. But, after traveling through Hong Kong and Singapore, we figured we should give one of the most important port cities in modern history a chance.

While we were staying with Tracie’s Aunt’s friends in Hong Kong, they mentioned their mutual friend Rose that we should try to meet up with if we had a chance in Shanghai. King said, “..Rose is kind of a foodie…she knows a lot of great places and is always the one I call up when I have questions about where to eat…I think you’ll like Rose…”  We put her in the back of the mind and headed for Southwest China. Our mission was China and Food with a capital F. Sichuan treated us well and when we headed back East we crossed our fingers and hoped for the best.

Before landing in Shanghai, we spoke with Rose only once. We said, “Hi Rose, yea, this is Wayne and Tracie and we’re leaving Jiuzhaigou today and we hope to arrive in Shanghai in two days.” She said, Oh, ok, well you have my cell, call me when you get into Shanghai and I’ll email you all the information for how to get to my place.

We took a flight out of Jiuzhaigou, one of the smallest airports I would expect fromChina and landed in Xi’an. We hopped on a bus from the airport to the main rail station and haggled with the masses and managed ourselves some soft-seat sleepers on the overnight to Shanghai. Way easier than last time. We knew what to do: we wrote down the Chinese characters for everything and when pronunciation failed the flash of the ol’ script got us on our merry way. Well, not exactly, we had to linger around for 3 and a half hours for our next train, so we wandered around the station (loaded with our bags) and finally found a place to eat. It was ok, nothing compared to food in Sichuan and we marched back to the station, dodging a few pick-pockets here and there and settled into a cozy soft-seat waiting area.

As an aside to my aside, I’m sitting on a nice train blazing through Japan, on a bullet train. I mention this because one of the things we’ve learned in our travels is whenever you can upgrade or find a way to travel in a better class it is always worth it.

Our ride from Xi’an was one of the more interesting of the trip. We found our soft seat sleeper seats and waiting for us on the lower bunk of our companion seats was a dapper looking older Chinese guy, had to be in his late seventies. He was relaxing, shoes off, black-satin-socked feet gently crossed and half-dangling off the mattress. His grin met my Nei Ho Ma? And we were on our way.

Getting into the car, not only had I spied the old man relaxing, but I’d noticed a 2/3’rds empty bottle of white liquid, the label was in Chinese, so I couldn’t make it out. Probably some rice wine I murmured to myself. Indeed it was. After some initial warming up and friendly conversation, him trying to figure out what we were saying, he slapped down the cap to his tea bottle – the ubiquitous Chinese warm tea bottles that are all over the country. He then leaned over, as the bottle was near my side and nabbed the bottle and filled the cap to brimming and pushed in my direction. “Uh..oh…it’s begun…” I though to myself and then murmured to Tracie.

About five shots and bags of fiery peanuts later, a new younger gentleman joined our cabin and the evening set down beside us as we eased on into a gentle overnight haul across the continent. We only awoke to a late night crashing about as the old gent moved on and a new one settled all of his accoutrement in. We crushed back into sleep only to be torn awake from the mad slumbering snores of our new neighbor and managed to drift off for the last remaining hours of darkness.

We awoke in the morning to some polite conversation with our bear of a sleeper and the younger quiet  one we’d met the day before. He had shared that he knew a little English and helped the way before our snooze with smoothing over our wretched attempts at Mandarin with the old guy and spent the better part of the day chatting away. He treated us to a large, yet mediocre meal in the train car later in the day (he apologized himself for the substandard state of affairs) and then said goodbye a few stops later.

After that we were on our own until we arrived in a mess from western China. An overnight train away left us dreadfully unprepared for our arrival. We smelled. Not only had we just been on a train for two days with no shower, but in the Tibetan homestay it was really cold, so showering wasn’t exactly on the priority list there, nor was washing the clothes. We needed both.

A few hours later, showered and changed into our cleanest clothes, we met Rose for the first time. We settled down for a bit and chatted about our dreams, our hopes and our travels and she told us about a house guest she’d recently had through and that we’d just missed her. Her name was Fuschia and she even had brought some cheese from England with her.

Stop. We were like, wait a minute. Did you just say Fuschia? Is her last name Dunlop? “Yea, why do you know Fuschia?” No, but we’ve read her book. Her book was such an inspiration for coming to eat in China and to think, we just missed her. How funny, how small this world is of ours.

So, we sat down to some Stilton from Neal’s Yard and some Yak milk cheese (which was reminiscent of Parmesan) by way of an English writer and cook in Shanghai, China. We knew right then and there, that we’d really lucked out in meeting Rose. After sharing the cheese and other snacks we all headed out for dinner. Rose had plans, but still managed to walk us around a bit and show us some of the places nearby. She left us to take our pick.

The next day, we woke a bit later and she was already out for work, but the night before she’d shared some of her favorite places to go for lunch and a suggested a couple of “sieu long bau” places downtown. For breakfast, we headed right downstairs where every morning there was a plethora of nice french pastries, Chinese pastries, cereal, yogurt, fruit and as much espresso as we could drink. Holy God! Thank you! We had tea for nearly a month and it was getting old. Every time we tried some other snack drink or breakfast drink they were disgustingly sweet and indeterminate of origin, so our love affair with coffee resumed.

We wandered around Shanghai that first day at a leisurely pace. The weather was a bit rainy and we were a little sad to see rain here as well after being in the cloudy city of Chengdu and then Northern Sichuan for so long. We wandered over to the Shanghai Museum, which to our surprise and delight was free. There we saw many wonderful exhibits, surprisingly one of our favorites was about “ethnic-dress”. There were beautiful handmade cloths and masks, knives and then on another floor we wandered through furniture from the Qing and Ming dynasties.

For lunch we went to Jia Jia Tang Bau (I think the literal translation is: Excellent Family Soup Dumplings). There we started with an order of steamed Pork and Chicken dumplings (12 per order) and individual bowls of soup. The soup was a light chicken broth with a fine julienne of seaweed and egg crepe. A light and refreshing start to a surprisingly delicate week of food. Despite contributing to our not so delicate weight gain, Shanghai is something more refined than the rest of China. I wouldn’t say snobby as some would, but it is where elegance never seemed to leave China.

The dumplings were so good we ordered another set, this time a crab roe and pork, which was a nice take on surf and turf, but our favorite was the pork and chicken. If you go, make sure you order the ginger and vinegar on the side. When you drape a few strands of the ginger, lightly painting the dumpling with vinegar you get a balanced explosion you’ll never forget.

Just across the street, literally, right across the street Rose had mentioned were the pan-fried version of Soup dumplings. I said to Tracie “Let’s just go take a look and see how they are…” Four more dumplings later, and these were twice as large as the steamed we said to each other, ok, we have to stop. But oh man was it worth it.

In the afternoon we dragged ourselves back to the apartment and checked our email. Rose had sent us a “..I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve booked you for dinner the whole week…”. Hell no we didn’t mind. That night we met her for a lovely European style dinner, where we all shared a nice bottle of Shiraz and we devoured our respective contemporary takes on french preparations of old standbys. Braised lamb, roasted quail, and a steamed fish. The dinner was pleasant and the company was even better. To top it all off it had one of the best nighttime views of The Bund. All this and it’s only a day into Shanghai. More to come.

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The Sleepiest Big City You’ll Ever Meet

Maybe we wouldn’t have ever to been to the sleepy yet crashingly vibrant city of Chengdu in Sichuan province of China if we’d never read Fuschia Dunlop’s book “Shark Fin Soup and Sichuan Peppers: A Sweet and Sour Memoir of Eating in China”. And we would be kicking ourselves all the way to our graves had we known what we missed.

Remember how we took a painstakingly long train trip from Guangzhou in South China all the way to Chengdu in the South West? We still haven’t told you anything about the city that brought us across a continent.

Food is at the heart of any journey through China. Sitting here with a stoutly stretched belly in Shanghai, I look back with warm heart and fondness of our stay in Chengdu. While we used the city as a base for several ventures, the main reason we headed there is because we both read Fuschia’s book. Tracie read it before we even set foot abroad and I finally tucked it safely into the Pun Pun Cafe library shelves when we set out from Thailand to Hong Kong. I cannot underestimate the importance of her introduction to Chinese food, and China itself has influenced our own thinking about food and eating. It has been like we strolled into a secret room and found the rock that opens a lost lit tunnel.

Chengdu, a city of 11 million by my last check on Wikipedia (that’s almost twice as big as New York by population!), holds surprises at every turn, tearing down old buildings and back alleys and throwing up high-rises to house untold millions.

Thankfully life still churns. We stayed on a hip and happening street in a just as stylish hostel, the Loft hostel, where young Sichuanese with new found disposable cash spend it lounging with Westerners from across the globe. The Loft hostel sits on Xiatongren Lu. It’s a hotbed of young meets old, where you can rise at an easy hour of 9am and lounge around and watch the street vendors ride by, pitching everything from knife sharpening and shoe shining to fresh veggies and handmade noodles. Or you can pull yourself into one of any number of  “Foreigner Friendly” restaurants and find loads of young locals looking cool and living large eating Chengdu variations of Pizza and Hamburgers.

We felt lucky with that street. We ate our first hot pot on our first night, leading to hot pants for me the next day walking through the Panda reserve (hot going in and hot coming out). We drifted on down the street and shared a bowl of hand-pulled noodles the next. We spent hours every day just absorbing the street life and were surprised to see just how diverse a street could be, our little piece of Xiatongren Lu not excluded.

Our second day we spent partly ferried outside of the city to do the touristy thing and see the Panda Reserve. Cute pandas! Once we got the pandas and the hot pot out of our systems, we headed back and spent another leisurely day walking around the city. Chengdu is somehow a huge city where you can while away the hours. The parks are full of young and old alike. On the streets past lunchtime, one is bound to find a vendor napping, a group of older Chinese arguing over mahjong or a group of middle aged businessmen discussing terms over tea. Teahouses, hot pot, “xiao chi” (small eats), taxis, bicycles, strolls, cats on leashes, dogs unleashed. Any afternoon and every corner.

Chengdu is China’s south and its west, it holds the cusp of the Wild West at bay, while the southern pace, that seems to float across the belly of the world, hovering just above (and perhaps below) the equator. When things get steamy, or chilly and dreamy, people turn to one another and the foods they can talk about over the day’s business or play.

One day, we happened upon Chengdu’s People’s Park. It was mid-week, I think it was a Tuesday, somewhere in the middle at least. Every foot of the park was swirling with activity. Impromptu Sichuanese operas alight in every nook and cranny, speakers cranked to drown out others near and far. Tiled circles and squares overflow with people dancing. Lines drape for meters in the trees, encumbered with poetry bashes, done up in Chengdu style, where lashings of calligraphy screech off in varied size and form. Men stroll about with their bird cages for a walk. Ear cleaners chime their tines plying for business. The people are everywhere and the people’s park it is.

Just today we strolled through the same named park here in Shanghai, and while there were people doing their exercises and others putting their kuai up against a game of chess or cards, there wasn’t the same density, the same vibrancy to the park. Chengdu is the hot and the cold, the yin and the yang of our trip. The differences are clear – the Sichuanese live their lives on the street.

In fact, one of the best meals we’ve had in the country and the best Sichuan cooking by far we found in a back alley, tucked under the eaves of a glowering and looming new high-rise. A young lady, face-covered, brow sweating, flames lapping, poured over her woks and stoves, served up the best spicy green beans and fish-scented pork we’ve had to date. Construction workers loomed and settled in from their long haul of a day to the best and cheapest meal in town.

Like much of our trip, we would have never found it were it not for someone else that had blazed ahead. Only the night before Tracie had come upon a post on EatingAsia.com where the joint was highly lauded and vaguely located. While the young chef didn’t really bat an eye at my anglo-foreign-ness, her dining room was littered with faces in awe at another visit from the little-seen “white devils”.

In Chengdu, we met up with the “Ma” and the “La” and the “Oui Jiao” that Fuschia Dunlop describes so well, that sensation that binds your mouth, lips to cheek, to back of the throat, with numbness, opened us up to flavors and sensations we’d never met before. No place in the world have I had that taste before and as the lifeforce of the city itself, it takes to the streets and wafts around every corner, calling you back.

We based many of our regional trips around Chengdu. It became our hub of the province. And an easy hub to lean back on. The pandas were near, while a longer bus ride took us to the hailed ancient wares of “Sanxingdui”, where recently un-earthed bronzes, jade and clay date from as far back as 7000 BCE.
Only later to visit a living museum, where modern chinese roam the ancient remains of a vibrant and growing city of Lanzhong.

What the people of Chengdu miss out in sunny days, beating London with more cloud covered days a year, they make up for in loads of charm, hospitality, and sense of life. The chillies and peppercorns lend warmth when its cold and damp, and the tea houses keep the dull-drums away. But danger creeps in new forms everyday. Rubble encircles and interleave the city as high-rises tower and dwarf the lazy streets and avenues. All too near is a dread and the sense of a quickening to the overall pace of life. Hope floats in the rituals of the city, the overflowing parks, the calling of the traveling vendors, the roar of the hot pots, wherein living life in the streets gently keeps some of the sprawling “China Today” development at bay.

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China The Great

So, far we’ve traveled from the sleek megalopolis of Hong Kong,
through the exponential bleary eyed industrial giant Guangzhou and
moved through the hills and fields and vast countryside of Southern
China where every inch of space is jam packed with farms or new
buildings. We have been in constant motion since we arrived, as it
seems most of its inhabitants are as well. China is a strange place to
talk about because it is somewhere in between what we would expect
from our early industrial age in the late 19th century and the early
20th century and yet it lands somehow in the here and now moving at an
untenable pace towards a future ripped from a an early 90’s Science
Fiction novel.

In the streets, people drive like they just found keys on their
sidewalk, tried a few cars and drove away never looking back. They
drive as if they haven’t the slightest idea that there is such a thing
as danger. Yet, in the city, in the countryside, in China, danger
lurks far and near. I get the sense that every trip’s survival is
given up to the gods or pure luck. And from my western perspective
their approach to buildings and architecture does not stray far from
their driving sensibilities, where functionality towers over fine
tuned controls or a sense for aesthetic appeal.

In the architecture of the cities that we have ventured there seems
not a hint of attention to detail or deliberate care taken towards
location, function or form. New buildings scream up out of piles of
rubble surrounded by shacks or rough hewn houses that hold together
just long enough to finish the enormities that bury them in shadows as
time goes on. It often seems, not only that they build or make
something because they can but also because someone told them it would
be good.

Cut across the countryside as we did on the road heading to Jiuzhaigou
National Park and at every turn there are buildings that seem merely
functional and semi-durable at best. China’s push to bring its peasant
class to wealth and prosperity is evident everywhere we have been yet
so lies the consequences of the rampant pace and drive of the
development.

On the road to Jiuzhaigou National Park we passed town after town
under major upgrading or building vast sprawls of new buildings and
infrastructure. The road follows river after river through the
mountain, perhaps the same river, and all along spaced at what seemed
like every ½ kilometer we would come upon vast spans of rock quarrying
and sorting. Quarry and cement factories spring up not just along the
river but in the river. They move mountains, carve them up and divvy
them out. This part for brick, this for road, this for farmland. There
seems to be no controls, no rules, and no regulation. As we passed up
higher into the ravines of the mountains, the water would go clearer
with little to no quarrying going on, only to find that they were
streaming out f the bellies of the great water-power turbine stations
all along, where clean water goes in and warm water comes out.

Stupefying beyond belief everywhere the growth is seemingly limitless.
China’s resources are vast but the effects are visible to the naked
eye, to our lungs, our skin, our bellies. Towns are buried in hues of
either dirt and smoke, pollution, or a combination thereof. Brick
crawl out of the crags in mountains and valleys,from town to town,
thrown up easing ready access to building materials. In the west, they
literally build a brick factory and then pour out bricks and throw up
vast rectangular structures. Rectangular windows, flat roofs with zero
drainage, large tiles are spread across their facades like icing.
Buildings sit awaiting companion buildings’ completion, aging,
greying, sucking in the deep residues of pollution all easily absorbed
into the shoddy workmanship and roughly finished materials. It is as
if an entire country said “It works, who cares what it looks like?”

This attitude permeates the landscape and the culture, a nonchalance,
or lack of concern beyond their familiar ties seems the most obvious
difference between the western culture we grew up in and the child of
the Communist Cultural Revolution that China has become. It is almost
as if generations of people, and we are talking billions of people
here, lost their sense of pride for their work and decided that they
would be OK with just getting it done, getting it done as fast and
with whatever means possible. You see it in their skyscrapers, their
new bridges, their “Ancient Chinese Town” revivals, everything feels
halfhearted. It as if the United States all walked into Walmart and
outfitted our entire nation. Looking back at the USA from here, it
seems we are all too close to falling over the edge there ourselves.
We see how quickly a culture is subsumed in the move and push to move
forward. It’s as if we’re witnessing the Industrial Revolution for the
first time ourselves. Forget your history books children! Want
excitement, want to learn about how a country leaps into the 21st
century, take a train or bus trip through China.

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The Long and Winding Road

Right now I've been wearing the same outfit for about five days. We weren't exactly prepared to come up to northern Sichuan province, as the elevation is at least 2500 m and up – spring has barely sprung here and there's still snow in the mountains surrounding the valleys. Even though we've been freezing our butts off, it's been totally worth it. Including the torturous 11-hour death wish bus ride.

Jiuzhaigou is one of the most famous national parks in China, and we kept hearing about it since we started traveling – in  guidebooks, online, in a random National Geographic we saw in Thailand. Everyone agrees that it's a spectacular place of singular natural beauty, but there have definitely been mixed feelings on the hordes of tourists, the difficulty/expense in getting there, and the ridiculous entrance fee (it comes out to approximately $50 US PER PERSON. Yes. You heard me right.).

We debated for a while whether or not to come, and finally decided to pony up but save a bit of money by taking the bus rather than flying. The bus ride was…illuminating. It goes without saying that our bus driver was insane and I seriously thought we were going to die a few times. What person in their right mind passes a tractor trailer on a blind curve with a sheer cliff drop while it's raining? You guessed it! Our bus driver! Not to mention the very real danger of falling rocks. Regardless of that, we definitely found the ride to be fascinating, passing through the countryside and seeing what's been happening since the earthquake in 2008.

New buildings have sprung up everywhere, whole new towns have been created from nothing, and the rivers end up with tons of debris. Farther on, hydroelectric plants and dams divert the water and turn the river into a trickle. The road itself was being upgraded and repaved, with many workers hand-digging trenches for drainage and replacing broken barriers on the edges of cliffs. There just seemed to be a flurry of activity everywhere we went – the whole country should have a “Pardon our Dust” sign hung somewhere. What was strange though was that so many of these new towns are literally in the middle of nowhere and most of the finished buildings are empty. We couldn't figure out who these new buildings were for and why no one is living in them.

As we continued, the landscape became more and more mountainous and dramatic. Giant boulders were perched perilously close to the road, and tiny waterfalls snaked across the sheer rock faces. We began seeing Tibetan style houses with prayer flags that whipped dramatically in the wind. The road became a tortuous zigzag that wound its way up and over the pass, above the treeline and into the clouds. We couldn't see anything and we were praying that it wouldn't snow. As we dropped down into the valley, all traffic was stopped for an hour which we discovered later was because of road repair. We froze a bit outside of the bus, walked around and amused ourselves by making fun of the drivers who were all trying to pass each other but were just making a big traffic jam out of everything.

Finally we started up again, rain started coming down and night was coming on. We finally came into a valley where we saw signs that said “Jiuzhaigou”, and we were so happy we made it without dying/getting maimed in a head on collision. The bus pulled into a flooded parking lot, everyone made a beeline for the door, and we were unceremoniously dumped into a puddle and a group of touts trying to get us to stay at their hotel. I pulled out my cellphone and called Zhuo Ma, the Tibetan woman who we had contacted about a home-stay. And thus our northern adventure began!

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