Foodie Voyage through Western Sichuan — Kangding

So, I’m an obsessive little locavore when I travel. My love for food and travel combine full-force, often resulting in my eating five to seven meals a day all for the sake of trying it all. This is sometimes to my detriment, as it’s happened more than once that it becomes physically impossible to walk after stuffing myself to the gills. I am so disgusting.

So to honor this passion, I present you with a culinary tour of Western Sichuan, where some of my most memorable meals to date took place. These little mountain villages served up made-to-order anything and everything. Yak meat dumplings, mapo dofu, fiery dumpling soup, yak butter tea, stir-fries to die for, hand-picked veggie medlies perfectly flavored with Sichuan spice.

This is part one of a three-part installment. First stop: Kangding. Stop two: Moxi. Final stop: Chengdu.

Meal One: Beautiful Breakfast BaoziDSC05598

Location: Kangding

Description: Thomas and I awoke early that morning, eager to begin our hike up Paoma Shan and tour the town of Kangding. At 7:30 a.m., though, the streets were empty. We searched for a good 15 minutes for a place to buy food for the day, and eventually stumbled upon a tiny restaurant with an orange awning that was clearly the hopping breakfast joint in town. We took a seat at a rickety table. When a server approached us seconds later, we simply pointed to the table next to us, implying that we wanted whatever they had — a heap of pillowy dumplings (baozi  (BOW-ZUH)– which is different than the steamed dumplings we get in Chinese restaurants here. They’re made with steamed bread). Along with our two-tiered plate of 14 baozis, we each got a bowl of rice porridge (basically the juices/water that rice and other grains have simmered in), and pickled ginger. It seemed there was only one breakfast option here, as each table got the same spread. All for a grand total of 13 yuan. (Less than two dollars). The dumplings were stuffed with yak meat, heavenly heavenly yak meat, and were nicely spiced — tempered for a gentler morning meal. Just enough garlic, with Sichuan zest that didn’t make my tongue feel inflamed.

Meal Two: The Rockin’ Tibetan Restaurant

The suave clientele. Check out those hair styles. And those jackets!

The suave clientele. Check out those hair styles. And those jackets!

Location: Kangding

Description: If you read my previous post about Re Tibetan Restaurant, you  understand just how much we enjoyed our meal there. SO much so, we decided to try to go back the following evening. I know — such a foodie faux-pas to return to the same restaurant — but let that be a testament to just how wonderful the meal was. However, when we got back, the servers tried to take advantage of our Western-ness by presenting us with much newer, much more expensive menus than the night before! How dare they try to taint our memorable meal! I successfully defeated my rage and pitiful Chinese and expressed to this heinous woman that we had been there the night before and were given different menus, with prices about 50 percent cheaper! She pretended that she didn’t believe/understand me, but the jig was up. She looked sheepish, and started laughing nervously with her co-workers. Finally, the youngest of the bunch presented us with the tattered menus we recognized from the night before. We had won, yes, but something had changed about that place. It was no longer the same in our eyes. I wanted to cry. (Okay — that’s a lie. But I’m trying to convey just how crushed we were to learn of Re Tibetan Restaurant’s corrupt underbelly!) We defiantly stormed out of the restaurant. HA!

Only problem was — we were still famished and we were still craving, YEARNING, for Tibetan food. We walked aimlessly like dejected puppies for a block or two, until I looked up (taking my sad gaze off my dragging feet) and saw a cute little Tibetan tea house. “Too bad they don’t have food in there,” I said to Thomas.

But Thomas, the literate genius that he is, read the sign about three feet above the door, which triumphantly read “Tibetan Restaurant.” Oh. Oh!!!!

We basically galloped inside and took a seat along the benches that lined the walls of the restaurant so that everyone was sort of facing each other, eating on tables that went up to your knees. This place was hoppin’. Thomas and I squeezed next to a Tibetan grandmother (with her cute little grandson) adorned in a bright blue dress with her long hair woven intricately with a ribbon and tied in a bun. Across from us were two swankily dressed local dudes with gold jewelry and sporting the typical Kangding sport coats. Their 80s-style hair was gelled enough to properly withstand any amount of mountain wind they may encounter. (See photo above!) It must be the cool thing to do to talk on your cell phone while you’re eating in a small restaurant, because that is what quite a few of these guys did.

I haven’t even begun to talk about the food yet, but for us the real joy of this meal was having a front-row seat to the diverse segments of the Kangding population. Part ethnic Tibetans refusing to let go of their culture, part 80s throwback fashion, part “We are the Future” modern Chinese. And a host of other subcultures I probably didn’t pick up on. The difference in clothing between mothers and daughters was fascinating. Many women chose to still wear more traditional Tibetan clothing, while their kids — just the next generation down — dressed essentially like the students I taught in Dalian — that modern megatown on the complete other side of China. It felt a world away.

But now I will talk about the food. We decided on beef baozi, two orders of beef and yak butter rice, and a pot of Tibetan butter tea — this time sweetened. The beef was quite tender, and the yak butter made the rice smooth, soft, creamy and heavenly. The sweetened butter tea was a great choice for this meal, because this time we didn’t have to battle piquante curry sauce and the like. We slowly ate our food, mostly because it was ridiculously rich, but also to soak up the culture. We got a lot of stares, which made me nervous because I’m a messy eater, but we were staring right back.

We asked one of our snazzy fellow diners to take a picture of us. We wanted to capture the moment. After being treated like tourists, i.e. prey, at the other Tibetan restaurant, it was a welcome experience to be treated a little bit like one of the locals. Or at least dine shoulder-to-shoulder with them.

One Week in Western Sichuan Part Two: Mountain traffic jams, disturbing rest stops, and yak butter tea

Day 2: Chengdu to Kangding

We left Chengdu at 11 a.m. Monday morning. This is about three hours later than we had intended. There were medical issues that arose after our delicious mapo dofu meal the night earlier. I’ll leave it at that.

Anyway, we caught the 11 a.m. bus, which was nowhere near as plush or impressive as the bus we took from Chongqing to Chengdu was. But one thing that was far more impressive was the scenery passing us by out the window. More and more rural, more and more mountainous, and more and more resembling the China I had envisioned. Dalian, for me, wasn’t very Chinese. It was less than 100 years old, with high-rises, glitzy signs, all the Western food conveniences you could ask for, and was clean, fresh and open. But as we bumped along the surprisingly crowded mountain roads (traffic jams stalled us twice on the way and three times on the way back), the China of my imagination unfurled, as did lush peaks towering over muddy rivers.

DSC05588

We whizzed past villages whose dare-devil residents took to selling exotic fruits mere inches away from the highway, affording them harsh breezes as the tourist buses came and went. We even saw one elderly woman (read: at least 75) doing her daily stretches by resting her leg on the highway’s guard rail. We stopped at rest stops along the way with food choices like mystery-meat dumpling soup served out of a large cast iron pot, with bottles of Sichuan’s specialty spices sitting at every rustic picnic table. Some rest stops were less charming than others. Thomas informed me that in the men’s “bathroom” (basically several holes in the ground with some concrete walls enclosing the area), the guys enjoyed peeing on the hogs that roamed around the area. So perhaps that solves the meat mystery.

DSC05572

After a total of nine hours of winding up and down on a bus that screeched and honked (and sometimes halted) its way toward Kangding, we arrived at about 8 p.m. Most of Kangding is squeezed into a valley and sidles up to two rushing rivers that converge near the center of town.  The water sounded distinctly frothy, the air crisp. Passersby adorned a wide array of attire, from sleek (if slightly dusty) blazers to traditional colorful Tibetan tribal clothing to Adidas merch. We wore shorts and t-shirts, expecting a climate similar to the one we came from in sweltering Chengdu/Chongqing.

But we were cold. Or at least I was. And hungry. My Lonely Planet (dare I even have faith in this outdated version? Every good traveler to China should invest in LP’s 2009 version, released a couple months after I left for Dalian, shucks) said there was a Tibetan restaurant or two in this town, so we set out to find the one it recommended. We found it, but the place had changed names. Now it’s simply called Re Tibetan Restaurant.

There’s no door but instead a heavy duty, brightly decorated curtain, with eye-catching red, blue, yellow and green designs. The colorful Tibetan decor continued inside. We got seated by a window, at a table not unlike a picnic table, bench and all.  We placed our luggage under the table and settled in, thrilled to be right in this very moment. We had arrived, and were about to eat a hell of a lot of food. Nothing could have made me more pleased. And, since I’d recently re-introduced dead animal into my diet, my ordering options included the myriad dishes with yak meat, a Tibetan staple.

Interior of Re Tibetan Restaurant

Interior of Re Tibetan Restaurant

The tattered, multi-page menu had pictures and some attempt at English. Perfect. We decided (after deliberating in a hunger-induced stupor) on minced yak meat tomato casserole, curry potatoes with yak meat, “beautiful valley” vegetable cake, and yak butter tea to drink.  The vegetable cake was a flaky pastry stuffed with lightly spiced vegetables. The yak meat dishes both had quite a kick to them, and if I knew more about Chinese spices, I would tell you what was in it. This kick was definitely necessary to curb the saltiness of the butter tea, which at first literally tasted like a stick of butter had been melted in a microwave. But the spiciness and saltiness interacted in a way that both were dampened to a very pleasant level. We just may have ordered too much food, but finishing all that we order is a challenge both Thomas and I enjoy. We even triumphantly drank the last of our curry sauce, sauce that neither spoon nor chopstick could access. And let me tell you — that yellow sauce was fantastic. Not too watery, but not thick and heavy, either. Totally drinkable and drink-worthy.

We sat and contemplated for awhile, mostly to let our gorge-fest rest, and  had a bit of a “how are we here” moment. How did we just chow down on minced yak meat and butter tea in the mountains of Western Sichuan, perched close to the Tibetan frontier? After the previous days of convoluted traveling, the meal stood as a sort of arrival for us. From here on out, it was all about slowing down, climbing up (mountains, that is), and exploring. Observing. And of course, eating. And maybe some sleeping. We could both use some of that.

It was now 9:30, and we still had no place to sleep for the night. We gathered our bags from under the table and reluctantly closed the book on our Tibetan dinner experience. The internet and Lonely Planet told us the Black Tent Hostel was our best bet. Kangding seemed a bit less likely to have expanded and altered its entire city makeup as Chengdu had. We headed toward where we thought the Black Tent would still sit.

Along the way, though, we were introduced to the world of Kangding fashion. Brightly colored wraps that would certainly combat the cool air caught my attention. They were beautiful; a bit like Pashmina scarves that everyone obsessed over a few years back, but with East Asian paisley flair. I bought two immediately, each for 30 yuan (about 5  dollars) after half-assed haggling. It’s always hard for me to bargain when I want something that desperately. I have no poker face.

After the shopping stop, we continued to walk along the river. We crossed a bridge over toward what seemed like an open coffee shop. Learning from our Chengdu debacle (read the PART 1 entry below), I asked a worker in there for directions. In Chinese. Perhaps something positive that came from the aimless Chengdu wandering. My ability to express in Chinese that I was very lost and needed help had skyrocketed. Anyway, this nice lady realized quickly that I wasn’t comprehending everything she was saying, so she walked us to our hostel herself, about five minutes away from her shop. Perfect. No hassles, no confusion.

Black Tent is a quirky place, with a wrap-around screen porch, and a single bathroom and shower for the entire hostel. Inside, a girl was huddled around a heater and watching TV while butter tea brewed on a hot plate nearby. She spoke a decent amount of English, and told us they had two bunk beds in a dorm available for 15 yuan each (less than three dollars). The room itself was sparsely decorated, but had warm, Tibetan-style quilts. Our roommates were four Chinese men biking their way to Tibet, so the lights went out early. That was fine with us. We had a big day tomorrow, too. Doing what? We weren’t quite sure. But we were excited to find out.

One Week in Western Sichuan: Part One of Seven

**PICTURES TO COME SHORTLY**

**ALSO, Sorry for being so slow. Traveling without fancy internet-accessible items makes blogging/twittering on the road difficult. I need to learn to be a better traveler.**

Day 1: June 28, 2009

The hotel room is musty and the air thick and humid. Five stories down, rush-hour cars speak their special Chinese honk language, in which drivers press on the horn to alert those sharing the road of any and every move they make. “I’m turning on my turn signal — HONK HONK HONK.” “Okay, now I’m going to change lanes — HONNNNNNNNNKKKKKKK.”

The blanket on the board-stiff bed (the overwhelming Chinese mattress preference) is far too thick for this heat. I propel my legs above me to kick it off quickly, as I realize I’m sweating rather copiously. It’s 7 a.m. in Chongqing, municipal population of 34 million, at the Fuyuan Fandian Hotel. Thomas and I arrived there via taxi only five hours earlier, after a three-hour flight from Dalian, with everything I had brought over for four months plus all that I had acquired while bopping around Eastern China.

Now I find myself  in the Wild West of China, about to begin a week-long journey in which absolutely nothing is reserved or set in stone aside from one night in a hostel and a vague idea of where we want to go, as well as a requisite jaunt over to Tokyo somewhere in the not so distant future.

We successfully stored my three grande dame suitcases at the Chongqing airport, leaving us with but two backpacks toting what we would come to find out entirely too little clothing for the icy climes we’d reach later in the week. But for now, we felt as prepared as we could feel.

The plan was to take the 9 a.m. bus that morning from Chongqing to Chengdu, home to pandas and tea houses and the most confusing city layout either of us had  ever experienced. After arriving at an estimated 1 p.m., we’d spend the day relaxing and moseying around Chengdu before leaving the next morning at 8 a.m. en route to Kangding, a rustic mountain town of 80,000 that’s more Tibetan than Han.

Part one of the plan panned out. We caught the bus at the station adjacent to our hotel. We indeed arrived at around 1 p.m. The next step was to find our hostel. Simple enough. I had reserved a room over the phone shortly before departing Dalian. I had my trusty Lonely Planet to help us navigate the buses.

Oh. But wait. Lonely Planet is a tad old. And outdated. Turns out, like so much in China, the hostel had upgraded and moved across town in the three years since my edition was published. I should have known to check before assuming that things go untouched in a country that is absolutely addicted to upgrading and renovating. Now the difficulty is finding this new location.

Oh, did I fail to mention it was raining all day?

Oh, did I fail to mention it was raining all day?

mao photo

Mid-meandering and wrong-waying, we come across a giant Mao Zedong statue, what I’ve come to find as a common sight in any moderately sized Chinese city. But Chengdu is no moderately sized town. It stuffs 9 million residents (and growing) into its city limits. Just 60 miles away lies the epicenter of last May’s earthquake. Not surprisingly, one would have never guessed it. Debris and destruction have long been cleared. Because China never sleeps.

But humans do, and we humans needed a place to rest our heads later that day. We decide that instead of attempting to find a sketchy new address via painstaking public transportation, we’d consult the Lonely Planet and walk to the nearest hostel. According to our entirely detail-less map, The Loft Hostel seemed to be the winner.

So we walked. And walked. And walked. And then realized we must have passed the Loft at least three times given the distance we had covered, without knowing it. Perhaps it moved/expanded/franchised, too? My three-dollar Chinese cell phone seemed to be in a functioning and friendly mindset, so I decided to brave foreign-land phone calls and find out where they were now located.

No English-speaking friendly receptionist. I shamefully fumbled around with a few Mandarin sentences that I thought I remembered from my Hotel Services chapter, but crashed and burned.

Now whole-heartedly discouraged and famished (it’s approaching 4 p.m.) we backtrack again. And again. And then entered a grocery store for a quick pick-me-up and directions. I point to what I only assume is a very incorrect map in our Lonely Planet, thankful that Chinese characters of the hostel names are printed underneath. Anyone can speak finger-pointing. Zig-zagged gestures from two or three customers and a clerk leave me confused. It’s also obvious they’re confused, too.

For good reason. Turns out, we were attempting to search for the Loft Hostel, while using the map location for a Marriott hotel. We discovered our error at  5 p.m. It was time for a break. We squatted on the sidewalk, because this is entirely accepted and normal in China. If your legs are in need of a break, just pop a squat. In a city of 9 million, what are the chances of finding an empty bench, or even a low-lying tree branch? After all, tree branches serve as apparati for elders’ morning and afternoon stretching routines. Thus you squat.

Squatting, we reflect on our “relaxing” day of touring Chengdu. We were barely able to muster the energy to keep going. What’s the point? We were in throes of traveler’s tension, brought on by a desire to want to see so much, with time escaping, slipping through our fingers. Finally we decided it’s probably not the best solution to just ignore our needs for food and shelter. We rose from the squat determined to find a better place to rest our legs. And our heads.

As luck would have it (luck! how about that!), we were just around the corner from the Loft. Somehow, by navigating this palm-lined concrete jungle with hardly a street or avenue that runs parallel to any other street, we ended up near a location we had wanted to find but had been using an entirely wrong address. Sounds pretty Chinese to me.

The Loft was under construction, but had a double room available for all of 12 USD total. The room itself was wholly basic, but the Loft has quite a modern-chic feel to it, boasting a restaurant and bar that serves Danish food. Three or four traditional tea houses were scattered along the same street, as well as a convenience store where Thomas would end up purchasing several ice cream cups in one night.

Forcing a smile shortly after having found the Loft Hostel. Needing food.

Forcing a smile shortly after having found the Loft Hostel. Needing food.

After putting our backpacks down, we decided to do something entirely un-Ashley or un-Thomas and hail a taxi (we’re very anti-taxi — at least I am) to a restaurant that supposedly has the best mapo dofu, a Sichuan speciality with tofu and pork in a blazingly spicy chili and bean sauce. It was exceptional, and even a toned down sauce (per request) made me sweat. Thomas stuck with the full-heat version and proceeded to hiccup throughout most of the meal. Finally — a traditional Sichuan experience for our day in Chengdu.

Then again, being lost and confused is certainly a traditional Chinese experience. Hell, my first day in Dalian I got so turned around I ended up hitching a ride in an ambulance (for 10 yuan) back to my house. That’s the thing about traveling in China. Nothing ever goes as planned. Look where reserving a hotel room ahead of time got us. I learned after my first trip within China back in April to keep my patience, to take everything in stride, to accept that to travel in China means letting go of the part of me that loves to plan trips. It’s all part of the journey.

Small-town China, here we come.

Blog access is a good thing — Catching up

Goodness. Now that I’m no longer stifled by the Great Firewall of China, I desperately need to catch up.

First off, I arrived back in the U.S. on Monday, July 13. My flight left Tokyo at 5 pm Monday, and landed in Chicago at 2 pm Monday. I’ve never gone back in time before like that. I immediately took a bus to Madison, WI, to visit my friend Speef for a couple days, before we drove back to Kansas together (I “drove” a total of 50 miles out of more than 500. Hooray for not knowing how to drive a manual car, and certainly not when drifting in and out of consciousness). I got back to KC/Lawrence on Thursday night. Now I have a full WEEK of few responsibilities before I leave yet again.

An outline of blog posts to come:

*Fashion-foward (and backward) Kangding, a bustling mountain town in Western Sichuan.

*Defeating “White Person” treatment at a Tibetan restaurant.

*Enjoying freshly churned Yak butter tea and custom-ordered dinners in charming little Moxi, Sichuan.

*Culture Shock Japan — how heated toilet seats, sticker shock, and the concept of forming lines catches Ashley off-guard, and how she had to adjust as to not offend everyone with burps, pushing people out of the way, and unwelcome attempts at bargaining.

*Accidental Wasabi tea — Cultural No-no’s and unnecessary gorging at many a conveyor belt sushi restaurant throughout Japan.

I think my plate’s full enough — I’ll stop at that. Expect posts soon.

Next week I leave for Germany/Slovenia/Croatia for a wedding. I need to catch up on this before more travel memories flood my severely jetlagged brain.

Travel’s Greatest Gift – An Extra Day

Visiting a city like Beijing in all of three days is a tall order. There are constant crowds and pushy tour groups to battle, along with a lengthy list of not-to-miss highlights. The city is extremely spread out, and getting from place to place can eat up your precious hours.

However, in first three days I had there last month, I managed to fit in the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Temple of Heaven, the Olympic Sports Complex, the Lama Temple, and even a five-hour hike along the Great Wall near the Inner Mongolian border. I successfully bargained at the Silk Market, and indulged in the famous Beijing Roast Duck. I biked from place to place, reveling in immense bike lanes, most of which are kindly shaded by gorgeous green trees. I was running around so much, I barely got enough time to appreciate undoubtedly the nicest hostel I’ve ever stayed in – the Peking Downtown Backpacker’s Accommodations, located on the chic street of Nanluogu Xiang, in the middle of one of Old Beijing’s charming hutongs.

So, when it came time for me to leave on Monday night, I felt like I had covered most of the highlights, except for the Summer Palace, one of the most visited sites in the city. Still, I congratulated myself on my first solo trip within China. No hitches, no mistakes.

Until my bus back to Dalian was canceled. Without warning. There I stood, alone at the bus station at 10 p.m., attempting in my horrendous Mandarin to ask what the hell was going on. All I could understand was, the regularly scheduled overnight bus wasn’t going to be budging from its parking space a few meters away. I had classes to teach the next morning. I felt confused and lost, for the first time that weekend.

I made my way, bags in tow, back to my hostel, hopeful that they had an opening for me that night. Fortunately, they did. The slight annoyance I initially felt about the situation soon lifted, as I realized I had been given an extra day in a city I had only begun to get to know.

I woke up early the next morning, eager to plan my day. I had enough time to make it to the Summer Palace, as the sleeper train I had booked didn’t leave until 8 that night. (I decided buses were entirely too unreliable). After indulging in the hostel’s free Western breakfast (Western breakfast! OJ, fruit, toast, jam, scrambled eggs, and a chicken sausage something-or-other), I got directions from the front desk to the Summer Palace, which is quite far outside the city center. I was almost out the door when a little voice in my head told me to slow down. It dawned on me that this extra day could be spent in any old way I wanted, not just what was on the prescribed itinerary that almost every guide book provides you with.

I turned around, asked for a rental bike for the day from my hostel, flipped through my Lonely Planet to a random page, and decided to head to the entry I had chosen – Pyongyang Art Studio. I found its location on my city map and took off.

Located near the well-known Yashow Clothing Market, Pyongyang Arts Studio is a bit difficult to find, as you have to go through an alleyway that at first glance looks fenced off. Don’t be fooled. There’s a small doorway you can walk through. I walked down the alley until I saw a big yellow poster for Koryo tours, “The PRK tour experts.” This had to be it. I opened the gate, parked my bike, and cautiously entered.

A sweet Chinese woman with a distinct British English accent greeted me. She was running out the door, she said, to pick up some balloons and decorations for a film showing later that night. She directed me to the gallery and store, run by an intern from Berlin.

I perused through random objects such as North Korean tea, cigarettes, vitamins, translations of books by Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung, propaganda paintings, postcards, and specialty honey liquor. Maps of Pyongyang, books with titles like, “A Look at Pyongyang” lined stuffed shelves.

Movie poster in the North Korean art gallery

Movie poster in the North Korean art gallery

“There’s an exhibit through that door,” the German intern told me. I checked it out. The exhibit, which runs through the end of June, features old and new movie posters of North Korean movies, nearly all of which are written by (or at the very least, approved by) the Dear Leader or the Great Leader, and used as a form of propaganda. Alongside the posters are plot descriptions and the cultural or political value of the film.

I bought a movie called Our Fragrance, about older generations fending off Western influences that the youth of the country have accepted. (English subtitles, about 6 USD). I chatted with a British woman who was working at the adjacent Koryo Tours named Hannah about her 35 trips to North Korea, and about the stipulations for Americans entering the Hermit Kingdom as tourists. They’re allowed a total of four days, and only during the country’s elaborate Mass Games, which take place in September and October annually.

Satisfied with my discovery and my purchases, I turned to my city map for ideas for the next destination. I decided to head to the 14th-century Confucius Temple after a quick lunch of mapou tofu at a small café.

The Confucius temple sits across the street from a more famous Beijing attraction, the Lama Temple, which holds the title as the most important Tibetan Buddhist temple outside of Tibet***.

**Sidenote**China’s big on qualifiers and titles like that. Dalian is known as the friendliest city (because it’s by the sea, which makes people happy, and also because it is more difficult for thieves to escape with an ocean trapping them in — I’m serious, this is one of the reasons I’ve gotten), the cleanest city (even though the other cities I’ve visited seem just as clean), etc…

NKorea2

After battling crowds all weekend as well as questionable English on signs and plaques accompanying the exhibits, the Confucius temple was a welcome respite. It was cozy and green, with significantly fewer visitors. It’s amazing how much more enjoyable an experience can be without having to snake your way through pushy Chinese tour groups clad in matching hats and shirts and depending heavily on mega-phones and shouting.

The exhibits covered the life history of Confucius himself, the religion/philosophy of Confucius, the spread of Confucius thought throughout the world, and the teaching methods at the adjacent Imperial College, which you can also visit. There’s a corridor lined with massive rocks carved with recordings of 13 Confucius classics, containing more than 600,000 Chinese characters. And, of course, the architecture and vibrancy of the colors when the sun and shade toy with light is also worth admiring.

Confucius Temple

Confucius Temple

Nearly three hours passed before I knew it. It was reaching 4:00. Two hours left before I had to think about heading to the mad house of a train station. About a ten-minute bike ride north lies the Ditan Park, which is where the eponymous Ditan Temple is. Ditan means Earth. This temple is where emperors would go worship the Earth gods, praying for good harvest, weather, and the likes. The temple is square in shape, in contrast with the Temple of Heaven, which is circular. It is square to represent what was considered the shape of the Earth at the time of construction.

Confucius Temple

Confucius Temple

Entrance to the park is a mere two yuan, a steal in a city that charges for entrance fees for nearly every touristy pocket of the city. To enter the temple, however, costs another five yuan. (Gasp).

***Reminder – One US dollar = 7 yuan.***

The temple was interesting enough. It was my fourth temple in three days, and definitely the least English-friendly one of the bunch. I couldn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted to without knowing what the captions were explaining. That’s why I’m now a huge supporter of native-tongue audio guides in foreign countries.

What’s best about Ditan Park is its local flavor. I saw but one other Western face in there. I would guess he was Russian, based on his accent when he said, “Looks like we’re the only tourists in here,” to me as we passed each other. It was nice to find a place like that within central Beijing. There’s also a sports complex, where mostly elderly people were enjoying some variant of croquet in a huge dirt field.

Confucius Temple

Confucius Temple

Ditan park

Ditan park

I meandered around the park for about an hour, downed a couple red-bean ice cream bars, found a modern art gallery, and enjoyed this end to my stay in Beijing, a city that I had incorrectly categorized as a tourist-infested, polluted capital that had likely lost its charm. Tourist-infested, at times, yes. Polluted, yes, but the Olympics helped put the city back on track. But lost its charm? No way.

To keep with China’s love for titles, I’d say Beijing is the most fascinating city I’ve ever visited. I almost didn’t want to like Beijing that much, because I sort of pride myself in enjoying destinations somewhat off the traveler radar. But it won me over, and I’ll certainly go back if I ever get a chance. Besides, I still haven’t been to the Summer Palace.

Lessons from a Chinese Bath House

Friday afternoons are my worst. Absolute worst. It’s the end of a 27-class week, and my final two classes irritate me more than the sound the cheap chalk makes against the scratched-up blackboard. I normally manage to fit in an hour-long break back at my apartment, in a quiet section east of downtown, before I head to an intensive Chinese lesson. But last Friday, my routine changed. I went to a Chinese bath house.

Teachers, cafeteria cooks, janitors, and the principal of Jiefang Primary School head to Golden Lily Bath House once a month to cleanse the chalk off their hands and relax together, and they invited me along. I guiltily skipped my Chinese class, something of a necessity for my everyday survival here in Dalian. But last Friday, in such an intimate environment, my learning went beyond the days of the week or the names of exotic East Asian fruits. That evening, I learned the bare necessities of Chinese culture. (Please excuse the pun).

I waited in the English teachers’ office for a few minutes after my day was over for a teacher named Summer, whom I had never met. Another teacher told me that Summer had been put in charge (per the principal’s request) of my well-being. Essentially, she was my babysitter. “She is a woman teacher, so she can help you,” one of the male English teachers named Ben said when Summer walked into the office

I followed Summer down a hill dotted with vendors selling spiraled pineapple wedges and plastic toys and shoes. She immediately locked arms with me and guided me through traffic and peddlers until we reached a taxi stand. Cultural lesson number 1: All females, Chinese or foreign, when walking two-by-two, must lock arms. This is especially true when darting through harrowing traffic. (Crosswalks mean nothing here).

We caught a cab across town, and she began firing the standard questions my way. “Do you have brothers or sisters?” “How long have you been here?” “Do you speak Chinese?” “Do you have a boyfriend?” “Aren’t you homesick?”

No, I am not homesick.

Summer told me she had studied in Wales for several months and had an English boyfriend in the town of Lincolnshire. Our taxi cab conversation flowed easily. It’s how all first-time meetings go here. There’s never any awkwardness because of all the questions we have about the other person. Cultural lesson number 2: Chinese people tell it like it is, and aren’t afraid to confront such issues as weight, income, love life, or religion within hours of meeting you (if “you” are a foreigner).

After an 8-yuan cab ride (a little more than $1), we arrived at Golden Lily Bath House. Summer guided me to the women’s locker room and gave me a locker key and a pair of blue rubber flip-flops. We bared all and walked toward the first of a series of rooms.

If there’s any place a Westerner in Asia doesn’t want to be stared at, it’s at a bath house. Cultural lesson number 3: As with their candid question-asking, Chinese women will openly point and whisper about you (again, if “you” are a foreigner). But I brushed off such attention and showered off before entering the sauna. I treated my hair to two hot-oil conditioning rinses, mostly because that happened to be the only bottle with some English on it, and I was sure that the staring ladies would guffaw heartily if I tried to put body gel in my hair or lather shampoo on my body. Summer was waiting for me in the sauna, where attention toward me was only slightly dampened. A pleasantly round Chinese woman smiled at me and asked Summer where I was from.

“Oh!” the woman said upon finding out I was American. “My daughter is training to be a translator,” Summer interpreted for me. I asked if her daughter lived in China or an Anglophone country. “China.” I asked (through Summer) if her daughter studied English at college.

“Oh no,” the woman replied. ‘My daughter is 15.”

Cultural lesson number 4: Chinese parents are pushy. I had seen this already through the children I teach. Three-quarters of them have several English and math and Chinese lessons during the weekend, and some say their parents assign them homework on top of what their school and their tutors give them. They all play several instruments and participate in some sort of organized sport. I thought of Bella, the young Chinese girl profiled in National Geographic’s China issue last May. This new generation of Chinese kids is either going to take on the world or crumble in the pressure cooker in which they have been raised.

The cooker in which I had been sitting was making me uncomfortably warm, so Summer and I took a breather. We decided to check out other areas of the four-story Golden Lily, which is also a respected hotel in Dalian. Workers handed us pink and white frocks and socks to cover up, as male company would be swirling. Our next stop was a dry sauna, where we drank flower tea out of tiny porcelain cups and chatted with male teachers and other female teachers, including the principal, whose English name is Lydia.

I’ve gotten very good at smiling and nodding, so much so that some of the teachers think I can understand Chinese. I need to curb that habit and embrace looking hopelessly clueless. Summer translated snatches of the conversation for me. She informed me that the principal would like me to stay at the bath house for dinner. Apparently this was an all-night affair, I thought to myself. Usually, Summer went on, the teachers stay until 10 p.m. when there is a free buffet upstairs. But Lydia was worried about my safety and she wanted me to experience the much better quality food in the main dining room. Cultural lesson number 5: First-time encounters are a big deal here, as I was about to find out.

After a quick shower and dip in the hot tub, Summer and I put our pink and white outfits back on and headed down to the dining area. Pockets of flaky bread stuffed with leeks and eggs, cooked celery, potato and eggplant stir-fry, steamed bread rolls, and bowls of jasmine rice already adorned the table when we arrived. Shortly after I sat down, a large fish doused in sweet and sour sauce was plunked in front of me. Lydia found out (with bewilderment) that I didn’t eat meat, so she ordered me an entire fish. Since I am clumsy with chopsticks, I had to ask for a crash-course on how to devour this fish, preferably while avoiding bones and eye sockets.

My coworker Ben and another English teacher named Leo ordered us a round of beers. I was surprised when the waiter arrived with Budweisers. How dare such an American entity disrupt my first genuine taste of Chinese culture! I told the group that this beer was brewed in a town about four hours from my hometown of Kansas City, which seemed to impress them. “We love Budweiser,” Leo said. “They sponsor boxing.”

Beer bottles are enormous here, so small glasses (about three times the size of a shot glass) come with your beer order. Based on what I managed to piece together through osmosis and broken English translations, you clink glasses every time you fill up the smaller glass. And every time someone takes the initiative to “cheer,” you must chug all that is in your glass. (Gambei, the Chinese equivalent of “cheers,” translates to “clean glass.”). And most importantly, as it was my first time drinking with any of these people, that called for a requisite “gambei” with each person at my table. Cultural lesson number 6: These people can drink me under the table.

After dinner and discussion (about everything from marriage to the economy to Sarah Palin to a very complicated Chinese card game called Drink Blood), Summer and I headed back down to the shower room for one last rinse, brushed our teeth, and cleansed our faces with green-tea-infused soap.

We got dressed, retrieved our shoes, and hailed a cab. Summer lives about 10 minutes away from me, we discovered. I got a mini-tour of parts of Dalian I have yet to explore as the taxi winded and honked and screeched its way to my apartment. “Okay, we say goodbye,” Summer said. I offered to pay, at least half, but she refused. “No no, we are friends now.” Cultural lesson number 7: The Chinese never, ever “go dutch” among friends.

That is how it is. You’re considered a friend after a first meeting. Initial conversation reads like a script for a blind date. You talk about your family, your love life, your ideas on marriage, your future plans, all within an hour of meeting someone. I know it is because I am foreign and possess an exotic Western aura that attracts questions and curiousity. But once we start talking, I find out how very similar we are.

As for the exotic fruits and days of the week, well, there’s always next xing qi wu (Friday).

A weekend of eating chicken (gasp!), sampling teas in an underground mall, and stumbling upon the ocean

 

Dalian = cold! The botanical gardens right by my apartment.

Dalian = cold! The botanical gardens right by my apartment.

Dalian is still cold. Very cold. Maybe it’s because the government  turned off the heat in my apartment for the season even though it’s colder now than when I arrived here a month ago, but I never feel warm enough. For this reason, I have subscribed to the Chinese thought that plain hot water really is magical. I carry around a nalgene bottle of piping hot water nearly everywhere I go. 

Have I really been here for a month? Time works in strange ways here. On the one hand, I feel like I have established a routine here, so it seems like I’ve been in China much longer. However, if someone told me I arrived in Dalian five days ago, I would and could believe it. Individual days pass somewhat slowly, but the weeks pass in a flash. And weekends, well, they go by way too quickly…

On Saturday, my new friend Grace invited me to her cousin’s house for a nice lunch. We were supposed to meet up for coffee later in the day, but I was giddy to be invited into a Chinese person’s home since sometimes feel like I am missing out on key food-associated culture. None of her cousins speak English very well, so she acted as translator as I struggled to come up with more ways to say in English, “this food is delicious, thank you!” Grace somehow remembered that I liked a potato and eggplant dish here, so she made some of that.

Saturday's lovely lunch

Saturday's lovely lunch

 

We also had leeks and scrambled eggs, fresh greens dipped in a spicy shrimp sauce, amazing skewered chicken that had a BBQ flavor, fish, some sort of fried bread, and some other sort of chicken that I did not try. Yes, I finally ate chicken in China. And it was marvelous.

On the bus ride back to my part of town, I finally saw the ocean here. I got off at the stop closest to it so I could snap a few pictures. The beach was rocky, cold, and unspectacular. However, I did see a dog dressed in a lime green coat carrying a plastic water bottle in his mouth. I nicknamed him Eco-Dog.

Eco-Dog stifled by a leash.

Eco-Dog stifled by a leash.

 

 

I stopped by my favorite coffee shop on the way home to redeem a free coffee coupon and study Chinese. One of my American friends here met up with me for a little while, and we worked out tentative plans to go to Dandong, China, the following weekend. Dandong is located on the Yalu River, which separates China from North Korea. Tourists can take a boat down the river and get within 30 feet of the Hermit Kingdom’s shores. There is also a dilapidated part of the Great Wall just north of Dandong. 

After coffee, I made a pit-stop at my favorite street food avenue, Tianjian Jie. Four ladies halfway down the street sell wraps stuffed with eggs, shredded carrots and potatoes, cilantro, lettuce, a special sauce, and spices. It’s filling enough for dinner, and costs a mere 3.5 yuan (about 50 cents). Before I discovered this, I had been doing a really good job of cooking in my frigid, tiny kitchen almost nightly. Now it’s hard to muster up the motivation if it’s cheaper, tastier, and more convenient to eat from the street. I’m trying to find a nice balance. 

On Sunday, I had a mission of prepping a birthday package for a certain soon-to-be 21-year-old back in the plains of Kansas. Another Chinese friend, Sherry, and her friend joined up with me to assist with wrangling and bargaining.

While I was waiting for them at the bus stop, I was accosted by middle-aged men selling palm-sized puppies out of a cardboard box, and old women shoving their hands in my face demanding money from me, since I am a Westerner and therefore rich.I really enjoy people-watching on weekend afternoons, but sometimes I lose sight of the fact that nearly everyone is also Ashley-watching when they walk by me. Stupid face — a dead giveaway. 

Anyway, my shopping mission was accomplished. I also sampled more street food (this time some sort of candied berry on a stick) and took part in a tea-tasting at  a shop in a massive underground mall. And as for dinner, I succumbed to the street burrito again. You don’t understand; it’s addictive.

Even right now as I’m typing this, I am sitting dangerously close to Tianjian Jie (i.e. Street Food Mecca) in Amici’s coffee shop, waiting for my 6:00 Chinese class to start next door. I needed coffee to recover from an overall decent (but long) day at school. During the lunch break, my favorite Chinese teacher, Sophie, took me to a Korean-run cake shop called Cream Tea with her daughter Monica and her daughter’s friend for Monica’s birthday. I had tiramisu. 

Before getting dessert, I ate my usual lunch with other teachers in the school dining room. One of the teachers commented to Sophie that I was much thinner than her. She constantly gets harassed by other teachers telling her to not eat so much because she is so fat. By American standards, she’s just a little thick. She’s very stylish and pretty. But here they openly call her an enormous whale, basically. The other teacher told her it was because of the economic crisis in America that I am so much thinner than her. China clearly has a higher standard of living, and she can therefore eat more than I can. It was a joke. I think?