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If you go to the Red Woods, you need to know Paul Bunyan. If you go to Mexico, you should know Catrina. And if you go to China, you should know the Monkey King. Otherwise you may find scenes like this, and there are a lot of them, confusing (and China already has enough things to confuse you):

Aviva West's photo of characters from Journey to the West.

Characters of Journey to the West. Photo by Aviva West.

So what do we have here? A marching monkey wearing a tiger skirt, a Pig-Man (or Man-Pig?) and a couple of monks. Not your usual group of travelers. And they weren’t just casual tourists. Rather they were on a mission – to travel to the West (India, in this case) to obtain the sacred Buddhist texts and bring them back to China.

Their story was inspired by a historical event, a Chinese monk named Xuanzang did travel to India collecting Buddhist artifacts around the year 630. However, Journey to the West was not written until the 16th Century. That nine hundred years was plenty of time for history, myth and legend to percolate together into a fabulous adventure story.

Cast of Journey to the West

Xuanzang – The monk Xuanzang (sometimes called Tripitaka), is the character seated on the white horse (who like any good steed is also a dragon-prince). Xuanzang is a man with a purpose, bent on bringing the Sutras back to China. But he’s just a man – no special powers, which is why he needs some eccentric friends to help him.

Monkey King – The most important of these disciples is the Sun Wukong, better known as the Monkey King. Monkey is strong and clever. He has magical powers and can transform into other things. But while he scores high for ability, he’s also kind of immature, cocky and mischievous. Basically he fits the mold perfectly for the mythological archetype of a trickster.

Pigsy – Zhu Bajie, aka Pig or Pigsy, is not quite as powerful as Monkey, but is equally entertaining. Like Monkey, he has magical powers, can transform into different things and has a knack for getting into trouble. In Pigsy’s case, that trouble often comes from flirting.

Sandy – Loyal and logical, Sha Wujing, or Friar Sand or Sandy, is the straight man, there to make everyone else’s eccentricities the more obvious.

The four of them have a variety of mishaps and adventures on their way to India (think Wizard of Oz). They eventually achieve their goal of securing the Buddhist texts and bringing them to China, but a lot (too much to tell in a travel blog) happens in between.

Peter Vanderheyden's photo of an ad for Monkey King the musical.

Monkey King in popular culture. Photo by Peter Vanderheyden.

Find Out More…

The original text of Journey to the West is attributed to Wu Cheng’en and was published during the 16th century. Since 16th century, Chinese transcripts are difficult for most of us to read, Arthur Waley’s 1942 translation, called Monkey, is probably a better bet.

But you can also meet Monkey in the movies (and according to the photo I found on Flickr, in the theater). I stumbled upon The Lost Empire  one  lazy Sunday when I needed a TV movie to distract me while I folded laundry. But there’s a whole list of Monkey King movies.  Charismatic Monkey-men are inspiring.

It’s Weird that It’s West

For most of us travel blog readers, going to India would be a journey to the east, but it all depends on your perspective. (I’ve always wondered why the three “western” religions come from a place we call the “Middle East”.) It’s good to be reminded that its all relative.

 

 

 

The thing about the Great Wall is, it’s great.  There are a lot of different places to see it.  I wanted to do more than see it.  I wanted to experience it.  But how do you experience a wall?

Josephine Lim's photo of the Great Wall at Badaling.

Badaling – The most common place to see the Great Wall. Photo by Josephine Lim.

Hoping for something a little more authentic than clinging to a handrail and trying to dodge other people’s cameras, I had decided that I wanted to do the 10 km hike from Jinshanling to Simatái.  All I needed was for the weather to cooperate.

Beijing means “northern capital” – a good hint that things can get chilly in the winter.  Hiking on the Wall in the ice and snow can be quite dangerous.  It was early December, freezing, but still dry. I had a few days in Beijing before flying to Southeast Asia where I would pass the winter in balmy weather, planning to return to China in March.  So it was a gamble.  Should I trust the weather to hold or wait until March?

March can be pretty ugly where I come from.  So I walked up to the desk at the hostel and signed up for the hiking tour the next day.

I awoke to find a world blanketed in snow.

The van picked me up from the hostel as scheduled and I tried to stay awake to take in the scenery as we traveled to Jinshanling.  When we arrived the driver pointed us towards the wall, explained that at the end of the hike there was an option to cross a bridge or zip across on a flying fox, and that then we would have time to grab something at the restaurant there before heading back into Beijing.

There were about 14 of us and I fell into pace with a Brit who was in China for the first time.  Local “guides” tagged along to help us, asking only that we buy one of their T-shirts at the end.  I found this obnoxious and made it clear that I was not planning on buying anything.

The hike was strenuous, more so because of the weather.  There were literally thousands of steps.  In places, the Wall was falling away, and the snow and ice made for treacherous footing.

reibai's photo of the Great Wall between Jinshanling and Simatai.

This was the footing… Photo by reibai.

 

michael davis-burchat's photo of a snowy walk on the Great Wall.

And this was the weather. Photo by michael davis-burchat.

But the views were spectacular.  We climbed in and out of watchtowers, looked through archways.

A cell phone rang and another member of our group reached into her pocket and answered.  She said a few words and hung up.  Glancing back, she said, “Wrong number.”  We laughed.

“You should have told them where you were,” my hiking companion said.  Wonder what that innocent little mis-dial cost them?

The same thought kept occurring to me throughout the hike.  Was the Wall really necessary? Did it really work?  I know the Mongols were (and are) incredible horsemen, but looking at the jagged hills around me, I just couldn’t imagine an army invading over that terrain.

I commented on this to a fellow hiker and he said, “Well, sometime governments undertake big projects whether they’re needed or not, just to give the people something to rally behind.”  Indeed.  My country was engaged in a couple of wars at that moment, arguably for that exact purpose.

Terrain as seen from the Great Wall. Photo by numb3r.

Land invasion over this? Photo by numb3r.

I was one of the slower hikers and I believe it took me about six hours to complete the hike. At the end, although I did not buy a T-shirt, I decided to give the local woman who had appointed herself as my guide some cash.  I could easily have plummeted to my death on multiple occasions without her help.  Exhausted and satisfied, I arrived at the end, and being a chicken, elected not to take the Flying Fox.  Hot soup in the restaurant tasted wonderful.

 

All four of us in the gigantic silk store were crabby.  The employees were obviously annoyed that we weren’t buying.  And my travel partner and I were not happy to be there.  We had not signed on for this.  At least not knowingly.  It was a little “extra” which had been slipped into our day tour.

Aviva West's photo of silks in Viet Nam.

The silks were beautiful, but I didn’t come here to go shopping. Photo by Aviva West

Combining transportation with the knowledge of a local guide, day tours can be a great way to see the sights.  But I’ve learned (though I don’t always remember) that it behooves me to clarify a few points before hand.

Of course, there’s also an issue of who and how you ask. I frequently sign up for third-party day tours that are advertised in a hostel.  This gives me a chance to check in with other travelers staying at the hostel who may have already taken the tour.  Do they recommend the experience? Also, since a tour is something you do once, but hostels enjoy repeat, or at least more than one night, customers, the staff usually gives pretty straight forward information.

  • Language: I’m always told that the tour guide speaks English, but that doesn’t mean it’s English that a native English speaker can actually understand.  If you get a chance to meet the tour guide before signing up, take the opportunity to ask some obscure questions (Tell me about your favorite kind of music? Does your grandfather still have teeth?).  Sometimes they’ve memorized the words in a script and can’t offer anything beyond that.  Also, try to find out if the majority of the other people taking the tour are foreign or domestic tourists.  If you’re the only foreigner you may get to hear detailed descriptions that last for ten minutes in a language you don’t understand, followed by a two-word explanation in English.
  • How much time at the actual site? It’s great that the tour can pick you up from your hostel, but that means that you’re also going to spend some time crammed in a van driving around to pick up other tourists from other hostels.  Ask how much time you will have at the actual site(s).  And if you have something important (a bus/train/boat/plane to catch) afterwards, ask the hostel staff what time folks usually get back.  It may be quite different than advertised. 
Joriz De Guzman's photo of the Terra Cotta Warriors.

I’d rather hang with these guys. Photo by Joriz De Guzman.

  • Shopping/Other Stops: The surprise visit to the silk store was not the first time that I’d found myself hi-jacked to go shopping. And in truth, it’s not always bad.  On a tour in Viet Nam, we made an unexpected (at least by me) stop at a ceramics and woodcarving workshop.  I didn’t buy anything, but it was interesting to see the process and the artisans were disabled, so I was happy that the tour company was supporting them.  I didn’t feel that way at the silk shop. The other members of the tour, all Chinese, were at a casino built to look like an Egyptian pyramid.  I didn’t want to be there either. I would rather have spent another hour seeing the Terra Cotta Warriors.  So now I’ve learned to try to scope out if the tour includes any unadvertised side trips. This is a good time to practice the art of asking a question in such a way that the listener has no idea which answer you’re hoping to hear.
  • What does “all inclusive” really mean? The price of a day tours may or may not include entry fees or meals.  Even if you’re told everything is included you’ll still want to have some cash on hand for incidentals (drinking water, snacks, etc.) and you will most certainly be asked to tip.  On a couple of occasions, I’ve signed up for something all inclusive and later have not been sure if some of the people I was asked to tip (the person who transported me for three minutes on the motorcycle) received part of my tour fee as I had expected.
  • Transportation: Which brings up the topic of transportation.  It’s going to be a long day so it’s nice to be comfortable.  Will you be riding in a 14- passenger van? And if so, how many people will be in it? Will you be bumping along in the back of truck (hat and sunscreen required)?  For me, pretty much anything is okay, as long as I’m prepared.

 

“It’s going to be a damned expensive cup of coffee,” my friend admitted.

Indeed.  Thousands of dollars.  She was telling me about her kitchen remodel and we were reflecting on the fact that in our travels, we’d both noticed that a lot of the best cooking comes out of the humblest of kitchens.

I’ve had home-made, gourmet meals prepared in one-room houses where the kitchen was nothing more than a fire pit.  I wonder if it’s a law of paradox: the better equipped your kitchen, the less cooking you do.  In the US we like large, elaborate kitchens, yet we love to eat out.

Which kitchen produces the most food?

jonl1973's photo of a Berber kitchen

Berber kitchen – photo by jonl1973

Karen's photo of an antique French kitchen

Old time French kitchn. Photo by Karen.

Ralf Kayser's photo of a Nepal kitchen

Ralf Kayser’s photo of a Nepal kitchen

SWIMPHOTO's remodeled kitchen.

SWIMPHOTO’s remodeled kitchen.

Surprisingly enough, the most elaborate kitchens I’ve seen were not in the United States.  They were in Israel, in religious homes, where keeping kosher was taken the point of essentially having two kitchens side by side.  Two sinks, two ovens, two refrigerators.  Wow.

One of the reasons I wanted to stay with a family when I was in China was to try to learn the secrets of their cooking.  Mrs. Zhou’s kitchen had a cold water sink (hot water in the kitchen is also an uncommon luxury here in Mexico), a tiny (college dorm sized) refrigerator, a propane tank with a burner and a small table.  No oven.  No counters. No cupboards.  And with this she worked wonders; noodles, hot pot, and my favorite- dumplings.

You can buy coffee table books with photos of colorful, tile-covered Mexican kitchens. I’ve seen kitchens like this, but more often than not they’re in the homes of wealthy Gringos who like Mexican décor.  Most Mexican kitchens are fairly straight forward- stove, sink, fridge, a pressure cooker for making beans and dispenser that holds a garafón (a five-gallon bottle of drinking water).  They don’t seem to be nearly as fond of their hand-painted tiles as we are.  A blender and a molcajete (stone mortar and pestle) are ever present as well.  One does need to make salsa.

waywuwei's photo of the kitchen at a Mexican cooking school.

Susana’s Trilling’s Kitchen at Seasons of My Heart Cooking School Photo by waywuwei.

One thing I don’t see in Mexico, or in many places in the world, is a lot of space dedicated to storing food. No walk-in pantry here. Instead neighborhoods are littered with tiny fruit and vegetable stores, bakeries and butcher shops, which accommodate buying the food you need on a daily basis. In the US, we’re encouraged to hoard food in our homes. Gotta be prepared for when that big earthquake hits. But I sometimes wonder if we have internalized the metaphor, and if our habit of storing extra food in our homes feeds into the habit of storing extra food on our bodies (fat!).

So what are the common elements to every kitchen? I think I’ve identified two things, some kind of heat for cooking the food and a knife for cutting it. That’s it. Water can be carried from somewhere else, and refrigeration isn’t necessary if the food is fresh. Ah, and there is one other, all-important ingredient, the thing that real makes a kitchen – the person, usually a woman in my observations, that transforms those raw ingredients into wonderful things to eat. Here’s to the cooks wherever they’re cooking!

The best things we bring home from our travels aren’t things.  The treasures we acquire are greater understanding of ourselves and our world, the friends we meet along the way and the memories we bank up to enjoy in the future.  But what about the more tangible souvenirs? In my years of traveling, I’ve found some that there are some souvenirs I enjoyed for years, and others that don’t work out the way they’re supposed to.  So, what makes a good souvenir?

A Skill as a Souvenir

Knowing how to do something you didn’t before you left home rocks.  For the rest of your life you can think back on your trip and say that’s when I first learned how to ride a motorcycle, salsa dance, use chopsticks.  As far as I’m concerned the best thing you can learn is how to prepare all those delicious foods you’re eating. (Though I would put picking up a new languages as a close second.)  Many places now offer cooking classes.  Or you can just make a point of hanging out with local women, chatting up the cook in your favorite restaurants, and using the internet.  (I’m a veggie and was recently delighted to discover International Vegetarian Union Recipes Around the World.)

Clothes

In theory, clothes should make great souvenirs.  After all, you probably have to wear something.  So why not something that reminds you of your travel.  But it never quite works out for me.  Here’s what happens: I’m in some rural place admiring the beautiful clothes the indigenous women wear.  I give myself permission to splurge and buy one of these beautiful shirts/skirts/shawls.  And then, I don’t wear it because it’s too nice and I don’t want it to get ruined.

This is dumb, but I keep doing it.  I even know when I’m doing it.  I say to myself, “Now look.  Those women are wearing those skirts out here in the dust heading goats, washing their skirts in the dirty river and hanging them on a barbed wire fence to dry.  There’s no reason you can’t wear one of those to work.” But then when I’m home, the place where I bought the skirts seems so far away.  I know I could never replace it, so I don’t risk it.  I have a great looking closet.

Jewelry

While clothes haven’t really worked out for me, jewelry has. Small, cheap, easy to carry – everything I look for in a souvenir.  I have a collection of inexpensive and yet wonderful earrings I picked up in China, a jade  necklace I made myself in New Zealand and a “power bracelet” with the Mayan symbols for the date of my birth that I bought in Chiapas.  The only down side is that things that are small are also easy to lose.  (An excuse to go back…)

A souvenir you can eat out of!

House Stuff

I’ve purchased a lot of house wares on my travels (hand painted ceramics are a favorite for me here in Mexico), and if I’d had more money, I would have purchased a lot more.  The trouble is, if you keep traveling, you might not actually have a home to put these things in.  Or if you do, you may not spend much time there.

Little Things

My travel partner and I played a lot of cards in China.  Somehow, we found ourselves hanging out in Tsingtao Brewery tasting room without a deck.  So we bought one.  Small, inexpensive, useful, and the fact they are now beer stained just makes them a better souvenir.

There are things I haven’t tried.  I imagine that a tattoo could be an excellent reminder of a great adventure.  Unless things went badly at the ended and you decided that you didn’t want to remember…

And the worst possible thing you could bring home from your travels? A disease, social or otherwise.

What’s the best souvenir you have ever brought home from your travels?

If you spend any serious amount of time in China, you will most likely be wined and dined by Chinese friends who want to impress (and show off) their foreign guests.  This is what happens if you’re lucky.  If you’re unlucky, they will try to accomplish this by taking you to karaoke.  In that case, my only advice is to drink heavily.

Eating in a fancy Chinese restaurant can entail a number of new experiences, so here are some etiquette tips for fine dining in China.

First Thing First…

Entering a posh Chinese dining room for the first time, I naturally slid around to the chair that was in the back corner, farthest from the door, closest to the wall.  I thought of this as being humble, trying not to draw attention to myself.

Dead wrong.  The place in the back of the room, farthest from the door is where the most important person at the meal is supposed to sit – the head of the table (the table is, of course, round), as it were. Oops!

Sometimes there will be one setting where the napkin is folded differently (rolled and protruding from a glass in a phallic manner) than all the others.  This is another way of indicating the most important seat in the house.  Don’t sit there.  If your host tells you to sit there, argue and tell him that it’s his seat.  Status is a big deal in China and you should always defer to your hosts.

Dining room in a fine restaurant. Photo byWilliam Murphy.

Weird Stuff You Just Have to Roll With… 

Are we in a restaurant or an aquarium?

Walking through the doors of a palatial building where you’ve been invited dine you might suddenly wonder if you’ve taken a wrong turn.  Ahead you see tank after tank of  sea life: fish, shellfish and turtles.  The idea here is freshness.  You can select your dinner while its still alive. Literally, you can point to which fish you want and they will kill it and cook it for you.

Or maybe they won’t kill it.  A few times, I was served “drunken shrimp”.  A bowl of live shrimp is brought to the table and liquor is poured over them.  You get to eat them as or after they die in drunken bliss.  During the process however, it’s not unusual to see an inebriated crustacean fling himself out of the bowl and flop around on the table!

Drunken shrimp. Photo by James Creegan.

Enough Food Already!

There are four of you, or maybe six or eight, but your hosts have ordered enough food for twenty.  I like to eat as much as the next person.  Actually, I like eating more than most people.  And I want to sample as many things as I can.  But even I was shocked by the amount of food served at these meals.

Shocked and disturbed.  Don’t they know we grow up being told not to waste food because there are starving kids in China? At one point, I expressed my concern to my host and he admitted that they find the waste disturbing too.  But he went on to say that he would be a bad host if he didn’t order too much food.  So this is something you just have to roll with.  Nothing you can say will convince your host not to order at least twice as much as needed.

I was raised to be a member of “the clean plate club.”  The same logic that impels your host to order enough food for an army means that you should leave some food on your plate.  An empty plate means that you were not given enough and will likely signal someone to pile more food on your plate.

Epic Fireworks' photo of a chinese feast.

Good enough to eat! Photo by Epic Fireworks.

Chopsticks in the Food

Uuh? The same sticks that go in my mouth go into the serving dish? Yep, they sure do.  As a matter of fact, it’s not unusual to snag something out of the serving dish with your chopsticks and put it straight into your mouth. As Westerners we tend to think, “yick- germs!” But seriously, if it was really that dangerous, would this country have over a billion people? Just roll with it.

How to Be Polite, Even When They Tell You Not Too 

The Chinese way of telling you to help yourself and dig in is to say, “Don’t be polite.”  Of course, you do want to be polite, even while your pigging out.  Here’s how you do it.  Let’s say I’m eyeing the braised eggplant which is on the opposite side of the table and flanked by the crab dumplings and the congealed blood (Mao’s favorite dish I’m told).  Rather than spin the lazy-susan around to nab some eggplant, I pretend to be concerned about the lack of dumplings on my neighbors plate.  I gently turn the table so that the dumplings (and coincidentally the eggplant) come over to my side.  Then I offer my neighbor some dumplings, even going so far as to put one on her plate.  This will prompt her to reciprocate, and she will likely address the appalling lack of eggplant on my plate. Thus, I get what I want while appearing to act out of concern for someone else. Very sneaky!

Cheers! 

Wherever you are in the world, if you see Chinese businessmen dining, you’re likely to notice that they toast a lot.  Not only are they having a good time, they are being courteous.  You see when dining in China, it’s rude to partake of your alcoholic drink without toasting.  Every time you drink, you need to click glasses with your tablemates.  So when you need a gulp, think of something to drink to.  Don’t worry about coming up with something profound. “New friends” or “handsome men and beautiful women” are standards everyone will be happy to drink to.

As with everything, there is a right and a wrong way to toast.  When you click your glass up against someone else’s, hold your glass lower than theirs.  This conveys respect and indicates that you see the other person as having higher status than yourself.

A server may be at your table dedicating herself to keeping your glass full.  As she pours, it is polite to tap lightly on the side of the glass.  This is a way of saying “thank you” and can be used whether drinking alcohol, tea, or anything else.

Where’s the Rice?

A Westerner at one of these fancy feasts might be puzzled by the lack of rice, which we all believe to be the staple food of Asia.  Rice is the staple food, but the Chinese are smart.  They don’t want to waste space in their bellies with a cheap, starchy-filler when there are all those yummy dishes on the table.  Therefore, rice is brought out at the end of the meal to top you off in case you’re not already full.

Also, don’t expect fortune cookies.  They were invented in San Francisco and I never saw one in China.

Eat well!

Thank you, James Michener! I’ve learned a lot from your books over the years and the thousand pages of Iberia I just finished was no exception, an enlightening tour of Spanish history and culture.  However, I can say without a doubt, that the most important part of the book (and for me, probably the most important in any Michener book) is the paragraph that begins at the bottom of page 340.  On that glorious page, the author generously included instructions for making gazpacho.  Really good gazpacho.

Gazpacho! by avlxyz

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got several cook books with gazpacho recipes.  It’s just that this one is both easier and yummier – the taste of Spain!

Occasionally, I reflect back on my travels and think of things I should have done differently.  I should have stayed longer in such and such a place. I should have eaten more pastries, got more massages, packed lighter, been more generous, bought less crap, gone to see Petra.  But if I had my travels to do over again, the biggest change I would make is that I would take more cooking classes.

Think about it.  Long after you’ve come home, put you’re backpack away, forgotten about your photos, settled into whatever’s next, you will still be eating.  Unless something goes drastically wrong, you’re going to be eating your whole life.  So what better souvenir from your travels than knowledge of how to make some of those delicious, exotic dishes?

Cooking Classes

There are two ways to go about learning to make local cuisine.  The first is through formalized cooking classes. I enjoyed my first overseas cooking class when I was attending language school in Mexico.  At first, I didn’t want to take the class because it required an “intermediate” level of Spanish and I didn’t think I was up to it.  However, suspecting that cooking would be more fun than grammar, I decided to take the plunge.  Yum!  It’s amazing what you can throw into mole!

A few tips for getting the most out of your overseas cooking class:

  • Cooking classes often begin with a trip to the market. Take the opportunity to ask questions about all those strange looking fruits and vegetables you’ve seen.  Your curiosity may be rewarded with samples!
  • You can usually choose which dishes you want to learn to prepare.  Wait until you’ve been in the country a little while before taking a cooking class so you know what your favorite dishes are.
  • Select dishes that are made from ingredients you’ll be able to find when you get home, or make notes about possible substitutions.
  • Ask ahead of time if they will be giving you a copy of the recipes.  If not, take notes.
  • Travel and sightseeing can be exhausting.  The act of cooking makes you feel “at home” in the best possible sense.  Time your cooking classes for when you need a break from sightseeing.
This is a recipe from a cooking class I took in China. (The bad English was too good to change…)

From my Chinese cooking class

Braised Eggplant with Garlic

A)   250g eggplant cut in 2 inches long strips, put in the salty water around 10 minutes then take out.

B)   One red pepper and one green pepper, shred as long as the eggplant strings.

C)    Four cloves garlic chop to small pieces, 2 pieces green spring onion cut in 1 inch long.

D)   1 teaspoons Chili bean paste.

Cooking Method

A)   Heat the wok with 4 tablespoons oil, medium heat to stir fry the eggplants, til the color getting a little brown and soft. Then move out to the plate.

B)   Low heat fry the garlic and chili bean sauce.

C)    Return the eggplant, then add the water, half cover the dish.

D)   Season the dish with 1 tsp salt, 1 tsp oyster sauce and 1 tsp soy sauce.

E)    When the eggplant soft and the dish’s water almost dry, then put some cornstarch water, mixed again, put the spring onion, white pepper, sesame oil, serve on plate.

Family Stays

Another great way to learn about preparing local food is living with a family.  This gives you an opportunity to observe cooking as a daily activity and to make a point of being present for the preparation of your favorite foods. You may want to hold onto a label or piece of packaging so you can search out ingredients when you get home.  This is what I’ve learned from the kitchen goddesses I’ve been lucky enough to stay with:

  • Simple can be good.  Some of the best dishes I’ve had were made with only a handful of ingredients.  Likewise they can be whipped together in very modest kitchens.  My hostess in China had one gas burner, a sink with no hot water, a couple of knives, spoons and chopsticks.  And with this, she did wonders.
  • When you recreate it at home, it will be good, though not quite as good as what you had overseas.  I can’t roll out perfect dumpling wrappers like Zou Jun and my couscous is not nearly as light and fluffy as that of the Moroccan woman I learned it from. But…
  • It is still delicious and your friends will be impressed.

So there you have it. Buen provecho! Bon appetit! Now you’re cooking! Let’s eat!

HK eats

What to do in Hong Kong?! Are you crazy?! You can never run out of things to do in Hong Kong! It’s like going to China town with the experience multiplied 10 times! You can tell how exciting this trip was for me with all the exclamations at the end of the first 4 sentences.

I have one word to describe Hong Kong – market! It’s a huge market place where you can buy and experience everything. I will save the juicier experiences for private sessions and shall keep with  those that are for general reading and some with parental guidance.

One of the things I like about Hong kong is its efficient transport system. The train ride from the airport to our hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui was fast and catching one is very easy. There are directional maps on the station that have English translations which means it will be an effort to get lost.

The first thing I noticed as we were making our way to the trains was how fast people walk! Everyone was in a hurry to get somewhere and nobody takes time to breathe or say sorry if they happen to bump into you at 20 kilometers per hour pace. Everything is in double time – the travelators, escalators, elevators and the trains. I literally didn’t have to hop on the train because as soon as the doors open I was pushed inside by foot traffic behind me. For effortless walkabouts I would suggest wearing roller blades, maintain your balance, let go and the crowd will do the rest to propel you to your destination.

Prepare to receive no-nonsense service in Hong-kong and we got an initiation as we were checking in at the hotel. It’s purely business and since everyone is in a hurry, the locals won’t have time for small talks and usual courtesy as this is regarded as an unproductive option. Transactions are kept within professional levels, seemingly cold but efficient.

Where to stay

The Internet is the best place to start planning on where to stay, what to do and where to go. Naturally, we had to search the Internet for best deals in accommodation. The requirement: cheap, clean, safe and accessible by public transport. We had several choices but settled with Imperial Hotel on Nathan Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon. It’s just a hop, skip and a jump away from major shopping districts, restaurants and markets.

The rooms are adequate but not grand. I call it the one-step room – one step you’re on the bed, one step you’re in the toilet and one step you’re out the door. But since we will only use it to plonk our tired asses after a day’s exploration around town and it’s theme parks, a singe step access to basic amenities and the bed should be more than enough.

Imperial hotel does not have its own restaurant so forget about room service, but Nathan Road and nearby streets are loaded with restaurants and cafes, all you have to do is strap on your roller blades and let the people push you to the nearest eatery. While the hotel does not have its own restaurant they offer free breakfast with the accommodation as additional option. How do they do it? We were told that they give you a breakfast stub to McDonald’s, now how nifty is that?!

HK Walkabouts

Where to eat

Whatever you do, do not ever make the mistake of ordering Chinese food, because back there they just call it food! Oodles of noodles, scrumptious stir fries, a parade of poultry, racks of cured meats, the greenest and crunchiest vegetables, and more. For a more authentic experience go to one of the restaurants on one of the side streets near Nathan Road complete with non-English speaking waitresses and menus in Chinese. Your index finger will come handy as you point to what other customers are eating and they don’t seem to mind you looking at what they’re having.

For the not-so-adventurous stomachs there is the traditional staples of the western cuisine to be had from McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC and Pizza Hut.

We also had sushi in one of the sushi trains along Nathan Road, after haggling our way through interesting finds from the Ladies’ night market on Tung Choi Street, Mong-Kok.

Lunch at Watermark

A friend of my partner’s, who now resides in Hongkong, treated us to lunch in Watermark along the harbour where her husband knew the chef. Really posh restaurant with a salad bar, the best steaks in town, and a beautiful serving of foie gras. I ordered a slab of rib-eye rare but i got medium instead and felt disappointed since i really want my steak bloody. We alerted the waiter who in turn told the chef and it was immediately recalled and replaced with a new serving of a perfectly seared rare rib-eye steak that melts in the mouth. I was beyond satisfied.

But what I loved the most is the fruit market. They are bustling with colours of the freshest and most succulent fruits. We bought a kilo of strawberries that were as big as apples, a kilo of juicy cherries, a kilo of oranges, and a couple of custard apples. We were eating these as we made our way to the Ladies’ Night Market.

What to do

Our main purpose for going to Hong-kong was the theme parks – Disneyland and Ocean Park – and we were not disappointed. None of us were kids anymore but it brought out the inner child in us.

HK Ocean Park

To get to the Ocean Park we took the Citybus 973 from Tsim Sha Tsui. The ride took about 30 minutes and dropped us off just within walking distance to the entrance of the park. Admission to the park is about HKD280 for adults and HKD140 for children under 12. Best attractions are the dolphin show and the grand aquarium with over 5000 species of water creatures. The downside, its so hard for a diver to view underwater creatures on land. I had to press my face so close against the class and breathed from my mouth to simulate the underwater experience. The dolphin show was exhilarating as men and dolphins performed tricks in and out of the water.

Disneyland is magical. From the minute we got to the Disneyland Resort Station we could already feel the experience. The station is decorated with a lot of hidden Mickeys and the trains had Mickey Mouse windows and rail handles inside. Getting there we took the MTR from Kowloon, which took about 30 minutes to get to the

HK Disneyland

Disneyland Resort Station that took us to Lantau Island where Disneyland is located.

My favourite experiences were the Lion King performance in Adventureland, the parade of stars in Fantasyland, the 4D cinema, It’s a Small World and the fireworks overlooking the Disney Castle capped the experience.

Aside from the theme parks, Hong-kong is the best places to go shopping for clothes, gadgets and perfume. Word of warning though especially for electronics and other gadgets to buy it from reputable dealers, Cheap doesn’t always mean a good deal so buyer beware. I am more traditional when it comes to buying my gadgets so I decided not to get anything from Hong-kong this time. But I am now in the market for a Canon S95 to use in my underwater camera setup.

Disney Castle

I went crazy buying clothes, especially in H&M! They were really dirt cheap and the quality of the material and work were great. I still have the shirts, pants, shorts and underwear. There are also some great bargains in the Ladies’ night market. I suggest getting souvenirs from the night market and haggle up to 80% off the price, seriously. For perfumes we bought from trusty perfume warehouses and they were about 30% off normal retail prices.

City explorer’s tip

Learn to use the MTR and ferry! Its the secret to mobility. They are fast, efficient and will practically get you anywhere. Also, hang-on to your hard earned cash and make sure you want the item before asking for the price. As soon as you asked a vendor on how much an item is they start wrapping it for you and if you are not really prepared to buy you get pressured into parting with your cash before you can say Shanghai!

HK Theme Park Fashion

A Day Off the Beaten Path

I would call this section a day off the beaten rack to account for Hong-kong’s theme park fashion. While most tourists would perhaps wear shorts, t-shirts and comfortable footwear to battle the endless walks and queues in the park it was surprising to see how the locals dress up for the occasion…and they really dress-up.

It was like a fashion show for the local women and you will find an all seasons collection. From boots and jackets to lacey tops and fancy cocktail dresses to four inch heels and mini skirts. For the guys, it’s just like a day in the office with slacks, leather shoes, long-sleeved shirts, and the optional wind breaker or dinner jacket. At first I thought there must be an event in the park but then I saw them queue up and some sit next to me to watch the shows.

I guess you don’t really have to try hard to find something off the beaten path in any travel adventure. You just need to open your eyes and this will just pop out even in the most common places for tourists.

March 8th was International Women’s Day and to commemorate that, this is a women’s travel story.  Yes, I do mean a tampon story.  Consider yourself warned.

*******

Driving from Panjin to Dan Dong should only have taken three or four hours, but the bus was taking the scenic route and the first snowstorm of the year had hit that November morning.  So instead, it took nine hours.  Nine hours, one pit stop.  And I was in that special monthly state of “enjoying being a girl”.

Ally, my travel partner, had been in China for several years, and was accustomed to how bad the bathrooms can be.  When the bus stopped at a small cement building in the middle of nowhere she said, “It’s going to be ugly,” and headed for the bathroom stalls.

Stall is really too generous a word for the structures I’m talking about.  There are no doors and the walls are only waist high.  Actually, bathroom is too generous a word.  What it is, is a trench to squat over.  Everyone uses one trench.  You can imagine how pretty this gets.  But I am not one to stand on ceremony.  When you gotta go, you gotta go.  I had to go and take care of the other issue as well.

I followed my friend into the bathroom. There were three stalls.  I was fourth person.  “Well, I’m not going to stand and stare at her while she pees,” I thought and backed out of the room.  I was new to China. Chinese women walked passed me and did stand, staring at the people peeing.  You do what you have to do.  So I went in, stared, then finally took my turn to squat with a nondescript, middle-aged Chinese woman staring at me.

Chinese Toilet by Dominic Rivard (a little nicer than one I was using)

Now, in recognition of the fact that half the people in the world never have to deal with this, let me just state the obvious and say that inserting a tampon is a very private thing.  It’s not just that I had never before done it in front of a stranger.  I had never done it in front of anyone at all.  Not in front of my former husband who I had lived with for 13 years, nor in front of my mother, who when I first came of age, described what to do, told me a funny story about her first time, and then left me to it.  Nope.  The Chinese woman was my first. Northeastern China is one of many corners of the world where women don’t use tampons.  I can’t imagine what she thought.  Quite possibly the experience was as disturbing for her as it was for me.

Back on the bus, I reflected on my new experience and was drawn back to a conversation I’d had with Zou Jun, the Chinese matriarch of the family I lived with, a few weeks before.  I had seen people making small fires and putting some kind of special paper into them. Zou Jun told me that fires were to honor one’s deceased relatives and that prayers go up on the smoke.  The papers I had seen were money, going to relatives in heaven who needed the money there.  (The fact that heaven had an economy and that one could be broke there was vaguely disturbing to me, but I often find descriptions of heaven disturbing.)  She went on to say that if you burn money for someone, you must not wear skirts or dresses when it warms up in the spring.  The spirits want to come back and can fly up into you that way.

Suddenly I sat upright in my seat on the bus and called to Ally who was stretched out in the seat across from me.  We were in a remote area of China and yelled back and forth in English with out worrying that someone else would understand.

“Hey, Ally,” I said, “You know how Zou Jun said that if you burn money for your relatives you’re not supposed to wear skirts because a spirit will fly up your vagina? Well do you think you’re safe if you have a tampon in?”

She howled with laughter.  “Maybe if it’s a super!”

Then she went on to muse over the lost marketing opportunity.  “Oh, my God, China is the biggest market in the world Tampax is going about it all wrong. They should be selling them as demon blockers.”

Demon blockers indeed.  For the rest of the trip, and probably for the rest of our lives, that is how she and I refer to those, oh-so-necessary little plugs.

Happy Women’s Day!

I was at the end of my rope with China when I arrived in Chengdu. After two weeks of crowded cities, cheating taxi drivers, and shady tour guides I was beyond frustrated.

This wasn’t all China’s fault. I didn’t do my research and went at a peak time for domestic travel. Fatigue was also contributing to my state of dissatisfaction. I tried to see too much in too short a time; catching 16 hour train rides and all night buses for several days in a row. At the risk of stating the obvious, China can overwhelm you; there is just too much of it for one trip.

Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, is famous for panda bears and hotpot, but I had other reasons for the visit. From Chengdu, I was going to travel to Tibet and then on to Nepal. I wanted to see Lhasa, of course, and also get out into the mountainous country side, and maybe even to the Everest base camp. I was going to the top of the world. My goal was shot down almost immediately.

“No, no, no, right now is impossible, impossible.” a young lady informed me.

Tibet was closed off to tourists due to recent protests and a heavy crackdown from Beijing. That sealed it for me.

“I’m done with China, just book me a ticket to Thailand. I’ve got to get out here.”

“Hey, did I hear you say you wanted to go to Tibet?” a voice said from a nearby table. “I think I have a good alternative.”

The voice belonged to a Fin named Mikko. It was an interesting voice, a fantastically unique accent in English—like someone smashed a Norwegian and a Russian together, stuffed them into Dolph Lundren’s little brother.

I quickly noticed a few oddities about my new acquaintance. First, he was a walking encyclopedia on all things Chinese—from History to Geography, he was prepared to dish out information about a place, at any time, whether you asked for it or not.

“Did you know that when the Mongols invaded this area, they killed over a million people?” he would say, which is interesting, if I weren’t in such a crab of mood about the whole country.

He also had an incredibly deep knowledge of idioms in English. Hearing him explain the origins of Tibetan Buddhism or the Analects of Confucius was interesting, but hearing Ivan Drago say “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” was rather peculiar.

Mikko needed one other person to book the trek, and so he explained the options. We could book a horse trek up to Ice mountain. The mountain was (and still is) in the same chain as the Himalayas, and the trek would be led by Tibetan guides. It was Mikko’s feeling that we could get a better experience of Tibetan culture this way, since, at the moment, Tibet was impossible to get to.

“I don’t know. It sounds good, but I’m looking to head out of here. How many days would it be?”

“Oh, it varies, from 2 days to 2 months.”

“Have you ever ridden a horse?” I asked.

“No, well, once when I was 7. Let’s do 8 days.”

I wasn’t sure what I thought of the old boy just yet. He was big enough to be intimidating, so I listened to what he had to say, but I knew if we were on a trek up in the mountains I couldn’t just accidentally lose him in a crowd. However, Mark Twain once wrote, “there ain’t no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them.” So I went for a compromise.

“You haven’t been on a horse in over 20 years, and you want to be on one for eight straight days? Come on, let’s do four, and see how that goes.”

He agreed, so we signed up and paid the money.

We caught the bus at 6am the next morning. The ride, we were told, would take between 8 and 10 hours. I had stayed up nearly the whole night, with the hope of being unconscious for most of that time—any way to avoid a history lesson from little Dolph. The driver, as it turns out, had other plans.

We were up early, first in line, and were sat right in the first row, over looking the driver and the gigantic windows.

“Ah, this is great. Perfect seats,” Mikko said, “the early bird gets the worm, aye?”

I propped my feet up and prepared for a snooze.

Sleep hadn’t completely taken hold when we pulled up to the traffic light outside the city. When the light turned green, the driver morphed into a Rally car driver; handling the bus up and down mountain roads, passing slower vehicles, and around livestock traffic jams with the skill of a champion racer.

When your holding on for dear life, conversation is limited, but we managed a few utterances.

“I’ve got to get out of this country, I said, I think it’s killing me!”

“Oh, no , You should stay a while, I’m heading down to Yunnan, it’s…”

“OH S—, watch out for that YAK.”

The passengers held on to anything stable, while the driver turned and gassed and braked—all while simultaneously downing pints of green tea and chain smoking Chinese cigarettes. The bus ride was said to take between 8 and 10 hours—we made it in 7 hours and 7 minutes.

I got off the bus in Songpan, dazed, and looking for the nearest place to pass out. Mikko jumped off the bus, gave the driver a high five, and came my way.

“Let’s go check this town out!”

“What about our stuff?”

“Oh, let’s just carry it, it’ll be fine, it’s not a big town.”

And he was right. Songpan isn’t a big town, but it is a bustling one. The streets are filled with motorbikes, carts, cars, horses, and tour buses. Souvenir shops, cafes, and trekking companies line the main-street all the way down to the ancient city walls, where a nice new Statue sits.

“So, Songpan was founded around 618 AD by the Tang dynasty, and rebuilt by the Ming dynasty and used as a military outpost.” Mikko started.

“That doesn’t mean much to me, I don’t know any of the dynasties.”

“Oh, right, right, well, the Tang dynasty is…and the Ming, well, you’ve been to Beijing, they commissioned the Forbidden City. That statue is of a Tibetan King and his Chinese Wife, I guess it’s supposed to represent the bond between Tibet and China ”

That didn’t clear much up for me at the time, but I did appreciate the effort. And I found that last bit interesting, considering the bond between Tibet and China is the reason I ended up in Songpan in the first place.

Mikko went on and on like that until we’d covered the town, and he’d had enough. “Let’s hit the hay.” he finally said.

“You got it man, I’ve been ready for that since 6 am.”

We stayed at one of the nearby Hotels, and woke early the next morning. We met up with our group around 6:30. It was a good mix of people; China, Japan, Australia, France, Canada, Germany, America, and, of course, Finland were all represented.

We packed up the horses, headed out of town, and up the mountain path. The trail was steep and the ride not terribly comfortable. The saddle and stirrups were not for handling those above five feet. A few griped, but all continued onward.

The first hour was spent getting away from the Town, and was not very scenic. After that hour the land opened up to mountains in all directions.

“This reminds me of Montana.” Mikko said.

“What? You’ve been to Montana?”

“No, ha, just pulling your leg, but I did see it in a movie, and this is what it looked like.”

“Fair enough.”

As we continued, the path continued—steeper, wetter, and rockier. And although I wasn’t at ease on the tiny horse, I was impressed with it’s stamina. That feeling was short lived.

We came up on a shallow creek and all started across, with the exception of Mikko’s horse. This horse decided a bath would a better choice. It circled around an open area in the creek, like a dog trying to get comfortable in its bed—and then laid out full body in the water, with Mikko still on-board.

Mikko went headlong into the water, and came up grinning. He was laughing, he loved it.

“Oh, whoa, that’s cold. What’s that one about beating the dead horse?”

“I don’t know if that one fits here, but take it.”

For a serious looking person, this Mikko was sort of entertaining. The trip was starting to turn around, and for the first time in two weeks I was beginning to enjoy myself.

The trek went on, with a slightly soggy Mikko, for another 3 hours. On the way we passed the sun worn faces of Tibetan farmers, working their Yaks through creek beds and up the mountain trail. We passed colorful prayer flags, that were strung along the ridge, and stones, called Mani Stones, with Tibetan mantras inscribed on them.

Around 5pm we came up to an open field, surrounded by steep hills, and divided in two by a shallow stream—one side was to be our base camp. A villager had set up a small wagon with goods for sale on the other.

The guides set about setting up, and several of the travelers explored the surrounding hills. Mikko and I tried to help set up camp. Steve, one of the Americans, and one guide set off for the wagon. They returned with all the beer the villager had to offer…and a goat.

“Alright, the beer’s on me, but everybody throw in 100 yuan for this goat.” he said.

This was my first transaction involving any type of livestock, so 100 yuan sounded reasonable.

”What’ll we call it?” some asked.

“Oy dunno, Whatcha reckon we call it ‘Wanfan.’” Australian George responded.

“Great, what’s that mean?”

“Dinner!”

We drank the beer and watched, some what amazed, as the guides slaughtered, skinned, and skewered the goat–all in about 20 minutes, and then roasted the thing over a fire.

The meat cooked for an hour or so. They covered it with salt and spices, cut squares into the sides, and we ate the freshest and finest goat meat I’ve ever had. Actually, come to think of it, that is the only goat meat I’ve ever had.

The next morning we awoke to the sound of screams and laughter. We popped out of our canvas shelter to find our guide yelping and hooting and chasing our horses all around the open field. “Looks like the horses are on the loose.” Mikko uttered.

Apparently tying the horses up at the end of the day was left off of his to-do list. The rest of the guides were sitting by the fire, drinking tea and laughing at our young friends foul up.

By the time he had found all his horses, we had eaten and were ready to ride out. We took a dusty country road, through small villages with stone shingled rooftops until we reached the mountain trail that would take us all the way to the base of Ice Mountain.

Ice Mountain, was bit anti-climactic. It wasn’t bad, but, because of our late start, the clouds had rolled in and visibility was limited. At that height, movement can become stagger. Only professionals and the hard core mountain climber could continue on. We hung around a while, taking pictures, and headed back to camp.

That night, we ate a less spectacular meal of stewed cabbage and mutton. The sky had cleared and the stars were bright. It was strange to be in a group of so many, with so many different experiences to share, only to stay completely silent staring out at the sky. No one even touched a beer.

When the sun came up the next day we packed up and prepared for one more grueling day on the horses. I was feeling fatigued from the altitude, sore from from the ride, and not really dying for another full day of trekking.

“OK, We go back to Songpan,” one of the guides announced. “What’s that?” Mikko exclaimed. “We paid for a 4 day trek.”

I kept my mouth shut.

The guides hadn’t counted on this. They looked confused. So, they huddled, discussed, and came back with a solution. Our rookie horse guide would guide us the rest of the time, alone, all the way to his house.

We parted ways with rest, exchanged contact info, and headed to the house. We pulled into his place. It was like a compact farm, complete with crops, a stable, goats, and a dog. The guide’s wife greeted us with stare of confusion, that quickly faded into a welcoming smile. Their rosy cheeked child just stared.

The guide showed us to the common area, which was underground and cool, a relief from the hot sun. We drank tea and relaxed as he went out to unpack the horses.

It was not long after the guide stepped out that we were visited by the younger brother and his friend. They were coming back from the temple and dressed in the robes of young monks.

We attempted to communicate using English and Mandarin as best we could manage. The Tibetan is as indistinguishable to Mandarin Chinese as French is to Romanian, but with the help of hand gestures and facial expressions, we got by fine.

They explained that our guide, despite having a house, a wife, a son, several horses, a small farm, and the forearms of an arm-wrestler, had only just turned 22 years old. His wife was 23 and the baby 2. And that he and the other brothers had built the house—on their own.

He came back after 30 minutes and showed us the area. He took us to a small road-side temple, and on to a small cave. Pray cards littered the cave floor. We climbed down until we arrived at tiny crack in the wall.

After some communicative effort, we came to the understanding that we could continue on this path, underground, all the way down into the valley and back up the other side of the neighboring mountain, in less than a day…if we weren’t so fat.

We went back to the house and explored the rest of it. It was a rather spacious house. There were several stories. The rooms were simple and devoid of anything from IKEA, Mikko noted. Mikko took this time to explaining more Chinese history.

“China’s claim on Tibet goes back to the Yuan Dynasty…”

“That doesn’t tell me anything, I’ve never heard of it.”

“Sure, you have. It’s the Mongolian Empire…you know Genghis Khan.”

“No kidding? That’s strange, isn’t it? Claiming land conquered by a foreign invader?”

“Not strange to Chinese. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and so is History, I guess.”

Dinner was animal fat, green beans, and several pints of yak butter tea, which I learned was a sort of delicacy. After dinner, we were led up a few flights of wooden stairs to the attic. Before he opened the door, he turned and winked like we were about to be in on the secret. It was a pray room. A picture of the Dali Lama dominating the area. The room smelled of incense and had an orange glow to it.

“Do you know who that is?” mikko asked.

“That’s the Dali Lama,” answering himself.

“You don’t say.”

“He is the leader of Tibet, but since the 50s he’s been living in India. China views him as a separatist, like a revolutionary.”

“Like Mao?”

“No, definitely not, if you put Mao’s picture up your house wouldn’t get raided by the police.”

“So it’s illegal to have his picture up like this?”

“Yeah, I think it’s fine out here because we’re in the middle of nowhere, but it could be bad news closer to Lhasa. That’s just what I’ve heard.”

We sat in the room a while, just sort of soaking in the experience. But the hour was getting late, so our guide showed us to a room where his wife had made pallets for us to sleep.

That morning, we loaded up and headed back to Songpan. The ride was short, and the goodbyes to the guide brief, but I had a great feeling of contentment. My trip that had started so hectic, had led to a fine horse trek and impromptu home-stay; complete with a constant stream of cultural information from an eccentric travel partner.

There were two buses leaving Songpan—an eight hour hell ride back to Chengdu or a 24 hour bus down to Yunnan.

“So, what’s your plan? Still heading to Thailand?” Mikko asked

“Eventually, but you never finished telling me about Yunnan.”

“That’s right. Did you know that Yunnan is China’s most biologically diverse province…”

“Nope, but tell me all about it. We’ve got a long ride ahead of us.”