Category Archives: Travel

Things I will miss in China

Here’s the second part–despite the truth of the first post, there are many things that I will truly  miss after I leave China.  Here are some of them.

  1. Having restaurants and markets within short walking distance
  2. Cheap and delicious restaurant meals
  3. The shopkeepers who line the block around the school and let me practice my Chinese
  4. My kindergarten kids!
  5. The fun middle school classes who ask questions, use English in class, and do hilarious skits to practice their English
  6. My apartment, despite its plumbing flaws
  7. The man and woman who make the chicken sandwiches across from the school
  8. The man from the fried chicken and french fries place that always chats with me and patiently tries to understand my Chinese
  9. My weekly lunch dates with my girls from class 22
  10. Playing rambunctious games of Settlers of Catan with the foreign teachers and dishing about our week
  11. My students that I’ve tutored to study abroad–Volcano (Aiden), Chris, Eileen, Echo, Victoria, and Peco
  12. Seeing my kindergarten kids walking together to the playground and having them all shout my name at the top of their lungs and hug my legs as I go by
  13. Walking into class 5 (middle school) and having the kids run up to me and ask what we’re learning today
  14. Pretty much every student in class 18 (middle school)
  15. Learning random Chinese words from hearing students say them in class
  16. The cheapness of taxis
  17. The sushi chefs from our weekly sushi restaurant who chat with us as they prepare the food
  18. The adorable couple who own the Taiwanese restaurant and the staff there that laughs when we order the same thing every time
  19. Kenneth, the man from Hong Kong who owns the honey shop and chats with us when we stroll past his store.  A kind, wise person.   He was the hardest so far to say goodbye to.
  20. The guy who gives us haircuts and talks to us about his dream of opening a hair salon in Los Angeles
  21. Being able to go home and take a nap at lunchtime if I need to
  22. Making coffee for my tutoring students
  23. Being able to take a train to just about any other city
  24. Street food
  25. Countless milk tea shops
  26. The old man and woman who sell us fruit at the outdoor market and always sneak extra fruit into our bag as a gift
  27. Chinese babies
  28. Sharing and hearing travel stories with other people
  29. Making friends unexpectedly
  30. Hot Pot on cold nights
  31. The Muslim restaurant with the little boy that always runs around the tables
  32. Julia, the kindergarten teacher from Xiao class 5
  33. Watching people ride on their bikes with strange objects, like trees
  34. The thrill of a fast, frightening taxi ride
  35. The familiarity of able to call any older woman I’ve just met “Auntie”  (ayi)
  36. The mojito place in Beijing on a hot summer day
  37. Letting my cat out at night to go gallumphing down the empty hallway and back
  38. The guard at the east gate who always smiles and waves at us as we go in with our grocery bags, and sometimes asks us what we’re making for dinner
  39. The pretty girl that we buy fruit from just down the street
  40. The lady who used to have a restaurant next to the school and gave us food from her own table so that we could try new things
  41. Eating the amazing meals that Jerry’s mother makes
  42. Hanging out with Jerry…but, maybe we’ll be hanging out with him in the U.S. as well once he begins university there!
  43. Peking Duck
  44. Meeting people from so many places in the world
  45. Those moments where I recall, again, the excitement I felt about being in a different place when I first stepped off the plane in Beijing
Advertisements

Vientiane, Laos

As we progressed from China, to Vietnam, to Laos on our three-week journey, Asia became more and more fascinating to me.  Hanoi was very different from cities in China for many reasons, but it still didn’t seem too far off the grid.  Hoi An had a different feel altogether–no big city crush of people, no traffic to speak of, gorgeous countryside undamaged by industrial factories.   And when we got off our 22 hour long sleeper bus in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, it was an almost surreal experience.  I felt like I could be anywhere, in India, or Africa.  The air was hot and humid, the roads were packed red dirt, at least until we got into the tiny city center.  We got our backpacks out of the bus and piled into a tuk-tuk that was headed for the center, and I held my backpack, trying not to hit the two little Lao boys sitting next to me when we went over pot holes in the road.

When the tuk-tuk stopped, I was surprised.  The city was tiny–no high-rises, a two-lane highway running through it with lots of little alleys and one-way streets, and hardly any traffic at all.  But, this is one of the things that I loved Vientiane for, because it was so easy to get around and explore, and because it was wonderful to be away from big-city life.  Like Vietnam, Laos used to be a French colony, so there is a noticeably French influence in some of the architecture and cuisine, especially in Vientiane.  I have never seen so much Western food in China or Vietnam; even in its little supermarkets, Vientiane had cream soda, cheese, smoked salmon, pastries, freshly made pesto, and so many other treats that I have missed while living in China.  For lunch one day, I had a delicious mozzarella, tomato, pesto, and ham baguette sandwich that almost brought tears to my eyes, it was so good.  I know this sounds overly dramatic, but I love a good sandwich, and I have yet to find one of those in China.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Chinese food, but being without certain foods, especially comfort foods,  has made me crave them.

We walked around quite a bit in Vientiane, enjoying the hot weather, looking at the elaborate temples that were scattered all throughout the city.  The temples in Laos are much different from the ones we saw in China and Vietnam.  The workmanship on Lao temples is even more brightly colored and seems very opulent.  We saw monks in bright orange garb walking through town and praying in the temples.  We drove a motorbike to the most famous temple in the city, and it was colored almost completely gold.  I was wearing shorts that day, so when we arrived at the temple entrance, a few other similarly-clad women and I were asked to use the wrap-around skirts they had for tourists at the gate.  I was expecting this to happen, but the weather was so hot that I couldn’t bear to wear jeans that day, and when you’ve been traveling for three weeks you run out of clothing options.

One day, we rented a motorbike and drove 4o minutes out of Vientiane to Buddha Park, a garden full of Hindu and Buddhist sculptures.  The road there was riddled with potholes, but we made it there in one piece and enjoyed walking around  the statues.  One of them, included in the pictures below, was huge–you could go inside the fearsome mouth and climb up some tight stairs into something that reminded me strongly of Dante’s Inferno.  There were several levels inside, and on each level,  statues of people were fraught with  hellish torment, and gods sneered out of dark corners.  Looking at and being puzzled by the statues in Buddha Park, I wished that I knew more about the deities that were being depicted, and the people that worshiped them.  Three short days wasn’t near enough to get acclimated to the unique culture in Laos that felt so different from anywhere else I’d been.

Our last night in Vientiane, we ate at a fabulous restaurant where street children learn skills to work and support themselves.  It was exciting to see something like this in operation, and seemingly working out so well.  I hope those kids can continue to work in such a safe, caring environment, something that is not a trademark of South Asian workplaces, especially where children and teens are concerned.   There is a sobering amount of human trafficking that exploits the young, poor, and vulnerable in that part of the world.  I hope that more places like this will spring up and get the support they need.  I can’t find the name of the place, but if I do, I’ll post some more information about it.

This post wraps up my journey through southern China, Vietnam, and Laos–I don’t know if I will ever return to these places again, but I really hope to someday.  If I come back to Asia, Vietnam and Laos especially will be on the top of my list!


Duck soup

While staying in Hoi An, Elijah and I found a lot of delicious food to try, but there was one place that we kept coming back to every day.  The first day, while riding our bikes around the old town, we veered off into some neighborhoods to check out the scenery away from the town center, and we rode past a little restaurant with an outdoor kitchen and a few tables underneath pomelo trees.  As we rode by, we heard a lady call to us to come eat there; and we decided that we would come back to try it out.   After riding around the alleyways for a while, we parked our bikes under the trees and saw that it was a duck phở (bún măng vịt) restaurant.  If you’re not familiar with phở , it is a delicious Vietnamese soup with rice noodles and can be made with beef, chicken, duck, or other types of meat.  I love phở because the broth is so good, and because of all the toppings that come on the side—limes, mint leaves, lettuce, bamboo shoots, chili sauce, and bean sprouts are often added to phở, and if I have the option, I add them all.

This place had the most delicious phở  I had yet tried in Vietnam, and eating outdoors was really nice.  The owner, a lady named Thanh Nha (sounds a bit like Tanya), originally from Saigon, befriended us and sat with us to chat each time we came.  She told us about her family, and how she came to live in Hoi An, and most of all about her two daughters.  Every time she talked about them, she got tears in her eyes.  Right now, she doesn’t make enough money to support them living with her, so they live with her sister an hour away in another town, and she gets to see them a few times every month.  She told us that she is excited about owning her restaurant, which she only opened a month ago, because she is hoping to make enough money to bring her daughters home to live with her. On our last night there, I was sad to say goodbye to her.  I love that even traveling, you can meet people in places you knew nothing about before, and knowing someone there adds even more value to that place in your memory after you’ve left.

 

 

 


Hoi An, Vietnam

This little town may have been my very favorite place on this vacation.  The night before we arrived in Hoi An, a sleepy river town a few kilometers from the beach and surrounded by beautiful countryside, we got aboard a very tall sleeper bus that would take us the 15+ hours from Hanoi to Hoi An.  I had the misfortune of getting one of the only short bunks on the whole bus, so I had to be careful not to kick other passengers with my restless, windmilling limbs.

We arrived in Hue around 8:30 am, where we escaped our sleeper bus for a regular day bus, and I rejoiced in being able to stretch my legs out all the way.  As we left Hue and drove on through the countryside towards Hoi An, I felt an almost tangible weight lift from my shoulders.  We drove up through tall, green mountains, the sea never too far from the left side of the road.  We got away from smog, and people, and I realized how much I missed being in the country.  When we got to Hoi An, I was amazed at how tiny it was.  I knew it was small, but I didn’t know it would be so pleasantly free of traffic and hordes of people.

We rented all-day bicycles for $1 each, and almost immediately made for the road leading to the beach.  Along the way, we saw people working in the rice fields and cows and water buffaloes grazing along the edge of the road.  The beach was pristine and almost empty of people, and we enjoyed some Vietnamese beer and lounged around for a while.  After swimming for a bit, we hopped back on our bikes and explored some neighborhood roads by the river.  I had to stop myself from stopping at every bend in the road and taking pictures, because it was so nice just to enjoy the beauty of the place for a while without trying to capture it all on film.  Little kids playing in the road and next to the river shouted “Hello!  Where you from?” and their parents smiled at us as we biked by.  I was really struck by the friendliness of the people there—no hard, inscrutable looks were really directed towards us as foreigners, like I see so often from the older generation in China.  Vietnamese people, old and young alike, grinned at us and waved when we passed them.  Elijah and I both were struck by how much more happy the children seemed here than in Shijiazahuang.   Maybe it’s because they aren’t pushed as hard in school as Chinese kids in Hebei province, or maybe because they aren’t spoiled and coddled as only children, as many of our students are.  They have free time to play outside, and they have brothers and sisters, so the weight of the family’s expectations doesn’t rest on an only child.  But that’s just speculation.  The kids here look like they pull their weight on the family farm, but there was so much laughter and playing going on, too.

One of the days, we rented a motorbike and explored an island across the river from Hoi An, reachable by ferry.  We spent all morning cruising along country roads, enjoying the warm weather and the farms we passed.  All of the houses here are brightly painted and unique, their doors open to the road and people sitting on front porches chatting, or working in the yards.  Once, we stopped the motorbike next to a large field to take some pictures, but couldn’t get the bike started again.  A farmer saw us from his house, and ran out to help us.  After multiple tries, we finally got the bike going again with his help.  As we passed more and more workers in the rice fields, we stopped again to take some pictures, and there was one man in particular that gave us a huge smile as we took pictures, and gestured to himself so that we would take his picture.  The people we passed at first seemed surprised to see us there, especially as we got deeper into the rural areas, but they almost always smiled kindly at us as we rode by, and that left a lasting impression in me of Vietnamese people.

Here are some pictures from our biking adventures in and around Hoi An:


Longsheng Rice Terraces

On Friday of last week, the three of us hopped on a bus bound for Longsheng Rice Terraces, roughly two and a half hours north of Guilin.   Translated into English, “Longsheng” means “Dragon’s Backbone,” which is a great description of the sharp ridges that have been cultivated into step after step of rice fields built right into the mountainsides.  After leaving the city limits of Guilin, our bus wound through lush countryside and rumbled up twisting mountain roads.  I should mention here that no matter the terrain, Chinese drivers always drive fast, and they always want to be first, so there was a lot of swerving and passing going on, even when the driver couldn’t see around the next bend in the road.  If I had just arrived in China last week, I think I would have had a heart attack on that bus, but after a year and a half of life here, I just contented myself with clutching my armrest a bit tighter.

The bus dropped us off at a small village called Heping, and there we hired a man to drive us to the village of Dazhai as an entry point for hiking the rice terraces.  I was transfixed by the scenery on that 40 minute drive, seeing steep mountains sloping down into narrow streams, and smelling wood smoke in the air.  We drove through tiny villages with chickens fluttering across the roads and muddy dogs loping in-between wood houses built on the riverbank.  When we pulled up to the gate of Dazhai, old women in traditional Yao (a minority group in China) clothing surrounded us with their baskets of wares, saying “hello!   postcard?  very nice.  I give you cheap.  okay?  okay?!”  We tried to scoot past them so that we could hike first and then see about buying souvenirs, and after a little while, they stopped following us and hung back to wait for the next busload of customers.

Despite thick fog that curled over the steep rice terraces and wooden houses of the village, the view was absolutely beautiful.  Steep stone steps climbed through the fog, past rows and rows of rice fields and small clusters of houses.  Wood fires kept the air smelling like smoke and something like cedar, and chickens made noise as we walked past the houses.  It felt like we were absolutely separated from the rest of the world.  Once we climbed higher, the steps were coated with a bit of snow and ice, and we brushed past stalks of grass coated in ice that fell and shattered next to us.   The occasional mountain horse (pony?) was tethered here and there in the terraces, and we saw a few people walking between houses in the fog.  Other than that, we didn’t run into anyone else on the trail.

We got a bit turned around and hiked to a village opposite from where we intended to hike, but it didn’t matter too much.  After we figured out where we were and prepared to hike back down the mountain, a woman from a nearby house called to us and told us that she would prepare food for us.  I think it’s fairly common for foreigners to buy a meal made by a villager, since there really aren’t any (or many) restaurants up there, so after some deliberation, we accepted.  The lady invited us into her home, which had a huge loom set up in the long front room, which was lit only by windows cut into the wood.  We stepped through another door into the kitchen, where a fire was burning on the floor by another window.  An elderly woman and a younger woman sat by the fire; the old woman weaving a basket and the younger one sewing something else.  Another, much younger woman came too and told us that the woman who invited us in was her mother, and I think that the old woman was her grandmother.  They lifted a huge pot off the fire, which looked like it contained some sort of mash for their chickens or pigs, maybe, and set a clean pot over the coals.  The woman started to boil some eggs for us, and set some yams in the coals to roast.  The old lady smiled toothlessly at us and kept weaving her basket, and we started looking around at the kitchen in the half-light inside.  I tried to hide my surprise at discovering a dead chicken behind me, and a rat that looked like it was being prepared for eating, and hoped that we wouldn’t be offered roasted rat for lunch.

Once the yams were ready, the old lady pulled them from the coals and tossed them over to us; the skins turned my fingers black but the inside was hot and delicious.  The other women started bringing all sorts of home-made (we discovered this was probably not true) wares into the kitchen, piling them on the table.   They had scarves, wall-hangings, blankets, pillow covers, and other items that they said were made at the loom in their house.  We haggled a bit and bought some things that we found out were over-priced when we saw the same things for sale in Guilin, but I am happy nevertheless that we had the experience of eating a meal in their home, even if they did get us to buy more than a meal.  After we had bought a few things, the lady making the meal brought a just-plucked chicken into the house, cut it up, and cooked it with a bit of oil, salt, and ginger.  It tasted great, although in typical Chinese-style, all the bones were chopped up with the meat, so it took a bit of skill to eat it with chopsticks instead of my hands.

The youngest woman had told us that the price for the food was just whatever we decided to pay, and so we assumed that they made their money from what hand-made items they sold, rather than meals.  Because of this, I was more willing to buy things from them.  After we ate, however, the lady told us that our meal would be 200 yuan.  Yikes.  We argued a bit and got the price down to 160 yuan, and we felt not a little silly and disgruntled with the obvious gyp.  But, we agreed afterwards that we were glad that we had the opportunity to eat in their home, even if we left with less money than we expected.  And I can’t imagine that too many foreigners come through at this time in the year, so I hope that it helped them out a bit during the low season.

We hiked back down the trail to the village of Dazhai, and I panicked for a bit because the last bus back to Heping came later than we thought, and I worried that maybe we had missed the last one already.  But it finally came, and it carted us back to Heping, where we caught the last bus to Guilin by the skin of our teeth.   I was ready to collapse into bed after all that hiking, and haggling, and bus-riding, but I am so glad that we had the chance to hike a bit in the Longsheng Rice Terraces. Perhaps it would have been more breathtaking in the spring or fall, when the fog isn’t heavy and the rice is green or golden, but the ethereal quality of mist and fog over the terraces made for a great view.


Guilin

 

Last week, Alan, Elijah, and I made our way from Shijiazhuang to Guilin on a train that wound its way through five provinces, taking nearly 25 hours to reach our destination.  We were able to purchase hard-sleeper tickets, which reserve one bunk per person in a train car crammed with bunk-beds reaching to the ceiling.  Six bunks are grouped together in two rows of three-bunk stacks.   Our bunks were next to a family traveling from Beijing to their hometown of Guilin–a father, mother, little boy, baby girl, and an old grandmother.  The  girl had beautiful, bright eyes, and she stared and laughed at us constantly.  When she got fussy, her grandmother lifted the girl onto her back, and the mother tied the girl in place on the grandmother’s back so she could walk around and quiet her down.  I am always amazed at how strong even the oldest people here are in China.  I constantly see them carrying heavy loads, or even just their grand-babies.  Although the train journey was ridiculously long, it really wasn’t so bad, because I came prepared with a stack of books and a multitude of snacks.  Our train left SJZ close to noon, so I read all afternoon, slept most of the night, and then read again all morning till the train stopped close to 1 pm.

When we got off the train in Guilin, I was happy to notice so much green around us.  Shijiazhuang is such a dry place, so seeing all the trees and other plants growing thickly in Guilin was a nice change.  The weather was chilly and rainy though, so we rushed to get something to eat and then to find our hostel.  The first meal we had in Guilin turned into my favorite so far on this trip.  You choose your toppings (I usually choose either duck or pork with vegetables), and then they steam rice in a clay pot, and then put the rest of the ingredients on top.  It’s really simple, but so delicious.  Plus, most of these restaurants have pictures on the wall of each menu item, so that definitely helped us.  I pointed to one dish that looked good and asked the cook what kind of meat it was, and he immediately started bobbing his head and flapping his arms up and down like wings, and then threw in some duck noises for good measure.  And man, that duck meat was great.

While in Guilin, it was drizzly and cold most of the time, but we still enjoyed our stay and had some great day trips to see the sights in the area.  Guilin is famous for its karst mountain landscape and the beautiful Li River, and we made the most of our time there.  The hostel we booked was nice, and not just because it had two kittens tumbling all over the place that I kept coaxing to sit with me.  The service was helpful, the food was pretty good, and I spent some time reading and playing some card games in the common area.  Some hostels make you want to just stay in your room when you’re not out and about, but this one had a nice atmosphere that didn’t make me feel like holing up.

I’ll post more in detail soon about the day trips we took to Longji Rice Terraces and to Yangshuo!


A ramble, which ends (inevitably) in food

I’m sitting here, on the night before final exams begin, trying to sleepytime tea myself into a state of sleep-inducing exhaustion.  The last few nights, I’ve been tired, but tossed and turned for a few hours before falling asleep.  My students are going crazy with end of semester ants in the pants syndrome, and so am I.  Their crazy involves making noise in class and galloping all over campus; my crazy involves lying in bed every night with my mind woefully awake and my body unable to sleep.  I think we’re all ready for the semester to end and the winter holiday to begin.  Two days ago, I got the welcome news that our last teaching day is December 30th instead of January 6th, which is wonderful sanity-wise and also because it will give us more time to travel before the Chinese New Year, in which–check it–2 billion passenger journeys occur to hometowns and back.   So, the earlier we can book train tickets out of dodge and go south, the better!

I love planning trips and researching countries.  I’m not a big planner with everything in life, but when it comes to traveling, I like reading up on every detail about the places I’m going to go, absorbing everything I see in pictures and read in traveler’s stories.  Right now, after hours spent browsing the online Lonely Planet forum and various other information caches, I have an idea in mind that involves train and bus hopping from southern China to northern to southern Vietnam, and I’m getting braver with the notion that I’d like to hop over to Laos and/or Cambodia as well.  After all, when am I going to get the chance to visit South Asia again?  I may, but I also may never come this way again.   I want to see river towns, and old buildings (get me out of high-rise country, please),  and countryside, and rice paddies.  I want to taste local food made by people who’ve passed down traditional recipes for generations, because loving and appreciating someone’s food is a big step towards seeing their culture more clearly, albeit as a born outsider.

Coming to China has made me appreciate food more than I ever have, which may sound somewhat silly, but it’s true.  Food is so much a part of who we are, what we value in life, and what memories make us love the food we love.  Ask any vegetarian or die-hard steak lover, or even a grilled-cheese addict.  I love grilled-cheese sandwiches with tomato soup, because my mom always made the two together, and I have memories of eating that meal when it was cold, rainy, or snowy out, and it was comforting and delicious.  Chinese people, at least the ones I have met in this city and at the school, have little to no interest in trying Western food, which boggled my mind at first.  Of course I wouldn’t understand this, because in America, though we have our particular styles of cuisines that vary from country to country and town to town,  we have access to international food.  We can eat Italian one night and Chinese the next; Mexican one day and Indian on the weekend.  We may not have access to the most authentic international foods, depending on where we live, but we are aware of and lay claim to various international foods as our favorites.

It’s not like that here.  My students are always telling me that their favorite foods are dumplings and noodles, oh, and maybe KFC.  That’s it.  They don’t even have much interest in any neighboring country’s cuisine, save for occasional Korean barbeque or sushi, but even then, they don’t count it as their favorite.  But, they make up for the foods they never try in their zeal for Chinese cooking.  Which, I can’t blame them for when I’m eating hotpot, or lamb kebabs, or any number of wonderful concoctions that they fry up for dinner. Chinese food is wonderful. But, I still can never fully understand how anyone can live without good bread, cheese, or any variety in cuisine.    I’m still an outsider in that respect, and always will be.  But, I’m glad that after finding new favorite dishes by ordering random things off the menu, and spending some time in the homes of Chinese people who are outstanding cooks, I can appreciate the culture more than I would have if I had stubbornly insisted upon my Western comfort food and just lived on PB&J here.

And now, after these paragraphs of much too compound sentences, I will hie me to bed and hope that I have thought my last thought for the night so that sleep will come quickly.  Actually, my last thought is this:  final exams begin tomorrow morning, and I am happy as I consider what (limited) power will emanate from me as my students meet the grade-giving-teacher side of Laura at last.