Goodbye, Anus Hospital


Photo courtesy of eychao

I’m sure the Beijing landscape has changed vastly since I left there in December, but the New York Times confirms at least one transformation that saddens me deeply. Around the corner from my first apartment in Beijing, on Dongdaqiao Lu near Chaoyangmenwai Dajie, stands a hospital that specializes in proctology. Their sign used to read, “Dongda Hospital for Anus and Intestine Disease.” Apparently, that is not the case any longer, as Beijing strives to put on its best face for the Olympics.

Mr. Tool said he spent his weekends visiting different businesses as if he were a detective in a linguistic vice squad. “I go in and I say the Olympics are coming and this sign is wrong,” Mr. Tool said. He then sends an e-mail message with a correct translation or has a printout delivered.

He is writing a book on the subject, and no wonder: regular blunders include typos on menus in which the ‘b’ in crab becomes a ‘p.’ Some translations are trickier, like describing pullet, which is a hen less than a year old but appears on some menus as Sexually Inexperienced Chicken. Mr. Tool said one prominent sign had become a regular photo op for foreigners: the Dongda Anus Hospital.

Mr. Tool intervened. It is now the Dongda Proctology Hospital. Score another gold medal for Beijing’s self-improvement campaign.

Posted by Ali on April 20th, 2007

A real lazy river

Limestone karst by the river - Vang Vieng
Miha jumping into the river - Vang Vieng

In Vang Vieng, a tiny town halfway between Luang Prabang and Vientiane, a crowd of backpackers a few years ago discovered a mountain-bound oasis from the heat and disorder of traveling in Laos. A small river flows among hills composed of limestone karst, and enterprising locals have gathered a stock of tractor tires to rent out to tired travelers with which they can float effortlessly through the mystical landscape. In a stroke of commercial genius, they’ve also constructed bamboo platforms like something out of the Swiss Family Robinson, spaced nicely along the banks, at which “tubers” are greeted with complimentary shots of Lao Lao homemade rice whiskey and chilled Beer Lao for $1 a bottle. Sputtering sound systems blast Bob Marley and the like (and this was the first context in which it’s felt appropriate and less than grating that I’ve encountered since at least sometime in high school), and the hideaways also feature various kinds of jerry-rigged swings and zip lines. Braver people than I took turns jumping into the river using these apparati, but I was, unsurprisingly, content to drink and watch my temporary traveling companion, an enthusiastic law student from Slovenia, abandon caution and leap into the water.

You can see him in action by clicking play below.


Posted by Ali on December 6th, 2006

Cooking in Luang Prabang

Eggs - Phousy Market - Luang Prabang
Barbecue Fish - Phousy Market - Luang Prabang

My best day in Luang Prabang was spent taking a cooking class, taught by a young Hmong man named Ning who was accomplished and sure in the kitchen. Along with three other students (a couple from Heidelberg and a guy from Belgium who works for EUROPOL), I paid $25 for the chance to immerse myself in Lao cuisine from 10am to 6pm. We began with a trip to Phousy Market, the central shopping location for all of Luang Prabang’s residents (excluding the hordes of tourists), where we bought some necessary ingredients and snacks for break-time munching and, more importantly, had a quick but thorough lesson in some of the crucial components of Lao cooking. After a half-hour tour, we boarded a tuk tuk and headed back to the hut that acts as the classroom for the Three Elephants Cafe cooking school.

Woman selling blood - Phousy Market - Luang Prabang
Palm sugar sweets

Back at the school, we started off with some palm-sugar sweets and Lao coffee while Ning and his assistant did some prep work. When the mise-en-place was set, the four of us came inside for a demonstration of the two dishes we were to cook that morning for our lunch. We began with a dish that required more composition than cooking, per se: a Luang Prabang Salad, which consisted of cucumber, tomato, hard-boiled eggs, pork and cilantro arranged over a mound of mixed lettuce greens and dressed with an intriguing mayonnaise made by pulverizing hard-boiled yolks as opposed to the traditional raw-egg base. The salad was quite refreshing, though I picked around the eggs, as the hard-boiled variety have never appealed to me–although as a child I often made my mom cook them for me just so I’d have the chance to play with our egg slicer.

Luang Prabang Salad
Fried noodles with chicken, egg, and vegetables

The other dish that was to serve as lunch was one that I anticipate making at home not infrequently: Fried Noodles with chicken, egg, and green vegetables. This dish was not only both simple and quick to prepare but also quite delicious and distinctly more authentic than just about any Asian noodles available in New York.

Longan fruit
Frying jaew bong chili paste

After lunch we watched Ning show us how to make five more dishes, of which we were to choose three to replicate ourselves, in addition to the proper techniques for steaming sticky rice (the Lao staple food) and jaew bong chili paste, the variety of that omnipresent condiment native to the region around Luang Prabang.

Frying massive amounts of garlic
Purple sticky rice

We came to a consensus on two of the choices, but the other three students all agreed on the third dish, while I dissented, hoping to perfect the green bean salad that can so easily be transformed–using cucumber, green papaya, or mango–into a healthy, tasty, and versatile standby. Since everyone else wanted to make the pork and egg stew, however, and since we were snacking on longan fruit while trying to make this decision (and that after an unusually hearty lunch!), I just went with the flow.

Banana flowers, lemongrass, and limes
Green bean salad

There is a reason that we all concurred about the other two dishes–chicken laap and eggplant with minced pork are some of the most typical Lao dishes, and certainly among the most toothsome. The laap is invigorating on a hot day, and evokes the jungle with all its wild greenery, while the pork and eggplant satisfy with their savory bath of oyster sauce.

Eggplant and pork
Dinner at cooking class

Recipes upon request–considering these photos, I’m expecting to hear from you!

Ingredients for jaew bong chili paste
Chicken laap


Posted by Ali on November 27th, 2006

Two great meals in Laos

So far I’ve had, among many memorable meals, two unbelievable ones. The first was on my last night in Luang Namtha, on the outskirts of town near the old airport, at a restaurant called the Boat Landing, which happens to share its name with the most upscale lodgings in town (rooms go for about $20 a night). I hired a tuk tuk to take me out there after I’d showered upon returning from my kayaking adventure, since from what I’d read in brochures around town and from what the staff at Green Discovery had told me when I’d asked, this was the place to try well prepared traditional Lao food in a relaxed and somewhat upscale atmosphere. I asked the waiter for some recommendations, since the set meals were all designed for 2-3 people, and despite my desire to try a lot of dishes, that seemed slightly excessive.

Dinner - Rice, fish laap, and pork jeow chili paste - Boat Landing Restaurant - Luang Namtha
Pork jeow chili paste - Boat Landing Restaurant - Luang Namtha

I went with his vote for the fish laap, accompanied by the nam pik awng chili paste with pork, steamed rice (since I was a bit tired of sticky rice after eating it four meals straight), and a lemon-mint shake, concocted by the chef himself. None of these choices could have been better. The fish laap was green as the jungle, with finely minced river fish happily overwhelmed by chopped leaves of various herbs, like mint and cilantro, as well as garlic, chiles, scallions, ground roasted sticky rice, and crescents of shredded banana flower. The nam pik awng tasted surprisingly like a spicy, umami Bolognese ragu, and was delicious spread on top of the crisp cucumber rounds and parboiled carrots that accompanied it. The Boat House offers some of their recipes online here, and I’m fairly certain the one for tofu laap could easily be adapted to recreate the properly piscine version I had the fortune to consume.

The second meal was the dinner I ate last night, after my first real day in Luang Prabang, the third-largest city in Laos (with a population of only 16,000!). I ventured down the peninsula toward where the Kham River meets the Mekong to check out the 3 Nagas restaurant (website currently under construction). One of four eateries in town run by a pair of enterprising business partners, 3 Nagas was written up in the food section of the Times two summers ago, and it was that article (by Amanda Hesser, of whose writing I’m usually not a fan) that fanned my eagerness to travel to Laos, and especially Luang Prabang. (Since the article is only available to subscribers like myself, who may or may not have filched their mothers’ delivery account numbers to access archived articles for free, I’ll paste the full text of it below.)

Crispy rice cake with jaew maklen - 3 Nagas
Fried coconut sticky rice with sour pork - 3 Nagas

The restaurant appealed from the moment I walked by, with real wine glasses, tablecloths, and what Amanda Hesser described somewhat overdramatically in her Times piece as a floor the color of ox blood. The real star, however, was the menu, and the food that issued from it. When I first sat down, an amuse bouche–of jaew maklen chili paste on a crispy rice cake–appeared, as if by magic I’d been transported from Laos to New York or Paris. Again on the waiter’s recommendation, I started with the salad of fried coconut sticky rice and sour pork, which was one of the subtlest and most delicious dishes I’ve eaten in my entire life. The flavors were so quiet but persistent at the same time, I almost had to order a second helping to take home with me for later…though I managed some restraint. The pork with eggplant was good but not resplendent, though the jaew bong chili paste, the traditional Luang Prabang variety, shined with its dark undertones of dried buffalo skin and roasted garlic.

Jaew bong chili paste - 3 Nagas
Bamboo rice steamer - 3 Nagas

Eating these chili pastes always feels somehow verboten, as if they contained the blood of Christian children or a secret alchemical elixir of life. This food is dangerous, stuff not for sunny days but for consumption in some coven’s cavern, scooped up with fingers and placed on the tongue to facilitate communion with some dark governor.

Stir-fried pork and eggplant - 3 Nagas
Tamarind sorbet - 3 Nagas

Safer fare was to be found in the dessert section of the menu, where a tamarind sorbet tempted even my bulging belly. I washed it down with the last of my half-carafe of the house white–a sprightly cuvee snagged for just $7–and made my way back to my guesthouse, where I passed out in a gourmand’s reverie.

Full text of the New York Times article, “To Eat in Laos,” by Amanda Hesser, published July 13, 2005, follows. Click on “Read the rest of this entry” to see it.
Read the rest of this entry »

Posted by Ali on November 18th, 2006

Khmu can do….

…but Sartre is smart-re, as Homer Simpson would say, if he knew that Khmu is pronounced like Camus, and that it’s the name of a tribe indigenous to the area around the Nam Ha river in Luang Namtha province here in Laos. I’ve just returned from an amazing two days of kayaking along that tributary of the Nam Tha river (itself a tributary of the mighty Mekong), during which we stopped at a number of villages, inhabited by such groups as the Khmu and the Lanten (close relatives of the Hmong).

Driver unloading kayaks from the tuk tuk - Nam Ha River
Women in a Lanten village - Nam Ha River

We left from the office of Green Discovery at 9am, after leaving our backpacks in storage there and stuffing bare essentials into dry sacks for transport in our inflatable two-person kayaks. Together we were four: a friendly Danish couple P. and S., myself, and our guide Ket (pronounced something like Get crossed with Ed). We boarded a tuk tuk and headed for the highway, on which we drove for about an hour before we reached the flooded iron-rich paths that will form the base of a new road once construction is finished. We jerked and bumped our way down toward a village for another 20 minutes or so until we reached the Nam Ha River, inflated our red kayaks, donned orange lifejackets and yellow helmets, and pushed off into the muddy water. We made our way through some minor rapids, P. and S. in one boat, me providing the engine power in front of the other while Ket maneuvered us down the course as if it were a video game.

Hut in a rice field - Nam Ha River

As we entered the Southeast Asian jungle, propelled by our own force down the chocolate river, I couldn’t help but think I was floating down the “Irriwaddy,” as the simulacrum river that flows through the Bronx Zoo, surrounded on either side by free-ranging tapirs and bathing elepants, is known, at least within the borders of the zoo (outside, it transforms back into the slightly less exotic Bronx River). Fluorescent blue birds swooped from bank to bank, while smaller aviators with black-and-white striped tails seemed to skip across the surface, pursuing some subaquatic prey, perhaps. Branches overhung the river, and I pushed them out of my face with my paddle as we passed, wary of the gigantic spiderwebs that spread among their crevices.

Sticky rice in the field - Nam Ha River
Sesame seed pods - Nam Ha River

After a while, we stopped on the right bank for lunch. Ket took a kayak to the other side to climb a banana tree and cut down some of its huge leaves with his knife, to use as both table and chairs, of a sort, back where the three of us hovered helplessly waiting for our leader to return. At this point, I was still a bit afraid to take out my camera, so lunch, like just about every other meal during the trip, passed unrecorded, except in my memory. The company staff had prepared a bountiful lunch of pork stir-fried with green beans and cauliflower, the smallest, freshest peanuts I’ve ever tasted, an omelet with dill and other, unidentified herbs, sticky rice in a bamboo basket, and wonderfully spicy chili paste, pounded with jungle-green herbs, into which we dipped our balled-up rice. After eating, I abandoned my fear and took my camera out of the dry sack, and we walked up the hill to the rice fields that soared above the river along this stretch of shore. There, we saw a hut used by the locals for resting and eating while they’re working the fields, and Ket explained to us what many of the plants would yield in a few weeks’ or months’ time: sticky rice (grown not in flooded paddies like the more common variety, but in dry fields), eggplant, cucumber, pumpkin, sesame seeds, thai basil, and ginger, among a number of others for which he didn’t know the English name. Not surprisingly, I couldn’t identify the vegetables from the plants either.

Dinnertime for the piglets in Nalan Khmu village - Nam Ha River
Houses in Nalan Khmu village - Nam Ha River

After lunch we resumed paddling until we noticed some huts rising above the river on the left. We had reached Ban Nalan, home to some 400-odd members of the Khmu tribe. Ket showed us around the village, pointing out the school, which was built by an NGO about eight years ago, the source of running water, in place for only a year, and the solar panels, another gift of some development agency. My favorite part was all the farm animals running around, particularly the piglets, some of which were as young as five days old. I wanted to take one home, but I figured that might be a problem at Customs (disregarding the problem it would be when my mom saw it jump out of my backpack).

Rooster by a door in Nalan Khmu village - Nam Ha River
Pig in Nalan Khmu village - Nam Ha River

Once we’d had our fill of Ban Nalan, we pushed back into the river and headed another hour or so downstream to Ban Nalan Tai, or the southern village of the same name, also inhabited by Khmu people. It was here that we were to spend the night.

Tubercular woman gathering water in Nalan Tai Khmu Village - Nam Ha River
Houses near our hut in Nalan Tai Khmu Village - Nam Ha River

First, we changed out of our wet suits and shorts (and I realized that my legs were lightly seared, like good steaks should be) into warmer and drier outfits. Then we explored the village, saying hello to the women and children hanging listlessly around outside (the men were still in the rice fields, and many of them would stay there overnight, as the fields were well over an hour away from the village), soaking each other in. As the light began to fade and the mist move in (around 5pm), some of the village women came over to our hut and started preparing our festive meal. One of them slaughtered a chicken and threw it in a boiling pot of water on the fire stove inside our hut. A young girl joined in, cutting dozens of small water squash into slices, to be made into squash soup and squash curry. Later, when the cooking moved definitively inside (as the sun had certainly sunk behind the mountains), the same girl mashed up chilies with a fragrant herb called lemon balm, to make a distinctive and delicious jeow redolent of lime juice, with the nice crunch of salt to balance the sour and spicy flavors. Through Ket, who speaks not just Lao and English but also the Khmu language and that of a few other hill tribes, we found out about the culture of the Khmu, and some details of the lives of the women who had prepared our meal for us, and whom we had asked to share it with us as well.

Pet monkey in Nalan Tai Khmu Village - Nam Ha River
Close-up of chicken slaughtered for our dinner in Nalan Tai Khmu Village - Nam Ha River

Then, no later than 9pm, with the sky pitch dark, our bellies full, and our tongues burning, we strung mosquito nets from the ceiling and crawled inside them on the mattresses that had been laid on the rattan and bamboo floor. While it had still been light, I’d inspected my set-up for scary creatures and rated it okay, and the mosquito net instilled a sadly false sense of comfort in me. I was zonked out within five minutes of lying down. However, in a couple of hours I woke up, jerked from sleep by the sensation that things were crawling on my face and back and, lo and behold, they were. I had ants on my face, on my neck, and, yes, in my pants! They were tiny ants, nothing to be frightened of, but I was still petrified, and spent most of the night turning from side to side and swatting myself with my sleeve. It’s not like there was anywhere else to go, so I just snoozed and swatted alternately until 7am or so, when I got up, made my way to the surprisingly modern toilet, and literally shook as many of the insects off me as I could. I was ecstatic when, after a breakfast of fresh-laid eggs and sticky rice, swallowed down with two cups of Lao coffee (sweetened with condensed milk but happily likeable), I was able to jump partway in the water as I climbed back into my kayak. Ants can’t swim, can they?

Ket smoking out the bees from our hut in Nalan Tai Khmu Village - Nam Ha River
Our hut in Nalan Tai Khmu Village - Nam Ha River

Today, we visited a village that the Lanten people call home, though this cluster of huts was in sorrier shape than the other villages we’d seen on the trip. Ket said that the Lanten people, especially in this village, have a huge problem with opium addiction, and that the addiction was at the root of their relative poverty. Even here, most people seemed to have enough to eat, what with subsistence agriculture and all, but a woman came up to us and held out her baby, whose head was a gaping, oozing, wound, and asked us (Ket translated) for money to take him to the hospital. Ket told us that his company sometimes helps the people here get medical attention, that part of the fees we’d paid go toward helping the inhabitants of the villages we visit, and that we shouldn’t give them money because they would spend it on opium. Sadly, we agreed with him and walked away. We didn’t spend too much time in this village, though each of us did buy a little handmade bracelet woven with a traditional Lanten pattern of multi-pronged asterisks.

Cows in Nalan Tai Khmu Village - Nam Ha River
High-class facilities in Nalan Tai Khmu Village - Nam Ha River

Upon leaving the Lanten village, we made our way over the largest rapids we would encounter, though even they were nothing much in the dry season (Ket said they were probably only class 2 right now, though in the rainy season the same rapids can be class 3 or even 4). Then we stopped a bit further down on the left bank, sat down on some more banana leaves cut from the tree by Ket, and devoured our lunch, another chicken from Ban Nalan Tai, which they’d barbecued over a spit for about three hours before we left this morning, accompanied by more sticky rice and perhaps the best jeow yet–very salty and sour, and not quite as hot. After lunch, we only had a short way to go before the Nam Ha joined the Nam Tha and we pulled our boats out of the river, at yet another Khmu village, this one just a tiny agglomeration of homes overlooking the broad and muddy Nam Tha. We waited there for a bit until a tuk tuk came for us, and then we clambered back to town, climbing all the way over a rocky road mirroring the turns and dips of the Nam Tha.

Posted by Ali on November 16th, 2006

Photos from the Border

Khao soi - Luang Namtha
Green papaya salad and sticky rice - Manychan Restaurant - Luang Namtha

I’ve uploaded my first batch of photos to flickr. You can see them there, in the photoset called Laos, or here, on the Photos page, in the eponymous album.
On the tuk tuk from the border - Luang Namtha

Here are the photos that correspond to my first Laos post, The Laos-China Border.

Posted by Ali on November 15th, 2006

The Laos-China Border

In contrast to the Paris-China Border (and if you don’t know the reference, get thee to Amazon for a copy of Salinger’s Nine Stories post haste), the Laos-China Border is a very real liminal space, one which I traversed this afternoon, partly on foot and partly in the back of a saengthaew, or a truck that’s been refitted to carry passengers as well as produce in its nether regions. I had left Beijing on a 7:30am flight on Sunday, sleeping my way across the waking giant to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, through which my brother J. and I had passed on our way to Dali and Lijiang back in March. From there I hopped another plane to Jinghong, the capital of Xishuangbanna Prefecture in the very south of the province, verging on both Myanmar and Laos.

Last night I wandered around Jinghong for a bit, but there wasn’t really much to see, so I ended up having a quick bite to eat and lingering over the book I was reading instead. (Now, I just need to find a backpacker cafe-cum-bookstore at which to trade it for another, lighter tome.) Then I headed back to my clean but somewhat shabby room–with a leaky sink–at the Jingyong Fandian, a hotel that Lonely Planet had recommended toward the center of town, but which I found pretty lacking. However, I must concede, the room only cost me 60 kuai (about $7.50), and the service was quite friendly.

I awoke this morning at 6am and hiked the 20 minutes up to the main bus station, where I boarded a bus to Mengla. From what I’d read, it was supposed to be near-impossible to get from Jinghong into Laos in the course of a day, due to poorly aligned bus schedules, lacksadaisical border guards on the Lao side, and the like. However, I figured I’d give it a go, since I didn’t have any desire to spend a night in Mengla, which promised to be even less interesting and offer even dingier accommodations than Jinghong. I got a seat on the first bus of the day (by bus I mean the small white vans that shuttle rural citizens around the countryside in China, often known by the nickname mienbao because they look like loaves of bread–and because they hold up about as well in case of a crash). It pulled into the long-distance bus station in Mengla just shy of noon; I hopped into a bicycle cart pedaled by a man who kept trying to get me to change money with him–unnecessary, since I had already done a black market deal with some guy standing outside the not-yet-open exchange booths at the Beijing ariport–while taking me to the Number 2 Bus Station. There, I bought a ticket for $2 for the two-hour ride to the border town of Mohan (Boten on the Lao side), took my seat on the bus, and settled in for a jolting ride over roads that switched from paved to dirt every five minutes or so, interrupted by hitchhikers making their way from village to village using the only form of public transportation around–the long-distance buses.

On both sides of the border, officials commented on the obscene number of Chinese visas in my passport. What can I say? Kafka would have had no choice but to write nonfiction if he’d been born Chinese. Despite some hemming and hawing, I was given exit stamps for China and prodded on my way toward Laos. I walked in that direction for a bit until a saengthaew driver convinced me to climb aboard for about a dollar. He wanted to take me all the way to Luang Nam Tha, my day’s final destination, but I decided to wait and see what forms of transport were gathered on the other side of Immigration before I committed, even though he’d nicely offered me half of his small piece of delicious citrus fruit (the first thing I’d eaten all day). I purchased a 30-day Lao tourist visa (the default length of stay was 15 days until just recently…now you can stay twice as long for the same amount of money–$35 for Americans, which came out to almost $40 for me since I decided to use up some extraneous Chinese cash instead of tapping into my small hoard of dollars). Then I ended up in another saengthaew in any case, but it turned out to be not a bad way of traveling on a warm day. The open sides of the back of the truck let in quite a refreshing breeze.

After a little more than an hour’s drive, we pulled into the bus station at Luang Nam Tha, and I was left with relative locations of guesthouses and restaurants from the meager descriptions in Lonely Planet, but no map, and no linguistic competence. I walked around for a bit, found a guesthouse that looked okay, put my backpack in a room, and went out to get some food. I couldn’t seem to find a restaurant for the first 15 minutes or so, but finally I found a place that looked okay, and I asked the waitress to bring me whatever she thought was good from the menu. She decided on khao soi, rice noodles in a slightly spicy broth with small pieces of beef and what I think was buffalo meat, topped with a pile of cilantro, and accompanied by more than half a dozen bottles and jars of sauces and seasonings. I doused mine with the chili sauce and fish sauce, added a splash of “Green Grade Gold Label Seasoning Sauce,” a dash of “pepper powder,” and a spoonful of chili oil. To that, I threw in some of the greens and string beans the waitress had brought me on a separate plate. The result was deliciously spicy, a harbinger of good meals to come.

After obtaining some nourishment, I walked around and found the main strip, decided to change to a different guesthouse–the recently refurbished Manychan, with a great location, a bustling and pretty good restaurant–and booked a two-day kayaking trip leaving tomorrow morning. We’ll kayak on the Nam Tha River tomorrow, spend the night in a traditional home in a Lanten village (I’m sure I’ll know more about what that’s like when I get back…), and then kayak some more on Wednesday before heading back to Luang Nam Tha. Then I wandered around town for a while, got lost in a residential area and stumbled upon some kids playing soccer and people walking water buffalo and goats (and kids!–of the goatish sort) on strings. Then I grabbed my backpack from the first guesthouse, apologized profusely to the nice woman in charge there with whom I’d conversed earlier in Chinese (our only common tongue), and headed for the comfort of Manychan. I had a quick bite downstairs, my first authentic green papaya salad (tam mak hung in Lao, som tam in Thai) with sticky rice (kao neaw), and then headed over to this nice internet cafe to let the family know I’d arrived safely and, oh yeah, post to my blog. I have some photos (of lunch and dinner, plus a couple random freebies), of course, but I’m going to wait until I have some more before I upload them. Perhaps when I get back from tackling the rapids.

Update (November 15, 9:24pm): I just posted the corresponding photos here, under “Photos from the Border.” You can see the growing collection of Laos photos on flickr in my Laos photoset.

Posted by Ali on November 13th, 2006

More Hangzhou Kudos

Hangzhou Book Cover

Apparently about.com’s China Travel editor likes my Hangzhou book. She recommends it in her article on (what else but) visiting Hangzhou. Pretty cool. And since I never posted a photo of the book, here’s one now.

Posted by Ali on November 5th, 2006

Spicy Shangzhi

Last weekend was the start of China’s National Day holiday, one of three so-called Golden Weeks during which business throughout the country comes to a stand-still as trains cart urban yuppies and migrant workers out of the bustling metropolises of the eastern and southern coasts and back to their small cities and farm towns in the country’s vast interior. My friend (and co-worker), E., was heading home to her hometown in the northernmost province, Heilongjiang, which borders Siberia and North Korea, and she graciously invited me to join her there for a long weekend of exploring a very different part of China–and of eating lots of spicy food with her Korean-Chinese family.

Red peppers drying - Shangzhi
Crescent moons with red-bean filling  - Shangzhi

Since the trains are always crammed full at these officially sanctioned vacation periods, and since regulations limit purchases of train tickets to the five days preceding a journey, we were blocked from buying seats on a sleeper train heading to her town, Shangzhi, via Harbin, on Friday evening. Instead, we paid 900 kuai each (about 500 kuai or $60 more than hard sleeper tickets on the train) to fly from Beijing to Harbin, from where we would take an airport shuttle to the center of town and then a two-hour bus ride to her city. E. had never flown before, and she was a bit nervous (I can only imagine how much I would freak out if I didn’t have hundreds of flights under my belt by now–I still quiver a little when turbulence rocks the plane or we sway a bit on take off). However, the 1.5-hour flight passed quickly enough when we started talking, and I don’t even really think she noticed we were in the air. I think it was pretty disconcerting for her to land in Harbin before the train would have left the outskirts of Beijing, though. It must be strange to experience that compression of distance for the first time. In any case, the trip was uneventful, and when we reached the center of the city, her friend J. met us in his friend’s van, and the two of them drove us through the mid-day traffic jam to the bus station. After two hours of zooming along the highway through shimmering fields of wheat, we finally arrived in Shangzhi, and had the bus driver pull up in front of E.’s parents’ hotel.

White porridge with carrots - Shangzhi
Purple rice - Shangzhi

From the minute we arrived until 10 minutes before we left that Monday, I don’t think more than an hour passed without my being expected and encouraged to eat something. It was tough, let me tell you, but everything was so incredibly delicious and fresh that I somehow managed to summon up the appetite. That first afternoon E. requested pork ribs cooked with delicious local long beans, which we were served along with homemade kimchi, sweetly pickled (but still fiery) peppers, and the first of many bowls of teasingly purple rice, which tasted just like regular white rice, if a bit softer, but which instantly won me over with its regal hue. The two of us then headed down the street to her parents’ apartment and looked at some old family photos and her middle school yearbook until it was time to join her parents for dinner.

Jing fish grilling at Korean barbecue - Shangzhi
Grilled mantou buns at Korean barbecue - Shangzhi

That night, we went to one of the two restaurants that E. had described to me before we left Beijing, a version of the typical Korean barbecue spot, made more exciting by the fact that it wasn’t just marinated meat you were grilling but your very own kebabs. The grill-your-own-chuanr (chuanr being the Chinese word for kebab–the character, 串, even looks like two chunks of meat on a skewer!) included such delicacies as liver, kidney, and tendons, but I stuck to lamb, small whole fish, bone marrow (a first for me), and delicious mantou, doughy Chinese buns, brushed with oil and spices and placed over the fire. As we removed the meat from the flames, we dipped it in a mixture of dry spices and seasonings including chili pepper, cumin, sesame seeds, ground peanuts, among others. We washed it all down with tea and beer, and I managed a veritable feast, even though at the end of it her mother didn’t quite believe that I was full.

Glutinous rice sweets - Shangzhi
Assorted homemade baozi - Shangzhi
We awoke relatively early the next morning, at nine, though that was late compared to the schedule that people in the region usually keep. Her parents had been up since around six, since they had to head over to the hotel that they run and prepare for a Korean wedding that was to be held that morning in the banquet hall on the first floor. E. and I meandered over there in time to catch the couple saying their vows, though she couldn’t
Flower girl at a Korean wedding - Shangzhi

translate as her parents never really taught her Korean. We watched them pledge their love, if that’s what they were saying, and saw the bride appear three times in different clothes–a Korean dress, a Chinese one, and a white Western one. Then, they ducked into a limo bound for Harbin, the provincial capital, where the groom’s parents were holding a separate wedding for their friends and family. The bride’s parents stayed behind in Shangzhi to host the celebration for their loved ones. By 11 in the morning, the entire room was drunk on baijiu (noxious Chinese liquor), and E. and I decided to walk over to her middle school. When we returned around noon, the dregs of the party were still there, dancing in a typical Korean style in the middle of the room, and I received my share of dance invitations in broken Russian. None of them could even conceive of the fact that I might have come from farther away than Siberia–though I guess I do look quite a bit Russian.

Crispy pancakes filled with egg and scallion  - Shangzhi
Spicy cabbage soup  - Shangzhi

We ate lunch that day with her parents in the foyer of the hotel, slurping down a tomatoey cabbage soup and devouring crispy crepes filled with scrambled egg and scallions, this after the homemade baozi (stuffed buns), porridge, and sweets made for the wedding downstairs that had magically appeared before us when we arrived at the hotel only a few hours earlier.

Shizui Mountain - Shangzhi
Red flowers at Shizui Mountain - Shangzhi

After lunch, E. convinced her dad to take us out into a countryside, up to a mountain called Shizuishan (Stone Mouth Mountain), that a friend of his had bought a few years ago. He and his brother-in-law, E.’s mother’s brother, borrowed a three-wheeled car, which seemed to be the most popular form of transportation in this city, from a friend, and we set out. As long as the road remained flat, we sailed (well, sputtered) along, but as soon as we reached the slight incline of the path heading up to the mountain, the tri-wheeler died. E.’s uncle had an amusing spot of trouble trying to start it from an uphill position, and the three passengers ended up getting out to make it easier for him. After this happened for the third time, E. and I came to the realization that her uncle probably hadn’t driven before, since her father took over driving and had no problem with the car. It seems this had all been a learning opportunity for her uncle, and she and I were happy to be entertained by his education. It’s not like we were in a rush–we were surrounded by the golden autumn countryside–so what did it matter if he couldn’t get the car past first gear? Finally we made it to the mountain, which, though far from unspoiled by Coney Island-style amusements and games of chance, was still a gorgeous refuge to anyone accustomed to the grit and grayness of Beijing. The sky was a clear cobalt above us, and wildflowers lined the stone steps that we ascended to the summit.

Fish with spicy tofu - Shangzhi
Our fish - Shangzhi

Once we had explored the mountain’s various paths, E.’s father decided we should head to the fields on the other side of the city for some fishing, and we hopped back in the little, lime-green car. Fifteen minutes later, we turned off the main thoroughfare onto a rough dirt road, which led to a large pond where local men were fishing like their dinner depended on it. Half an hour later, we understood what all the fuss was about, as we yanked a five-pound fish out of the water (well, after E.’s father did, she and I both having failed to tug hard enough on the reel-less rod). Her dad paid 25 kuai ($3) or so to take home our catch, and then we drove back to the hotel and eased it into a tub on the kitchen floor, which had already become home to a giant catfish, presumably for the restaurant patrons. From our bounty, though, we got four different dishes an hour later: deep-fried fish, fish with spicy tofu, fish-head soup, and fish jiaozi (boiled dumplings). I had never before caught a fish and kept it, let alone ate it. It made me feel a little more at-one with my food, which was definitely interesting–plus everything was delicious, especially the spicy fish and tofu dish that her dad had made himself. After dinner, E. and I walked off some of the fullness and headed home, where we talked for a few hours before going to sleep.

Deep-fried fish - Shangzhi
Spicy pork, watercress, potato and sweet potato stew - Shangzhi

On Sunday morning, we avoided notice and thereby skipped breakfast, since her parents were busy organizing yet another wedding in their banquet hall, this time of a Chinese couple. Instead, we headed fifteen minutes up the street to Shangzhi’s small but bustling downtown, where ancient farm women were selling wine-dark grapes, bloody pomegranates, and small yellow fruits that looked like tomatillos (I later determined that they were “Chinese lanterns”, and, yes, a close relative of the tomatillo). After checking out some cell phones for E. and looking up and down a couple of streets, we made our way back to the hotel, where her mom had set out some deliciously soft small pears, which we munched on while she prepared her signature dish for us. The family-favorite, a stew of pork, watercress, potato, and sweet potato, was steeped in a more-liquid form of the spicy Korean paste that always accompanies bibimbap at restaurants both in the States and in China (and therefore, I imagine, in Korea as well). It was as good as E. had promised me, and thankfully she’s lived up to her other promise regarding it, that she would learn how to make it before she came back to Beijing. Sometime later this week or next week she’s going to teach me how to make it too.

Korean barbecue trailer - Shangzhi
Chicken feet kebabs at the Korean barbecue trailer - Shangzhi

By that afternoon, we had pretty much exhausted the sights to see and things to do in Shangzhi, so we just went back to her apartment, watched TV, read, and dozed for a bit. That night, however, proved to be the highlight of the weekend. E. had been trying to convince her parents since we arrived that they should take me to her favorite restaurant, which is basically a trailer parked in the street housing a dingy barbecue joint. They seemed to think it wasn’t right to take their foreign guest to dinner there, but E. did a great job persuading them that this was exactly the type of place in which I wanted to eat, and from the moment I walked in there with a huge grin plastered on my salivating mouth, I think they finally believed her. The chuanr there was incredible: the lamb taking on an entirely new taste, the hot-pepper skewers piercingly spicy, the chicken feet kebabs smothered in a tempting-enough sauce that I actually tried one for the first time–and thoroughly enjoyed it! The other tables were full of locals out enjoying a hearty meal together, we swatted flies between bites of spicy meat, the trailer seemed to rust noticeably in the time it took to eat our dinner, but all those things made it one of the most perfect meals I’ve had in China. I’d highly recommend that everyone eat in a Korean barbecue trailer if the opportunity ever presents itself.

Super spicy pepper kebabs at the Korean barbecue trailer - Shangzhi
Spicy pickled vegetables at the Korean barbecue trailer - Shangzhi

After dinner, the four of us walked abreast back from downtown toward their house. Passersby continued to stare at me even on the third day there, despite the fact that I’m sure the entire city had heard there was a white girl roaming their town. E.’s parents decided to stop for roasted corn when we were halfway back, and we sat down on little stools on the side of the street, while men and women crouched in the half-light of the fire they had built to roast the just-picked corn. One of the men, his face eerily illuminated by the flames, asked E.’s father what I was doing here, and told us that he’d seen me walking around the night before. When they told the crowd that I was their daughter’s coworker in Beijing, that I was from the States and I was staying at their house for the National Day holiday, there was an appreciable gasp of awe. My visit gave some clear cachet to her family, made them seem more worldly in the eyes of their neighbors, which was something I hadn’t quite foreseen, even though I knew beforehand that my presence in this city would certainly be an unusual occurrence. As for the late-night treat itself, I’d never before had corn that was roasted without having first been boiled, and the kernels took on a completely new texture, juicy inside and lightly charred without. We hooked arms and gnawed on the cobs the rest of the way home.

If you want to see the rest of my photos from Shangzhi and Harbin, you can check them out here on flickr.

Posted by Ali on October 8th, 2006

A Trip to Tianjin

I may be writing right now from an internet cafe in the small city of Shangzhi, two hours northeast of Harbin in Heilongjiang Province, but the story of what I’m doing here will come at a later date. For now, I wanted to post some photos from the trip I took down to Tianjin last Saturday.

I wanted to head someplace out of the city for a day, so it had to be close by, and I had heard that the old treaty port south of Beijing offered a lighter taste of Chinese urban life, flavored with the leftover architecture of Victorian-era international banking and government institutions. The crumbling, faded European-style buildings were a departure from the hulking, monumental behemoths of the capital, for sure, but they weren’t anything particularly special, and a walk down the main street downtown proved a poor way to start the day. It left me wondering why I had spent a whole 30 kuai ($4 or so) to take an almost-two-hour train ride down there. The unexciting lunch that followed, over which I lingered drinking a second diet coke and nearing the conclusion of the book I had brought down with me, didn’t help much either.

However, after my long and late lunch I was inspired to check out a completely different part of the city, the “ancient culture street” area in Tianjin’s old “Chinatown.” It’s funny to think of a city in China having a Chinatown, but back in the days when various global powers each had their concessions in this trading hub, Chinese people were only allowed to live in one small section of the city.

I have been to other reconstructed streets that attempt to mimic the ambiance of daily life in the Qing Dynasty, but Tianjin’s version is even more successful than the one in Hangzhou, and by far more realistic and interesting than anything Beijing has to offer along these lines. Artisans demonstrated their crafts on the street, vendors sold sweets like spun sugar and candied fruit, and accolytes stepped over a high wooden door jamb to enter the Tianhou Temple, which otherwise seemed barely distinct from the commerce around it.

The rest of my photos from Tianjin are up on my photos page, as well as on my flickr page in the Tianjin photoset.

Posted by Ali on October 1st, 2006