Karsts, Moons and Dogs…China continued

 

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My next destination in China was in the province of Guangxi.  This region is known for its karst formations.  I used Guilin as my entry and exit point, but it had some activities to do like climbing up on the karsts for amazing views and caves with stalactites and stalagmites.  One thing the Chinese always know how to do well, is to take natural wonders of the world and make them tacky.  In the caves, there was a 5 minute light and sound show on the rock surface.

I moved from Guilin and headed to Yongshou which is in the countryside.  Here I spent my days in the karst filled country side riding bikes, trekking and attending cooking classes.  It was great to get out into the country side to see the minority tribes and their villages.  Within these minority tribes, it was evident to see that when it comes to labour, they believe in equality.  Women of all ages were involved in manual labour.  What was striking was that most of these women were elderly.  Wherever there was a man working hard, there was a woman beside him working harder.  They were digging holes, carrying heavy loads like logs, building homes.  Can you imagine your grandmother working that hard?  No way.

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The karsts in the countryside were amazing.  These limestone structures rose up out of the ground with sharp slopes and littered the countryside.  There is one particular karst that everyone goes and visits which is moon hill, a karst with a hole in it.  A group of us from the hostel headed up to the karst and it was here that I learned about a Norwegian Tradition (please let me know if this is true or not).  After climbing up to the base of the karst, our group continued to climb to the top of the moon hill.  There was an overgrown path behind moon hill that we climbed up.  When we got to the top, the Norwegian in the group told us that in Norway, it is a tradition that whenever you climb something, you have to get naked.  Keeping with traditions, he took off his clothes and posed for a picture.  Somewhere in my photos, I have a picture of a moon on moon hill.

As food is a big part of travelling, I must tell you about the panic I had here.  I had ordered a meal which I thought from the picture was noodles and pork.  When I was eating it, I knew the meat wasn’t pork, but I kept eating it.  When I got back to my guesthouse, I read up on the specialties of the region.   One of the specialties was dog as evidenced in the market place where they were hanging from hooks in the meat section.  You can only imagine how my stomach knotted knowing that I may have had dog.  I prayed that it wasn’t dog.  I also read that venison and horse were specialties as well. I was hoping that is what I actually ate instead.  I think my fears were slightly lessened when another traveller told me that he was actively seeking out dog to eat and found out that the meat was prohibitively expensive.  That made me feel good, because the dish I had was a very cheap dish.  Phew <wiping sweat off my brow>.  IMG_3525

Sichuan Delicacy- Hot Pot or Hot Not

When I’ve been travelling throughout Asia, I’ve always noticed hot pot being an option on menus and have always wondered what it was exactly but had never tried it out because it was always too expensive.  I found myself in Chengdu in a hostel where 8 of us decided to try a hot pot, a very Sichuan thing to do.  It was 7 foreigners and 1 girl from Hong Kong.  As the menu was all in Chinese, she took on the job of ordering everything. We were asked only two questions: do people want pork? YES. do you want beef? YES.

What is a hot pot exactly? It’s a communal meal where you cook raw items, meat and vegetables in a spicy hot oily broth.  We had mild and a hot broth.  Seconds after the food was ordered, a trolley was wheeled up beside me with all sorts of raw meat on it including something that resembled the shape of a brain.  What is this?  I thought we ordered pork and beef.  Well, not only did we have brain from a sheep, but we also had duck tongue and balls of rabbit on a stick.  Somehow this meal was looking less and less appetizing.

There were more eager eaters than me there.  One guy couldn’t wait to try the brain.  It’s cooked, he constantly kept saying while picking it out.  The girl from Hong Kong would keep saying, let the brain cook longer, there is lots of bacteria in it.  When it was finally cooked, pretty much everyone around the table was taking samples of it.  I was not interested at all.  I kept thinking mad cow mad cow.  When they realized that I hadn’t had any, I became the focus of attention around the table.  You can’t come to Chengdu, China and not have brain.  To which I replied, This is something, that I will never regret in life.   A piece of brain found its way onto my plate and without them noticing, I put it back in the hot pot.  I was a wimp, I didn’t try it.  So far I haven’t regretted it.  I was a bit hesitant with picking food out of the pot, so I didn’t get much of the meat that I was willing to eat, and ate mostly vegetables.  This meal almost made me turn vegetarian.  As surreal as having a whole brain go into the hot pot was, the one item that made me stop eating was when the blood pudding slid into the pot, blood and all.

Hot Pot, done it, check.  Will never do it again!

Things that I have tried in Asia

1. Durian:  I now know the distinct smell.  But this smelly fruit is supposed to taste very sweet.  I tried it, but I think that durian tastes like it smells.  I didn’t like it.

2.  Fried Worms:  I was first introduced to fried crickets in 2004 and I had to have a camera lens between me and them- I wasn’t getting any closer.  This time in South East Asia, I was brave and attempted to eat a fried worm after much much encouragement from strangers in the street.  The fried worm was the best delicacy to introduce me to fried creatures as there are no squishy guts inside.  So I bit into it quickly and swallowed without really taking in the taste.  Yuck!  I still can’t believe I did it!

3. Betel:  This is a green leaf where in parts of south east Asia, they wrap inside of it areca nut, lime paste and sometime tobacco.  They stick it into the corner of their mouth and chew on it.  After chewing on it for awhile, it produces this red juice which is spat unceremoniously onto the streets.  The streets are stained with red globs from the betel and so are the users teeth!  I did try it once, thankfully, the teeth remained white.  I put the pouch into the side pocket of my mouth and I didn’t really know what to do with it.  I have to say, that I felt quite liberated everytime I spat into the street, but it wasn’t that red colour that everyone else’s was.  I think that you’d have to chew one right after the other to get the colour and the stimulant out of the leaf.

4. Avocado juice:  Never would have imagined drinking pureed avocado.  But this is the most heavenly drink on earth.  Yum Yum Yum.

5. Potentially Intestines: I was in a night food market and bought what I thought was barbequed chicken, but am not all too certain it was.  Actually, I’m certain it wasn’t, but am not too sure what it was.  When I started eating it, it was very greasy and there was no meat to it.  It tasted like bbq’d  fat.  So I started pulling it off the skewer and took note of the shape of it and then had the awful thought that I was eating intestines.  I think I did.

6.  Walking a plank: I took a slow ferry boat in Burma and when it arrived at my destination, the most precarious jetty that one could ever imagine was used.  A plank of wood about 7-8 inches wide.  I had tuk tuk driver approach me on the boat and start to harass me about a ride.  I was not focused on him, but on this plank in front of me.  Normally, I would have been fine, but I had 16 kilos in my backpack on the back of me, and 4 kilos in my day pack in the front of me.  I was feeling off balance and couldn’t see my feet.  I just stared at the plank and said, “I can’t do this.  I’m going to fall in.”  There were actually two planks- not close enough so that you could have one for each foot, but close enough so that the tuk tuk driver could hold onto me and support me while I walked down the plank.  The whole time that we were creeping down this plank, all the Burmese people watching were having a good laugh at the foreigner.

7. Standing on the  back of a pick up:  I love taking local transport.  You can’t get anymore local than a pick up.  But this time, the pick up was full when it came, so I had to stand up on the ledge and hold onto the top.  The best part of the ride was going over potholes in the road.  Keep your knees bent to absorb some of the shock and get ready to be airlifted a bit!

8. Asian food for 3 months:  I love Asian food, so I gave myself a challenge to see if I could go 3 months without getting sick of Asian food.  I did it!  With the exception of breakfast which at most times was eggs and bread, I never swayed and ordered off a western menu.  There was no need to, the food was always delicious…with a few exceptions.

Now I’m out of Asia and back in the western world.  I have set up a photo blog with pictures from my trip.  Enjoy 🙂

Made in China

With China being my last destination on my four month trip, it finally meant that I could shop.  I had been practicing great restraint throughout the rest of my travels.  It was rather easy to pass on buying things that I saw, especially in South East Asia, because I knew that I would most likely come across these items again because everything is made in China.

First shopping in China was in Shanghai.  The plan was to buy a couple of tailor made dresses there.  After finding the fabric market, I found a vendor to haggle the price of dresses and then started to pick the material.  One pattern was easy to pick, but I found the rest of the silk patterns too elaborate and therefore too formal for what I wanted.  Then she showed me the silk blends and I found something there.  So I said to her, this is a silk blend, this material is less.  She said, this is imported from Korea, it’s actually more.  I scoffed at her, what are you talking about?  Everything is made in China!

In the province of Yunnan, I was rather good and only picked up a few items that fit into my backpack with ease and did not add too much weight to the pack.  However, in Xian, I made the mistake of jumping the gun and buying a mahjong set there instead of waiting for Beijing.  That set added about 4 kilos to my bag and took up all of my compressible space!  Everytime I put that back pack on, I cursed that mahjong set!

Finally, in Beijing, this was the last stop and it was time to start buying.  With Beijing being a big city, you didn’t really find a network of streets loaded with souvenir shops like you did in smaller towns.  Maybe, I was going to regret having passed items on the way because I thought I’d find them in China or in Beijing.  (Actually, the cracked egg shell tea pot set that I saw in Vietnam is not made in China).  We decided to visit a couple of markets.  The weekend market was full of antiques and I didn’t part with my money there.  Then the next day we headed to the Pearl Market which is good for jewelry and bingo it was also souvenir heaven.   Word of advice, if you go to China, fly out of Beijing and do all of your shopping at the Pearl Market.  Not only did it have everything there that you could possibly imagine (clothes, electronics etc) but you could get these items for next to nothing!  It’s every bargainers dream!!!

I noticed immediately that the prices here were marked up much more significantly than anywhere else.  If you are not good at bargaining, then you will be paying more for these items.  It definitely helped that my friend was a cut throat bargainer.  She started buying first.  When she’d ask the prices, she’d counter at 1/4 of asking.  What was great was that the vendor drastically dropped the price.  She ended up buying a couple of things for dirt cheap.  Then he turned to me and said what are you buying.  So I pointed to a screen which had a price of 900CNY on it (~115USD).  He typed into his calculator 320 and handed me the calculator.  Instead of countering an offer, I handed the calculator to my friend and he grimaced with pain, not her not her, she’s too tough!  She got him down to 110 (~16USD).  Then I bought a smaller screen for 50.  The vendor wanted us to buy more, but we said that we had to  feed other people in China.  He said no just feed me.

I wanted to pick up some stress balls and only wanted to pay 10 CNY for them.  So we met our next victim.  I whispered in my friend’s ear, get it for me for 10.  He started at 35.  She countered with 10 and he exclaimed that she was stingy!  I sat back silently as they haggled back and forth until he she was offering 12 and he was asking 15.  Then I said, what if I buy 3?  How much for 3?  Oh he loved this idea!  He said, you are very clever, you are a clever girl.  Let me guess if you buy 100 then you get them for free?  What? I said, you’ll give me 100 for free, then I want 100!  My friend decided she wanted one as well and we got 4 for 53.

I haven’t had this much fun bargaining since Egypt.  In Vietnam, they hardly budged on the prices and in Thailand they were only bargaining about 20% off the price and then they wouldn’t budge.  Some didn’t even want to bargain.  The Chinese were all smiling and laughing as we engaged in the combat of bargaining.  They dropped the significant mark up rather quickly.  I would go back to Beijing just to go bargain there.

Now the trip has sadly come to an end. I’m currently visiting my parents.  I was showing off my portable loose leaf tea bottle that I bought in China.  My mom said I have one of those.  I countered with , but yours isn’t made in China.  She said I bet you it is.  She looked at the bottom of hers and said haha it is.  Everything is made in China. 🙂

The Great Wall of China…and Shopping Tour

Although when travelling, touristy things are sometimes avoided, there was no way that the Great Wall of China was going to be missed.  As my friend and I arrived in Beijing, we were in search of tour information for the Great Wall.  We thought that hostels would offer the cheapest rates for tours, but to our surprise, we found a tour for less.  There were lots of people outside of the Forbidden Wall who were selling the tour at a fraction of the cost of the hostels.  Although, I like the best deal in town, I do get suspicious when I see something that’s too good to be true.

Later that night as we did our research to figure out which part of the wall we wanted to visit, the Lonely Planet (or bible) gave us some helpful hints when selecting a tour.  Ask lots of questions such as 1) How much time do you actually spend at the wall? and 2) How many shops are we going to visit?

The next day, as we booked this cheap tour, we were told 2-3 hours at the wall, one stop at the Ming Tombs and another stop at the Olympic Park and two shops with no obligation to buy.  We decided that 2-3 hours was sufficient time and we could put up with 2 shops.  So we booked this tour.

The great thing about the tour was that because it was low season and we were going to the MuTianYu section (which is the less popular section), we ended up on a private tour. However, the guide was a bit confused about the tour’s itinerary.  So we had to call the person who had booked the tour for us to straighten the guide out.  Then when that was resolved, the guide told us that Ming Tombs was very boring and there was nothing to see and that it would be better to go to the Silk Art Museum instead.

We did indeed visit the wall for 3 hours.  The cost of the tour included our entrance to the Wall, but didn’t include the cable car or toboggan run/ski lift ride up and down from the wall (yes, you can come down from the wall in a toboggan).  There is a free option to walk up, but you do need to save your energy for the wall.  Believe it or not, tickets to get up to the wall were more than the admission itself.

The wall: amazing.  Probably my most memorable part of China.  Be warned…it’s a work out to visit the wall and I hadn’t really considered that it would be exhausting climbing up the steep steps.  There were 23 towers.  Depending on how you go up, you reach the wall at different midsections.  Most people try to get to at least one end of the wall which is at a high point and gives you the best views.  There are old parts of the wall that are crumbling and have shrubs growing through the bricks which I wanted to walk along, but couldn’t figure where to pick up those sections from.  Without a camera in hand to take photos and without stopping to take in the scenery, you can probably walk the entire wall and back to your starting point in 3 hours.  I only made it to one end of the wall and had to turn back to return to the tour before reaching the other end.  I was so close, only 4 towers away, but it was the steepest section of the wall so would’ve been time consuming.  I also bumped into a friend from home who just happened to be at the Great Wall that day too.  1.3 billion people in China, and I meet my friend there.

Back to our private tour.  We had a lunch stop.  Now I haven’t mentioned that before reaching the wall, we had one of our two shopping stops.  We saw cloissening, an ancient tecnhique that they use with copper and enamel to make designs on their pots.  We did really well.  Listened to the 10 minute presentation and walked quickly through the gift shop and back into the van.  After lunch, we returned to Beijing and drove past the Olympic Park (I only caught a glimpse of the bird’s nest) to shop number 2.  This was a tea shop.  We sat down, watched the presentation, drank the tea and didn’t succumb to the high pressured sales lady who just badly wanted to make some commission.

Next, we headed to the Silk Art Museum (which was 500m away) and which was not entirely a museum.  We did learn how the silk is made but then there were 3 rooms to buy silk products: bedding; material for making clothes; and on the already made clothes.  Now, it was here that we faltered and didn’t make a beeline for the door.  I have to admit that some money was spent, but not copious amounts.  In fact, I think our guide made so little commission on our purchases that it wasn’t even worth it to him.

Now it was Olympic Park time, right?  NO!  There was another stop.  Not technically a shop, but a free foot massage…?  I was wondering how this foot massage factored in.  It was a massage school within the Olympic Park.  We started off with a foot soak in 40 degree water with tea bags in it- I couldn’t get my feet in because it was too hot.  The soak was followed by the most painful foot massage I’ve ever had.  Thailand you are the best at massages.  Then the first pitch came.  They offer another service other than the free foot soak and massage.  You can have the dry skin on your feet taken off for the equivalent of 15 USD.  I wasn’t intending to shop and had spent what extra money I had at the silk shop. By telling them I had no money, the aggressive sales pitch came to an end.  Then the second pitch came.  The Tibetan doctor came in who had to speak through a translator.  He was going to diagnose us by reading our palms.  First he started with my friend.  I have to admit, it was impressive.  For everything that he said, she agreed with him.  That was really interesting that he was able to tell this by just looking at the palm.  Then he took out his prescription pad and told her that she needed 3 boxes of herbal tea at 300yuan a box (~50USD).  When she said, she didn’t have that kind of money on her, he advised her that they took credit cards or she could buy one box and if it worked, then they could mail her the other two.

Then it was my turn.  I’m not going to disrespect Chinese Medicine, but once he read my palm, I felt like he was a bit of a fortune teller, and a herbal tea pusher.  He first said that there was something wrong with my digestion.  I have no concerns about my digestion, so I thought, maybe something is starting and I’m not aware of it.  So I asked him for more information.  He said that I was constipated.  Nope.  Then he asked if I’m regular with my eating and I said normally, but I’ve been travelling for 4 months and there have been irregularities.  Next, he asked if at home I’m on any regular medications.  I said only oral contraception.  Then he replied that I don’t need to take any meds.  Afterwards, I realized that the phrasing of his question made me think of what meds I take at home, but I completely forgot that I was on antimalarial.  Had he asked me if I was taking any toxic meds, then I would have been impressed, but he just seemed to be asking probing questions.  Then he asked about back pain.  I said that I occasionally have it, but it’s not a concern to me.  Then he said, well herbal tea can be used preventatively as well, so I think you should buy a box.

Finally at 5:15 (and we started the day at 8:15), 4 shopping experiences later, we arrived at the Olympic Park.  I was so excited to see the Birds Nest and grab some photos of it.  We were given enough time to walk to the Birds Nest, take a few shots, then to the Water Cube, snap snap, and then back to the van.  If you actually wanted to go into these buildings (which isn’t worth it), you wouldn’t have had the time.  Then back to the hotel by 6:45.  We had wanted to see an acrobatics show that night, but we were too tired to go straight to the theatre.

The Great Wall was fantastic.  I could have used slightly more time there instead of having my feet beat upon and pushy sales people trying to get me to buy overpriced goods.  But, hey, you get what you pay for.  So my advice, if you really don’t want to go these high pressured commissioned based shops, then pay the extra money for a non-subsidized tour and maybe they’ll only take you to one shop!  🙂

Celebrity Spotting

As an avid traveller, I have been to many regions in the world where I blend in and other than the fact that I have a canon camera hanging around my neck, I could pass for a local.  So when I do travel, I don’t really notice when people stare at me because I look different from them.  (Except for India, I noticed them.  But they weren’t staring because I looked different…)  Here in China, it’s unbelievable how many stares I get.  Even in a city like Shanghai that is filled with expats, people couldn’t take their eyes off of me.  There was this one instance where there was a woman from a hill tribe walking in Shanghai in full hill tribe wear and this man was staring at her and as she passed me, he diverted his gaze to me, as I was the much more interesting to look at.

In Xian, a very touristy city, the stares continued and became even more obvious.  My friend and I had people stopping dead in their tracks to stare.  One guy even walked into a pole, he was so mesmerized.  Then it dawned on us why they were staring so much.  My friend and I could pass for Beyonce and Solange Knowles.  When people have been sneaking photos of us, touching us, saying hello to us and even getting into traffic accidents, it’s been because they thought they were looking at celebs!

There could be another explanation for it.  You see when you travel with someone for a few weeks, 24-7; you can find yourself in 1 of 2 situations.  Either you have nothing to say to each other or you make things up.  In Xian, we were making things up.  We decided that life was a musical ala Andrew Lloyd Webber and as we walked down the streets of Xian, we were conversing through song.  (No we weren’t drinking that day, just a little crazy). So maybe the people of Xian weren’t staring because we looked different, maybe they were staring because they thought that they were watching Beyonce and her sister give a free concert in the street 🙂

Mastering Mahjong (or At Least Muddling Through It)

One of the ways to spend your weekends in China, especially if you are a bit older, is to play cards, Chinese checkers or mahjong in the park.  On some of the weekends, my friend and I would stand and watch the people playing in the park.  We decided to see if we could figure out the game mahjong.  But from watching the people play, our confusion grew instead of obtaining any clarity.  This game wasn’t making any sense to us.  They started with a role of a die and then ended by exchanging playing cards.  We were so confused.

Then when we were in Dali, one of the girls who worked in the hostel that we stayed at, The Jame Emu (which i highly recommend), taught us the game.  Thank God, she taught us, because we tried to teach ourselves using instructions from Wikipedia and were even confused more than in the park.  Although you are using tiles, it is kind of like gin rummy.  There are 3 different suits: stone, bamboo and characters.  Then there are special tiles: wind directions, dragons, blanks and flowers.  We learned the most basic version possible as each province plays it slightly different.  (We learned the Yunnan version and didn’t use the flower tiles).  The die in the beginning is used to decide where each player starts selecting their tiles from and the cards at the end of the game were being used in lieu of money as gambling is part of this game.

Once you have muddled through the rules and have ironed them out, it’s actually a fairly simple game to play.  You play with a hand of 13 tiles.  You pick up tiles and discard tiles to maintain 13 in your hand.  Your discarded tile can be picked up only immediately after being discarded by anyone.  You make groups of 3 of a kind or runs with 3 tiles in your hand.  A winning hand has 14 cards (you pick up a tile and keep it in your hand) with 4 sets of 3 tiles (runs or triplets) and a pair.  I know that there are more nuances to the game, but I now own a set a mahjong and can read through the rules and learn them.  When I get home, I’ll be having some mahjong parties, can’t wait!  Bring your money! 🙂  When I return to China, I’ll be in the park playing.

PS  If anyone can enlighten me with any other rules, I’d love to hear them

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