Land of Enlightenment

“It is better to travel than to arrive.” – Buddha

At the beginning of my second year in China, I had the opportunity to travel to the mystical regions of Yunnan and Tibet. They hold the heart of modern Buddhism, and I was not disappointed in my exposure to unique culture. We were able to visit Lijiang and Shangri-La. Both mountain cities were beautiful, full of wonderful people and traditions, and hosted many activities and different types of foods.

We began our journey in Lijiang, in the heart of the mountains in Yunnan. The hotel was in Lijiang Old Town. It was a beautiful traditional Yunnan building, and because we went in the low season, we had the hotel to ourselves. Old Town itself was a large labyrinthian village filled with quaint homes and lovely shops. The smell of flowers and baked goods wafted through the streets. The runoff from the mountains run through the streets.

We spent the first day exploring Lijiang and trying local food. The next day, we were able to climb the local tall peaks of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountains. They were breath-taking. We walked to the middle level of the mountains, then the lifts took us to the peaks. From there, we were able to climb to the top. We were able to see across all of Yunnan from that height – 5200m (16000ft). The wind and clouds played across the top, and I felt exhilarated to have climbed to the top with my wife.

After the peaks, we were able to explore to springs created by the runoff from the mountain ice and snow. The pools were gorgeous. The streams and rivers collect and serve an entire area of Yunnan around the mountains. The locals gather have held these pools and streams in high esteem for centuries. They have a tradition of hanging prayer bells and prayer flags (flags and bells with prayers on them) – the idea being they will pray on your behalf. These are always hung in sacred places, such as the peaks and pools of the mountains.

I was able to see many mountain traditions while in Yunnan. Traditional dance was something that many locals know. Many of the locals display these dances in shows for tourists. Another tradition is sending candles in lotus flowers down the rivers as prayers. Today, locals and tourists alike send paper lotuses down the streams as both prayers and a tradition of those prayers. We also discovered a wonderful small Irish pub hidden in the rock walls, called Stone the Crows. It is run by an Irishman, and sells traditional pub-fare with Guinness on tap.

Our next stop on this trip was Shangri-La, the mystical mountain village nestled between Yunnan and Tibet. Shangri-La was exactly what I expected and exactly not what I expected. It was both ancient and modern, mystical and practical, sacred and ordinary. The old village of Shangri-La was dozens of miles from the temples that most people know. The old village was also ghostly, as it was off-season, and frigid even in daytime. We were able to see one of the largest prayer wheels in world. A prayer wheel is similar to the prayer bells and prayer flags, it has prayers that are sent when you spin the wheel. We also sampled Tibetan food that made me love the highlands even more. We had barley bread, butter tea, and an assortment of other dishes and soups.

The temples of Shangri-La were a sacred marvel. There are 108 separate buildings in the temple complex on the hilltop. We walked through all of the open temples. We lit a prayer candle. We were even blessed by a monk and given prayer beads. It was an enlightening experience. I felt that I had felt one more part of the world, one more part of humanity.

Although I have enjoyed all of my trips through China, I loved my trip to Lijiang and Shangri-La. The food, the sights, the people, and the traditions that we were able to see and take part were wholly awesome and life-changing. I fully intend on us returning sometime with our son.

 

 

 

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Christmas in the Orient

“‘Maybe Christmas,’ thought the Grinch, ‘doesn’t come from a store.'” – Dr. Seuss

In this short post, I want to share my experiences with the Winter holidays in China. I had originally thought that the western holidays, especially those religious holidays, would not be observed in China. I presumed that the Chinese would not share the festivities or music or decorations or food. In fact, Christmas does take place in China, if maybe not quite the same as here.

The first thing I experienced during the Christmas season was a cooking lesson. To be more specific, it was my wife’s and my fourth baking master class. These classes are taught once a month in the Kempenski Hotel Restaurant by the world renowned Chef Joachim, a Swiss Master Chef and Baker. We had the honor of taking his Christmas cooking class, where we learned to make trifle, Christmas pudding, and spice meringue.

Beginning in early December, many prominent sites in Beijing began to aire their Christmas décor and lights. We were able to see some really great light displays. There were Christmas trees and lightings, parties, choirs singing carols, and many other festivities. One of my favorite was the grand Christmas dinner at the Sofitel Wanda resorts. It was an eleven course Christmas dinner, featuring sea slug, duck heart, and nine-layer tripe. There were two other nice banquets – one at Langham Place and another at Novitel Xingquio Hotel. The food and music at both were quite enjoyable.

The month culminated in me celebrating a private Yuletide feast with a group of my friends. Although the apartment was small, we were not stopped from having a large gathering with a Winter goose and other dishes from around the world – like mushroom lasagna and chicken curry. We exchanged gifts playing Dirty Santa, a game that involves stealing presents from each other.

It was a terrific holiday season, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time sharing the holidays with such wonderful friends!

Spine of the Dragon

“But it is one thing to read about dragons and another to meet them.” – Ursula K. Le Guin

The Great Wall. It is one thing to call it great, to see it in pictures, to hear about it from travelers. It is quite another thing to see it for yourself. The Great Wall is well and truly great. I was able to go there, to see it, smell it, run my hand along millennia of powerful history. I was in awe of its magnitude.

In October, my wife and I had the second part of our honeymoon. We left Beijing and travelled north to Badaling, an area rich in history, including still standing sections of the Great Wall. We stayed at The Commune, a lodging village in the mountains, nestled among the broken edges of the preserved wall.

There were many sections of the Great Wall. The place we were able to see first was a private wall behind the village. There were only a handful of people visiting, and we were able to take great pictures of ourselves there. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity.

In addition to the wall, the village had a wildlife area and forest enveloping it. It gave it a very remote feeling, which is not something you get China. The village featured large buildings with several rooms sharing common rooms and kitchens. The lodge had a very nice restaurant.

Badaling has many historical sites. Another famous spot, however, is the Badaling Safari. There are many wild animals, such as lions, bears, monkeys that can roam freely in large areas in which visitors drive through. It is a unique twist to the normal zoo experience. For once, the humans are the ones in cages. Caged buses take patrons through the safari, allowing them to see the animals up and close. There is also a larger section with less dangerous animals. Tourists can walk through that area.

I was able to try traditional mountain food. This included black chicken, spicy beans, and flat bread. The food had a wild taste that I loved. The spice, as always, is one of my favorite parts of Chinese cuisine.

Later in October, we were able to celebrate our annual Halloween fright night in Beijing. In the far south of Beijing is a theme park called Happy Valley Park. They have their own version of Horror Nights that was actually fun and enjoyable, complete with their own haunted houses. The park included a traditional form of drama acting that told history in a satirical way. It is another must if you are in Beijing!

In Novemember, we flew across the small pond to South Korea. More specifically, we visited Jeju Island. It was surprisingly modern and westernized. I enjoyed the mix of Korean food and western business fronts. The island was built around a long dormant volcano that now serves as a wildlife park. The park was beautiful and holds its own treasures, including fairly tame animals and ancient burial mounds.

As my year was closing, I was contented that I had already visited three countries in Southeast Asia, along with several parts of China. I enjoy traveling, and I hope that through this blog I can share my travels and stoke a fire of your own.

Celebrating Autumn

“There is not enough celebration of companionship.” – Franscesca Annis

In September, I once again traveled to Xi’an. This time, I was able to partake in the Mid-Autumn Festival. In China, the Mid-Autumn Festival marks the end of Summer and the beginning of harvest. There are sets of traditions and rites as with the Chinese formal holidays. The main needs for this festival were moon cakes. Moon cakes are small, thick pastries filled with mixtures of fruits, nuts, and beans along with eggs and cream for some.

The other focus of this holiday is eating fruits and nuts harvested in Autumn. There were several types of nuts, along with apples, dates, and pears. I spent time with my wife’s family, which is another necessity for Chinese holidays. We spent our holiday in the Wild Goose Pagoda park. The park is beautiful, with monuments commemorating times and people in China’s history.

Later, I was able to visit the Li Mountain outside of Xi’an. It was once a mountainside spa resort for the emperor’s concubines. It was also the place of retreat for Jiang Jieshi, the leader of the main political parties. He fled from Mao Tsedong during the Chinese revolution with money and artifacts. Eventually, he left the mountain for Taiwan. Now the mountain is a tourist spot and a reminder of the struggle of early modern China.

The resort still contains the old stone baths from the ancient times, as well as many fruit and nut trees used by the consorts. The view from the top of the mountain was breathtaking. There were also many temple spots and political memorials along the mountainside.

The other focus of that trip to Xi’an was the Muslim Street. I mentioned the street before, but I do not believe I did it justice. It is definitely one of the main attractions within the city of Xi’an. There were all kinds of food and crafts sold and made right there in the street. I was amazed most by the foods. Taffees and other wonderful candies are made fresh daily and sold along the street. Breads, meats, tofus, drinks, desserts, and soups can also be found, especially if you know where to look.

The last stop for me during this trip was to the Bell Tower and Drum Tower of Xi’an. These towers are traditional buildings in most large cities in China. Xi’an, once Changan, holds one of the oldest sets of towers in China. The towers were used in ceremonies throughout the year, signaling the changes in season. Today, they are still used in their traditional manner.

As I have mentioned before, Xi’an is a wonderful city, full of rich history, bright culture and beautiful sites.

Sustenance Ideas in Asia

“There is no sincerer love than the love of food.” – George Bernard Shaw

When we think of sustenance farming and urban gardening, Asia is not one of the first areas we consider. In fact, we would first think of large cities in the west whose governments are concerned with stable, clean farming and independent populations. Asian countries are not ostensibly known for governments which care much for these ideals. I had an opportunity to learn otherwise about China.

During my time here in China, I have on two separate occasions visited urban sustenance farms in both Beijing and Tianjin. There, I was able to see a true push for better farming practices and better urban lifestyles. The spirit of globalization meeting the independence of local populations can truly be felt in these areas.

There are large efforts in using less space for more produce. For this, the practice of hydroponics is being explored. Using walls as anchors, large areas of unused building sides can be turned into space for gardens on a large scale. Using space in creative new ways – like hanging gardens and dirtless gardens have proven to be successful here as well.

This seems to be catching on quickly in suburban areas around the larger Asian cities, like Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Xian, where the cost of living is still high but the access to fresh food is being sent into the city. The farms I was able to visit had been stable and self-sustaining areas for a few years, proving that it could be done, at least in the short term. In addition, many of the pesticides and fertilizers are being re-examined; using insects as natural pesticides and types of processed compost.

I took my trip to both of these farms last July. While it may still seem odd that China, of all places, is really becoming a popular place for urban independent farming, it started in Tianjin. Tianjin used to be an Italian territory, and it still retains much of its western heritage. Even the ideals in Tianjin are a bit different than Beijing, which is less than an hour away by train.

Whether by Western influence of the Italian history of Tianjin or China’s own ingenuity to protect itself, China is working towards making a better place for its citizens. It is slow work, and it will require changing of a few cultural norms, but I believe that this will eventually help China. The whole world should be inspired to try to do what China’s doing – make a better world agriculturally.

Thai Honeymoon

“Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.” – Marthe Troly-Curtin

My wife and I decide that since we did not have the opportunity to have a honeymoon when we married, we would take a late on during the summer. We decided to go to the tropics and visit Thailand. Thailand was amazingly beautiful. Our trip went through Bangkok, then south into the jungles to the islands at Krabi.

Bangkok was larger than I had expected it to be. There were several temples and many interesting areas that showed local culture, like the night markets and the river cruises. The city as a whole gave the false first impression of being like any other large western city. While there were high rises, large shops, and chain restaurants, there were also many local places to eat and shop, not to mention the cultural shows (yes we were propositioned to see Ladyboys and Ping Pong shows).

We stayed in the Clover Hotel, overlooking a local park and part of the city. The Hotel had a bit of a mad wonderland feel, which was really cool. The pool was on the roof, and hung from the edge. The bottom on the outside was glass, which let you see the street several hundred feet below. Being afraid of heights, that took some time to swim.

After a night in Bangkok, we headed for Krabi. There we explored the jungles on elephant back, climbed to a high peak (2500m nearly straight up the mountain), and visited a few local markets. On the beaches, we visited the islands on a personal boat and went snorkeling to see reefs and tropical fish.

We ate only local Thai food while we were there. The food was much more sour than I expected. It was just as spicy as I expected. There were more noodle dishes than I had previously known, and the local diet (especially in Krabi) had more seafood than I had suspected.

What would be the first honeymoon of several we would have this year, Thailand was an unbelievably beautiful place with amazing things to do. It was unforgettable.

Hidden Army

“The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.” – Mark Twain

In May, I was able to visit the famed Terra Cotta Warriors. The Terra Cotta Army is a set of life-like, life-size clay warriors set to guard the tombs of ancient emperors. The sites are very well preserved. Each of the three digs of the Terra Cotta Army is now indoors with regulated atmosphere and security to keep people from disturbing the remains. There is a park built around the buildings and on the mountainside.

I was first mostly impressed by the size of the digs. I always knew about the Terra Cotta Army from books and movies, but to see it in person was awesome. The first building was the largest of the three, and it held mostly foot soldiers in long rows. The second building was the smallest, with small squadrons of archers. The third building had the cavalry and war chariots.

The recovery and preservation of these artifacts is amazing, considering everything these sites have been through. It is believed that each small chamber would have been supported with wooden wall and ceiling supports, many of which have since collapsed. Also, villagers who lived in the area before the rediscovery of the army had built many wells which had dug into some of the chambers. There are even some chambers were it is evident that small fires had helped weaken the supports which led to cave-ins.

Despite all this, there is a great collaboration to not only protect, but restore many of the pieces. There are specialists working to preserve each piece of the army. Many other specialists have been enlisted to recreate some of the broken warriors or horses. In the first building, there is a platform with a section of pieced together warriors.

Altogether, it was a wonderful experience. It was also the only thing worth mentioning about May with one exception. Toward the end of the month, I got to go to a world famous afternoon tea at the Legendale. It was another fun activity, even if I do not get to do it more often.

Within Ancient Walls

This February, I was fortunate to enjoy my Spring Festival (Chinese Lunar New Year Festival) with my wife’s family in Xi’an. It was an awesome experience, worth going and seeing and doing. There was much of my time visiting friends and family, as well as partaking of the old Chinese traditions for Spring Festival. Some of the traditions include putting decorations around the house – various characters that invoke the spirit of the New Year, bringing luck and prosperity. They also liked to hang lanterns. These were anywhere you could imagine – in homes, on poles and walls, even in the trees. In addition to this, there were fireworks everywhere. I cannot stress this enough. I was having flashbacks to wars I am not old enough to have ever fought, because it sounded as though the city were being bombed. The people seem not to mind, and in general rather enjoy the experience. Spending time with extended family and friends is a necessity. It seems like it is the one major time of year that people from all over China return to their families.

Another great tradition is making dumplings. I am not talking about the western dumplings – like chicken and dumplings – I am talking about Asian dumplings, sometimes called potstickers in the West. These are made from scratch during Spring Festival, and can be filled with just about anything. Often, the dumplings are made with vegetables, or herbs and meat, but during the holiday we used a special recipe of chives and pork with various seasonings to bring prosperity for the New Year. I tried my hand at rolling the dough, but my mother-in-law quickly changed my responsibility. I also was not very good at making the filling. For some reason, I could not chop the meat small enough. In the end, I was filling and folding the dumplings, at which I was relatively good. Afterwards, the four of us ate almost all the dumplings we had made – which was a fair amount.

Although I did not see the Terracotta Warriors on my first visit to Xi’an, I did get to visit many of the sites that make Xi’an famous. First and foremost, the Xi’an Drum Tower and the Xi’an Bell Tower are very popular destination for people traveling to Xi’an – even other Chinese. They are well preserved, and nothing else is really built around the towers. They are even still used for their original purposes – during the special times of the year, the drums and bells will ring.

Another important set of landmarks in Xi’an are the pagodas. There are a few, but the most prominent of these is the Wild Goose Pagoda. There is a story of a famous philosopher traveling to India. When he returned to China, he converted the Hindu texts into Chinese and helped integrate them into the Buddhist culture. The pagoda is preserved and visited. Every night there is a laser light show with coordinated water fountains. They have classical music playing in the background to tie the lights and water together.

Xi’an is also very well known for its Muslim street. While having a designated Muslim street may seem odd to many of us, it quite accepted and even celebrated in China. It is similar to many of the hutongs, or alleys, in China, except that most, or all, of the shops and stands are owned and run by Chinese Muslims. There is a great deal of cultural food – special food that cannot easily be found elsewhere in Xi’an. There are so many food stands and so many people sampling the food, that roadway is usually clogged with people from beginning to end. There are also many unique gifts and bric-a-brac sold along this hutong. The hutong is also home to one of the oldest mosques in China. The mosque is still in use. It is a very beautiful building, and I had the pleasure of looking around the inside during my visit.

There is also a large lake in Xi’an. It lies in the Southeast section of the city, and has a park built around it. Apparently, when Xi’an had been the capitol of China, one of the emperors was upset that the palace was not the highest point. Instead, there was a large hill in the south. He decided that he wanted the palace to be the highest point in the city. So, he had the hill removed and made into the lowest point in the city. It was turned into a lake, with its own river inlet and set of waterfalls. The park and lake are gorgeous. Even the buildings around the park are well kept. It adds a luxury feel to the very old city. There is also a rich culture in this area, indeed throughout the city. There are many buildings with historic poetry carved onto the walls, adding an aire of enlightenment to its beauty.

The last but still important part of Xi’an is the city wall. Unlike many other large cities in China, Xi’an has kept its city wall intact and in use. It runs completely around the inner city, and separates the inner city from the outer city with four large gates. The towers and palace are still inside the walls. The inner city tends to be the business and tourist attraction part of Xi’an, with the outer city being where the schools and homes typically rest. Despite the inner city only being a part of Xi’an, the city walls are immense. They are 30 feet tall, 40 feet wide at the top and 60 at the base, and they run for 8.5 miles around the inner city. The wall is such a large part of China’s history and culture, that it still is the location for part of the Spring Festival television broadcast in China. I was able to walk a section of the walls and see both sides of the city, as well as all of the Spring Festival activities taking place on or around the wall.

Xi’an is an old and beautiful city that holds many treasures, not the least of which is my wife’s family.

 

A Moveable Feast

“To travel is to live.” –  Hand Christian Anderson

Although I just started telling the stories of my journeys thus far, I wanted to switch tracks a bit and share with you some of the foods I have tried in China. They range from things with which westerners with a “Chinese” restaurant may be familiar to things that may seem absolutely bizarre to anyone not acquainted with Asian cuisine. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your personal view), I have gotten to eat food from all parts of this spectrum.

I will start by saying, yes, China does have western food. Of sorts… The western food in China is comparable to the Chinese food in the west. By that, I mean that neither is really similar to the food it is imitating. They do have western chain restaurants, such as McDonald’s and Pizza Hut, but they do not taste anything like the ones in America. They still offer a realm of familiarity, however, if one is feeling particularly homesick. The best western food I have eaten in China comes from westerners, namely myself and a few local restaurants that are run by ex-patriots. There are a few wonderful German restaurants, a handful of good British/Irish pubs, and only one true America barbecue place that I have seen so far.

I did not come to China for food that I could get at home. I came to China to be a local, which means eating as the locals eat. The first and, in my opinion, best thing about Chinese food is the abundance of street food. Almost anywhere you go in the major cities (and anywhere else that has at least moderate traffic), you will vendors selling a variety of snacks, treats, and even bigger food items. They have the Chinese version of sandwiches, there are candies and many other sweets, they even sell noodle and rice dishes, depending on where you are.

Another set of places in China with lots of food varieties are the developed hutongs. Hutongs are alleys in China, but many of them have businesses, bars, restaurants, and stands selling snacks, food, and trinkets. There are several larger hutongs like this in Beijing and Xi’an. My favorites so far are the the hutong near the Wangfujing area of Beijing and Huminjie in Xi’an. They offer wide varities of foods and trinkets, with many more things to see than some other hutongs. These places offer things that foreigners and locals alike may not be able to find anywhere else. Some of the strangest I have seen are fried insects and arachnids – scorpions, beetles, cicadas and such, as well as parts of animals we are not accustomed to eating in the west, like intestines and testes.

The hutongs do not just offer the oddities, they offer more palatable options, as well. Many stands sell chips, seafood, duck and chicken meats, and several types of sausages. There are also vendors who make the Chinese version of pancakes, filled with various things – from chives and egg to mushrooms and meat. There are dumplings, steamed buns, and many other delicious things that are both familiar and unfamiliar. There are also quite a variety of drinks that are not usual for westerners – like plum juice and hawthorn tea. On the subject of hawthorn: Chinese eat more of this fruit than any other I have seen. There are all different types of prepared hawthorn, from dried fruit to sugar-covered fruit to drinks and desserts. There are also many stands and open fruit-vegetable markets along the streets at any time.

The hutongs offer the extreme foods for everyone, but if you want to try something much more local, nothing gets any more Chinese than Huoguo, or hotpot. Hotpot a Chinese food style that involves a large pot, sometimes divided into two or three parts, that has boiling broths. Typically, these are spicy broths, but they can be mild as well, with tomato and chicken stock flavors. Vegetables, meats, tofus, noodles, and other dishes are ordered. They are brought to thte table as the broths begin to boil. Once boiling, the food is added and left for a few minutes to cook. Then, the food is skillfully plucked out with chopsticks.

This is most often done with larger groups who want to share a variety of different meats and vegetables. This does take some skill not to spill anything, and spoons with holes are offered for those who are not ready for the challenge. Another traditional food style in China is Malaxiangguo, or dry hotpot. This is similar to hotpot, because you pick a variety of individual meats and vegetables to be cooked together, but there is relatively no liquid. Also, the servings are smaller, meaning this can be eaten with smaller groups. However, eating is often a social activity in China – many people, family and friends, eating together. They do this a few ways, but the Lazy Susan style tables are the easiest way I have seen so far.

China, like America, has many local dishes. While I have not tried them all, I have tried several. I have enjoyed most of them. I still cannot manage to eat fish heads, which are a specialty here in Beijing. China hosts an amazing variety of noodle and rice dishes, vegetable dishes, meat dishes, and desserts and breads. I love the creativity in the presentation, assembly, and seasoning of all the food here. There are many extremely strange foods I have had the opportunity to eat, not pictured here. They include pig brains and donkey penis. Yes, I did try it while I was here. The brains were not as bad as I thought they would be. It was soft and chewy and absorbed the flavors of the hotpot sauce. I decided that I could like them. Penis, however, was terrible. I tried it for the sake of trying it, and I will never eat it again. It as tough, rubbery, bitter and salty. It was altogether an unpleasant experience.

I also had the pleasure of going to Thailand while I am in Asia. Cassey and I were fortunate to try several local foods in Thailand, namely curries and seafood dishes. The food their clashed with Chinese or western food. It was much brighter, with a lot of citrus and cilantro in the cooking. There was a new depth to Asian food that I had not known before in going to Thailand.

I look forward to continue traveling and eating in Asia. I hope to add sequel food posts in the future to share my experiences with you all.