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.

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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.