At the age of 16, a friend introduced me to the Backstreet Boys, who he confidently told me were "big in Europe" (before they became "big in the U.S." - we were naturally in the avante garde compared to our American peers). I would often laughingly think of this during our trip in China: we might not be a big deal back home, but we are totally big in China. At least, judging by the number of people who wanted to get their picture taken with us.
Here's the thing. To the residents of Shanghai or Beijing, seeing a group of white people is nothing new. But as soon as we went to any tourist destination (which is what we spent most of the time doing), the other visitors were primarily tourists from all over China, and to them, we were exotic. Or at least that's what we assumed based on all of the posing for pictures. I can understand why people would find this annoying -- we overheard one tour guide suggesting to his group that if they didn't like it, the proper response was to say "wu kaui" -- basically, "5 bucks please." I thought this was funny, and also extremely Chinese. But personally I wasn't annoyed by all the requests for photos. I found it kind of endearing because it was one of the few ways we were able to interact with people, given our dearth of Chinese skills. People would come up to us and gesture that they wanted to pose for a picture, we would oblige, there would be some giggling, and then we would go on our way. Occasionally people would try out a little bit of English with us. Only once did some ladies get a bit aggressive, grabbing my arm when I went to leave after having tired of the photo shoot. One time a woman simply placed her baby in Rita's arms.
Rice terraces are one of the archetypal Chinese landscapes, so of course we wanted to visit. We spent two days and one night exploring the Longji Rice Terraces in Longsheng county, a few hours outside of Guilin; our itinerary was Dazhai-Tiantouzhai-Ping'an. Like every single adventure in China (i.e., every day), it was not without its minor mishaps, but it definitely left an impression.
The two days we spent in the rice terraces were the only ones in the whole trip where we had a guide. I was in charge of organizing this leg of the itinerary, and I figured we simply didn't have enough time to visit the Longji area by public transport, and also that by this point in the trip (more than 2/3 of the way through) we'd be longing for things that were easy, and based on my time in Taiwan I suspected that long bus trips would not fall into this category. So we got picked up in a mini bus from our guesthouse in Yangshuo by guide Gary Huang and drove together to Dazhai, the start of our rice terraces journey.
Right away, we encountered the first complication. The only way to get to our planned destination for the evening, Tiantouzhai, was by foot. Normally, this would not have presented a problem: we had known some hiking was planned, and we were a hearty troupe! However, Simon had caught a cold after freezing his bum off at the Shaolin Temple, and hiking wasn't what he most wanted to be doing at this particular moment in time. Under other circumstances, he would have just taken a taxi and met us at the hotel. If I had read my Lonely Planet more carefully I would've known that it wasn't possible to take motorized transport to Tiantouzhai. But we had planned this trip without sick-person contingencies regardless, so in the end Simon just sucked it up and hiked with the rest of us.
Although there were no golf carts or taxis on offer, the minute we stepped out of the van at our jumping off point we were swarmed by women in traditional dress, aggressively offering to carry our luggage for us. We only had day packs with us, so we declined. But even if we'd had heavy luggage with us, I doubt that anyone in our group of chivalrous Germans (plus me, the American) would have felt good about handing it off to a tiny woman with a woven basket on her back, despite the fact that the women clearly wanted to make money this way. On our way down from Tiantouzhai the next day, we did see a young Chinese couple walking up the trail accompanied by a woman carrying their roller suitcase on her back. It looked ridiculous, but I get that it's practical!
From our guide we learned that the hilly terrain is actually not particularly good for rice farming -- the slopes and the terracing mean that most of the work has to be done by people or animals rather than by machine. The communities that settled in this area weren't seeking out literal greener pastures; they were minority groups who were persecuted and driven out of the surrounding countryside -- they retreated to the mountains because they were out of the way and people wouldn't bother them. Our guide also explained to us that Dazhai and Tiantouzhai, where we were the first day and night, were "beautiful like a farmer's wife" -- as in, they possessed a simple, homely beauty. Ping'an, which we visited on the second day, was "beautiful like a whore" (or was it "beautiful like a woman from the city" and I'm overdramatizing??), all dressed up and made up for the tourists. The make-up, in this case, was water -- we were too early in the season to see the rice fields flooded in Dazhai and Tiantouzhai, but in Ping'an they flood the fields earlier to please the crowds. I have to say I'm happy I saw both. Ping'an definitely felt more commercial (like, due to the long row of souvenir vendors you pass on the walk up to the terraces), but seeing the rice terraces all reflect-y from the water does have a certain flair.
But back to day one. We started hiking, and it was fun! We were on the same footpaths the locals use to get around, which were narrow and often cobbled with flat, wide stones. After a few hours of hiking, dilly-dallying, and taking pictures, we arrived at our hotel for the night around dusk. We sat on the porch, had a drink, and watched the pretty landscape get dark, and all was serene and beautiful.
Our hotel was part of a cluster of hotels that all looked the same -- pretty, three-story wooden structures. Dinner was inside the hotel on the ground floor, which was a big open room with dining tables. Incidentally, we were the only guests, so we had the place to ourselves. (It seemed like the whole area had a serious overabundance of hotel rooms given the number of other tourists we saw -- very few -- but maybe that's just because it was the low season.) The culinary offerings included home-cured bacon (which we had eaten at lunch as well; tasty but seriously smoky) and soups filled with some sort of leafy green vegetable that we had seen drying everywhere in the villages. The food was okay, but wasn't up to the standards of deliciousness we had pretty much everywhere else on our trip. In true German fashion, we ended the meal with a digestif: Reinhold ordered a round of homemade liquor (i.e., moonshine) made from sweet potatoes. It was pretty good, and tasted, well, strong. What we didn't try was the homemade snake wine on display. None of us were feeling quite that adventurous.
The night did not go particularly well. The beds were rock hard (which doesn't bother me much, but the others complained). Far more dramatic was the complete lack of insulation in the walls, exterior or interior. So basically, it was cold (but we'd gotten used to this by now) and you could hear every single thing going on. This was made even more dramatic by the fact that Hannes spent the night puking his guts out. Literally. Loudly. The hotel owners commented on it in the morning, and were concerned. I think it's fair to say that nobody slept very well. The working theory is that Hannes had just eaten too much of the bacon -- we had all eaten it and none of the rest of us got sick, but he had definitely eaten way more. Something just pushed his stomach over the edge, and it was game over.
The next morning Hannes alternated between laying in bed miserably and making trips to the toilet. The rest of us sat on the front porch, wrote postcards, and took short walks. Reinhold, true to form, went over and talked with a local farmer, extra curious about their farming techniques having grown up in a farming family and community. Though feeling badly for Hannes, none of us were upset about this rest in the program. Our guide, on the other hand, seemed to be feeling a little stressed -- getting a late start meant that we would have to miss out on some of the program points that had been promised to us, and I think he was worried we would think we weren't getting our money's worth. Around noon we did have to drag Hannes out of the bed to come with us, because of course he wasn't getting down the mountain without walking on his own two feet. I supplied him with some medicine from my always well-stocked travel pharmacy, and he managed to join us for the hike down.
We took a different path down than we had come up, and then took a tourist bus together to Ping'an. Hannes and Simon chose to sit out the last bit of hiking and missed all the reflect-y glory of the flooded rice fields, but I think they were okay with it all. We then traveled by van back to Guilin, where we had a plane to Shanghai to catch the next morning. Our arrival in Guilin was a joyful one -- the hotel we had booked turned out to be amazing, the nicest place we stayed during our entire trip. It felt like a spa, the rooms were spacious, and the majority of us winded up staying in and ordering room service. It really made us wish we were staying in Guilin for longer!
A few logistical notes if you ever visit. You can read online and in guidebooks that it's possible to hike from village to village, but if you choose to do this on your own it seems almost certain that you will get lost and/or not end up where you intended. This is not to deter you, just to set expectations. We were in Longqi at the end of March and the evenings were quite chilly; but since the area is at about 3000 ft in elevation, I would pack warm clothes even if you are visiting in summer. And lastly, our hike down from Tiantouzhai was a bit rainy, making the cobblestoned walkways quite slippery. Sensible shoes are recommended, and in the rain some walking/hiking sticks would've been handy.
Let me set the scene for you here. We were in the city of Zhengzhou, probably making up the quota of western tourists for the entire year. We were staying at a hotel that seemed designed for Chinese businessmen, complete with smoking in the elevators, weird see-through glass doors to the bathrooms, and business cards from call girls slipped under our doors at night. We ended up in Zhengzhou because Hannes' Uncle Reinhold is a Yellow River enthusiast, making the Yellow River Museum a must-see. In this very non-touristy city, we were strangers in a strange land -- more so than anywhere else on this trip -- and the result was a whole spectrum of experiences ranging from mildly unpleasant to amazing to just plain ridiculous. This particular experience gets filed under amazing, with a dose of the good kind of ridiculousness thrown in.
Around the corner from our hotel we had noticed a restaurant that was always packed (always a good sign) and serving something that looked like a hotpot, so we decided we should give it a try. We walked in on a Friday night, and since it was busy, we were going to have to wait a few minutes for a table. I don't know how it happened, but within what felt like 30 seconds, Reinhold was sitting down next to a group of young Chinese guys, drinking one of their beers and smoking one of their cigarettes. Next thing we knew, tables had been shoved together and we were seated next to these guys, ready for an evening of hot pot and revelry.
The camaraderie extended by our newfound friends was instant. I assumed they were interested in us because we were foreign, and in a good mood because it was Friday night and they were a little bit drunk. The five of them had an entire case of beer sitting on the bench next to them (I assume they brought it from outside the restaurant, and that this was kosher), and they immediately passed them around to us. My reserved self was a little confused about why I was being handed a beer. Did they just want us to pose for a picture? No, they wanted to drink beer with us! Ganbei! There were a lot of toasts. To be honest, I had no idea what was going on, but figured the right choice was to go with the flow.
Then came the food. I have no idea what the proper name of the dish was (it's not a true hotpot), but I can tell you what was in the pot: an entire chicken and lots of Sichuan peppers swimming in a thick gravy-like sauce. And when I say an entire chicken, I mean an entire chicken, including not only the feet (Grandma's favorite), but the head (there is photographic evidence of Hannes taking a nibble of the comb). The hotpot was served with a variety of cold vegetable dishes (delicious) and a seemingly endless supply of fresh noodles, which the server would bring around and dump into the pot with the gravy and the chicken. I think the noodles were all-you-can-eat, it seemed like they would've kept giving us more and more if we could've managed to keep eating. Sichuan peppers make my tongue feel funny and will never be my favorite spice, but I still enjoyed it, and my dining companions were raving about the sauce. Plus the total price was something like $10, which fed 6 people who were feeling extremely stuffed by the end. It felt crazy from our Western vantage point.
By the end of the night, the table - especially the boy's side - was looking more than a little gross (cross-reference under: mildly unpleasant). Cigarette butts filled empty rice bowls, which were also occasionally being used as spittoons, ick. Beer cans and chicken bones covered every possible surface. We concluded the night by getting on video chat with one of the guy's girlfriends, because why not, right? And all of this despite the fact that our two sides of the table weren't really able to communicate with one another. You've heard of the language of love, but I'll tell you now -- it is the language of beer and hotpots that really brings people together.
...and other survival tips.
Okay, I don't mean survival in the true sense of the word, but I came back from China with a slew of practical tips that I wanted to pass on.
1. This is how you cross the street.
Crossing the street is harder than you would expect. At big intersections, the streets are many lanes wide, and the system, if there is one, is hard for outsiders to understand. One thing that was explained to me: just because you have a green walk sign, doesn't mean you have the right of way. In fact, all the cars and motorcycles that are making a right turn have the right of way, making it feel rather perilous to leave the curb. My solution? Attach myself to the crowd. There's a good chance there will be a crowd, or at a minimum a handful of locals, and from a motorized perspective running over a group of people is more difficult and less attractive than running over a single person, right?? That was my logic, at least. If the buddy system works for kindergartners, it can also work for hapless tourists in Beijing.
2. Choose your subway exit BEFORE you leave the subway.
In any other place I've been, I've never placed much worth on exiting the subway at the exit that would bring me closest to my destination. Normally it seems just as easy to climb up into the light of day, look around to get my bearings, and be on my way. In Beijing, this approach is a recipe for disaster (or at least a 30-minute delay in getting where you're trying to go). The train stations are enormous and and it's not the case that the various entrances are simply across the street or one block away from one another. The key is that when you are inside the subway there are maps showing the various exits all over the place. You should go study one and figure out which exit will get you to your destination, and then walk as far as you need to underground to get to the correct exit. It will be worth it, I promise you!
3. Use your phone's compass app.
Discovered while in China: the compass app doesn't require a data connection! After exiting the subway, I found it super helpful to do a quick check of what direction was what, preventing me from walking off in the wrong direction. The blocks in Beijing are BIG, so if you wait for the next intersection to confirm you're on the right track, you will have potentially wasted a lot of time and energy. Of course, if you can get offline maps to work so you can simply follow the blue dot, that works too. (But reminder - no google services will work without a VPN, so your google maps app is useless.)
4. And speaking of apps...
There are new apps are coming out all the time so this list is bound to be already outdated, but here are some apps I found useful.
A few other notes on getting around...
The subway in Beijing is easy and efficient. There is signage in English, the network will get you most anywhere you want to go, and trains come frequently. A few additional points on what to expect:
Taxis are a great way to get around at night. During the day, taking a taxi is likely to be slower than the subway, as Beijing has notorious traffic problems. At night though, it's quick and easy and also super cheap.
If you are feeling brave and have Apple maps, you can figure out the bus. We did, and it wasn't too hard. But within Beijing, there's probably not much of a need to, the subway plus an occasional taxi can get you everywhere.
By long-distance train.
We rode the high-speed train from Beijing to Zhengzhou, and the in-train experience was very similar to a train ride in Europe. Riding 2nd class provided plenty of western-style comfort. The train station experience, however, was a bit overwhelming. You should be able to buy your tickets online, but you will need to go to the train station in person to pick them up, and for this you will need your passport. Picking up our train tickets involved standing in a very loud and chaotic line. I would recommend picking up train tickets at least a day before departure, and know that this step could take 45 minutes or so. On your travel day, you should arrive at the train station (with your ticket) 45 minutes in advance, since you will have to go through a security check.
And in conclusion...
China felt very foreign to me, and I'm saying this as a Chinese American (more precisely, a Chinese-Irish-American) who once took a year of Mandarin lessons. (I remember none of the Mandarin.) But with an adventurous spirit and a good dose of patience you can navigate like a pro. At least if you are headed to the more typical tourist destinations, that is. If I were headed to the deserts of Western China I would brush up on my Chinese for sure, or better yet, convince a Chinese-speaking friend to come with me.
In honor of the new year and my birthday I made my first-ever visit to a hammam, or Turkish bath. Germans love their spas and there is a strong Turkish cultural presence in Berlin, so I decided it was something to try out. I booked a package that included a body peeling -- a the hammam classic, according to the website -- and thought to myself, somehow it's appropriate to start the new year by sloughing off a layer of skin. In fact, I did the same thing (but the Korean version) to ring in 2016 at a women's spa north of Seattle called Olympus. (I do not consider myself a "spa girl," btw, these are the only two peelings I've ever done in my life.) Pondering the New Year and fresh starts, I just looked back on a few notes I scribbled after my Korean spa visit at the start of 2016 and literally started LMAO. This is the closest I will ever get to writing poetry, so I figure I should publish it as is.
For your amusement, I present:
Korean body scrub
warm water being splashed over me
scrubbing - and then the same spot again and again
silky smooth moisturizer something or another
lined up on cots
reminded of a sardine/fish processing plant
at the end I felt like a naked alien being born out of a test tube
Beijing is very photogenic, and you could spend weeks wandering around here and still have plenty of things to see. We had 4 days; below are some of my impressions.
The hutongs are old Beijing, neighborhoods made up of narrow alleyways and single-story homes, with what seemed to be community bathrooms. The predominant color was grey, but despite the drabness it was fascinating to walk through and get a glimpse of traditional life. Though they felt calm in comparison to the rest of the city, the alleyways were fairly bustling with electric mopeds, who were constantly honking at us to get out of the way -- because we didn't hear them otherwise.
The Forbidden City and Jingshan Park
The Forbidden City is impressive, and enormous. We spent about half a day wandering around inside. Jingshan Park, on a hill overlooking the Forbidden City, was the perfect end to the day - fun, lively, and with great views onto the Forbidden City and the rest of the city as well. I wanted to skip Jingshan Park and go back to the hotel and take a nap instead (blame jet lag) but I'm SO glad I didn't.
Park Scenes, Street Scenes
Beijing parks are hopping. Mostly with senior citizens -- a tour guide later confirmed that it was the retiree crowd that hung out at the parks. From my vantage point, at least, it looks like they have it pretty good. It was very social, and there were lots of groups singing, dancing, playing games, knitting...you name it. Amusingly, there also seemed to be a bit of competition going on between the various music groups. At one pavilion, there would be a choir singing, and approximately 10 feet away there would be somebody playing music on a boombox and dancing, and around the corner there would be someone playing an instrument. It was quite dissonant, really, but I appreciated the enthusiasm of all involved. In the evenings we would also see groups of people gathered on the sidewalks, seemingly for their evening aerobics, set to pop music. Presumably this was for those with a day job.
As for the streets themselves, we were into all the various ways people had tricked out their electric scooters. (We didn't see any non-electric motorbikes in Beijing, I assume it's a rule to improve the air quality.) Apparently key to making it through the Beijing winter was having mittens and a blanket built into your ride - quite clever really.
A glimpse of ultra-modern Beijing.
I was the only one of our group that made it over to Sanlitun, and that was not because I knew anything about the neighborhood, but because I was trying to go to a yoga class. I never made it due to an Apple Maps fail, but briefly got to see a completely different side of Beijing - a shiny, highly-polished version where you could believe you were in any city in the world.
Standing on the Great Wall of China landed on my bucket list at a very young age. (Although at age eight or whatever, I definitely didn't call it a bucket list.) So when we went on a family trip to China OF COURSE we made an excursion to the Great Wall, and it was cool! But, you know, in some ways it was like any other tourist attraction anywhere. We went to the Badaling section of the Great Wall, which is the most accessible from Beijing and which, if you read the interwebs, is so touristy and tacky that no self-respecting white person with any taste would go there. I am here to tell you: it is totally fine and it was absolutely the right decision.
So here's the deal. There are reasons why Badaling is considered a touristy nightmare. It is the most visited section of the wall - the internet tells me that combined, Badaling and Mutianyu (another section not too far from Beijing) see over 10 million visitors per year. You can reach the wall via gondola -- which we totally did, also totally worth avoiding a dusty uphill walk from the parking lot. What's more, you can come down from the wall in one section on some sort of toboggan track -- this one we skipped. Lastly, there is a very sad bear park with bears in cages at one of the exits. None of these are attractive characteristics to me, and honestly, had I been on my own or with just Hannes, I probably would've insisted on going to another section of the wall. But for our family group of eight people, this was definitely the way to go.
So what were the positives? You can get to Badaling on a two-hour bus ride from Beijing for the cost of something like $2 per person. Any other option would have meant hiring a private driver for the day for more like $50 per person, or some serious adventures in public transit which we weren't quite up for. Also, the Badaling section is the best-restored section of the Great Wall, with hand rails in many places. I wouldn't have thought that this would count as a plus for me, but let me tell you, some of the sections were steep. For a multi-generational outing, I was really happy to have handrails and not to have rocks crumbling under our feet.
I will let you in on a secret. Visiting Badaling is just like visiting Yosemite -- if you are willing to walk a little bit, you can escape the crowds. We took the gondola from the parking lot up to the wall, and right where the gondola drops off it is madness. Like, seriously crowded. Everyone seems to want to go up to the highest tower in this section, and up until there, it was packed. But we just had to keep walking for about 20 minutes, and the crowds almost completely thinned out and were no longer a bother. Sure, we weren't alone, but China is a country of 1.3+ billion people, you don't come here for the solitude, right?? (Okay, there are plenty of places in Western China where I'm sure you could find solitude, but not on the more typical tourist route in the eastern part of the country.)
I have a hunch that the wall itself is going to look pretty similar no matter where you go if you are choosing someplace accessible as a day trip from Beijing. Elsewhere in its 5000-mile stretch, I bet it could look very different. And speaking of day trips from Beijing -- I wouldn't pin your hopes on getting out of the city and into the fresh air -- that certainly wasn't the case for us. It felt exactly as smoggy at the Great Wall as it did in the city itself. I didn't feel like it was affecting my breathing, but I missed seeing blue sky -- the sky was generally white and hazy. I will say however, the haze did make for some romantic pictures in the end. If you want to plan a trip to Beijing and avoid poor air quality, my advice to you is to wait 10 years, or plan your trip around a sporting event for which the government will temporarily shut down the coal-fired power plants (it's not just for the Olympics, a colleague of mine happened to be there during another track and field event and had great air quality). Even though the trend is towards improvement, poor air quality is going to remain a reality in eastern China for a while.
This one day we spent in China - March 29th, 2016, to be exact - encapsulated so many stories and emotions that it is somehow representative of our whole China trip in miniature. So here they are, the highs and lows, documented for posterity.
phase 1: euphoria.
After 10 days spent only in megacities, I think we were all excited to arrive in the lush green of the Yangshuo countryside. Lonely Planet told us that this was a great area for biking, so we were equally excited for a day's excursion by bike - a welcome change of pace from days spent out and about by subway, train, and bus. So we outfitted ourselves with bicycles from our guesthouse, and off we rode!
For the first hour, we were all completely euphoric. It was beautiful! We were on bicycles! And at our first photo stop we invented what we were convinced was going to be the next big thing in photography - the panorama shot! Not new, you say? But in our panarama photos, everyone appears more than once, bringing loads of extra fun. The photographer would take a 360° photo using smartphone stitching, and then when someone in the photo was out of the frame (for the first time), they would run to the other end to appear at the other side as well. Pure, silly hilarity. Too bad the photo-stitching software does some weird things to your face when you're in a 360° shot, we could've had some real works of art on our hands.
phase 2: euphoria tinged with incredulity.
The first bit of incredulity crept in when we realized that a good chunk of our bicycle path was not more than a muddy rut strewn with rocks; it was like mountain-biking on flat land. But we were a hardy bunch, and had no problem with walking our bikes once in a while -- which for me, at least, was necessary. We had just finished a long stretch of mud and rocks and had found our way onto a paved path again when we ran into a couple of young white dudes. We stopped to chat about which fork in the road to take, and lo and behold, we actually knew one of them - Roman had gone to high school with one of them in Bühl (i.e., small-town Germany). What a coincidence, right?! I mean, here we were on a bike path in the middle of nowhere (albeit, a middle-of-nowhere that is fairly well known on the tourist circuit), and we meet someone we knew from Germany?! Crazy. Needless to say there was lots and lots of chatting and catching up before we decided it was time to get back on our bikes and make it to our lunch destination, Dragon Bridge.
phase 3: frustration, and more incredulity.
It was already late when we arrived at our lunch destination, around 2 pm or so, what with all of our stopping for photos and catching up with old friends. Lunch itself didn't arrive so quickly either, so when we had eaten, we were more than ready to get back on the road -- we still had half of our bike ride ahead of us. Dragon Bridge was our turn around point, and the plan was to bike back on the other side of the river. But when we went to get on our bikes again, Verena discovered that she had a flat tire. So we asked a local police officer for help, and he directed us to someone who could repair the flat for us.
This took forever, and we started inventing theories that the bike had actually been sabotaged by the people who were now going to make money from repairing it -- we had simply locked our bikes together on one side of the bridge, where some locals had been trying to convince us to come to their lunch place, which we didn't do in the end -- and now it seemed like the same people were doing the bike repair. Also, they found 3 holes in the tube, and apparently charged per hole. The price they named seemed awfully steep to us, so Roman got on the phone with the owners of our guesthouse for the first time that day, and they negotiated a better price for us. By the time all of this was over, we all had a bit of a bad taste in our mouths and were REALLY ready to get on the road again.
So we were off again, finally, and the next thing that happened is that we started getting lost. Well, not really lost, but we were having a bit of trouble finding our way. The concept was simple, follow the river back, but the proper path was not that obvious. More than once we went one way, only to have some local farmers to gesture wildly at us, indicating that we should turn around and go the other way. None of this was so bad, but we were starting to feel a bit of time pressure -- we still had a long ways to go and eventually it would get dark.
And then Rita got a flat tire. We were somewhere in a tiny village, but we weren't sure where exactly and didn't have any cell phone reception. So we went down the road a bit and found a local farmer who could repair the flat for us. (Mind you, all of this communication was done with sign language and Roman's relatively limited Chinese.) However, the bigger problem was that we still had a long way to get home, didn't exactly know how to get there, and by now it was going to get dark within an hour. And of course we didn't have any lights for our bikes.
phase 4: rescue! and even more incredulity.
At this point, I was convinced we needed a rescue. Basically, I thought our guesthouse needed to send a van to pick us up. The owners were the most western of any hotel staff we had encountered, spoke excellent English, and I figured we couldn't have been the first guests to ever get ourselves into this sort of fix. So while flat tire #2 was being fixed, I got on the phone with them. As it turns out, however, arranging transport for 7 people + 7 bicycles in rural China is not so simple. So I handed the phone to the nice farmer guy who had just fixed our flat tire, and the plan they worked out for us was this: he would ride on his motorbike with a big giant headlamp and guide us back to our guesthouse. That way we would have light AND not get hopelessly lost. For a moment, Rita was ready to tell him that this wasn't necessary, that we would be fine, but I was convinced - it WAS necessary, and it sounded like a good plan to me.
We were on the road again, this time with our new friend as a guide. He led us on a winding path that eventually dumped us out on a proper road, complete with auto traffic. Progress! At this point however, there were two more complications: (1) our guide told us he had to change out his motorbike battery and that he'd be right back, then disappeared, and (2) we had two more flat tires - Rita's (which apparently hadn't gotten properly fixed), and Katrin's. Punch-drunk laughter seemed to be the healthiest reaction here.
We weren't off the grid anymore, so Hannes' first thought was to hail down one of the mini trucks that were passing by, to see if they would give a couple of people and a couple of bikes a lift back to our guest house. However, the communication didn't really work, and the truck driver indicated that he could take us down the road to someone who could patch a flat tire...and we had had enough of fixing flats for one day.
By that point our new friend had returned, having switched out his electric motorbike for a diesel one. For a moment the plan was this: he would take one extra person on his motorbike, who would roll one of the bikes with the flats along beside them, Roman would ride one bike while pushing another, and Hannes would jog. I'd say we had 8-10 km to go at this juncture. Hannes actually did start jogging down the road while the rest of us biked/rode, but this plan lasted all of about 200 meters. Then we rearranged and did the following: two people got on the back of the motorbike, Hannes and Roman biked while simultaneously pushing a bike with a flat beside them, and the rest of us rode our bikes normally. What a troupe we made.
phase 5: relief, exhaustion, and awe.
And we made it! We biked/rode in this constellation a while in the dark, finally got to a road that we recognized, and knew we weren't far away. Up until the very end, we had been riding all together in a group, and we had tried to tell our guide that he could go a little faster on his motorbike, that the bicycles could keep up -- but the pace stayed relatively slow. Those actually riding on the back of the motorcycle later hypothesized that maybe our driver spent the whole time being unable to get out of first gear. Because around the last corner he shot off ahead, leaving us on the bicycles behind. When we pedaled into our guesthouse driveway, we were in for one last surprise -- our motorbiking companions hadn't arrived yet. It was our last "oh no!" moment for the day, but we didn't have to wait too long before the last of our crew showed up. Soon enough, they pulled in as well -- they had missed the turnoff to our guest house and had to turn around.
We tried to get our new friend and guide to stay for dinner, but he had to turn around and get back to his wife and baby at home. Without his help we would've been lost in more ways than one, and we were SO grateful. We had to insist to get him to take some money in return for his services.
Simon had missed all of the shenanigans, having stayed back at the hotel because he wasn't feeling well. In the evening recap and report, after everyone had showered and we were sitting down to eat, the elation came flooding back. The trials of the day made it that much more amazing in the end. I was impressed that, despite all of the complications of the journey, all of us stayed in good spirits throughout -- the only breakdowns were of the bicycle variety. Plus, there's nothing like needing to rely on the kindness of strangers to make me feel warm and fuzzy about humanity.
Meanwhile, Lonely Planet describes our bicycle route as a 20-km, 4-hour trip -- which turned out to be a 38-km, 8-hour trip for us. So much for truth in advertising. Of course, only 3 hours and 15 minutes of our trip were actually spent cycling, the rest we spent fixing flat tires. Oh yeah, and stopping for frolicking, taking pictures, and enjoying the view.
Navigating China can be difficult when you don't speak Chinese, and probably even when you do. In fact, our experience in China was that everything was more difficult than we thought it should be -- but hey, that's the challenge and reward of being in a truly foreign culture, right? (And I say this as a Chinese American - modern Chinese culture is very foreign to me.) But don't worry, I am here to tell you how to eat all the best things in China, and liberate you from the need to visit only restaurants with an English menu -- because, how boring would that be?.
1. go where there's a line.
Chinese people are willing to stand in line for good food, and while you're there, you should be too. This applies especially at night markets and for street food, but in Shanghai and in Taipei there were also plenty of lines for dumpling restaurants. This rule is just an extension of a principle I apply universally: if a restaurant is full, it's probably good.
2. point at what other people are eating.
This is a trick I learned from my dad. Can't read the menu? No picture menus on the wall? Then just look at what other people are eating and point at what looks tasty. This is good advice, I promise - there is no use in resting on useless, anti-pointing decorum. It is also common for a restaurant to have one specialty dish that everybody goes there for, so don't you want to eat that too?? Combined with rule #1, the principle here is: eat what other people are eating. There is wisdom in the crowd. And if somehow you end up with something you don't like, at least you can say you ate like the locals.
3. eat all the dumplings.
I am a dumpling lover. My favorite remains the classic pork xiaolongbao, a Shanghai specialty, often called soup dumplings because of the delicious fatty broth inside. They take a little practice to eat, but my god they are delicious. And they have a cult following, too. New to me in Shanghai were the fried soup dumplings, shengjianbao, which were the favorite of Hannes' cousin Roman, who had been studying in Shanghai for a semester. I made a point of eating a new dumpling every day we were in Shanghai, and believe me, 4 days was far too few.
4. and the noodles, too.
We had two outstanding noodle experiences in China. One was in a noodle shop tucked into a Beijing side street where we watched our noodles being hand cut into our soup broth with a technique reminiscent of the traditional way to make German spätzle. The resulting soup was ridiculously delicious, and it cost all of about $2 per person. The second new and awesome noodle experience was the hand-pulled la mien, a traditional Muslim Chinese food. Through the window to the restaurant kitchen, we watched our noodles being made with a technique that seemed like magic -- at first the dough is rolled, and then it's whipped back and forth through the air like a rubber band, and then somehow out of the roll of dough comes a band of noodles - and super long ones at that. I watched this feat several times (check out my video) but still don't understand the moment when dough ball becomes noodle. Conclusion: freshly made pasta, yum!
5. if you have dietary restrictions, have someone write it down for you.
One of the reasons I love Chinese food is that I can eat everything -- it's a cuisine that's pretty much entirely free of milk products, which I need to avoid. Being vegetarian, on the other hand, is not so easy in China. If you order a vegetable dish, there is a very high likelihood that the vegetables have been cooked in pork fat, or that the vegetables will come with small chunks of pork. In Beijing and Shanghai you can find 100% vegetarian restaurants in the Buddhist tradition, where they make all sorts of delicious dishes featuring imitation meat made out of soy and seitan. (We can highly recommend Baihe Vegetarian in Beijing, which was both beautiful and delicious.) But in general, the best way to go is have someone who speaks Chinese write something down for you that you can show to the restaurant staff. This is not 100% foolproof, but written communication tends to work more smoothly than spoken communication (i.e., me botching the pronunciation).
6. don't feel guilty about choosing Western food every once in a while
Sometimes you just need a little taste of home. When I was working in Taipei, one of my favorite splurges was to go for a coffee break at the nearby Starbucks (yes, you find them in China too) and order a cinnamon bun. A cinnamon bun!! Amazingly sweet and gooey and not Chinese food. Western food comes at Western prices, but you can generally find it if you're in a city. And while I will totally judge you if you go to China and eat only Kentucky Fried Chicken (this is probably possible, KFC is everywhere), it's perfectly normal to take a break from the (extremely delicious) Chinese food once in a while. After all, you're only human. And also, you might need a coffee now and then -- which is so not Chinese, btw.
Today was a hot Berlin August day, and my friend Mary and I had a date to go get ice cream. Hooray, right? (One of the things made oh-so-easy since Mary moved into our neighborhood, yippee!) We were headed to Berlin Homemade Ice Cream in Schöneberg, where they have truly delicious ice cream (sorbet for me) as well as a sense of humor - their web address is the German for "lick me," and when you say "lick me" in German it is slightly obscene, the equivalent of "bite me" in good 'ol American English. Anyway, as we approached the ice cream shop, the normally quiet street was parked in with big vans, and we realized they must be filming something -- something I see fairly regularly on my street in Berlin. So we got our ice cream, and since the street felt very claustophobic with all the production vans, we walked into the neighboring park (Kleistpark). As we rounded the corner, Mary gasped: at the front of an old courthouse building facing the park they were flying four or five giant red Nazi flags with swastikas on them. It was shocking, and also totally surreal. This is something you do NOT see in Germany. Public display of Nazi flags is completely illegal except for historical purposes, so it was clear that this was for whatever they were filming, but still. It made us a bit uneasy.
We had started our little neighborhood walk discussing the fairly heavy topic of the recent Burkini ban in France, the images of a French police officer requiring a Burkini-clad woman to take off some of her clothes at a beach in Nice, and the general permanent historical state of women being told what to wear (bikinis were once considered indecent, after all). To be confronted with another symbol of oppression directly afterwards made it feel all the more weighty. I wanted to take a photo but was then yelled at by a guard: "verboten!" To me this just added to the perverseness - I understand why they don't want people taking pictures (it's forbidden imageryl) - but having a man yell at me for taking a picture in a public place just felt like more oppression by the patriarchy. Yes, I'm being dramatic. But if I were the film crew/city, I would've closed off the whole park for the duration of the filming, it seems simpler and more effective than hiring camera police. I actually did sneak a photo from a distance but I will use my good judgement and not post it -- you will just have to trust me on this one.
And now I feel the need to end on a cheery note. Getting ice cream with friends is fun! I will go back and take pictures on a non-Nazi day and update the post so that Berlin looks friendly and beautiful.