Hong Kong, a love affair

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Where to start?  I've been here for five days now and I love it.  As I said before, Hong Kong is a big relief after three weeks in mainland China.  It's a proper, big, first-world city.  There's lots of English everywhere, and it's fast and exciting and vibrant and it all just works.  Take the metro system for example. Most people in Hong Kong use an "Octopus Card" which is a rechargeable card you can use to get on the metro and all buses.  But it doesn't stop there. You can use the Octopus card for tourist sites like the tram that goes up Victoria Peak.  In fact, it's not just a transport card, it's a "smart card payment system".  Use it at the grocery store.  Use it at the 7-11.  Use it at McDonalds, at malls, cinemas, even pet stores. It's the all-purpose Hong Kong card.  Brilliant. (And what is it with naming metro cards after see creatures?  The equivalent in London is the Oyster Card…)

But back to me and Hong Kong.  I left the group on Saturday, which was not hard at all.  Of all the groups I've traveled with this is the once I felt the least connection with so on Saturday morning when I turned my face to the Hong Kong Metro, I was not filled with grief at our parting.  I was off to my own hotel, and I while I had no plans for the day, that was, frankly, just how I liked it.  It was only later that I realized it was the weekend of Palm Sunday, and the beginning of Lent.  I've since decided I to give up group tours for Lent, so now I sleep the untroubled sleep of one who is no longer required to present herself in the lobby of the hotel at 6:45 am for a guided visit to the local chopstick factory.  It is bliss.

A typical street in Hong Kong near our first hotel.  And I didn't TRY to get a McDonald's in the shot, they're just everywhere.  Outnumbered only by 7-11s, which are more numerous than Starbucks in Vancouver. 

The hotel I'd booked, sort of by mistake, turned out to be in an enormous tower called Chungking Mansions.  I thought I was booking a place recommended by the LP, but it turned out that it's very easy to get mixed up about hotels in Hong Kong, since each place seems to have several names.  Chungking Mansions, though, turns out to be somewhat notorious.  As the LP says:

"Chungking Mansions has been synonymous with budget accommodations in Hong Kong for decades.  The crumbling block rising out of the prime real estate of Nathan Road is stacked with dirt-cheap hostels, guest houses, curry houses, immigrants and all manner of merchants.  Rooms are usually miniscule and service is as rudimentary as you'd expect in the cheapest accommodation in town.  And while it can seem pretty bleak, you can take comfort in knowing it used to be much worse."

Not exactly glowing praise.  The place I ended up reserving was… ok.  I thought I'd reserved a "Single Deluxe" room, but the guy ended up putting me in what purported to be a triple.  In fact there was, technically, space for three people to lie down – a double bed and a single bed, with about 14" of space between the two.  There was also a tiny private bathroom, and a tv, and a wired internet connection.  All in all, though there was not room enough to swing even  the vague notion of a cat, it was acceptable.  Except for one thing – there was no window. I thought I could handle this, but one morning waking up in the same total darkness that I'd gone to sleep in convinced me that I deserved an upgrade. 

A bit too gulag for my tastes these days… 

I stayed the two nights I'd paid for, but at the first chance I went to check out the LP-recommended place I'd always intended to find, and it was much better.  For the same price – a mere three hundred Hong Kong dollars (about $40 CDN) – I got the window I wanted, and wifi.  It's a place where I'm happy to unpack in for a few days.

But back to that first Saturday.  I had no real plan once I'd unpacked back in my cell at Chungking Mansions, except that I wanted to wander around to check out the neighbourhood.  It turned out that my location in south Kowloon – that's on the mainland, not on the actual island of Hong Kong - was very close to the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong Museum of Art, and Hong Kong Space Museum.  Wandering around my eye caught on a big banner advertising a production of "The Turn of the Screw" and I realized that I was completely at liberty to go to that show if I wanted.  There was no one else to consult, no group consensus to be reached, and nothing to do but turn my footsteps towards the sign and ask a few questions.  It was brilliant, and invigorating, and reminded me of why traveling alone can be so much fun.

Well I didn't go to "The Turn of the Screw" – it was sold out.  But I did go to a show that night – a production of Mozart's opera "Cosi Fan Tutti" at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts.  The show was good, and it was especially fun because it was all students – the full orchestra, the singers, the technicians – it reminded me of my own teaching experiences, and put a whole different spin on the evening.  I even had dinner before the show in the student canteen, which was cheap and filling.  And when those kids took their final bows that night (it was their last performance) you could just see the pride and relief and happiness in all of them.  Much more heartfelt and heartwarming than a professional production. It was great.

My mood in Hong Kong is also helped along a lot because I've got a new local SIM card for my phone and though I can't seem to send text messages, it will connect me with all the fancy data services that make the iPhone so sexy.  And let me tell you, traveling with a fully connected iPhone is totally brilliant.  Now that I'm on my own again, my natural ability to proceed unerringly in exactly the wrong direction has reared its head again.  I am completely unable to tell south from north in Hong Kong, and this is a significant obstacle to successfully navigating around the city.  With the iPhone and Google Maps I always know where I am, and even what direction I'm facing.  Even the simple compass function has saved my butt several times. If there was ever any doubt in my mind about whether the outrageous sum I paid for that phone in Dubai was worth it, it has long since vanished.

On Sunday I had a full day checking out some of the tourist sites on the island of Hong Kong.  I started out by taking a double-decker tram all the way out to Sheung Wan, in the west end of the island.  Hong Kong has the world's only double decker tram system, and it's fun and cheap, only $2.00 HK (about 30 cents) for a ride.  I was lucky enough to snag a seat on the top deck, and had a great time watching Hong Kong roll by.

The view of the top deck

Out in Sheung Wan I did a little walking tour of the neighbourhood and had a really nice lunch.  I actually ended up using a knife and fork for all three meals that day, which is the first time that's happened since I arrived in Beijing.  Sheung Wan has a few touristy Western style spots like the place I had lunch, but a lot of it is still quite traditional, and the area I started in was packed with shops selling dried seafood and other critters.  These are all over the place, not just in Sheung Wan, but also in most commercial areas.  Some are obviously small Mom and Pop places, but some are very posh, with fancy decor and mirrors and elegant display cases.  It's almost like a jewelry store, except instead of diamonds and precious metals, the bins are full of unidentifiable shriveled brown things.

Critters like these guys.  I don't know if they're food, or medicine, or offerings or home decor…

There were a few nice street market areas too, including one that had antiques and bric-a-brac.  (Nice photo of interesting watches and clocks with magnifying crystals is posted over at Flickr, just for you, Ian.) After wandering Sheung Wan I made my way to the world's longest escalator!  In fact, it's not a single escalator, but the longest escalator system. According to Wikipedia: "In Hong Kong, tens of thousands of commuters travel each work day between Central, the central business district, and the Mid-levels, a residential district hundreds of feet uphill, using this long distance system of escalators and moving walkways. It is the world's longest outdoor escalator system (not a single escalator span), at a total length of 2,600 feet (790 m)."  It was pretty cool, though I was a bit disappointed that it wasn't one enormously long escalator (like on The Simpsons!).

Here's me, at the bottom.

The escalator goes right through the SoHo district, and you could look out over the streets as you rode by and check out the many many many restaurants and shops.  Eventually I split off from the escalator system and headed for the station to catch the aforementioned tram to Victoria Peak (know locally simply as "The Peak").  The tram has been in operation since 1888, and was built as a means of opening Victoria Peak up to residential development.  It's mostly used by tourists now, though still available for residents.  There are even intermediate stops on the way to the Peak, for people who live part way up.  It was a bit of a madhouse when I was there, since it was a sunny Sunday afternoon and the tourists were out in force.  I had a fairly long wait to get on the tram because it's quite small and the crowd was quite large.

When I finally got on the ride was nothing special, except for the somewhat nervous-making bits where the grade was about 48%.  At the top I'd been expecting a sort of verdant park-like area with a nice lookout and perhaps a small and pleasant café.  Instead, the tower at the top was more like a big mall with a Madame Tussaud's and tons of restaurants and weird shops selling things like remote control cars that would drive on the wall and micro-sized video projectors built into sunglasses and crap like that.  Very odd.  There was a nice lookout, but you had to pay extra to access it (Thank you, Octopus card). 

At least the view was good

I wandered about, took lots of photos, and then left the weirdly commercial area to seek out that verdant park-like business that I'd come for.  I found it a little way further up the hill where there was a small park filled with local people and kids and dogs.  I sat and read my book for a while, rested my feet, and contemplated doing a 3.5 km walk that looped through even more verdant hilliness.  My brain was vaguely in favour of the notion but my feet were strongly opposed and carried the vote 2-1.  So I made my way back down on the tram and to the metro and returned to my temporary 'hood.  There I hastened to the Irish pub down the street from my prison cell where Happy Hour had already started.  I enjoyed a nice pint of Guinness on tap and an all-day full Irish breakfast, and watched the last few matches in the Hong Kong Sevens rugby tournament.  (Canada won the Bowl. Or the Spoon. Or maybe it was the Spatula.  Something, anyways. They award a lot of prizes named after dishes and such in this tournament.  But yay Canada!)

It was a great first few days in Hong Kong.  I felt reinvigorated and happier to contemplate the remaining two months of my trip than I've been in a long long time.  And there's more to tell about Hong Kong too, so as usual you'll have to wait for me to stop doing things long enough to write about them.  But don't hold your breath because there's a lot of doing still to do.

Missing pieces of China

Monday, March 29, 2010

China is done. Well I suppose that technically I should say Mainland China is done, because Hong Kong really is part of China, and has been since 1987. However, I’m counting Hong Kong as a separate country because we had to pass through border controls to get in and they have different currency. Also because it’s really really different. So let’s take a few minutes to look back on country #23 and a few of the interesting things that never made it into a blog post.


Huang has gave us a few elementary Mandarin lessons during our trip. At first it was kind of lame, but it turned out to be quite fun and informative. Chinese numbers are very simple – you really just have to learn the numbers zero through nine, and ten, hundred and thousand and you can make up any number you want. Want to say 12? It’s ten-two (shi-er). Twenty is two-ten (er-shi). And the Chinese use different finger symbols to indicate the numbers, and only need one hand to count up to ten. My favourite is the one for seven (chi) – it’s like the gesture you’d make when describing a puppet – a sort of fingers-chomping-against-thumb motion.

Of course Chinese pronunciation is legendarily subtle. The difference between the word for yes and the word for ten is all in how you inflect the vowel at the end. And interestingly, the word for no is actually a combination of two characters, meaning “not yes”. It seems highly appropriate to me that a culture so concerned with saving face and not causing offense doesn’t actually have a word that means no. It’s like they’re saying, “I don’t want to say no, but it’s not exactly yes either.”

Huang trying to explain the subtle difference in pronunciation between s, sh, ch and zh. Good luck.


I have thus far refrained from excessive comments on the toilet facilities I’ve run into. I’ve tried not to be all Western and high-and-mighty about squat toilets, reasoning that if I’d been brought up with them I’d probably find the Western variety odd and unhygienic. Indeed why would anyone want to set their butt down on the same ceramic that has been graced by hundreds who came before? But it’s time for me to render an opinion, and it is emphatically AGAINST squat toilets. Not because I’m not used to them. Not because they require more balance and dexterity than I sometimes feel like mustering. And not because I find it annoying to have to tuck my pant cuffs into my socks to stop them from trailing in… what’s left behind. It’s simply because there is stuff left behind for my pant cuffs to trail in in the first place. Western toilets may have their shortcomings, but at least the design is able to contain the vast majority of deposits entirely within the structure, a quality that squat toilets are sadly lacking. The state of a squat toilet at the end of a 17 hour overnight train journey is not fit to describe in a family blog. Enough said.


And while we’re on the subject of toilet matters, I have to mention the Chinese practice of eschewing diapers for babies in favour of simply putting them in a pair of paints with a split up the back. This means the kid can squat whenever and wherever he needs to, and it means he spends no time in a dirty diaper. Like squat toilets, I suppose this makes sense on one level. I guess there’s less laundry to do, but I also wonder about the state of your priceless Persian carpets by the time the kid is toilet trained.


Apparently it’s common practice for engaged couples in China to take their wedding pictures before the wedding. I know lots of couples in the West do this too, but I’m talking about WAY before the wedding, like up to a year. Huang says this is so they can show the photos to friends and family at the wedding, but that seems to be carrying things a bit too far. Are you supposed to try and look exactly the same on your wedding day? What if you change your hair? Or get some kind of disfiguring scar? Or what if you change your mind?

A young couple having their wedding photos taken at Emei Shan. Scheduled wedding date: June 1, 2017. First the Groom has to get old enough to shave.


More thoughts on the Chinese language: Have you ever wondered how the Chinese cope with computer keyboards? I did, and Huang explained. There are actually two different systems. The first is called ping yan. This involves typing the phonetic spelling of the Chinese word in English characters. So if Huang wants to type his name, he types H-U-A-N-G. Then the Chinese operating system pops up a menu of all the different characters that could match that spelling. Keep in mind that each vowel sound has four different possible inflections that can’t be rendered on the keyboard, so the average list of possible matches is about 20 characters long. For Huang, there’s “yellow” (which is the correct one in this case), and these other possible matches: emperor, hangover, fallow field, bed springs, house decoration, wander around, phoenix, grasshopper, blind, a name of a chemical, crickets, a sort of fish, and a word for sick. As you can imagine, this system is not terribly efficient.

Luckily, there’s another system called wu bi. With wu bi, each English letter on the keyboard corresponds to one common component of a Chinese characters. Most Chinese characters are made up of several other characters mashed together, sort of like a compound word. With wu bi, you have to learn what each English letter means and can then make up most Chinese characters. Good wu bi typists can type 100-150 words per minute.

Oh, and I saw a woman texting on her iPhone in the Hong Kong subway. When she wanted to write a Chinese character a little blank space popped up on her screen and she’d draw an approximation of the character there with her finger. Then a series of possible matches would appear along the side, and she’d pick the one she wanted. It was pretty cool.


Lots of doorways in China have weirdly tall thresholds – not ones into regular shops and things, but certainly the doorways into temples, or palaces, and even into private home or hotels. Huang tells us there are two reasons for this. First, having to lift your feet higher is meant to force the entrant into a sort of bowing position, thus indicating humility, or in the case of a palace or temple, obeisance. The second reason is more fun – it’s to keep out Chinese ghosts! Unlike Western ghosts who fly around wherever they please, Chinese ghosts move around on the ground with their arms stretched straight out in front of them. And when they move, they do it with knees together in short hops. (Think of Frankenstein doing the bunny hop.) When confronted with a raised threshold, the hapless ghost is unable to enter and terrorize the inhabitants of the building, though what kind of terror he could actually inflict given his rather awkward form of movement is not clear.

Stepping over the threshold at the entrance to a riverside park in Chengdu

(Bonus fun Chinese threshold fact: It’s traditional when crossing the threshold to enter a Buddhist temple in China for men to lead with their left leg and for women to cross leading with the right.)


You’ve probably all heard about China’s One Child policy, introduced in 1979 to help slow the explosive population growth in China. Well it turns out it’s not as simple as all that. Indeed, a couple living in a city is only allowed to have one child, but those living in a village are allowed to have two. And it’s not that the urban couple is prohibited from having a second baby, it’s just that if they do, they have to pay a hefty fee to the government. The steepness of the fee depends on the couple’s income and the size of the city. The higher the income and the bigger the city, the larger the fee, which can be up to 100,000 yuan (about $15,000). As you can imagine, wealthy people find it much easier to pay these fees.

And what happens if a second child is born and the parents can’t afford to pay the penalty? To start, it means the parents can’t register the birth officially. This means that when the child grows up and wants to get a job he can’t, because he doesn’t have an identity card. Huang says that sometimes people get desperate at this point and the parent and child will go down to the local police station and basically hang around for days on end until the police finally relent and issue a card just to get rid of them, though first they will check to make sure that the family involved truly can’t afford to pay.

And now I’m sure you’re thinking, “What happens if a woman has twins? Or triplets?” My question exactly. Huang says that the government does not assess the fee in the case of multiple births, reasoning that it’s not something that could be predicted or prevented. As a consequence, it’s considered very lucky to have twins.


McDonald’s seems to be everywhere in China, and I have to say that’s not a bad thing at all. I started this trip all high-and-mighty about McDonald’s. I never went there much at home, why would I do it when I was traveling? I wasn’t going around the world just so I could make a dash for the nearest Big Mac whenever I got somewhere new! Well I’m here to tell you that sometimes McDonald’s is exactly what you need. They are clean, and consistent, and brightly lit. The food may not be the best or the healthiest, but at least you know what you’re getting. And the bathrooms are always excellent, which by itself would be enough to warrant a visit sometimes. So I say three cheers for the clown, and thanks for being there when I need you.

The McDonald’s in beautiful downtown Yangshuo. And yes, I did eat there.


We had a bit of a streak (well, two) of hotels with a strange concept of bathroom privacy. First in Xi’an and then in Chengdu the walls of the bathrooms in the hotel rooms were made of glass. In both cases there were blinds that could be drawn over the majority of the wall, but really, what the Hell? What kind of moron designs a bathroom with glass walls? I was lucky that I had the room to myself, but what if I’d been paired with someone I’d only met a few days earlier? How comfortable would that be? The hotel in Chengdu was a particularly bad offender, because not only were both walls glass, there wasn’t even a proper door, just a curtain. Whatever designer came up with that abomination should be made to perform his morning ablutions in a glass-walled bathroom at the corner of Yonge and Bloor in downtown Toronto and then maybe he’d smarten up.

My bathroom in Xi’an. Seriously?


More on Chinese language: There are about 56,000 Chinese characters, and the most complicated one takes 56 strokes to complete. At first I thought that Chinese was a very elegant and efficient system, but it seems that because may characters take so many different strokes to draw it’s not hugely faster than the Roman alphabet. The most complicated Roman letters take a maximum of four strokes to draw, so while we use a lot more characters, we can write them a lot faster.

Other language trivia? Though there are 56,000 characters, that would be like the equivalent of the entire contents of the OED and the majority of them are archaic. A well educated Chinese person might know and use between 6,00 and 8,000 characters. Being able to read a daily newspaper requires you understand about 2,000 –3,000.


I’ve mentioned our tour leader, Huang, quite a few times in my posts about China. He was always there for us – when Sarah had her wallet stolen in Xi’an, when I had to be rescued from the docks on the banks of the Yangzi, and whenever anyone needed an ATM, or a local laundry, or directions to the closest reasonable toilet. His English is good, and he’s knowledgeable, and he’s fun, even if he’s not very good at Uno. But regardless of his questionable Uno skills, I’d say he’s a good guy to have around when you’re touring China. It turns out that Huang has a tour company of his own, so I’m happy to mention it here. If you’re looking for someone to get you around China, translate, educate, and find the good dog restaurants, check out Truly China Travel. Ask for Huang Yunhua.

Huang, looking all Movie Star with his dark glasses, on a snowy morning at the Golden Summit of Emei Shan


And since we’re in endorsement mode, I also have to mention my travel agent back in Canada, something I should have done months ago. Cathy at Portage Travelcuts was there for me from the very beginning of the idea for this crazy trip. She helped me understand the quirks of Around the World tickets, and she answered my stupid questions about, well, about anything. Cathy is also a friend and fellow runner and whether we were out on a run, or sitting in a bar, or wherever Cathy was happy to chime in. She got me my rail passes, she booked my tours, and she answers my late-night emails about extra nights at hotels and itineraries for Southeast Asia and visas and whatever. So if you're in Winnipeg and you want to get out book your flight or Intrepid tour or Caribbean vacation with Cathy at Portage Travelcuts, not just because she’s my friend, but because she gets it.


Ok, enough endorsements, and enough China. I’m in Hong Kong, and I’m loving it. My enthusiasm is back, and I’m enjoying seeing the city and planning the next leg of the trip. Look for the first post about Hong Kong soon.

One last bonus Chinglish sign. This one is from a menu in Beijing. Menus in general are a rich source of Chinglish, but this one is frankly beyond any possible interpretation:

Tai Chi and Dumplings

Sunday, March 28, 2010

My time in Yangshuo didn’t end with the big sound and light show. We had majority of another day in the city, and I think I made the most of it. I’ve mentioned it before, but I am certainly the senior member of this tour group. Sometimes it just makes me feel old, but sometimes it makes me very very grateful. For instance, on the morning after the sound and light show, when I woke up in time for a 7:30 am Tai Chi class, because I hadn’t been out all night drinking. Heh. I guess this probably makes me kind of geeky, but I would much rather spend a peaceful hour learning a bit of Tai Chi on a warm morning than wake up at noon feeling like crap.

So it was that I ended up all by myself with the Tai Chi guy. He turned out to be the same one who’d done the Gung Fu class with us a few days earlier, so it was nice to see a familiar face (though I’m embarrassed to admit I can’t remember his name). We drove out to a large patio area that was surrounded by trees and a long, low building. We would have done the Gung Fu there if it hadn’t been raining, but on this morning the sky was showing patches of blue and the temperature had warmed from the day before, so it was perfect. We started with the same warm-up we’d done for Gung Fu, which is also very much like the warm-up I do for Natalie’s Killer Hotel Room Workout, so that was familiar too. Then we moved on to the first few forms.

I don’t know much about Tai Chi, but I liked what I did that morning quite a lot. Maybe I was just in a receptive mood, but it was nice to concentrate on the slow movements and on my breathing and try to not think about anything else. When my mind wandered, which was about every 2.3 seconds, sometimes it thought about how this would be a very nice way to start every day. Of course the atmosphere and the personal instruction and the pleasant weather were all miles away from a dark January morning in a one bedroom apartment somewhere cold and Canadian, but I can definitely envision finding a Tai Chi school when I get home and learning enough to be able to do one form reasonably well.

It really was a good way to start the day, but you don’t get any photos because it just didn’t seem right. I was enjoying the one-on-one instruction and didn’t really feel like interrupting the pleasant course of the lesson with a photo op. And really, isn’t it ok that some stuff is just for me? Surely you can all survive without a picture of me making a hash of the first few movements of a Tai Chi form, right?

When I got back to the centre of town I stopped at a cart selling steamed buns and picked up a couple to have as a snack before heading back to the hotel. Two large, fresh buns came to a total of ¥2.00, about 30 cents. I’m not actually a huge fan of steamed buns, but I was feeling so peaceful and content and happy with China at that point that it just seemed right and good. And it was.

The Steamed Bun Woman. (Well your buns would be steamed too if you spent all morning like this…)

Next on the agenda that morning was a Chinese cooking class. It was scheduled for 9:30 am, and seven of us had signed up to attend. In the end only four made it – me and three of the Danes. The others simply weren’t interested in stirring from their beds after their night of debauchery (kudos to Sarah, Simone and Nanna, who are young enough that they could stay out until 3:00 am and still have the energy for cooking class). Chef Richard (another one of those English names) met us at the hotel and we walked with him over the the local market to get the last of the supplies for the day’s lesson.

The local market was very, very local. It’s been a while since I’ve been in a market, and I think this one might have been the most real one I’ve been to yet. It was divided into “dry” and “wet” sides. The dry was mostly veggies and such, including lots and lots of things that were completely unfamiliar.

Here’s a sort of boring look at the veggie market

The really interesting part was the “wet” market – that’s where they sold all the meat. Of course other markets I’ve been to have sold meat. I’m no stranger to the big sides of beef and the piles of tripe and the fish heads and such. But this was the first market where the meat was so fresh it was still clucking or quacking… or woofing. It was strange to walk up to the stall where we got the main ingredient for our Kung Pao Chicken and see the cages of live chickens stacked up behind the counter. If Chef Richard had been insistent, we could have picked our bird and had it done in right there. Or we could have chosen one of the ducks sitting placidly on the floor. Luckily there weren’t really enough of us to warrant buying a whole bird, so we got a few chicken breasts that Richard assured us had only been parted from the rest of the bird about half an hour before.

Our poultry monger. It’s a bit out of focus, because I took it sort of on the sly. They were somewhat touchy about photos in the wet market. If you really want the nasty stuff (the woofing stuff, that is) head over to Flickr.

Chef Richard’s cooking school was a short walk from the market, and it was a big day for him. It turned out ours would be the first class he’d conduct in a new kitchen. It was a nice set-up. There was an indoor kitchen, I guess for use on chilly days, and the outdoor area we used. Both were equipped with shiny new stainless steel tables and had about twelve stations set up, each with it’s own cutting board, cleaver, gas burner and wok.

Here’s Sarah at her station

We were promised the chance to make four different dishes during our lesson – fried noodles with vegetables, pork dumplings, kung pao chicken, and the local specialty, beer fish. Richard set us up with our cleavers and gave us some basic knife lessons – the Chinese use the cleaver for all chopping, slicing, peeling, mincing and otherwise rendering food into smaller pieces than it started out in. I found this all fairly familiar – the knife was different, but the principal was the same. The Danes, though, were not so comfortable, and this made me feel old again. I guess when you’ve just graduated high school and still live at home, instead of having a decade or two of experience fending for yourself in the kitchen, you’re not so handy with the cleaver.

So we chopped and prepped and listened to Chef Richard. My favourite part was making the dumplings, and it turned out they were pretty easy too. I can actually imagine making them myself sometime. This is mostly because we didn’t bother making the dumpling wrappers. Apparently that’s not hard, just really tedious and involving lots and lots of time spent kneading the dough. Richard bought a stack of premade wrappers, so all we had to do was make the filling. I was assigned the task of mincing the pork, and it was hard. Well, not hard so much as tedious, and involving lots and lots of time spent chopping the meat. We started with a chunk of fresh pork – 70% lean and 30% according to Richard. Then it was just a matter of wailing at the meat with the cleaver for about 15 minutes until it was more like paste than anything. Then it went into a big bowl of chopped green onions and stuff and got well mixed. And the Chinese don’t mix with a spoon – they use chopsticks!

Chef Richard, mixin’ up the dumpling goop.

The best part was stuffing the dumplings – it took a bit of dexterity so naturally I was, well, a natural. You cradle the wrapper in one hand with a not-too-little, not-too-much amount of filling in the middle. There was also a dish of water to dip your finger in to add a bit of moisture around the outside edge so things would stick together. There’s a fold-on-top-of-fold method to crimp a bit around more than half the circumference of the circle of dough, and then you bring the unfolded side up to meet that and seal it up tight. Easy peasy.

Some very fancy Danish fingernails, demonstrating the dumpling-pinching technique

After the expert crimping, the dumplings went into a bamboo steamer in a wok of boiling water . And here’s a GSRED first – a recipe! Try this at home, kids.

Chinese Dumplings
(from Chef Richard of Yangshuo Dragon Chef Cooking School)

Ingredients for filling:

  • 100 grams green onion
  • 200 grams pork (or beef or mutton)
  • 150 grams wooden mushrooms (errr… I dunno)
  • 3 tsp soy sauce
  • 3 tsp starch flour (we used baking soda – it’s to tenderize the meat)
  • 1-ish tsp salt
  • a pinch of powdered chicken stock
  1. Cut the onions and mushrooms very small and marinade with salt, soy sauce and chicken stock, mixing for 2 minutes
  2. Chop the meat into small pieces and beat until very small. Marinade with salt, soy sauce, chicken stock and starch flour for two minutes
  3. Combine the vegetables and meat together
  4. Make the parcels: take a sheet of dough in your hand, place the mixed vegetables and meat in the centre and fold over to make a parcel
  5. Put parcels on top of a clean cloth in a bamboo steamer. Make sure they don't touch each other or they'll stick together. Putting them on a cloth stops them from sticking to the steamer.
  6. Steam for 10 minutes.
  7. For fried dumplings, steam for 6 minutes and then fry gently on low heat, turning until parcels are crispy and golden on all sides.

While the dumplings were cooking we whipped up a quick plate of fried noodles and then sat down to eat the first course. It was really good.

Me and my noodles

After having our appetizers we moved to the main courses – kung pao chicken and beer fish. They were also both pretty easy – mostly a question of having everything chopped and ready to go. Also a question of knowing when to turn up the heat and when to turn it down and when, finally to turn it off and break out the chopsticks. I’d already sampled beer fish along with my weird food, but I happen to think that the version we made in cooking class was better than what we had in the restaurant. We let the beer cook down a bit more than they must have in the restaurant because ours was less soupy and more savoury.

Perhaps because it was an auspicious day, we even got a visit from Chef Richard’s family. His wife came by with their son, and a friend, and her little girl. So we got to meet a lot of new people and see a little bit of real life. And, of course we took pictures.

Chef Richard, and Mini Chef, who was very popular with Simone

Cooking class ended around 1:00pm, and I slowly made my way back to the centre of town. I had the whole afternoon free because we weren’t to meet for our last overnight train trip until 6:00 pm. I had a bit of a rest in the hotel and then went back to the little used bookstore where I met once again met up, fortuitously, with Randy. I guess it’s a small enough town that it’s easy to run into people you know.

The clock wound down on our time in Yangshuo much too soon. It was a pleasant, relaxing place to visit and I could easily have spent another day or two there, doing Tia Chi in the morning, trying out calligraphy and painting and ma johng, and hanging out in the bookstore. But Hong Kong was calling loudly so we met up that evening for an annoying bus ride into Guilin, and then boarded our last overnight train of the trip. It was a thirteen hour journey to Shenzhen, the point where you cross the border out of mainland China and into the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Arriving in Hong Kong was fantastic – I felt like I was coming up for air for the first time in ages.

And now I’m happily ensconced in Hong Kong and it’s just as fantastic as it felt when we first arrived at the border. We had our last group dinner on the 26th, and now I’m on my own again for the first time since I arrived in Africa in December. I don’t regret my choice to do all those organized tours, but the few days I’ve had on my own here in Hong Kong have really put the spring back in my step. I’ve got a few more random things to say about China, but for now just know that I’m happy and relaxed and more enthusiastic about tackling the last chapter of this crazy adventure than I’ve been in a while.

Pick of Pics: Yangshuo

Saturday, March 27, 2010

I know the focus on this is a bit off, but I still really like it. It's a random bit of graffiti carved into a stand of bamboo on the way up to the top of Moon Hill. Huang says it's someone's name, but I like to think it's a fragment of poetry or something.

A busy time in Yangshuo

Friday, March 26, 2010

When last we left our intrepid hero (before the brief Weird Food foray you’ve just heard about) she was speeding away from Yichang on another overnight train. Yichang was simply a waystation – the place the boat happened to drop us at the end of our Yangzi cruise. It doesn’t have much to offer, and we only had a short time there. Yichang did have one or two things in its favour, though, things that were important for me in my particular state at the time. The first was a long and well-paved length of riverfront where I had the best run I’ve had since the marathon in Athens way back in November. It was 10km I really needed to cover, and I felt much better when it was over. The second, to which I sped as soon as I’d stretched and showered, was a nearby McDonald’s. Sometimes you just need the Food of the Clown.

From Yichang it was an overnight train to Liuzhuo. I already mentioned that the mattresses in our “soft sleeper” car didn’t conform to any definition of soft that I’m familiar with. But did I tell you about the dining car? I don’t think I did, which may be a good thing. Suffice it to say that the dining car on the Yichang to Liuzhuo overnight train will not be challenging for a Michelin star any time soon. Or if they do, they might consider hosing the place down before they invite the good folks from Michelin over, because every surface in the carriage was coated with a layer of grime so thick that the last time those walls saw a scrub brush must surely have been before the Cultural Revolution.

Eventually, after the train, a 4 hour wait in a hotel room in Liuzhuo, and a 3 hour bus ride, we fetched up in Yangshuo. It’s a small city, with a population of 310,000, but is incredibly touristy and well-equipped with tourist-friendly amenities – all-night bars, proper coffee shops, English bookstores, and the inevitable McDonald’s. The reason Yangshuo has become such a hotspot is largely due to the surrounding geography. It’s because of this geography that Nixon paid a visit to the area during his famous trip to China in 1974, thus forever cementing Yangshuo’s place on the China tourist trail that was to grow, slowly, as the country opened up. And what’s so special about this geography? The whole countryside is dotted with dramatic hills called “karsts”. These are odd-shaped leftovers from an inland sea that once covered that area. I can’t remember the exact geological cause for them, but it’s all about the erosion of soft material and the emergence of the remaining hard stuff… something like that. I was immediately struck by how much it reminded me of the “fairy castles” in Cappadoccia, way back in Turkey, except the hills in Yangshuo are all covered with a carpet of trees. Very pretty.

A couple of karsts with a view of Yangshuo in the foreground (Sorry about that fuzzy bit at the. I’ve already managed to scratch the lens on my new camera, and I’m pretty annoyed about it.)

Because it’s so touristy, there’s a lot of infrastructure in Yangshuo to keep tourists busy. We had a long menu of optional activities to choose from during our two days there: gung fu, tai chi, painting, calligraphy, ma johng, cooking class, language lessons, bike tours and caving. Heeding Rob H’s advice, I decided to forgo an afternoon nap after we arrived and instead accompanied a few of the Danish girls to a gung fu class the first evening we were there. This resulted in a lot more sweat and sore muscles than I’d been expecting from a tourist-oriented beginner type of class. I’m glad I went. Rob H., you were right.

Simone I, Simone II, Ditte and me. Do not mess with us.

You’ve already heard about supper that night, after which I felt justified in returning to my hotel room – the nicest one we’ve had so far – and spending the rest of the night blogging for a while before hitting that sack.

The next morning I had breakfast in my room once again. Despite the lure of the many many restaurants in the area offering what promised to be proper bacon and eggs, I’ve been finding it really pleasant to get up and have some quiet time in my room at the beginning of the day. This is helped along by the fact that every hotel room we’ve had so far, including on the boat and even on the overnight trains, has a kettle or ready access to hot water for making tea (and instant noodles). Early on I bought myself a thermal cup with a lid and stocked up on proper Lipton’s black tea bags and sugar, so this means I can wake up, make a cup of tea, and settle in with some fruit, yogurt and peanut butter on crackers. Often I even get to check email and surf the internet, because our hotels have also been consistently well-wired for internet. It’s remarkably civilized.

At 9:00 am we all met in the lobby for the day’s group activity – a cycling tour of the countryside. It had rained overnight and the streets were wet, and the weather was cold. It also took us a while to get kitted out with bikes because we specifically wanted to find some with fenders so the muddy puddles on the way would not result in us ruining the clean laundry we’d just had done. Eventually we were all suitably equipped and headed out behind our local guide, Billy. All our local guides have had us refer to them by their “English” names – Lisa, Lily, James, Billy… it’s a bit weird. I’ve always wondered where these English names come from. Do they get to pick them on their own? Or do parents give a child a Chinese name and an English name, hoping to give them a leg up in the tourism industry later in life? I’ll have to ask Huang about this. (Aside: Ok, Huang says that the local guides pick their English names themselves for the most part. He said he even has an English name himself, though someone else gave it to him, and he didn’t tell it to us, because he wants us to call him by his proper Chinese name. We are, after all, in China. Fair enough. Though I am kind of curious.)

The bike ride itself was pleasant enough, though it did spit rain a bit and was kind of chilly. At least the bikes were good quality, and I was able to raise the seat enough to make for a comfortable ride. We cycled along, and every once in a while Billy would stop us for a photo break.

Like this, a local farmer turning the soil in this muddy field, with a plow pulled by an ox

Our ultimate destination for the tour was a place called Moon Hill, so named because there’s a large round hole in the hill, naturally occurring, that resembles a full moon. It’s actually quite impressive.

See? Cool.

Naturally, we paid the extra ¥15.00 to climb up to the top of the hill. This is because we all LOVED the 1,200 step climb up to the Hongchun Ping Monastery so much that we positively leapt at the chance to climb more and more sets of slippery, uneven stairs, just so we could go back down them again. And once again, like on the Great Wall, we were accompanied most of the way by aged local women puffing up the stairs beside us trying to sell us water or postcards or local handcrafts. The view from the top was quite lovely, but I’m a bit tired of the clammy, sweaty feeling that always accompanies these vistas.

A good long shot of the tree-covered karsts.

At the top we had the mandatory group photo, taken by Billy. We do a lot of these, which I find a bit annoying, but only because there are twelve of us so they take a while. The poor person appointed photographer has to juggle ten or more different cameras so that everyone gets a shot of their own. Still, this one turned out quite well.

Back row (L-R): Ditte, Simone, me, David, Jess, Cal, Tony. Front row (L-R): Nanna, Mathilde, Simone, Sarah, Claire.

After the not-so-bad trip back down the hill we had another enormous banquet style lunch – the kind where they keep bringing out more and more dishes until you think it must be over, and then four more dishes show up. The trouble with these lunches, other than the huge volume of food involved in the first place, is that the unfinished dishes just sit there on the table so it’s really hard not to keep picking away even though you’re already full. It’s a question of willpower I suppose, which is something I seem to have precious little of these days.

After lunch we had the option of touring a local “Water Cave” that looked like it had some pretty impressive stalactites and stalagmites and pools of mud and such. I was on the fence about the cave – it sounded interesting, but so did a nap and a quiet afternoon in Yangshuo. No one else from the group was going to the caves, and the weather was still chilly and grey so it sounded like a dip in the famous mud bath would have been a decidedly chilly affair. In the end I went back to town with the gang and I honestly have no regrets. Especially since I still got to take a picture of this excellent sign for the Water Cave:


The afternoon turned out to be quite nice. I did have a nap, and then went out into the town and ran into my buddy Randy from the boat. His GAP group is on a parallel path with my Intrepid group, so we’ve met up a few times since leaving the Yangzi. He and I had a pleasant time having tea and chatting in the local used book store / café. Then I had a small supper and went back to the hotel to freshen up for the evening.

I may have missed the Water Cave, but I still had one more event to look forward to that day – a really big show! “Impression Sanjie Liu” was directed by Zhang Yimou, who may be best known for having directed the Opening Ceremonies for the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008. I wasn’t sure what to expect but thought whatever it was, it would probably be impressive, and on a grand scale. After all, the show purported to have a cast of more than 600. (There’s a good link here explaining about the show. It’s actually a bit more informative than the show’s official website, here.)

I was not disappointed. Even though the evening was cold and a bit drizzly, I was very glad I’d gone. They even gave away free rain jackets, which added a much-appreciated extra layer against the wind and rain. The venue was an outdoor theatre that seated about 2,000, all clad in free rain jackets, and milling about loudly. It was hard to guess what we were about to see, since I couldn’t even tell the size or nature of the performance area – it was all completely dark.

The thing was billed as a Sound and Light show, but it definitely wasn’t all lasers and wiggly lights and such. And it turned out that the performance area was much, much, much larger than I ever would have guessed. And much wetter, too. The first chords sounded and the lights were turned on and that first light cue illuminated the whole river valley – highlighting the dramatic karsts that surrounded to playing area, which turned out to be the Li River. It was fantastic.

I don’t have a lot of pictures because the scale was so big it was hard to capture. And despite the zillions of watts of lighting, it was still often dark and moody. Of course I couldn’t understand any of the lyrics, but I was unconcerned by this. The visual spectacle was enough for me. That, and trying to figure out, technically, how they were doing everything they were doing. One section was particularly impressive – a whole series of men entered the playing area, each in his own small boat. I suspect there were about 150 of them, lined up in long rows. Then they pulled rows and rows of bright red fabric out of the water and manipulated it in a series of choreographed movement that was just breathtaking.

I really tried to upload my own video of this, but it just didn’t work. This one is better anyways.

And here’s a decent still shot of my own

There were crowds of people with torches, and choirs of singing children and boats and big floating walkways that moved around. Admittedly once in a while the pace lagged a bit, but I forgave them when I thought about the sheer number of people that had to be moved around. Still, there were one or two times when I thought to myself, “Ouch! This scene change is death!”. But then some other new and dramatic tableau would emerge and I’d just settle back and take it all in.

My other favourite part of the evening was near the end. Far in the distance, a line of people started entering hand in hand, walking across a bridge of some kind. The place was dark, and each person was wearing a costume lit up with lines of bright LEDs, so it looked a bit like a row of stick-men. I was impressed by this, but grew more and more impressed because they just kept coming. And coming. And coming. I’d think, “Wow, that’s a lot of lit-up people”, mentally calculating how many LEDs were involved in each costumes, and how many costumes there were, and the line just kept getting longer, snaking along the floating walkways. More and more and more. I think was literally open-mouthed in amazement. In the end, I estimated that there were about 200 people in that line.

Here’s a look at a portion of the LED stick-men.

They did a bit of choreography and a bit of unison switch on, switch off business which was really neat to see. The show ended with a bit of a whimper, and I was annoyed to see people start to get up to leave long before the show was over, but I still thoroughly enjoyed the evening. I was really surprised later when I learned that the others in my group weren’t nearly as impressed as I was. They’d been expecting lasers and things and felt a bit ripped off. One said they shouldn’t have called it “Sound and light show” but “People moving water show”. I suppose he had a point. I guess a lot of what made it impressive for me was having an inkling of the amount of work, time, technical and artistic skill that goes into a show of that scale.

All in all it was a good day. A bit of group activity, a pleasant afternoon, and a big extravaganza to close things off. I went to bed that night pretty content with my current lot. The other thought I had was that this was definitely a kind of show I might like to work on some day. Perhaps some day very soon. Err… do any of you know anyone at the London 2012 Organizing Committee? I have a resumé…

Steve's Weird Food for China: Woof.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Well, I guess it had to happen. I mean China sets the Weird Food bar very high. Very high indeed. The squeamish should probably stop reading right now.

As has become my habit on these organized tours, I consulted with Huang early on about what kind of weird food he’d recommend I sample while on his home turf. When he asked if I wanted to try dog, I had to say yes. Shortly thereafter I had a short email exchange on the subject with my friend Karen. It went like this:

  • Me: As for the weird food... I've had a chat with Huang already, and we have a plan. I don't think you're going to like it...
  • Karen: Just no cats...please no animals that are house pets. Monkey brains are fine.
  • Me: Look, all animals are pets somewhere, and all pets are food somewhere...
  • Karen: Ok you have a point.

And that’s how I found myself with Huang and Tony (the only other one in the group interested in such a culinary adventure) heading into the “local” area of Yangshuo, away from the strip of tourist-oriented Western style restaurants with menus full of hamburgers and pizza and American breakfast. We were seeking a place recommended by a friend of Huang’s who lives in town, and who knew, I guess, where the good dog was too be had. (How odd to hear the phrase, “good dog”, with that meaning.)

We found it, and settled in with the menu. Of course the first thing we ordered was the Dog Hotpot.

Here’s Huang’s finger, pointing out the Gou Rou Huo Guo on the menu

We also ordered the local specialty, Beer Fish, which is, of course, a fish cooked in beer. How can that be bad? And we had stuffed mushrooms, and a plate of greens, and a complimentary dish of spicy pickled vegetables. It was a LOT of food. Especially because there were only four of us, and because the hotpot and the fish were both exceptionally generous portions.

Soon enough the hotpot arrived and looked fairly innocuous, as long as you didn’t look too closely. From a short distance it was simply a tasty-looking pile of cooked meat with big cloves of garlic and other flavouring, sizzling away. It was only on closer examination that you could make out the bones that were, in fact, foot bones, with a thin slice of the footpad and a bit of toenail still in evidence. I did not partake of those bits, despite Huang’s insistence that they were “the best part”. He says that about fish heads too, so clearly he can’t be trusted in these matters.

Here it is, the lower left hand corner shows one of the toe bones in question.

In the end it turned out like some of the other Weird Food experiments – the kokoreç in Turkey, for example. When it’s unrecognizable and well-seasoned, dog is much like any other meat. It most resembled beef in flavour, though the texture was more chewy and sinewy than I’d prefer. Still, the well-cooked bits were pleasant enough, and I ate my share.

Nevermind that there’s some kind of alien light source growing out of my head in this picture. It’s the only one I’ve got, and Huang did his best.

Did I struggle with the decision to eat dog? Not as much as I expected to. This might seem surprising - many of you read about my dog Mr. Henry, and the awful time I had saying goodbye to him last January. I’ve had several dogs in my life and would certainly say I’m a dog lover. But in this case I didn’t find it hard at all. For one thing, I did not know this dog personally. It’s not like they had a lobster-tank-like kennel at the front of the restaurant where passersby would wander up and say things like, “I’m in the mood for spaniel tonight. Or perhaps a Pekinese. What have you got that’s frisky?”

People keep rabbits as pets, but we still eat rabbits. Pigs are remarkably intelligent and social animals, and we eat them all the time. Many people speak highly of goats. Cows,horses, guinea pigs, birds, fish… it’s like I said to Karen in my email – all animals are pets somewhere and all pets are food somewhere. It’s a lot about context. Then again, I did not go to the local market to see the skinned dogs hanging up for sale, which I admit was a bit cowardly. (In my defense – there really was not time in the schedule for the market outing before dinner. If I’d had the chance I would have gone). I wouldn’t dream of eating dog in North America, but here it’s an accepted and reasonable thing. Perhaps even a delicacy. Context.

Finally I have to share my favourite comment of the night, which came from Huang. Naturally we were discussing the business of eating dog and he said, “Cantonese eat everything with four legs except the table and chairs.” Fair enough.

Bonus Chinglish sign for today, another one from the Golden Summit at Emei Shan, which was an absolute treasure trove for this stuff:

More from the Yangzi

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The second morning on the boat was relatively calm. I had my tea and peanut butter in my cabin and wandered up to the sundeck to see us pass through the second of the Three Gorges – Wu Gorge. I declined to get up in time to see us pass through the first – Qutang Gorge, reasoning that one gorge must look a lot like the other, and there was no need to wake up at 6:00 am for Qutang when we’d be passing through another perfectly serviceable gorge at 9:00 am. It was only later that I bothered to consult the LP and found out that Qutang Gorge is quite different than Wu Gorge, and is figured by some to be the most awe-inspiring of the three. Well, you win some and you lose some, and I still got my peanut butter.

It was a misty morning, so my photos of Wu Gorge all have a kind of dreamy quality. It was pleasant; I spent most of the morning chatting with Randy and some other GAPpers, taking photos and trying to make sense of the charming but broken English of Eric, our River Guide. There were two guides on the boat – one was Eric, a very young and exceedingly shy Chinese guy who was on his first trip as a guide. The second was a Chinese man who was there to translate for and guide a group of German tourists on the boat. Eric’s English was ok, but halting, and his vocabulary and sentence construction left something to be desired. As a result we spent a lot of time listening to the remarkably fluent German guy drone on and on, often for ten to fifteen minutes at a stretch. Then he’d pass the microphone to Eric, who would explain the same site something like this: “On our left hand is the Swallow Cave. Is cave very long and is called Swallow Cave. Local people call is Swallow Cave because swallows who living there.” End of comment. I think the Germans were really getting their Deutschmark's worth out of their guy, but I wouldn’t have traded Eric for anything. He was a delight.

Entering Wu Gorge

The gorge itself was scenic, but I couldn’t help but feel I’d arrived a few years too late. Since the Three Gorges Dam project was completed the water level upstream in the gorges has risen about 50 metres. They were still undoubtedly lovely, but when they were more than a hundred and fifty feet deeper it must have been breathtaking.

That afternoon we had another excursion off the boat, this time to view one of the tributaries of the Yangzi, Shennong Stream. We got off the trusty MS Fortune and onto a ferry for about an hour, then got off the ferry and onto some very small riverboats, rowed by local boatmen. The boat themselves were nice enough, but there were so many tourists that getting off the large ferry and onto the small boats was a bit of a madhouse.

There were a LOT of boats.

They boats were a traditional style for the area, called pipa, used by the Tujia people for generations – long predating the dam and the rising waters. The Tujia are one of China’s minority ethnic groups (all of which, when taken together, make up just 8% of the population). There are only a few million Tujia, but apparently they even have their own written language. When the water level on Shennong stream was lower the local Tujia boatmen used to row downstream, but had to haul the boats upstream. They’d strip naked and walk through the fast, shallow water pulling the boats with stiff rope made out of bamboo. They demonstrated this for us briefly, though there was no getting naked, and we were going downstream not up, and they had to pull along a specially constructed towpath at the side of the water, so really it wasn’t much like the real thing at all. They were hard workers, though. You could really see them putting their backs into it as they rowed.

The Tujia boatmen, hard at work

It was around this time that I started to feel more of that affluent western guilt that I mentioned back on the Ganges river trip in India. These boatmen were working hard, and some of them were not young men. There were certainly some over sixty, and there wasn’t an ounce of fat on any of them. They don’t have an easy life. Most were local farmers who row for tourists to make extra money. Many of the older people never went to school, and the houses in the area only got electricity in 1990. Then here was I, benefitting from their sweat and toil, and the biggest decision I had to make that afternoon was whether I’d have a nap right when we got back to the boat and then go for my 90 minute foot and body massage, or go to the massage first and then nap.

In the end I went for the massage, and it was quite nice. But there was more of the Western guilt involved, especially when I found myself reclining on a couch with a guy washing my feet and a young waitress in a uniform serving me cold beer on a tray. Luckily, I got over it. The massage was good – the guy worked on my feet for about 45 minutes, and then my back, legs and shoulders for at least that long again. I left feeling a little beat up because though he was small, he was extremely strong. I definitely needed that nap.

Pam’s feet, once again

That evening we enjoyed the Captain’s Farewell Banquet (though I think it was noted on the day’s schedule as the “Well Fare Banquet”). It was a fairly standard Chinese meal, and because there were mostly Chinese tourists on the boat, some stranger dishes showed up than we’d seen before. When we eat in restaurants as a group Huang usually orders for us, so he tends to stay away from the really weird stuff. On the boat, there was no filter between us and the kitchen. As a result, a few odd things showed up on the table. There was the pie plate of a soupy sort of chicken flavoured pudding. And there was the plate of banana chunks and chopped hard-boiled egg whites. But I was particularly taken with one dish, not for its flavour, but because it reminded me of a saying:

Intelligence is knowing that tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.

Apparently this is not common wisdom in China, because a couple of times we were served a salad of banana and melon with a sweet creamy dressing… and halved cherry tomatoes. Like I said before, it’s kinda ALL weird food.

The big event on that last evening was our arrival at the Three Gorges Dam. We were scheduled to pass through the five-stage locks starting at around 8:30 pm. I was quite excited about this, because I’m a bit of a geek for engineering mega-projects, and they don’t get much more mega than the Three Gorges Dam. I was a bit disappointed that we’d be passing through the locks in the dark, but it turned out to be kind of neat.

Waiting in the queue for the locks. We couldn’t enter until there were enough ships to fill up the whole lock.

I spent most of the time while we waited chatting with Randy, because if there’s one thing that big ships and big locks and big things in general are NOT, it’s fast. Eventually they opened the gates and each ship slowly jostled into position in the lock. It was a tight fit for some, and the side walls of the lock were scored by the sides of many ships that came before us. I kept picturing some poor guy in the maintenance department sighing and pulling down a can of paint and a brush. Again.

Me and Randy, waiting for the locks

After my grueling day of being rowed around, massaged and generally pampered, I was pretty knackered and didn’t end up having the energy to wait until the lock was full and we started to descend. I figured that the idea was probably more interesting than the actual event, which would probably be mostly imperceptible. Instead I went to bed for my last night in cozy cabin 217.

Our last morning on the boat was taken up with an excursion to the dam itself. I’d been really looking forward to this, but it ended up being a bit of a disappointment. It was another foggy morning, but while that had simply added to the atmosphere when passing through the gorges, on Dam Day, it just made it hard to see much of anything. And once again there were throngs of tourists and long lines, and pushing, shoving crowds. I kind of reached my breaking point with it all at some point that morning, as, I think, did the rest of the group. I suspect I was the only Dam Fan in the group to begin with, so most of them were only there because it was on the agenda. And if I was disenchanted with the whole business, I can only imagine what they must have been thinking.

My best, misty shot of the Three Gorges Dam.

However, my disenchantment with the day will not spare you from a torrent of random Three Gorges Dam facts that I picked up from various guides and guidebooks. Though the LP claims that the 3G is the largest dam in the world, Huang says there’s one in the States that’s bigger. At 2.3 km long and 80 m wide, it’s China’s biggest engineering project since the Great Wall and is estimated to have cost up to 75 billion USD. (The local guide said 27 billion, but in this case I think I’ll go with the LP). The construction started in 1992 and was completed in 2009. The only part still under construction is the ship lift, which, when completed in 2014 will allow a ship to pass from above the dam to below it in about 40 minutes, instead of the three to five hours it takes to pass through the five locks. I suppose this is the Three Gorges equivalent to the Falkirk Wheel (Remember that? It was 372 years ago!)

The damn was primarily built to control flooding on the river, but the turbines in the centre of the dam now produce power equivalent to that of 18 nuclear power plants. And while the flooding upstream of the dam has made the Yangzi navigable for large container ships as far as Chongqing, it’s estimated to have displaced somewhere between 1.2 and 1.5 million people, all of whom had to be relocated. It’s also thought that about 8,000 archeological sites were lost, 10% of which might have been saved. Most alarming, the LP reports that about a hundred cracks were found in the dam in 1999, and though Chinese engineers claim that these occurrences are common in large dams and have been fixed, there’s still doubt about the integrity of the structure, especially since the earthquake in Sichuan in 2008.

All of this makes me glad I saw the dam, but also glad that I’m now on the third of four overnight trains of the trip, speeding away from Yichang, a city that would be inundated within an hour if the dam were to fail. This time we’re treated to a Soft Sleeper, which has the advantage of having only four beds per compartment, but whose mattresses struggle to deserve their “soft” label. After a mere 15 hours on the train, and another three and a half on the bus, we’ll end up in Yangshuo where there will be lots of fun activities to participate in and blog about, so don’t touch that dial.

Another bonus Chinglish Picture. They’re just so good I have to share. This one is from the bathrooms at the parking lot at Emei Shan, placed just below an open window.:

Life on the boat, Day One

Monday, March 22, 2010

Life on the boat turned out to be quite pleasant. As I mentioned in my last post, a last-minute reprieve meant that I had a cabin to myself, and that made all the difference. The cabins were small, and sharing such close quarters with a complete stranger would probably have pushed me right over the edge I’ve been teetering on for so long. I know I’m supposed to be here to experience the local culture and meet people and such, but I really don’t need to meet China coming out of the bathroom in its underwear at 6:00 am, thank you very much.

Cabin number 217 – cozy, and ALL mine!

We arrived at the city of Chongqing after a seven and a half hour bus ride and made our way straight to the dock to check in to the boat and clean up before going back into town for supper, a grocery stop, and (for me) an internet café. Chongqing is a positively massive – the city itself is home to 4.3 million, but the population of the whole municipality is 32.7 million. That’s more than the entire population of Canada, and helps give you some perspective on exactly how populous China is, considering that’s just one corner of the country.

Supper that night was the specialty of the region – hotpot! It’s sort a fondue-like thing where you get a pot of spicy, bubbling broth/oil and plates of different things to drop into it to cook. The hotpot itself sits over a big propane burner that’s built right into the table. (Clearly the Chinese are much farther advanced in the realm of Flame-At-Your-Table than the Nepalese.) Our hotpot was a relatively tame variety that had a small-ish inner pot of very spicy oil and an outer ring of tamer broth.

Huang ordered a large number of different things that we threw in – beef, tripe, mushrooms, fungus, a sort of spam-like ham, fish balls, more fungus, bean sprouts, tofu, bamboo shoots, and more fungus. We also each got a small bowl of a sort of light sesame oil, which we could flavour to our own taste with mounds of crushed garlic, vinegar, salt, pepper and MSG, which was provided in a little pot right on the table. You’d pluck a bit of cooked food out of the broth with chopsticks and then dip it in the flavoured oil, and then pop it into your mouth. 0.0002 seconds later you’d spit it out onto your plate because it was approximately the temperature of the surface of the sun, having spent the previous minutes sitting in boiling oil. After things cooled off, they were quite tasty, and the the whole meal was fun and interactive and made my face turn red – from the heat of the burner and from the spiciness of the food. Like most meals in China I left completely stuffed, and it only cost ¥37.00, which is less than six bucks, and included a large beer.

Jess, posing with our hotpot

I even had a little adventure after dinner. The group broke apart at that point – most people went straight to the supermarket to stock up on beer and Oreos for the boat ride, but I had to go to a bank machine and find an internet café so I could attempt to get a blog posted (the things I do for you people…). Huang accompanied me most of the way and left me with a piece of paper to show a cab driver so he’d drive me back to the right pier. Soon enough I managed to get all my chores done and hopped into a cab. The driver dropped me somewhere, but it bore no resemblance to the place where we’d first climbed into cabs to go to dinner. At this point it was dark, and about ten minutes before we’d been told to be back at the boat. I was near the river, that much was certain. And I was fairly sure which direction that boat lay in, but frankly I was not disposed to an adventurous hike with the clock ticking on the boat’s departure. Luckily, I had the trusty iPhone, and Huang’s mobile number, so I called him right away. He told me to stay put and asked to talk to a local person so he could find out where I was. At this point I simply handed my phone to a random women who was hawking cartoon maps of the Yangzi river a few feet away. She gave Huang the information he needed and soon enough the cavalry arrived and Huang whisked me away to the safety and comfortable confines of cabin 217. I still owe him a beer for that. Oh, and does anyone need a cartoon map of the Yangzi river? Only ¥10.00!

I liked life on the boat. There was some free time, and it turned out they even had internet access – a cellular modem that could be had for just ¥30 per hour (about $4.50). And of course all our meals were provided while we were on board. This turned out to be good and bad. Good because it was simple and convenient. Bad, because most meals were served buffet style and ended up resembling feeding time at the zoo. For reasons passing understanding the buffet table was always set up with the stack of plates right in the middle, meaning that it was impossible to figure out which direction you were supposed to go around the table in. This, coupled with the natural tendency the Chinese seem to have for crowding and shoving, rather than queuing (especially when food is involved), made things a bit of a madhouse. The second morning I stayed in my cabin and cobbled together my own breakfast (with peanut butter… so far supplies are holding out!). It was a much more pleasant way to start the day than braving the ravening hordes.

We also had a few excursions, or shore leaves, or paroles, or whatever you call it, while on the boat. The first day we visited what’s called the Ghost City – a collection of temples on a hillside along the Yangzi near Fengdu (Aha! The cartoon map does have its uses!). It’s called the Ghost City because it’s like the capital city for the underworld – all souls have to go there after death to be judged by the King of Heaven, who will decided whether they will be reincarnated as animals, or people, or whether they have achieved Nirvana. Each soul has to pass three tests on the way, which we also attempted to pass with our local guide. The first was to cross over one of three stone bridges and not be dragged down by evil snakes and worms into the water below. Choosing to cross the left hand bridge signified a wish for health and long life, the right was for wealth, and the centre was for love.

David and Claire crossing the middle bridge. Awww… (One of the two Simones is hard on their heels.)

For the first little while the Ghost City seemed to be a fairly standard collection of Buddhist temples. But the farther we got up the hillside, the creepier the decor got. My favourite was the stairway lined with a series of stone statues depicting different ghosts – including one for excessive drinking, and one for smoking, and one for meat-eating.

The meat-eating ghost. Note I didn’t mention what kind of meat…

Finally we reached the main temple at the top which featured a giant depiction of the King of the Underworld, and had a lovely miniature statue gallery of torture on one side. The last test was just at the entrance to the temple. (Don’t ask me what the second test was, because I can’t remember. It might have involved running up a long flight of stairs while holding your breath. Or that may just have been something the local tour guide made us do for her own amusement.) The last test involved having to balance with one foot on top of a large rounded pebble for three seconds while focusing your gaze on the Chinese characters above the entrance to the temple.

Cal, demonstrating his worthiness

Overall the Ghost city was diverting, but not hugely interesting. This turned out to be the theme for all the excursions we had off the boat. In fact, the best thing that happened during that first day trip was that I met a few people from a GAP Adventures package tour who were on the boat with us. GAP is a lot like Intrepid, though it’s based in Canada, hence a lot of the people on the tour were Canadian. I met Randy and Nancy and a few others and ended up spending a lot of my time of the boat chatting with them. Randy was an especially good Friend du Jour since like me, he was the senior citizen in his group. I think he may have been happy for some conversation with someone closer to his own age and with similar interests. I know I was.

Late in the afternoon after the Ghost City, when everyone was properly fed and napped, Huang promised a lesson in Mahjong. It was a bit frustrating at first, partly because, though Huang’s English is excellent, sometimes his sentence structure or pronunciation can be a bit opaque. The other problem was that there are three suits involved – bamboo, cakes, and numbers (like hearts, spades, diamonds and clubs). Bamboo and cakes are easy to remember, but the numbers are signified by their Chinese characters, so it required a lot of checking of cheat-sheets to be able to remember them. In the end though, I had a really good time. We were playing out on a sort of sun deck area and attracted quite a crowd of locals most of the time. This meant I had a peanut gallery of coaches watching my every move, which was a bit stressful, but also fun. Eventually one or two of our gang drifted off and we convinced local Chinese people to come play in their place until finally it was me, Huang, and two locals. I’m very proud to report that I won that hand. (Aside: I’ve had a quick browse through the Wikipedia article on the subject and I think the version we were taught is quite different than what I’ve seen before. For instance, there were no Dragon tiles or jokers.)

David and Tony, puzzling over the pieces (also featuring Cal’s left elbow and Huang’s right hand left thumb, and left index finger)

That night, after the Captain’s Welcome Banquet (mercifully NOT served buffet style), the crew of the MS Fortune put on a little show. It was touching, but really also quite sad. One couldn’t help but get the distinct impression that this was a required activity for the poor crew members, who probably weren’t paid very well and who still had spent their off hours learning dances and fitting up costumes and such. And of course, inevitably, there was an audience participation moment. This left me gazing into my gin and tonic thinking, “How did I come to a place in my life where, at 41 years old, I’m on a second-rate cruise boat on the Yangzi river, slightly drunk, watching grown adults play musical chairs?” (Or, as our Master of Ceremonies called it "The peoples number is more than one the stools number.") It was the evening’s watershed moment. Not long after that I abandoned the whole enterprise, took my second G&T back to the cabin, and fired up a video on the computer. Much better. I felt a bit bad about abandoning the show and the rest of the group, but I just didn’t have it in me for a night of debauchery. After all, that was just the end of Day One. The MS Fortune, the Yangzi, and China still had more to offer.

Bonus Chinglish sign, in honour of Mr. Thoughtful Monkey: