Thursday, March 24, 2011

Celebrating Buddha’s Birthday–Lanzhou


Destination:  Lanzhou, China (Gansu Province)

Number of Days Spent: 1 day

Where we stayed:  We arrived via flight very late at night and went directly into the hotel near the the bus drop off at (it was late and we just wanted to sleep.  It had a swanky looking entry way but a tired, musty smelling room but it was just for the night so we settled in.  After looking around Lanzhou (which has earned the distinction of one of China’s most polluted cities) the next day I’m not sure we could have done better anyways. There’s little tourist traffic in this town and the Chinese businessmen are not quite as discerning about where they stay. 

Best restaurant:  I can’t remember anything standing out.  Does an ice cream cone at McDonald’s count?

Best of:   After being told we would have to wait for bus tickets and leaving our passports with the ticket-taker we hoofed it to the local temple where we were surprised to find out that it was Buddha’s birthday! 

Worst of:    We flew into Lanzhou in order to get closer to the Amdo Tibetan area.  Unfortunately we arrived at the bus station only to be informed that there would be a delay in getting bus tickets and that we should return later in the day.  We didn’t relish spending a lot of time in the polluted city but decided to make the best of it and to visit one of the local temples instead. 

Lanzhou is like standing in a long line for a ride at Disneyland – you dread the time spent in line, but do it for the reward at the end of the line. Our intention was to land at night and get on the first bus to Xiahe (loosely pronounced shhh huh) the next morning. After arriving at the bus station, we were informed that we would have to wait while they ran a check on our passports. The government is always suspicious of Tibetan unrest and moves rather quickly if there is any notion of dissent. Since we were western and heading into a Tibetan area, they wanted to make sure we were not “trouble makers”.

Having the extra 4 hours of ‘standing in line’, we opted to leave our bags at the station and head down to the river to check out a couple of temples. Sometimes things happen for a reason and by the end of the day, we were thankful that we had been delayed. It was Buddha’s birthday!

Burning Incense, candles and paper (prayers?) filled the air with a dense cloud of smoke. Devotees filled the square around the temples giving prayers and offerings while monks chanted away inside the temple. With Lanzhou being a work-a-day town there were no flash bulbs going off, no trample of tourists, just us and the common people doing their religious duties faithfully.

We quietly strolled around the temple just taking in the atmosphere. Sometimes, standing in line isn’t all that bad.


After we had sufficiently killed the 4 hours, we headed back over to the bus station. Without further delay, and perhaps seeing us as non-threatening, gave us back our passports and allowed us to board the bus bound for Xiahe, Gansu Province!

Friday, March 18, 2011

“Wildlife is not Food” – Giant Pandas and Chicken Head Soup: Chengdu, Sichuan, China

Destination:  Chengdu, China (Sichuan Province)
Number of Days Spent: 4 days
Where we stayed:  Chengdu Lazy Bones Boutique Hostel – about $20 for a private double with ensuite bathroom (with free breakfast & wifi) – We really liked this new hostel.  It was very clean, quiet and centrally located on multiple bus lines (near the soon to be metro as well).  The free bike tour is not to be missed, we had a terrific time exploring the streets and markets of Chengdu with the friendly guide.  She even hooked us up with some super spicy mouth-numbing Sichuan lunch dishes.  Please don’t miss it if you are staying here.  The other tours, including the countryside tour, received rave reviews from other travelers.  We booked the panda tour with them and it was ok but had more of a “tour” type feeling to it as it was combined with quite a few people from their sister hostel, Mix.  Still, it well worthwhile as it was the only way short of a taxi to get to the pandas in the early morning. We really enjoyed our hostel, but Chengdu is one of those rare places were competition in the hostel segment has really taken over. We heard good reports from nearly every person we met about their respective hostel so I think that most choices would be just fine.
Best restaurant:  Tracy Loves Sichuan food, the spicier the better.  We only had 1 bad meal in Chengdu (see below for our chicken head story). While Jason could live out his days content without the numbing effects of the Sichuan peppercorn, Tracy could not get enough.
Best of:   We came to Chengdu to see the pandas but the city is so much more than that.  We walked away thinking that we could have spent a lot more time there.  It’s such a laid-back, clean city with a vibrant tea culture.  We whiled away hours playing cards and sipping on tea just like the locals in the park! No matter your personal traveling style – from grungy backpacker to high budget vacations, the city of Chengdu should get some strong consideration for any extended itinerary in China.
Other Amusements:  More Chinglish signs and an interesting baby-carrier…
Worst of:    We arrived from our border run (visa renewal) trip to Hong Kong simply starving and late at night. The hostel told us there might be a hot pot place around the corner still open so we decided to go check it out. We knew we were in trouble when Tracy’s asks for “tofu” and the lady cackles with a rhetorical “No dofu. ummmm chicken o fish?” Opting for the land feathered variety, the lady emerges from the back moments later carrying a big ‘hot pot’ filled with broth, veggies and poultry. On the very first stir and grab of the chopsticks out emerges the head of our feathered friend. We laughed for a bit, ate a few of the veggies and called it good. It’s a good thing we keep a stash of Oreos in our backpack for such emergency situations!
Left off so many itineraries for being out of the way, Chengdu was one of the more surprising places we visited. Chengdu is the 5th largest city in the worlds most populated country but one would probably not guess that statistic just by being in the city. Sure it has the high-rises and sprawl that accompany so many cities, but the feeling you get here is vastly different than that experienced in the likes of Shenzhen, Kunming or many other Chinese metropolis. Bikes are still very much a preferred mode of transportation for many and the roads are actually designed to accommodate them with bike lanes. The constant traffic that plagues so many other towns is somehow more subdued here, perhaps thanks to the cities better than average bus system. The most telling difference, however, comes in the form of a somewhat lost scene in modern China – the tea house.
Nestled in amongst green space, ample shade trees and temples across the city are countless teahouses. Most offer al fresco ambiance with a long menu ranging from a $2 pot of tea to $20+ pots of tea. Sitting down and whiling away a couple of hours chatting with friends over tea and a game is the quintessential Chengdu experience – no offense to Giant Pandas intended.
We took our trusty pack of playing cards and after a leisurely stroll through the park passing exercise crazed Chinese doing some form of Tai Chi set to dance music, we settled in to a $4 pot of tea (free refills), played some cards and watched the world go by. When you are on the road for so long going from place to place and trying to see everything there is to see, it is in these moments that you find a rewarding peace that rejuvenates the soul. Ok, so it was a pot of tea in the park over a game of cards, enough waxing on about the quieter side of life.DSC_5157
In a nation that is quickly embracing all things of the future, Chengdu is one of the few places that is trying to keep at least one foot planted in the past. Aside from the traditional teahouses, they also try and keep many of the arts alive. One such famous medium is the Sichuan Opera. While I am not sure were the Opera part comes in as the show bears little resemblance to what we think of as an Opera the show is none the less highly entertaining. The highlight of the show comes with the ‘face changers’. Hidden in the headdresses, the actors switch out masks using a slight of hand that would make Houdini jealous. The all male show, some dressed as women, also includes fire breathing and there is a simple plot that is relatively easy to follow despite the language barriers.
A trip to Chengdu would not be complete without a trip out to see it’s most popular citizens – the Giant Pandas. These furry gentle beasts have been virtually relegated to a captive life as their natural habit has shrunk over the years from human encroachment. The Breeding and Research Base is actually one of a couple in China and resembles more of a zoo than a natural habitat, but the animals appear to be content and a group of this many pandas would need thousands of acres of bamboo forests to roam – something that is rapidly dwindling in China. The main aim of the center is to help the Pandas breed. It’s a tall task considering they seem to have just enough energy to accomplish two tasks everyday – eat and sleep. They only have one food source – bamboo – which holds very little nutritional or energy value meaning that they have to eat copious amounts every day just to have enough energy to, yep, you guessed it – eat and sleep. They are on the endangered species list for a reason.
Laziness aside, they are infinitely cute and there cannot be a soul alive that doesn’t fall in love with these guys at first sight. Most Hostels have trips that are slightly more expensive than the public bus – which takes one transfer and over an hour to get out here just before nap time. Alternatively, a taxi can get you out here and back for about double the cost but you have as much time as you wish. However you get here, make sure you get here early – before 10am to see them eating, otherwise it’s can be a bit of a snooze fest . . . literally.
Looking more like a raccoon than a Panda, the research center boasts a handful of red Pandas as well. Cute, but no match for their Giant cousins.
Another highly recommended thing to do in Chengdu is to get on a bike and ride. For a city of 12+ million people, it’s surprisingly easy to get around by bike. Many hostels, including ours, offer free bIcycle tours, including the bicycle. The tour takes you to several of the main temples, parks and the local market. On the way to the market, we passed by these ladies banging on their drums. The troupe is hired by new businesses as a sort of grand opening festivity. Whether they were practicing or actually performing we couldn’t tell.
Turtles, alligators, frogs, sea mollusks, sea cucumbers and star fish might not be tops on the list on a western menu, but in China they are considered a special treat. The often times superstitious Chinese take the phrase “You are what you eat” to a whole new level. Many traditions hold that by eating certain animals one can bring about various outcomes – live longer, bring good luck, increase wealth. Invariably all of these outcomes are far out shadowed by the ever popular virility result. Ahhh yes, all over the world when it comes to eating strange things the purveyor of said strange food will say something to the effect of “good for making baby” or “good for man parts” or “make good strong boy”. In a nation that only has one shot at producing offspring, many look for any way to ensure that it’s of the X chromosome nature. The world around them may be rapidly changing, but every Chinese man wants what he has wanted for 1000’s of years – a male to carry on the family. It was in this context, as we were wandering around the market, that we saw a man shell out nearly $200 US for one turtle. 
After departing the market, we continued the bike tour taking in several temples along the way. the Cultural Revolution took its toll on Chinese religions, but they have certainly made a comeback. Chengdu was also the first real place where the Tibetan culture could be seen and felt so far in our journey.
We ended the day on the bikes by the ever present Chairman Mao statue (every town of significant size has one of these – Chengdu’s is reportedly one of the largest).
While in Chengdu, we explored the option of going to Tibet. After weighing the finances vs. reward we decided for a cheaper option – albeit not Lhasa or Tibet proper. Packing our bags we decided to head north to visit one of the lesser known and even lesser visited Amdo Tibetan Region. Before we could get there however, we had to pass through what was once known as the “World’s most polluted city.” Excited? We certainly were.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Three Pagodas, some Sleepy Fish and excellent Gyozas: Dali, Yunnan Province, China


Destination:  Dali, China

Number of Days Spent: 5 days

Where we stayed:  Sleepy Fish – 120 RMB per night ($25-$30).   This was our favorite guest house in China.  It was Immaculately clean, had English native hosts, western beds (read:  not hard as rocks), hot water with excellent pressure, WiFi, tourist information, a DVD selection, book exchange (pretty limited though) and best of all, real Western coffee for breakfast!  And pancakes, peanut butter toast & local yogurt to boot!  After weeks of Nescafe & noodle soup we were in breakfast heaven!  We could have stayed for a LONG time if we didn’t have other pressing things to see and made the best of our situation by lingering over breakfast every single morning (one more coffee please)!

Best restaurant:  Dali is somewhat of a tourist haven and as such, has a great selection of restaurants, including the best gyoza restaurant we tried in China (this retired couple made them fresh right in front of us and had a yummy menu with lots of meat and vegetarian options).  Here are some of our favorite restaurants:

  • Dumplings/Gyoza – Ask at Sleepy FIsh!   Cheap gyoza (both steamed & fried) & cold beer.  We were the only westerners there when we visited and received the recommendation from the folks at Sleepy Fish (they also translated the menu for the couple that own it).  If you like gyoza try this place! The dumplings are made on order so prepare for a bit of a wait that’s well worth it.
  • Indian – Of your craving some spicy masala then look no further than Om Shanti. We came here a couple of times and the food was excellent.
  • Coffee, cakes & sandwiches (also cheese & western bread for picnics)- Bakery 88, our second choice was Black Dragon Cafe – nothing out of this world about either, but if you are needing a real cheese and wine fix, then look no further.
  • Pizza – Stella’s Pizzeria – above average pizza with an above average price tag to match

Best of:   Western comfort at our hotel after 5 months of traveling through Burma, India & China.  For Dali we enjoyed doing the walk around the mountain for great views of the city.  The market we visited (about 90 minutes outside of Dali) wasn’t touristy at all and was quite interesting. 

Worst of:    Worst toilets in the WORLD!!!! They were so disgusting I can’t even describe them because remembering it makes me feel sick to my stomach.  And they charged us 0.10 RMB to use them (about $.03)…the audacity!  This is a photo of a “normal” toilet, this one found on the hiking trail on the mountain…now imagine the bad ones!


Most Memorable:   Watching the man at the gyoza shop roll out his hand-made gyoza and trying out our (very) limited Chinese with him.  We went multiple times and he never failed to have a smile for us!

Rounding out our time in the Yunnan Province, we made our last real stop in the town of Dali. Proving that all things are cyclical, this town in the 70’s and 80’s was the hot stop to get in touch with the local Bai minority tribe without any crowds. Word got out and by the mid 90’s Dali was ‘the next big thing’. Today, the increase of Lijang’s popularity has stolen some of the spotlight away and Dali is not as crowded as perhaps it once was not so long ago. Perhaps in 10 years that statement will be reversed once again, but until that day comes, enjoy Dali as it is now.

With all the talk of being overrun it’s easy to overlook what made Dali so popular in the first place. Dali lies nestled between the Green mountains and beautiful Erhai Lake. With an elevation change of around 2000M (6500 feet) the scene is quite stunning. Despite the rapid change, the town itself is pancake flat making it a pleasure to explore by foot or bike.

Being home to the Yunnan government for centuries, Dali also boasts a rich and storied past. Its iconic three pagodas not only serves as a symbol for the town, but the region as well. Getting outside the historic city walls, one can find one of the largest ethnic minority in China – the Bai. Dressed in iconic blue garbs, the villages around the lake boast weekly/biweekly markets on a rotation so it makes it fairly easy to check out one of the markets. 

We took a couple of days to explore the villages and markets around Dali, a couple of days to explore the town itself and on the last day, we headed up the mountain for our eye in the sky view.


The villages around the lake proved to be no less interesting than similar size villages we had visited from other minorities. A common theme throughout rural China remains:  the older inhabitants LOVE games. Cards, chess, and apparently in this area, bocce ball, are all favorite past times that any self-respecting Chinese worth their weight in dice practice faithfully.




Many of these villages are located along the tranquil shores of the lake making for a pleasant stroll down cobblestone streets. We may have taken the dusty local bus to get there, but the tour groups take in the villages in style – boat cruises are increasing in popularity and in amongst the abject poverty, a couple of fancy hotels have cropped up taking advantage of the scenery and year round moderate climate.



Colorful, festive, and cheap. . .well. . . made in China goods abound in the local markets. These days the markets are heavier on industrial goods than handy crafts but if you are after how the average Chinese citizen shops and lives, then look no further. Local produce and ‘fresh’ meat can always be found. This market was also home to the worst bathroom visit to date. Concrete trough, no water and literally piles of feces on what I suppose could be called a floor. To top it off they charged a nominal fee for the pleasure.  




As with many parts of China, the rice patty is never too far away. I am always amazed that each and every plant is still transplanted by hand and meticulously cared for. Once again, tending the rice fields seems to be the work of women as rarely will you find men working the rice fields.



Not to be overshadowed by the minority villages and the lake, the town of Dali is a well designed grid of streets protected by a wall, much of which has been reproduced in a tasteful way.



The Green Mountains that loom high over the town scream out “hey don’t forget about us up here.” The government has taken steps to make sure that doesn’t happen. Gondolas have been installed complete with piped in nature sounds. 15 minutes later you arrive high up the mountain where a  paved path snakes along the ridge providing sweeping panoramas of the town, lake, and pagodas below. The path is relatively flat making for a highly enjoyable stroll. We packed along some wine and cheese we picked up at the delightful Bakery 88. Once at the other end, we boarded a rather rickety chairlift that returned us back to earth.


From Dali, the first leg of our Visa was complete so we had to make a visa run. We took a bus back to Kunming for the night, flew to Shenzhen, crossed the border into Hong Kong, turned around and went back to the Shenzhen airport that afternoon to catch a flight to our next destination – Chengdu!