Hello Uncle Foreigner

travel

Apr 19, 2015

With some help, we go off the map in Đà Lat

Learning the language makes getting lost fun

Nem nướng -- hand-rolled spring rolls
Sausages and crunchy bits
Top: The components of nem nuong; Above: The sausage and the crunchy bits
A friend shows Peter how to roll the nem nuongDip it and it's delicious
A passing delivery woman saw us struggling and helped us roll our nem nuong.
The Crazy HouseThe Crazy House
The Crazy House was just as advertised.
One of the rooms available at the Crazy House
You could stay in a crazy room at the Crazy House.
Ongoing construction at the Crazy House
The Crazy House is under perpetual expansion.

“There’s a stairway back there. It may take you where you’ve already been, though.”
— A visitor to Đà Lat’s Crazy House

To prepare for our trip, I spent about a month and a half taking Vietnamese lessons and listening to Voice of Vietnam radio to accustom my ear to the language. I really like the way it sounds. Vietnamese comes from the back of the throat, giving it a guttural, staccato quality. Consonants are much softer than they are in English. There are six tones, both rising and falling. When spoken, the sounds tumble jauntily around.

Now, I knew going in that this would be of limited use. Six weeks is hardly enough time to become conversational, let alone fluent, and English is pretty much the de facto language of tourism in Vietnam. We overheard travelers from all over the world speak among themselves in Mandarin, Russian, German, etc., and then turn around and do business with the Vietnamese proprietor in English. (What happened to French? This generation studies it in school, but your man on the street doesn’t speak it any more. I was proud to serve as a French/English translator at a food stall one afternoon. ‘Cause I speak at least six weeks’ worth of ALL THE LANGUAGES!)

But being able to communicate in Mandarin has made our Chinese travels so much richer, and I didn’t want to go back to an all-English experience in Vietnam. And so armed with pleasantries and question words, we were able to ramble in the haphazard manner that has become our specialty.

One sunny Đà Lạt afternoon, our mission was nem nướng and the Crazy House. Nem nướng are those roll-your-own spring rolls I mentioned in our earlier discussion of the genre, and they’re particularly a favorite in Đà Lạt. Restaurant Nem Nướng Dũng Lộc is around the corner from a much bigger and flashier place, but the internet said to go there, and so we did. Dũng Lộc is a small, six-table affair, and there’s only one thing one the menu. The question is, how much do you want. The answer: all of it!

We were slightly daunted by what we were served: three plates, one with pickled vegetables, another with a pile of green herbs and leaves, and a third with crunchy fried things and barbecued pork sausage. So we spied on the table next to us, and were caught by a delivery woman who had just popped in. She cheerfully showed us the order of things and how to roll it all up, while laughing at our cluelessness. Cảm ơn, lady! Thanks!

From here, I knew the Crazy House was close, though we were literally on the edge of our map. But it’s quanh đây somewhere. So we wandered, asked for directions, stopped for drinks, asked for directions. Xin lỗi, tôi ở đâu trên bản đồ? Excuse me, where am I on the map?

The Crazy House is a local architect’s vision of a Burger King Play Place for adults. A wonder in poured concrete, the house has ribbons of stairways and paths for visitors to explore. And it’s under active expansion. Crazy House is not really safety proofed for young children, so it was mostly grownups poking their heads through the Hobbit-y doorways, and picking their way up and down the steep steps. I love this kind of thing. What’s the reason behind this building? There is none! (Nominally, the Crazy House is also a hotel, but it doesn’t seem like a very restful place to stay with all that spectacle going on.)

After we’d had our fill of crazy, we were back out on the street. It was 5 o’clock, time for the home-from-school rush. Kids in matching uniforms burned off the last of their energy: chatting, running, pushing, lugging home as-big-as-me portfolios and instruments, negotiating for snacks. We joined the throng surging towards the center of the city until we were back in a neighborhood that we recognized. And then it was our snack time.

Just down the hill from the Central Market, facing the river, there’s a row of food stalls with a beautiful garden of purple flowers serving as a buffer between the eats and the road. At a small soup place, I tried out some more Vietnamese. Tôi muốn [pointing]. I want this. Cô có bán bia, không? Do you sell beer? I’d like to think the saleswoman appreciated my effort, although she did fine with the Chinese couple who spoke to her in English.

And one of the first language lessons we’ve learned in our travels still holds true: a smile and some friendliness can take you pretty far. At the same soup stall, a granny and baby stopped in to say hello. Not to us, of course, but when baby took a second to check us out, we waved and made silly faces. He was into it, and Peter sealed the deal by sharing a piece of his rice cake with the little guy. Shortly thereafter, granny and baby left, now including us in their goodbyes. It was a small thing, but moments like this are grounding, and help us to feel connected to the community around us when our own home and friends and family are so far away.

Vietnamese is difficult. Mandarin is difficult. For our students, English is difficult. But just to try and communicate — even if you get it wrong — is so worth it. And so I’ll leave you with this, from one of my last Vietnamese lessons: Xin lỗi. Cửa hàng tạp hóa ở đâu? Tôi muốn mua nước suối.

Apr 8, 2015

Living the life at the Villa Pinkhouse

The people in our (temporary) neighborhood

The cutest little VWbug of course belongs to the cutest hostel in Dalat
The cutest VW bug, of course, belongs to the cutest hostel in Đà Lat. Pinkhouse forever!
Our accommodationsThis is how to do a coffee break
The neighborhood coffee shop was adjacent to the Easy Rider office, offering convenient parking for all.
We had a sweet little balcony in our roomOur view from the balcony
Our room at the Villa Pinkhouse had a sweet little balcony, left, overlooking a quiet neighborhood, right.
Meatball banh mi
Eat bánh mì every day!

The Villa Pinkhouse, our hotel in Đà Lạt, is down a small alley at the top of a hill in the northwest of the city. Its neighbors are another hotel, a primary school, an outpost of the Easy Riders motorbike touring company, and a small coffee shop. It’s run by a lovely family in which all of the young men speak fairly fluent English, and the older members smile and speak happy Vietnamese. We loved all of Đà Lạt, but this area especially spoke to us.

The coffee shop just across the way from the hotel. This was not one of your grab-and-go affairs, but a French-y kind of cafe, where one sits and chats for hours. We spent a crisp, cool morning there at one of the low tables out front, watching the neighborhood wander by. Delivery people, children and parents, tourist arrivals, fellow coffee drinkers, friends.

Vietnam is big time about the coffee. It’s the number two exporter in the world, behind Brazil, we were told many times. At home, coffee is brewed strong — with or without a stripe of sweetened condensed milk — through a three-part tin contraption that sits on top of your tiny glass. At the coffee shop, another patron showed us how to stop from making a wet, brown mess by resting the finished filter in its own lid, rather than directly on the table. It’s satisfying to both the gadget- and caffeine-loving parts of my brain.

We met a lot of friendly folks down that alley, despite its small size. There was that Easy Rider who gave us the world’s softest sell on a trip out into the countryside. “Sorry. We already have plans.” “Oh well. Have fun with your other tour guide!” Consistently those guys — who are an institution in Đà Lạt, as are their copycats — were super nice the many times we met them around the city, but also super relaxed about not making a sale.

And then there was the lady selling bánh mì from a cart at the mouth of the alley. She spoke no English, but we had a good chat anyway as she prepared for us a wonderful pork meatball sandwich. She and Peter had similar beaded bracelets, so they were instant friends. And I managed to put together the right words in Vietnamese to explain that we wanted one sandwich and one plain baguette. Oh, and how much is that? Language success!

Down the hill a bit was another hostel — Đà Lạt actually hosts a lot of visitors, but don’t call it a tourist trap. We’re all living like locals. Locals with a lot of free time, that is. Anyway … This place had an open-air cafe, and it was a great place to sit with a glass of Đà Lạt wine. We went with the red: extremely light-bodied with a mild fruity taste. As we sat, we could watch across the street as the children of those business played. One afternoon, someone received a delivery of wooden planks with which the kids barely resisted whacking each other. They watched us, too, and eventually built up the courage to start yelling hello.

Our little slice of the city was good to us. Good food, good drinks, good people. A perfect home away from home.

Apr 6, 2015

The abundance of Đà Lat

To market, to market

Dalat from the river
Beautiful buildings in DalatAt the central market
The central market saw a lot of action, from both tourists and locals alike.
Looking down on the market from the hillPotted plants at Dalat's flower gardenIt's avocados!
The flower garden was pretty and green, but not more so than the city that surrounds it.
Greenery around the cityA side street with brightly colored buildingsThis was our backyard!A little coffee shop where we stopped for a drink
As a city, Đà Lat is just so cute!

Vietnam is like an elongated S that snakes its way up the east side of the Indochina Peninsula. Saigon is near the bottom, and the city of Đà Lạt is a few inches north on the map, which represents about an eight-hour bus ride or an hour-long plane ride.

Đà Lạt is up in the central highlands, so despite its southern latitude, it’s temperate all year round. They get a lot of rain in the summer and blue-sky days in the winter. And all this geography adds up to an incredibly fertile plain, which means fresh produce is king here. (The people at our hostel in Saigon, when they found out we were coming here, really talked up Đà Lạt’s flowers, but you can’t eat flowers. Usually.)

This is why we’re here,” I wrote in my day-one Đà Lạt notes. A French baguette with butter and local strawberry jam. Simple, but perfect, and my breakfast every day we were there.

The Central Market also featured heavily in our time there. It was your traditional Asian wet market — fresh fruits and veg, straight-from-the-farm herbs, slaughtered-that-day meats. Peter went wild for the gigantic artichokes, and I drooled over the healthy green avocados. There were ripe strawberries with which you could have started a really messy food fight. Oh, and so much dill! We have none of these things at home.

We passed through the market just about every day — sometimes for just a look, other times to pick up a snack or to sit for a bite at one of many prepared-food stalls on the periphery. Vendors there, well accustomed to foreign tourists, ranged from friendly to indifferent — much more laid-back than their wheeler-dealer Saigon counterparts. When we stopped to buy some dried fruits and vegetables, the woman kept giving us free samples as she filled our bag; try the durian, the sweet potato, the dragon fruit.

Outside the market, the city itself was quite green. Đà Lạt’s winding roads were lined with lush lawns, gardens, and trees. Then there was the spot on our map just marked “flowers.” It turned out to be a kind of botanical garden, but all of the vegetation was potted plants. It was pretty, but given the quality of the municipal landscaping outside, it also seemed a little unnecessary. We later advised a fellow traveler that she could skip it. I guess we’re giving the same advice to you, should you find yourself in this part of the world.

But, in all, we were completely charmed by Đà Lạt. Shortly after we arrived, we made plans to extend our stay by another three days, giving us a full week there. Some magazine said that Đà Lạt is Vietnam’s premiere local honeymoon destination, and it’s easy to see why. We were in love with it, anyway.

You've got to come out to the lake

Apr 5, 2015

Adventuring in Vietnam

Moments good, bad, and delicious

The motorbikes of Vietnam are plentiful and fast
Backpacker street in SaigonSaigon from the rooftop
Views of Saigon’s backpacker area from above and below.

Our time in Vietnam was amazing. Exhilarating, confusing, overwhelming, rich and amazing. We visited two cities in a little under two weeks (plus a little bit of countryside), and on the back of our Chinese travel experience, we may have been a little cocky. The ferocity of the tourist-facing sales people was particularly unsettling, and we learned some expensive lessons. But we also met some wonderful people, ate some fantastic food, and had some awesome experiences. Let us take you through some of the moments, people and places that made our trip.

For reference, we started out in Ho Chi Mihh City, went north to the city of Đà Lạt for a few days, fell in love with Đà Lạt and stayed a few days more, and then returned to HCMC to finish out the trip. Also, Ho Chi Minh City is still interchangeably referred to as Saigon.


Spring rolls and noodle soups

Fried spring rolls
Hey, everyone! Serve everything with fresh mint and chili sauce, ok?

We never had a day that was typical, but this one afternoon is representative of our experiences in Vietnam so here’s where I’ll start: On a tip from a local HCMC dining website, we were up in the northern district of Phú Nhuận looking for some Vietnamese tapas. We would never find those tapas; the Saigon restaurant scene moves quickly and this was not the first time we were on the hunt for something that was long gone. The neighbors let us know with a particular Vietnamese gesture, waggling their upturned palm from side to side as if unscrewing a lightbulb: “Nope, sorry.”

But, no matter. We were stranded by the beautiful Nhiêu Lộc canal, the sky was blue and the sun was dappling through the trees. You couldn’t ask for more on a warm February afternoon. There was a cafe with a squat set of table and chairs facing the water, and we made our own tapas.

Because we were out of the main tourist area, the menu was only in Vietnamese. I had cribbed a list of dishes from Vietnamese-Australian chef Luke Nguyen’s website, but functionally that meant I could only say, “well, this is something with chicken, and that’s probably pork.” So I pointed at a picture of spring rolls, and the die was cast.

We had spring rolls a lot on our trip. We had them with soft shell crab at Chill, a swank bar at the top of one of Ho Chi Minh City’s tallest buildings. We had crap ones at a Western dive in the heart of HCMC’s backpacker district. We even had roll-your-ownies at a small establishment in Đà Lạt. (More on those in a future entry.)

Spring rolls are such a basic idea of what Vietnamese food is … like, everyone knows a spring roll. But they’re such a good crystallization of what makes the cuisine so special.

These particular rolls were simple and fried, with a savory pork mixture inside. You wrapped your roll in a mint leaf and then dipped it in two chili sauces — one slightly sweet and one that was a pure, clear spicy wallop. The layered flavored each took their turn in your mouth, none too overpowering and all equally delightful. Each individual component is so simple and fresh, but they combine into a complex and amazing taste experience.

As we ate, we watched a parade of motorbike commuters zip down Trường Sa street, carrying families, couches, fridges, cases of beer, TVs. The oft cited statistic is that HCMC has 9 million residents and 3.5 million motorbikes. It truly is a sight to see. On foot, grandparents and babies, and dogs and their walkers took in the same panorama that we were enjoying. It was both frantic and peaceful, relaxing and stimulating.

At another cafe a few doors down, the view was the same, but the food was something new! All we asked for was “a snack” — one of the workers spoke a little English — and what we got was a confection of spicy beef floss. Imagine a Twizzler made out of steak, and that you love it. It’s something we never would have ordered on our own, but it was really, really good. It had that spicy-sweet-tangy addictive quality of a good barbecue sauce. We sat and chewed and sipped our Heinekens. More bikes, carrying more improbably large loads, whizzed by.

Peter eating at a roadside cafe
When you’re eating on the street, motorbike parking is never far away.

Since our dinner plan no longer existed, after this we decided to take a wander. Something we both really enjoyed about Saigon was its walk-ability. Unlike a typical Chinese city with its monstrous, sprawling ring roads and skyscrapers, Saigon is divided into human-sized neighborhoods each with a vibrant local street life. Buildings are narrow, short, and brightly colored; cute boutiques are packed in next to ramshackle mom-and-pops; and food/coffee carts with plastic stools and tiny tables spill out all over the street and sidewalks (where they exist). There are, too, your Startbucks and KFCs — Ho Chi Minh City is a growing, cosmopolitan entity on the world scene. But there are also beautifully landscaped public parks every few blocks.

At a busy open street market, we stopped for some phở. If you know about Vietnamese food, you know about phở — a meaty noodle soup with fresh leafy vegetables. And as with spring rolls, noodle soups were a staple of our trip. (As this blogger grouchily explains, to say phở is like bún bò is as if “someone described fettuccine alfredo as ‘like spaghetti’.” But as is my habit, I’m going to group them all together anyway.) Something I’ve figured out about street food is that, despite its humble surroundings, it is crazy complex. In the case of the soups, the broth needs to be boiled for hours and spiced just so. To get the meat the right flavor and texture takes a whole day. And you’ve got a dozen ingredients to chop and prepare just to be a garnish. This all results in a dish that costs approximately 50¢. It’s work that only makes sense to do if you’re serving hundreds.

But I’m glad someone does it. The noodle soups we ate were usually found at market stalls. There’s a noodle and there’s a meat. The broth is clear and packed with flavor. To this, you can add vinegar, fresh-squeezed lime, and chilies to taste. It’s served with a plate including fresh cabbage, coriander, mint, and anise leaves. When you throw this into your steaming broth, the leaves wilt beautifully and start infusing the whole dish with bright flavor. Especially the anise. I do not hesitate to say that this is the best “simple” street food on the planet.

And that’s how it was done. All afternoon, we were kind of lost but not really. There was a plan and it failed. But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? If we knew exactly what was going to happen every moment, there wouldn’t really be a point in leaving the hotel room. And so, we amble on …

Saigon from above, again

Feb 2, 2015

Make room for banh mi

We’re going to Vietnam!

To Vietnam

In Mandarin, the words for Vietnam the country and Yunnan the province sound very similar, resulting in some confusion when talking to our students and friends about our winter break plans. “No, it’s in a different country. To the south.” (If they say something about “Spring City,” I know that communication has failed.)

But Ho Chi Minh City is our destination this winter — to get a break from the cold, to eat some fantastic food, and to up our level of travel difficulty, just a little bit. To prepare, we’ve watched every episode of television made by Vietnamese Australian chef Luke Nyugen. He’s given us a long list of dishes to try. And to facilitate the eating, I’ve been studying the language a bit. Is it hard? Kind of: Vietnamese has six tones to Mandarin’s four, but it is written using the Roman alphabet not characters. (Let comics artist Malachi Ray Rempen show you the difference between the Asian scripts.) There are at least six different words for “you,” depending on the number and gender of the people that you’re talking to, but verbs don’t need to be conjugated and often can be completely omitted. After about a month, I feel pretty solid on asking where the bathroom is: Nhà vệ sinh ở đâu?

So we’re ready to go! We start tomorrow for Chengdu and arrive in HCMC on Thursday. It’s going to be delicious.

Jan 10, 2015

Huun-Huur-Tu comes to Chongqing

And we do, too

Huun-Huur-Tu on stage at NUTS Club in Chongqing, December 2015
Peter filming 小舟 at 16th Bystreet Music Bar in Chongqing
Peter, in action, at 16th Bystreet Music Bar
A mixologist at NUTS Club
The bartender pours some kind of ’tini at Nuts Club.

I’m not going to lie, this weekend away was a little difficult. We only had a few days free, Peter had a cold, and the trouble I was having purchasing concert tickets at one point had me in tears. (A Chinese-language website, international banking and computer-related issues all conspired to let me know that I was a failure as an adult.) The dark, cold winter days only amplified our discomfort.

But we weren’t in Chongqing to be comfortable, we were there for the music. And the hot pot. But, mostly the music.

First up, 小舟. We dropped in on our favorite hole-in-the-wall venue — the 16th Bystreet Music Bar — to find him and his friends doing a loosey-goosey jam. 小舟, unbeknownst to us at the time, is actually a Beijing folk-rock artist of some renown. Sound at the Music Bar is kind of crap — the house drum kit has the timbre of a bucket of nails — but these guys were really great. With each new player to take the stage, the style meandered from traditional to funky, or sometimes both at once. The audience was small but into it, and the staff particularly was having a good time. You could tell that they love working at a live music venue.

The whole reason for our trek, however, was the legendary Tuvan throat singers of Huun-Huur-Tu. Peter has loved these guys since the early ’90s and the second he saw that they’d be at Nuts Club, he said we had to be there.

Nuts is now in the basement of a downtown shopping mall. (Lots of stuff is in malls in China.) Jogging through the empty corridors, past closed-down shops — we were late, because getting anywhere from anywhere in Chongqing takes FOREVER — we followed the sound of music to find our destination. New Nuts is slightly bigger than the old club, and they now have one of the best bars in China with a meticulous staff.

When we arrived, the four men of Huun-Huur-Tu were already on stage, wearing their traditional Tuvan costumes. Between songs, Sayan Bapa — one of the group’s original members — addressed the crowd in English, explaining the meaning of each piece. “Each of our songs is a short story,” he said. About friendship, love, loss, homesickness and, of course, horses. All very human things, but some more specific to the nomadic Tuvan culture than others. Before a song about caravan migration, Bapa joked, “[it] usually takes three months, but we’ll play a shorter version.”

Some of their songs are as old as the 12th century, he told us. And the group plays mostly traditional instruments — including one wooden clopper that mimics the sound of horse hooves perfectly. But their vital spirit and the plain emotion that comes through the music keeps the experience from feeling musty. Live, the overtone singing becomes something you feel as well as hear, and it was almost as if you, too, were there on the central Asian grasslands, with the nomads. And the horses. It was a truly fantastic performance.

After the show, the guys changed into street clothes, and sat around the merch table eating takeaway noodles. We shook their hands on our way out, but being shy (and unsure of which language to address them in) we didn’t say much beyond “thank you” (and 谢谢).

Huun Huur Tu from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

Dec 2, 2014

We Nova Heart Chengdu

A weekend in which we rock in the big city

Chengdu Nov 2014 from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

The Lion's Head Meatball at the chicken restaurant
Our weekend was all about the music, but we found some time for food, too.
Helen Feng rocks Little Bar
China’s Blondie rocks Little Bar.

Helen Feng is the Queen of the Beijing indie rock scene. It’s a small kingdom, admittedly, but one that looms large in our hearts. So earlier this month when Helen Feng came to Little Bar in Chengdu, we had to go.

Her voice is rich and inviting, deceptively delicate but delivered with precision and power. You can hear Debbie Harry when she sings, but Helen Feng is entirely a force unto herself. Nova Heart, her current project, is a shoegaze-electronica act that maintains the intensity and spirit of Feng’s punk past. We listened to her Soundcloud on repeat in the weeks leading up to the concert.

While in Chengdu, we hit up all of our usual spots, only to find that things have changed. Joker Bar’s still there, thank goodness, as is the Sultan. But Lazy Pug owners Danny and Dana have moved to Bankok! To open an American-style BBQ joint! The original, however, is still alive and thriving, thanks to local Stella and her Swiss husband. Devastated at the potential loss of their favorite date spot, the couple stepped up and bought the place! Stella filled us in on all the news during our visit. Apparently D&D are sick of the under-heated Sichuan winter, a feeling we understand quite well. But we’re pleased to report that the Pug is still serving up the best taco in China.

In the spirit of rock and roll, this trip we made a big effort to try some new Chengdu things. Not too far from our favorite hostel The Loft, there is a large grey building festooned with red stars, and a giant chicken on the top. It’s something we drive past several times each visit, and finally, this time, we went inside. It’s a fine-dining restaurant with a revolutionary theme, and really, really delicious traditional cuisine. One could really splash out there on hundred dollar (U.S.) fishes and deluxe cuts of meat; we went with the more modest but still fantastic Lion’s Head Meatball and perfectly seasoned stuffed buns. It was one of the best meals we’ve had in China.

Things are much more casual down by the river. Jah Bar sits unassumingly in a small strip of bars down a small alleyway. Not just the best bar in Chengdu, but the best in the world, said someone somewhere online. That’s not a review you ignore. Jah is a cozy little room dominated by a big stage in the middle. There are guitars, basses and a drum kit for anyone to play, and a loosely organized jam swelled up as the night went on. Talented locals and foreigners swapped in and out, going jazzier here, funkier there. It’s a scrappy room, and a lot of fun. The bar did just the basics and food came from the street vendors outside, who delivered BBQ to hungry patrons much to the Jah Bar cat’s delight.

Next door, we found Carol’s by the River. A little brighter and more spiffy — and nowhere near as cool, but they did have a late-night pizza. And a DJ, and some dancing fools. It was Ladies’ Night, and the girls at the table next to ours were having a great time.

But this is all preamble. Little Bar, Saturday night was the main event. Nova Heart took the stage shortly after the finish of the opening act (荷尔蒙小姐 — The Hormones, who were quite good). In person, Helen Feng was electric. She flirted and joked with the crowd, who loved her in return. Little Bar is small enough that the gig felt incredibly intimate, but Feng really has the star presence that could fill a whole stadium. Which made it all the more special that she was there with just us. Feng threw herself into her performance, jumping and dancing around then striking impish poses. And that voice gripped us all. She sings in English, but the emotion she conveys needs no translation.

Then, at ten on the dot, the concert was over. As is the custom at a Chinese rock show, everyone packed up quickly and left in an orderly fashion. A small crowd lingered outside, where Nova Heart CDs were for sale. We bought one, and raved about what we had just seen for our whole journey home.

Nov 22, 2014

To the top of Fangshan Mountain

Luzhou’s own scenic spot

A scene at the top of Fangshan Mountain, outside of Luzhou city
Peter on the bus, behind a man and his basket of produceEmily on the busBeside a row of teahouses at the top of the mountainMany teahouses had hammocks for restingA monk and a worker have a chatThe temple, from afarThis chicken is delicious and completely fakeA kitchen full of vegetablesAt the base of the mountain, a monk gets a haircut

The bus out to Fangshan is a small, green, rickety affair, bringing the phrase “bucket of bolts” to life. Our companions on the ride out were a small group of tourists, and farmers with their big woven baskets full of produce and rice. Also, some packages that were making the trip independently. This was a multi-purpose bus. The route to the mountain wends through narrow country roads along the Yangtze River. We passed farms and small villages, and a granny-type who handed the driver a lunch box through his window. The journey isn’t that far — only about 45 minutes — but it felt like traveling worlds away from our city life.

At our destination, the way opened out into your typical tourist structures: noodle huts, incense sellers and ticket booths. The “bus station” here is an informal group of benches across from a couple of reserved parking spaces. Immediately off the bus, some people asked to take a picture with us, the foreigners at the base of Luzhou’s prized attraction.

Fangshan — shan, or 山, meaning mountain — bills itself as a mini-Emei and one of the eight wondrous Buddhist mountains of Sichuan Province. Personally, I think it’s lovelier than Emei; the surroundings feel more lived-in and intimate, and on the day we were there, there were far fewer tourists. (Although a student of mine warned that it can get busy during the holidays.) Active temples and monasteries climb the mountainside, and the natural mixes freely with the man-made. I had a little chat with one of the staff members who was delighted to find that I could speak Chinese. “And so am I,” I said to Peter, relating the encounter.

At the top of the mountain, there is a hotel. Catching the sunrise is a major attraction at Sichuan’s Buddhist mountains, and the best way to do that is to sleep over, I guess. There are also a bunch of scrappy little restaurants and teahouses; most of them with hammocks strung between their own little cluster of trees. Hanging out, of course, being all of Sichuan’s favorite pastime. We opted, instead, for the walking path through the forest out to Knife’s Edge Ridge.

The day was quite overcast, like many autumn days in Luzhou. Our walk through the woods was serene and felt almost otherworldly. At the ridge, the trees fell away and the path became two shallow parabolas, hammocked between a pair of short pagodas. It was a misty, beautiful view, like you see in movies about China. We sat and contemplated our surroundings, marveling that this was in our own backyard.

Mid-mountain, there is Yunfeng Temple — this was the main reason we were there. After three years of making and breaking plans to visit Fangshan, we recently learned from our friend Andrea that the temple restaurant makes amazing fake meat dishes out of tofu (a Buddhist tradition). And if there’s anything that motivates us, it’s food.

It was a late lunch for us. We ordered “chicken” in a scallion and mushroom broth, a side of intensely spicy cucumbers, and the house special — which turned out to be more tofu. Our vegetarian chicken wouldn’t fool anyone (and our server made sure we understood that nothing was made with meat), but it was delicious. Savory and chicken-y with a real fleshy texture. It hit the spot after our morning’s ramble. If the restaurant wasn’t halfway up a mountain, we might go more often.

As it stands, we’d already like to return to Fangshan. There’s really no excuse not to. It’s such a short, easy — if bumpy — bus trip, and there are many more paths to explore. Not to mention the caves and waterfalls that we missed. At the very least, we’d like to try the “fish.”

Knife's Edge Ridge unfurls into the mist
Knife’s Edge Ridge affords a striking view.

Oct 2, 2014

Once again, the Chengdu bookends

The trifecta of big city fun

Beer in a horn at Joker Bar
It’s beer in a horn!
Our Indian feast at Tandoor was fantastically good.
Metal music by Yaksa at New Little Bar
Beijing-based metal band Yaksa tore up Little Bar

As per usual, we passed through Chengdu on our way to and from the magical mountains of north Sichuan. And, loyal readers, we all know what Chengdu means: Foreign food, delicious beers and live music.

It’s taken us almost three years to get to Tandoor, a well-reviewed Indian restaurant that we’ve just slept on for no good reason. It was super fantastic and we should have been going there all along! It was also empty on a Friday night — which is a mistake, Chengdusians. Everyone should go there now.

Joker Bar is holding strong. They attracted a cool crowd the night we were there (except for that girl puking in the corner, she was definitely not cool). For us, the bartender’s girlfriend suggested a Belgian beer, La Corne du Bois des Pendus, and she showed us the glassware. It was a horn! Peter had to go for it.

To complete the trilogy, there was Yaksa (夜叉), the metal band at Little Bar. Totally fun. We’re not rushing out to buy the album or anything, but it was a fun night of in-your-face rock.

Sep 8, 2014

Natural wonders in Jiuzhaigou

And some people who get to call this place home

The amazing ponds of Jiuzhaigou are fantastic colors
Our hotel room had a good view of the mountainsThe hotel
Our hotel in Jiuzhaigou had an amazing view of the mountains. (Oh, and heads up: That Sauwastika there is a Buddhist symbol and has nothing whatsoever to do with National Socialism.)
Out in Jiuzhaigou, the townThe wild riverBar street in the hostel area
Jiuzhaigou-the-town has its beautiful spots as well.
Peter gives a whiskey pouring lesson
Peter gives a whiskey lesson to the staff at Minibar Tavern.
Our rainy walk through the parkThe mountains in the park
Our day in the nature reserve was rainy, but beautiful.
The mirror pool
The lakes are so clear that they make perfect mirrors.
Our guide, LisaPeter and Emily in the landscape
Lisa, in the photo at left, took fantastic care of us.
More fantastic colors
Those are the real colors of this pool. It’s pretty amazing.
Us and the many touristsMany, many tourists
Did I mention that we were only two of about eleventy-billion other tourists that day?
Oh, those colors. And the water is so clear.
This pool is actually many hundreds of meters deep.
Lisa's sister dresses Emily in a traditional costumeEmily as a Tibetan
Lisa’s sister kitted me out in a traditional Tibetan costume.
The forest in the park is beautiful.More colorsThe Great Falls
The Great Falls … and the end of our journey.

Jiuzhaigou is about 2 and a half hours north of Songpan, a bus trip that wends on a 2-lane highway through peaceful mountain greenery. The ride itself is a remarkable journey with incredible views that will make you feel you’ve traveled to another world.

Jiuzhaigou proper, however, is a for-real deal tourist extravaganza. The nature reserve is at the center of about 5 kilometers of hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops set up to handle many thousands of visitors per day. August is the high season, so the place was filled to capacity. It’s a small world, though: On our first night in town, we ran into our friend Meichen. Never was I so surprised to hear my name called out on an unfamiliar street. But that was nothing compared to the shock we gave all the onlookers watching a white woman and a Chinese young adult running at each other for hugs.

East of the park, the collection of homes-away-from-home is called Longkang Village. This is where we stayed, and it also contains the delightful Bianbian Jie, a cobblestoned river walk with a bunch of cute little restaurants. When we were there, many of the shops were closed down (some by apparent government order), making the walk a pretty peaceful place to escape the crush of humanity up on the main road.

To the west is Pengfeng Village, mostly similar to Long Kang. Pengfeng’s standout attraction is the small cluster of funky Lonely Planet-approved hostels. In this small cluster is also an area called Bar Street. This is the place in which we met Lisa, the encounter that changed our whole trip.

It was at the Minibar Tavern. Peter asked for a shot of whiskey, but the staff wasn’t quite sure how to handle it. Which resulted in every ex-pat drinkers’ dream situation: They asked him to show them how it’s done. They covered, in English, the vocabulary words “neat,” “with ice,” and “chaser”; and he showed them how to use their fingers to measure the proper amount.

Lisa was the young woman who had been doing most of the translating. This was her sister’s new bar, and later we would learn that this was Lisa’s first visit since the bar opened. Lisa and her brother, Peter (a double Peter!), were local kids, and they offered to show us around the park for free the next day, in gratitude for the bartending lesson. “I’ll give you the quality tour,” she promised us.

We would be fools not to take them up on this. So early the next morning, we met them outside of our hotel and they took us to the park. Lisa, actually, had been born there. Her family, she told us, was one of three large extended families that made up 荷叶, or the Lotus Leaf village, a small village inside the park. (There are a few Tibetan villages inside the park.) This made her and Peter extremely knowledgeable guides. (Though Peter seemed a little shy about his English.) They showed us all the best views, where to take the pictures, which walks were the most interesting, when it was advisable to take the bus between sights, and even where to sit on the bus for the best vantage point. The lakes of Jiuzhaigou are startlingly brilliant and even in person unreal looking. “I know. It looks Photoshopped,” Lisa said.

But she said so much more than that. In the midst of this natural wonder, Lisa answered my million nosy questions about her life and family, giving context and reality to our otherworldly surroundings, even as we crushed along surrounded by thousands of other tourists.

She’s the daughter of a Tibetan father and a Han Chinese mother, a match which made all the parents grumble at the time, but it’s been a long and happy marriage, “so no one can say anything now,” Lisa said. As a child, she and her brothers and sisters and other extended family members — whom, by custom, Lisa explained, are all referred to as brother and sister; for example, our aforementioned Peter is actually a younger cousin — were turned out to play in the park as their own 700 km2 playground. “There are no bad guys out there,” her mother reasoned. They swam and fished in the pools, rode horses through the forests, picked wild strawberries and mushrooms in the hills. It all sounds like the perfect countryside childhood. Her father was even part of the team that rounded up the wild pandas to bring them to the Wolong Panda Reserve.

Lisa said a few times during our trip that too many people come now. She’s understandably very protective of the land. As we walked, she pointed out stray litter as well as the little boat they use to go clear trash from the ponds. There are 2-3 cleaning people for every 1-2 kilometers, Lisa told us. And they do excellent work; the whole reserve was remarkably clean, given the fact that there were tourists everywhere munching on disposable cup noodle and rice dishes.

Lisa was on familiar terms with pretty much all of the park vendors and employees, throwing out friendly waves and stopping for a chat here and there. “That’s my uncle,” she said of a passing bus driver. After a quick hello with some young jewelery sellers, she told me, “We’re almost all relations.”

One sister, a much older woman, ran a stall with traditional Tibetan costumes. The idea was that you’d dress up and take a photo with some Jiuzhaigou-ness in the background. This sister never went to school; she worked in the park since she was very young. Because I was with Lisa, she let me try on a costume for free. It was a funny interaction. Lisa pointed out that I was a native English speaker, speaking Mandarin with a woman who spoke Tibetan. The sister told me I was pretty all dressed up, though. I understood that.

Lisa said that her father thought that education was very important for her and her siblings. His mother, a woman Lisa spoke very fondly of, worked really hard to send him to university, and he in turn wanted the same education for his children. So she went to middle and high school in Chengdu, and now studies accounting at university in Leshan. During her vacation time, to make a little money she and Peter used to sell watermelon and other snacks to tourists in the park. Now that they’re older, they give tours to people like us.

Though much of her family has found some employment in the park, not everyone stays. Once she finishes university, Lisa said that she was uncertain whether she would return. Another sister — who is actually Lisa’s niece but older than her — just married an English man. But they came back to the village to have a traditional week-long Tibetan wedding ceremony. It sounded wonderful, with lots of delicious foods: wonderful breads baked with fresh wild vegetables.

Jiuzhaigou is such a wonderfully strange sight to see. You have the fantastic natural formations: the outrageously colored lakes, the soaring mountains, and fertile forests. And then there’s just people, everywhere. All of them taking pictures, so much so that the outstretched arms and digital screens become part of the scenery.

After a photo scrum at the Giant Falls, we took a rest that turned into the end of the line for us. Sitting down, we realized that we were tired, wet, cold, and after almost 4 hours, fully sated with nature. Lisa kindly assured us that the two sights we were skipping — the Long Lake and the Five Color Pool — are similar to lakes we’ve already seen. It’s just a lake that’s long, she said of the former, and we’ve seen all five colors in other lakes. We said our goodbyes and she dropped us off at the bus to the exit. And she rushed off to go help her mom somewhere in the park.

Jiuzhaigou is a beautiful landscapeThe Falls, again