travel

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

Sep 6, 2014

Wandering the Songpan countryside

前面一点点, or Go on ahead, just a little farther

High on the hills outside of Songpan
Some horses in the roadA small streamWhere are we going? Not here.
This is it, our driver told us, Shangniba Monastery. On the phone with a translating David, I said that this isn’t the it we were looking for.
Some kids in a small Tibetan village.More village
We passed through a small Tibetan village on our way out into the countryside.
On the roadSome prayer flagsOur little truckOur little truckWe keep going up
Just keep going up.
On the west mountainMore horses
On our second day of exploring, we drove up the mountain to the west of the city.
Houses on the west mountainMe on the West GateOur friends on the West Gate
The West Gate is isolated from the hubbub of the valley.

All of the travel services in Songpan are geared to get you out of it. Whether it’s on horse or by bike, on foot or by car, someone in town will help you plan and execute your foray into the wild. Our someone was David, the son of our hostel owner and the main barista/bartender at the Kitchen. He also had some great advice for us on local wines. He’s a knowledgeable man.

David found us a driver (because, of course, we went by car). A plucky little guy with a little silver pickup who laughed at all of our antics. For two days, he drove us everywhere we asked to go, even when we had no idea where we were going.

Our first afternoon, outside of Shangniba Monastery — a destination I plucked from the hand-drawn map on the wall of the Kitchen — he had to call David to explain that we were, in fact, there. It’s nice, I said, but it’s not what we had in mind. The sprawling Buddhist temple was in the middle of a serene valley, but we were hoping our trip would take us in a more upward direction. Later, Peter joked privately that, “We’re Americans. We just want to go to the top.”

So our driver drew two arrows on a piece of paper, one pointing forward and the other looping back. We chose forward — “前面一点点,” Peter said — and he took us on a joyride into the mountains. And it was fantastic. He drove until there was no road and we got out to look. Then he turned around and we reached a crossroads with a road that ascended even higher. “上可以吗?” I asked. Can we go up? Yes, we can.

Our journey that day took us through the valleys, up the twisty mountain roads, past farmland and through small villages. Periodically, small herds of yak and horses would crowd the road. Our driver would honk and we’d all laugh. Vibrantly colored Tibetan prayer flags stood out against the green of the mountains. It was idyllic. And the view from the top was just magnificent. Up high, the only sounds were the prayer flags that whipped in the wind, and a horse in a field that snorted at our arrival. Taking it all in we marveled: “It’s amazing that this is China … that this is the earth!”

The next day, we headed for the West Gate, an ancient fortification perched on the mountain that overlooks Songpan city. (That’s actually where I hoped we were going when I asked for the monastery.) Our driver took the back way straight to the top, where we decided that we’d take the walking trail back down.

But before our decent, it was snack time. Peter and I sat looking down on the city on the edge of the West Gate, and broke out our yak and barley bread picnic. We were quickly joined by a boisterous group of kids — and their adult — who had actually done the climb on their own two feet. They — four young boys and a somewhat reserved girl — were still full of energy. Between snacks, they howled like wolves at the city below, and aimed pretend guns through the gate’s crenelations. Like you do. They were also pretty amused by our presence, and tossed jello cups to us. (“Like we were monkeys,” Peter said.)

The way down is impeccably maintained. High up on the mountain is a wooden walkway, which turns into a stone pathway as the incline gets less steep lower down. There are regular rest areas along the way, placed to enjoy the prettiest views. On our way down, we only ran into a few other small groups, so the pathway belonged solely to us for most of our descent.

Near the bottom, humanity reasserts itself. One house becomes a few, becomes the outskirts of the city. A group of local woman claimed the lowest viewing platform for their afternoon hangout. We followed the path to the end and made our egress onto a busy city street. A few kids gave us high fives for our success. Or because they liked the looks of us. Who knows? We were all having fun.

Our travels in Songpan represent probably the least planning we’ve ever done for a trip. But it all worked out amazingly. By just picking a destination and figuring it out, we may look like fools some of the time, but we stumble into experiences we wouldn’t have even know to look for had we come burdened with any expectations. Sometimes the results are confusing, or even boring, but even that teaches us something. On the whole “just go on ahead, a little more” has been a rewarding way to live our lives.

A view of Songpan city from abovePeter eats lunch at the West Gate, the kids look on.West GateWe hike down the west mountain
We conquered Songpan!

Aug 30, 2014

Inside the city walls of Songpan

We don’t do things right, we do them fun

Songpan city is in a beautiful valley.
The center of old Songpan city is a hive of activity contrasting with peaceful landscape that surrounds it.
These are horses.
The horses hang out, waiting for riders.
A covered bridgeMainstreet of the old city
All types milled about the city’s main street.

Songpan is a horse town, and riding is what most people are there for. From easy-peasy day trips to two-week, hard-riding slogs into the mountains, the horses of Songpan are at your service. According to a book we found at Emma’s Kitchen — the restaurant associated with the hostel we stayed at — the area was established as a Destination by a British-Israeli businessman who a few decades ago started a horse trekking company catering to western adventurers. (Nyíri, Pál. Scenic Spots: Chinese Tourism, the State, and Cultural Authority. U of Washington Press. 2011.) These days, there are a few companies that will facilitate your horsey adventure, and both foreign and domestic travelers are drawn in. Horses share the road with giant tour buses as everyone flows in and out of the city.

But we don’t horse trek. Both Peter and I feel that horses are best admired with two feet firmly on the ground. Fortunately, Songpan city itself is a charmingly weird little nabe. It’s obviously a vacation town, but the local sector isn’t hidden away like it is in other places we’ve visited. The “real” and the “just-visiting” exist side-by-side throughout Songpan. And let me tell you, it doesn’t get more authentic than laborers gathering beneath your window at 6am getting ready for the workday.

There is an actual ancient town, bounded on three sides by a replica wall with original gates. The west side is bounded by a giant mountain that erupts skyward. Up there, the West Gate is reconstructed, but the wall is real. Let’s call the whole thing off!

Along the main drag are the inevitable tourist shops, hawking horse blankets, knives, wolfskins, traditional Tibetan handcrafts (including iPad and cell phone covers) and yak meat. If you don’t need any of that, there’s plenty of panda gear. Slip down the side streets, however, and there are residential neighborhoods. Young kids hang out on the streets, excited to practice their English with the foreigners. There’s a yak abbatoir just next to the meat market on Muslim Street, and neither are just for show.

You can tell the locals from the visitors by their gear. Tourist families sport their matching North Face-style jackets, and young ladies saunter around high heels, short skirts and newly purchased Tibetan blankets (you wanna look good, but it’s cold up there). The locals are the ones in the traditional Muslim kufi or Qiang embroidered dresses, etc. Everyone not in heels, however, wears comfortable name brand sneakers.

We spent our time in town hanging out, bouncing between Emma’s Kitchen and Amdo Coffee Inn. Early morning coffee, mid-morning snack, afternoon tea, pre-dinner drinks, late-night nightcap … they had us covered. We were basically like hobbits.

But, like Bilbo Baggins before us, we also itched to get out into the wider world …

Sitting at Amdo's The route up to the West GateIn the streets
Amdo Coffee, left, was a great place to sit and watch the world go by.
In the residential part of the citySome child's graffiti
Down Songpan’s sidestreets, real living — and real children’s graffiti — goes on.
The meat market
The meat market was just next to the very active slaughterhouse. We didn’t take pictures of the slaughterhouse.
A small bridge over the Min RiverHaving a nightcao at Amdo's
Left: A bridge over the Min River; Right: A nightcap at Amdo
To the mountains
Enough city talk, let’s get up into the mountains…

Aug 28, 2014

Yak Meat: The King in the North

The meals we loved

Dried yak meat hanging on the high street
There is yak meat everywhere, all over Songpan.
Our barley bread of the gods
Out in Tibetan country, we enjoyed the food of the gods.
At some crazy barbecue
Confusing BBQ in Songpan is very tasty.
Dinner at Emma's Kitchen
Emma’s Kitchen in Songpan is a hub for visiting backpackers who want some hearty fare.
Have a chicken
We didn’t eat the head, but the rest our riverside chicken was just fantastic.
Tibetan food at Abu Luzi
We had a Tibetan-style feast at Jiuzhagou’s Abu Luzi restaurant.

When we took off northward, we really weren’t sure what to expect. We knew there would be mountains and nature — but would there be ATMs? We had an inkling that the area was influenced by Tibetan culture, but what does that mean? And what’s there to eat around here?

To answer our last question first: yak. There would be yak, everywhere. Live yak grazing all over the countryside; We spotted our first herd directly outside the airport. And in town: yak jerky, cured yak, yak dumplings, as well as all organs from tongue to testicles.

It’s not bad. Yak is kind of gamey, with just a little bit of sweetness. The winner for us was the cured yak, which was nice and smokey and paired well with the crusty Tibetan barley bread that was all over the place in Songpan. (We ate two loaves of the stuff in a little more than a week.) It makes a good picnic out in the fresh air. Though it’s less exciting sitting in the hotel room.

Yak meat and barley products, we learned, are staples of the Tibetan diet. And that’s relevant because Songpan and Jiuzhaigou and environs, while part of Sichuan Province, also comprise the Ngawa Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, which is home to a large population of ethnic Tibetans. You can see this in the dress of the local people, the architecture, the strong Buddhist presence, and of course the food. But those TIbetans are not alone; the Qiang minority and the Muslim Hui people are also a strong presence, each contributing their own culture to the mix.

We tried to find some Muslim hot pot in Songpan, a rumored area specialty, but ended up at a confusing BBQ restaurant. In retrospect, at issue was some mild altitude sickness (Songpan is at almost 2,900 m above sea level), but they did give us a hot pot menu only to take it away when I tried to order from it. Instead, their thing was veggie and meat skewers that you cooked over a fire pit sunk into the table. Once we got the hang of it, it was delicious and fun. Although, I don’t think they were even Muslim at all, because they also served us beer. But I swear that sign out front said halal hot pot.

We had a different confusing-but-delicious BBQ experience in Jiuzhaigou. (Maybe that is the area specialty.) This time, we were looking for a Tibetan restaurant that had changed addresses since our 2011 guidebook had been published. We stopped to puzzle it out and inadvertently opened ourselves to the most persuasive waiter in the world. To be fair, he first tried to help us get directions, but when it became clear we weren’t committed to moving on, he implored us to stay and have a spit-roasted chicken. The spit was out front of his restaurant, and those chickens did look delicious. I couldn’t resist his command, and soon we found ourselves sitting riverside, eating a succulent, crispy skinned, with just the right amount of spice chicken. We gobbled it off the bone, and went back for seconds two days later.

But we did eventually make it to our Tibetan restaurant, and it was worth all the bumbling. Abu Luzi was kind of an upscale version of our yak and barley bread picnic from the beginning of our trip. The food was simple but extraordinary. We had the Grassland Harvest, a barley soup with fresh vegetables; barley potatoes, which had a nice onion-y kick; and the yak and carrot parcel, a flaky pastry filled with seasoned carrots and the most tender and savory yak meat. We came into this trip without a really clear idea of what Tibetan food would be, and it was a real pleasure to find out. If we had had more days (and more money), we would have returned here, too.

As for ATMs? There are Chinese banks everywhere. No problem for us. (Though if you need to access foreign currency, check with your local institution.)