Hello Uncle Foreigner

travel

Apr 30, 2013

清明节: Celebration time

Holiday dinner with a family

Sarah showed us around her hometown
Sarah, above, shows us around her hometown; some guys in the background do a double take at the foreigners.

So the actual reason we were on vacation, the Qingming Festival, dates back thousands of years. It’s a day to pay homage to your ancestors — sweeping graves, burning spirit money, pouring out a little wine. A very solemn Confucian holiday in a country that is officially atheist.

Holiday traffic

Qingming Festival has only been a public holiday on the Mainland since 2008. And while some families do observe the holiday by visiting the gravesides of their elders — news broadcasts warned of the risk of fire from people burning incense and such in rain-deprived areas — a lot of the holiday traffic (and there is a lot of it; when a billion people go on vacation, there’s going to be traffic) is people using the time to travel and sit down to a meal with their living relatives. Actually, no matter what the traditions are, this is what a lot of holidays in China seem to be for: dinner with the fam.

As our families are so far away, there’s not a whole lot of celebrating we can get up to by ourselves. We celebrated Spring Festival this year in a closing restaurant, for goodness’ sake! Occasionally, though, we have friends to include us in their fun. And, for Qingming Festival, in addition to being our tour guide extraordinaire, Sarah was also a gracious and welcoming holiday host.

The business hotel
Business hotels in China are cheap and functional, but lack the charm of youth hostels.

After showing us around her Fushun County hometown, she set us up in a business hotel down the block from where we’d be having dinner that night. Mr. Wang picked us up at 6, and drove us the few hundred feet to Thousand Spices, Hundred Taste, the soon to be site of our hot pot dreams.

The family had a private room in the back of the restaurant, and Sarah’s parents and sister were already there. More of Sarah’s siblings would join us as the night went on, as would relatives of Mr. Wang. They were a close, happy family, Sarah told us. Her parents, who are in their eighties, still cook together and walk together every day. They’re very much in love, she said.

Sarah invited us to dinner with her family
We found the xiang dofu
After more than a year, we found the delicious and cheese-like Sweet Tofu, nestled right in between the imitation crab and pork dumplings.
The spice bar
First timers at the spice bar, we may have gone a little overboard mixing up our dipping sauces, but each of our mixes were fantastic.

Brief introductions made, Sarah sent us out to pick out what dishes we wanted. Usually, the host makes all the decisions, but thinking of our American paletes and half-vegetarianism, she wanted us to make sure to have food we liked. Out in the main dining hall, there was a row of refrigerated cases full of delicacies. On Sarah’s prompting, I grabbed a big tray, which was immediately taken from me by a server who accompanied Peter and I down the row of food. We grabbed so many plates of vegetables and tofu, and a few meaty dumplings for me … and Sarah encouraged us to get even more.

While we waited for the pots to boil, we all sampled some of Sarah’s father’s homemade grape wine. It was really nice, like a sweet liqueur. Mr. Wang brought out a bottle of baijiu, and they got some beers for us. Throughout the meal, there would be much ganbei-ing.

Oh, but before we started eating, we needed to prepare our spice bowls. When you eat hot pot, you get a small bowl of oil, peanuts, scallions, red peppers, etc., in which to dip each piece of food before you eat it. In most places we eat, these are prepared ahead of time, or you mix your own from a small number of ingredients. At Thousand Spices, they had a whole spice bar where you could assemble your bowl. There were peppers, pickled peppers, smashed peppers, sesame seeds, sesame paste, sesame oil, peanuts, garlic, pickled garlic, infused garlic, vinegar … so many choices. Everything looked and smelled so good. And this was just the garnish.

Back in our room, the pots were starting to boil. Each pot had a center bowl with a mushroom and chicken broth set inside an outer ring of red-hot spicy pepper broth. Peter and I alternated between the two, because the red broth burned our faces off but we wanted to eat as much of it as we could.

Our lavish spread

The mood was jovial and festive at the table, and the whole family was so welcoming and attentive to us outsiders who didn’t even speak Chinese. Mr. Wang made sure to toast us if it looked like we were getting too quiet, and Sarah’s mother offered us more and more food, as if we weren’t gorging ourselves already. The evening reminded me of holidays spent with my family and the happy chaos of a full table.

Food-wise, everything was fantastic, but the big star was the sweet tofu. Soft and textured almost like fresh mozzarella cheese, we had had it once before — more than a year ago — and it blew our minds. We hadn’t been able to find it since. Huzzah!

Before returning us to the hotel, Sarah took us to see her Fushun home. Her place is a few floors above where her parents live with her sister. Both apartments were big and open, with four bedrooms each, and spacious, jealousy-inducing kitchens. “Chinese people like to be comfortable,” Sarah told us.

I tried hard not to compliment everything we saw, because we’ve heard that if you admire something in a Chinese home, manners dictate they offer it to you, and it’s impolite to refuse. But I managed to say I liked a piece of art that one of Mr. Wang’s students had made for him, without incident.

We sat for a while and had some flower tea in Sarah’s parents’ apartment. They turned on CCTV News for us, the English-language channel. And then Sarah and Mr. Wang walked us home. It wasn’t my family, but it was nice to spend holiday time with a family nonetheless.

Apr 30, 2013

清明节: Detour — Cultural sights ahead

Watch out for temples

A statue

And so it was, on Wednesday, April 3, we were about to hit the road for our most spontaneous road trip to date. We were looking forward to bumming around in a new city for a couple of days, and, having been underwhelmed by much of the tourist must-dos in China, we were giving ourselves a break on the culture stuff. Basically, the idea was to find a Zigong beer and 火锅 place and relax.

We lucked into a ride when we asked our boss Sarah for help making hotel reservations, because she’s from Zigong, and Qingming is a major holiday and of course she was going home. When we met her at the car on Wednesday afternoon, she had an idea that she was really excited about. On the way to Zigong, she and Mr. Wang — her husband — could show us a couple of sights. And we could stop in her hometown Fushun County for dinner. And … we could stay the night and she’d take us to Zigong the next morning!

And I said, “Why not! Let’s see what will happen.”

What happened was we kind of got stuck in a loop of hospitality and politeness. But we definitely saw things that we wouldn’t have otherwise.

Longchang Ancient Town

Longchang Ancient TownCandy with a hammer

This was our on-the-way stop, a recreated ancient city of Ming- and Qing-style architecture, much like Chengdu’s wide and narrow alleys. At it’s center, however, were 18 original stone gates built in 1696-1887. Each archway commemorated a different thing: A man who lived to be 100 (at a time when the average life span was 40), filial piety, chastity, and so on.

After viewing the gates, Sarah stopped to buy us a snack. The man chiseled off some bits from a big beige pillow covered in sesame seeds and bagged it up for us. We each sampled a small piece — it was sticky and chewy and way better than it looked. “Do you have this in America?” Sarah asked. Peter explained about taffy: that you twist and you pull and pull and twist, demonstrating the action with his hands. Sarah said that was how this was made, with sticky rice. We each took another piece. And another.

Confucius Museum and Buddhist Temple, Fushun County

Outside the Confucius MuseumThe great Kong FuA Buddhist temple in Fushun CountyThe Buddha

Fushun is about a half hour outside Zigong, and “county” in the Chinese sense refers to an area that is smaller than a city, but larger than a village.

In the old part of the county, there is a Confucius museum, that at one time was a real working temple. Faded English placards gave information about the various buildings and halls, some of which were built as early as 1291. It was all very Chinese looking.

The highlight of the museum is the small statue of a naked boy perched atop the Chongsheng Hall. A telescope is set up for viewing, next to a card explaining that the statue was discovered during restoration in 1986, this sort of thing is not traditional and no one really knows why he’s there. Archeological mystery!

Outside the museum, Sarah gave us a quiz: “This building is painted red. Do you know what that means?” We didn’t. “Power,” she said.

We took a taxi over to the Fushun Buddhist temple, which was under construction. We bought tickets and went inside.

This temple evidently receives a lot more love and care. The painting and woodwork are in much better condition than they were at the Confucius museum. The main temple was at the top of the hill — closer to heaven — and housed a Buddha with a thousand arms. There were many monks scuttling around, and there was some significant bell tolling and drumming while we were there. Sarah said that the county’s Buddhists fill the courtyard on holy days.

Zigong Dinosaur Museum

Dinosaur museumThe robot dinos outside the museum

We continued our very thorough tour the next morning. Zigong’s main claim to fame is that it has a ground full of dinosaur fossils. The Zigong Dinosaur Museum is listed in the guidebooks as the thing to do. We had planned on skipping it, but Sarah thought we should go. She and Mr. Wang waited for us outside; they’d seen it many, many times.

The museum is actually a small compound, with a few buildings — one of them itself shaped like a dinosaur — and some outdoor garden spots. One of the latter is filled with large, animatronic dinosaur replicas. They jerk and sway and roar in an endless loop.

All of the most museummy stuff is in one building that also offers dinosaur rides. The coolest thing, however, is the basement replica of an actual fossil excavation.

Sarah was a little surprised that we finished up so quickly — meanwhile, the fact that she and Mr. Wang were sitting outside by the highway never left our minds. “We think it might be for kids,” was Peter’s diplomatic answer when she asked why we were so fast. She smiled and nodded.

Sanghai Salt Well, Zigong

Mining for salt

Zigong’s other big deal is salt. From ancient times, the traders traveled from all over to get some of this valuable mineral. And these days, there are not one but two different institutions wherein one may learn about its production.

Mercifully, we only stopped at the Sanghai Well, which is still in operation. It’s old and it’s deep, and while we were there we watched two sweaty guys shoveling crude salt into boiling tanks and pulling it back out. That has to be the worst job in all museum-dom.

If you like, you can buy some Zigong salt on your way out. We didn’t.

Apr 20, 2013

清明节: Hey, let’s go to Zigong!

A last-minute holiday announcement leads to impromptu travel

Map To Zigong

On April 1, a Monday, our boss Linda gave us the news: We had a school holiday starting Wednesday afternoon and continuing through Saturday! (Sunday, we’d have to teach Friday’s classes to make up some of the time; that’s just how it works sometimes.) This wasn’t a total surprise to us. We knew that the Qingming Festival, or the national tomb sweeping holiday, was April 4, and we were just waiting for word on which days we had off.

So informed, we put in motion our plan to visit Zigong. Zigong is a Luzhou-sized city about an hour and a half from us, and many of our students are from there, as is our boss Sarah. “They have dragons there,” she told us proudly long ago when she was giving us our initial tour of Luzhou. “Not dragons … dinosaurs,” she corrected herself.

Sarah helped us with our hotel reservations on Tuesday — Zigong’s not high on your average international traveler’s China list, and they don’t have an anglophone-staffed youth hostel there — and offered us a ride with her and her husband the following day.

Wednesday morning, you could feel the pre-vacation excitement; our students were practically buzzing. When that last bell rang, kids and teachers flooded out of the school’s doors. We joined the mass exodus, and it was Dinosaur City, here we come!

Feb 21, 2013

Winter break: Eat this nasi kandar

The best meal ever at Line Clear

Hello 8-bit Eating
Choose your meats
Line up hereThe foodLine ClearIt's just deliciousPeter, in his new shirt
Right before dinner, Peter bought this shirt at Sam’s Collection!
Fish headA bubbling pot

Anthony Bourdain told us to go to Penang, and Anthony Bourdain told us to go to Line Clear. And now I’m telling you: Go to Penang, and GO TO LINE CLEAR! It was by far the best meal of our trip, and possibly one of the best meals of our lives. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Line Clear is a Georgetown restaurant that specializes in nasi kandar. Nasi kandar is a famous Malay dish that consists of gravyed stuff over rice. Not too complicated. But, oh, what Line Clear does with that simple formula.

The restaurant is near Soho Free Pub on Jalan Penang. It’s tucked back down a deceptively quiet corridor that opens into a large open space. Metal picnic tables are lined up under a tin roof, and the food is stacked in large steam trays along one wall.

We weren’t really sure how to get the process started, but as we stood and stared hungrily at the piles and piles of food, two servers kindly rushed to our aid. One of the guys scooped a plate of biryani rice for me and pointed out the options: “Chicken, mutton, chicken, fish …” I went for a chicken and another chicken. He delivered two healthy portions, flooded the plate with extra sauce from other trays, and pointed me toward the check-out.

While this was going on, Peter was trying to explain to another server that he just wanted some vegetables and sauce on his rice, leave out the meat. There was a bit of a language barrier, but when Peter dropped the word “vegetarian,” all was understood. Our man whisked Peter over to another station full of vegetables and vegetable-based curry. No need to compromise on chicken stock, they have vegetarianism here!

Both of our meals were absolutely out of this world. My chicken was melt-off-the-bone succulent, and the two curries — one sweet and one spicy — melded together beautifully with the rest of the melanged sauces. Peter’s plate was just as flavorful and hearty, with large helpings of okra, potatoes, cabbage and dark leafies, covered in tomato- and eggplant-based sauces.

Line Clear doesn’t serve beer — it’s a Muslim shop — but we were pretty giddy on food alone. We raved to each other between bites, and wished there was more when we were done. We vowed then and there that this would not be our last trip to Penang. It was that good.

Tony truly steered us right.

Feb 20, 2013

Winter Break: Georgetown bar crawl

Boozin’ along Jalan Penang

Visiting the Argylle
Margarita time
Peter magically doubled our margaritas at D’Joint.
Slippery Senioritas
Slippery Señoritas doesn’t actually have tapas, but they do serve the best mojitos.

Some nights, a refined round of cocktails at the Eastern & Oriental was an end unto itself, but other times it was the prelude to future parties down busy Jalan Penang, a bar-lined thoroughfare just south of the hotel. Whether you’re looking for shots on fire or a cold quiet beer, you can find it there.

The northernmost bit of the street, just a short stumble from the E&O, is a pedestrianized home to a bunch of cheesey tourist bars that WANT YOUR BUSINESS. Touts sit out in front of each bar, throwing enticing deals at anyone who walks by. The competition is fierce. We chose D’Joint, ‘cause they had 2-for-1 cocktails. They were as good as you’d expect 2-for-1 cocktails to be.

Across the street from that passel of pubs is “tapas bar” Slippery Señoritas. To be honest, it looks like the kind of place where people go to party ‘til they puke! There was a sign on the wall reading “Platform dancing: For ladies only,” and the lights and music were both flashy and loud.

But! They make a damn fine mojito; potent and with plenty of mint. Go on the early side, and you’ll have the whole place to yourself.

A ways down Jalan Penang sits the far calmer Soho Free House. They have “more draft beers than any bar in Malaysia.” Four draft beers, to be precise: Guinness, Kilkenny, Strongbow and Heineken.

I quickly got over my initial disappointment that they weren’t the 100-tap craft beer paradise I was unrealistically expecting. Draft Guinness is still delicious, and I was happy to have it. The atmosphere was chill, and the people were friendly. What more are you after?

We went back a few days after our initial visit and met Dan, a local of Chinese descent, who struck up a conversation with us about the beaded bracelet that Peter was wearing. Buddhists wear beads like that, he told us, because “they remind you not to get into mischief.” From there, our discussion meandered from reincarnation to local history to international travel. Typical pint talk, and bar buddies for an afternoon.

Still further south, there’s Cafe Argyll, another simple pub, but with a full menu of Indian food. The cocktails were much better than D’Joint’s, and the curries we sampled were amazing. After having only snacks our first time there, we made time to return for a full dinner later in our stay. Delicious.

Soho Free House
Why would you even want more than four kinds of beer?

Feb 19, 2013

Winter break: Eastern & Oriental Hotel

Cocktail hour(s) at Farquhar’s Bar

Peter, poolside
A martini at the barPeter, on the patio, looking like a boss
“Peter looks like a boss,” Young Jane said admiringly of this photo.

The E&O is touted as a fine example of colonial architecture in Georgetown, and, indeed, it’s a stunning white beauty. It was constructed in the 1880s, though the current incarnation of the business dates from 2001, when the hotel reopened after years of restoration work.

But we didn’t go there looking for history. We were looking for drinks.

Farquhar’s Bar, in the hotel lobby, is a dark wood paneled pub that looked almost too fancy for us the first time we walked in, but martinis must! We sat at the bar and watched the bartender go about his work meticulously. And the drinks he made us were amazing. By far the best martinis we’d have in Penang. Even better, one of the waitresses served us small bowls of cashews and delicious seasoned olives (also the best) while we waited.

Our tab came to about 100 ringgit, or US$30, which was a little pricey but still reasonable. Considering that our dinners were averaging less than 30 ringgit for the two of us, our budget could stand it. So, from that day on, Farquhar’s was our local. It became our regular evening ritual: Drinks on the bar’s poolside patio as we wound down from the day’s excitement. We eavesdropped on the other guests — all urbane sophisticates, many of them in their 70s and 80s — and made our plans for adventures to come. It was heaven

Looking at the blue horizon

Feb 18, 2013

Winter break: Eat this porkwich

Pork burger with cheese at the Desa Permata night market

Our talented food truck chef at work
Eat this pork burger because it is delicious

The street in front of our hostel hosts a street market every weekend, and it’s a bustler. When we went, one of the vendors was a food truck hawking pork burgers and it smelled so good, I just had to get a taste.

The young man operating the grill was a solid hipster type, wearing a knit hat in 80 degree weather and a plaid face mask, presumably for food safety. He could park anywhere in downtown Manhattan (wait, are food trucks still trendy?), charge $12 per, and the cool kids would line up for days.

The ground-pork patty was juicy and seasoned perfectly, with very peppery flavor. The cheese was nothing special, a pre-wrapped slice, but melted over the patty the two formed a happy marriage. Fresh lettuce, tomato and a simple bun completed the package.

It was simple as could be, but just delicious. Western food doesn’t need to be anything fancy, it just needs to be done right. And Pork Burger did it right.

Eaten at: Pork Burger food truck at the night market, Desa Permata.

Feb 17, 2013

Winter break: Let’s go to the mall!

And the boutiques, and the street markets, and the grocery store …

The Rainforest Cafe has great bagels
The Chocolate ShopThe night market

The triforce that creates the perfect Penang vacation, we read in our pre-trip research, is made up of eating, beaching and shopping. Check, check and … meh. Neither Peter nor I are big shoppers, but two out of three would be perfect enough for us. We’d leave the shopping to everyone else.

Or so we thought.

Our first trip to the mall was out of necessity: I needed a new bathing suit. But once that was out of the way … we kept on shopping.

The malls of Penang are big and modern. They’ve got all the familiar chains — The Gap, Crabtree & Evelyn, ESPRIT, Subway, Carrefour (and its not a vacation without a visit to Carrefour’s import section) — and, importantly, air conditioning. They’re also a good place to find massage chairs and junk food; We ended up using them as giant rest stops when Georgetown’s streets got a little too intense.

But these big boxes of international commerce are the least the island has to offer. We basically tripped over shopping experiences everywhere we went. Upscale boutiques to rink-a-dink flea markets. Our spoils from our spree included handmade jewelry, a Daredevil-shaped USB flash drive, T-shirts galore, bagels(!) and cheesy-cute sunglasses. And what fun we had acquiring them!

The coolest — and maybe most stereotypically touristy — transaction was at an Indian clothing store called Sam’s Collection. They offered beautiful men’s and women’s clothing in cotton, linen and silk. The lovely patterned fabrics, some with intricate embroidery, were the height of southeast Asian traveler chic.

Malaysia has a bargaining culture, just like China does, and at Sam’s I decided to try my skills — partially motivated by the fact that I didn’t want to go back to the ATM. Peter had some RMB in his wallet and they liked that, so we ended up making a deal in two currencies. How cool are we! As we paid up, an onlooking clerk threw a “Nice haggle!” our way. I felt pretty boss.

Sam's Collection

Feb 15, 2013

Winter break: What was that about monkey cups?

Carnivorous plants!

Monkey cup gardens
Monkey cupsMonkey cupsMonkey cupsKabir, our guideKabir wanted us to hold this bug

I mentioned in my last post that our excursion to Penang Hill included a search for something called “monkey cup.” As is our wont, we had set off down the path to Monkey Cup Garden without knowing quite what we would find. The exciting story:

There aren’t any monkeys, a returning tourist told us in response to a joke we had made, just carnivorous plants. He tipped us off that the entry fee included a golf cart ride back to the main commercial area, and then went on his way on foot. We continued the final meters to our destination.

In the garden, we were met by our own private tour guide, Kabir. He pointed out the various species of monkey cup — aka pitcher plants, aka nepenthes — and how they worked and where each were from; most are native to southeast Asia, but there were a few from South America. The plants are pretty, but freaky. They attract bugs to a pool of water in their bulbous base where the prey gets knocked out and drowned; the lid comes down and the plant starts eating. Signs everywhere warn guests not to stick their fingers into the pitchers; I think that’s more to protect the plants than the humans, but it’s still creepy to think of the small flower slowly digesting your knocked-out body.

Kabir was very friendly. He told us proudly about his daughter — she does very well in school — and laughed when we said that we don’t have kids — “But you’re so old!” — so that we can come to Malaysia. We also talked a bit of Chinese real estate.

At the end of the tour, he brought us to the interactive space! He fed a bug to a Venus fly trap — it takes 3 days to digest! — and offered to let us hold a millipede or a scorpion. We declined to hold them on the grounds that they were mammoth and frightening. Kabir worked hard to convince us, even wearing the scorpion as a hat, but, just say no to creepy crawlies remains a motto for both of us.

We got out unscathed, and luxuriated in the golf cart ride back to civilization.

This moss eats stuff

Feb 15, 2013

Winter break: Penang Hill

Our local attraction

The view from Penang Hill
Up the funicularOn the HillPeter enjoys the viewEmily enjoys a sandwichInside the Owl MuseumMore views of the city from Penang HillA snack at David Brown'sLet's toast to the city

The one thing tourism-wise our hostel had going for it was that it was super close to Penang Hill. Now, it’s called a hill, but the mini-mountain’s peak is more than 800 meters above sea level. It may not be Everest, but it’s not an insignificant height. At that elevation, the air is even a little cooler than it is on the ground.

On a sunny afternoon, we cabbed over to the base (just five minutes, take that Georgetown!) and ascended via funicular.

Just off the upper station, there’s an asphalt pathway that leads towards the small commercial area on the hill, as well as some dirt pathways that take you off into the greenery. We hiked our picnic lunch — cheese sandwiches with hot English mustard on German sourdough with mini gherkins, how international! — a short ways down the dirt and found a perfect little gazebo. The terrible pop cover tunes wafted down from the pub above, but the view and the relative privacy made for a nice atmosphere. There were signs warning not to feed the monkeys, but none approached, so confrontation was duly avoided.

After lunch, we returned to the pavement to see what was to see. There was stuff like: Get your picture taken with a snake; or Eat more at the small hawker center. We chose: See some owly stuff at the Owl Museum. Why not?

The man at the entry only addressed Peter throughout the whole transaction, which was especially irritating given that I was the one handling the money. That happens to us all the time — people assuming Peter’s the boss because he’s the man — but it was way more noticeable in Penang because it was happening in English. (Though, it’s even more absurd in China, because out of the two of us, I have way more Chinese.) My strategy in the face of this is to quietly but firmly continue to assert my presence. It may or may not blow any minds, but it does keep me from feeling completely erased.

Anyway, inside the Owl Museum was delightfully weird. It was basically was two large rooms displaying a collection of internationally made arts and crafts that all depicted owls in some way. Paintings and illustrations of owls, ceramic owl statues, owls carved out of wood. The gift shop featured even more owls, if you wanted to take some owlness home. And we did.

After the owls, we set to wandering down a path that promised monkey cups at the end. Golf carts ferried lazier guests this way and that, but we were having a nice time walking. As we got further away from the commercial area, we started to see some very nice bungalows and houses. Tucked into the hillside, surrounded by trees with a gorgeous view of the island below, they were too perfectly peaceful. Though in the end, we decided that it would be impractical to live there — where would you buy groceries? — so we made no offers.

Before our descent, we stopped at David Brown’s, the aforementioned music-playing pub. It was a small open-air terrace, that was positioned to look right out over the north shore of Penang. The drinks were pretty watery, but with a view like that, who cares? We watched the tourists wander by as we talked and solved all the world’s problems (from the music industry to sexism) over bloody Marys and margaritas. It was a perfect tropical afternoon.