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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

Jul 3, 2013

In search of good beer in China

Oh, how hard life is!

Year of the Snake beer

We love beer. China does not. At least, there is no real mainstream beer culture to speak of. And we’ve accepted that, as part of living here, for the most part the drinking is going to be water-light Bud imitations. It goes well with spicy food, anyway.

Which is not to say we don’t find our nice surprises from time to time. Qingdao, with it’s German-founded brewery, had its special local dark brew. Locally, we’ll always have Golden Hans. And, most of the grocery stores stock at least a German brand hefeweizen and stout in their import sections. Sometimes you can even find a pilsner or a dunkel. Last summer, there was even a canned shandy that hit the shelves for a minute. This winter, Kaiserdom put out a special Snake Year dark lager. You’ve just got to keep your eyes open.

This is the most expensive PBR we've ever seen!

Our most recent find was a bottled PBR, at 10 times the price of the good old canned PBR (that gleaming blue ribbon is widely available here, and costs about US$1) it was beautifully intriguing. Popping it open, we found a dark, viscous liquid, reminiscent of that Sam Adams that costs a billion dollars. The Navigator, as it’s called, was more like a complex liqueur than the expected yellow swill. A delicious quaff, although too expensive to be part of the regular rotation. But we’re keeping an eye on the shelf for when it goes on sale. (I’m pretty sure no one else is buying it.)

Import beer from the grocery store, however, doesn’t come with bar buddies, and that’s something we still really miss. But we’re slowly expanding our social circle — we’ve gone from zero friends to some friends! — and recently our friend Maybell’s Boyfriend invited us to come out with them to a place that had “beer even better than Golden Hans!”

Real beer from a real keg

We met Maybell and BF (ugh, I’m sorry; he doesn’t have an English name, and Chinese characters are still sliding from my brain mere seconds after I hear them) at a restaurant that served fresh kegs from the Moutai brewing company. Moutai is a nationally famous brand of baijiu produced in Southwest China, but their beer production, according to BF is not widely known outside of our area. The joint was hopping, and large tapped carafes of lights and darks were continually being delivered to tables full of revelers. They had two fruit beers, too, but only girls drink those, so I was dissuaded from ordering a carafe for the table. Though I did get my own pint; it tasted like a melted blueberry popsicle.

The food was fantastic. (I feel like I’m always saying that, but it’s so often the case.) Spicy cucumbers, green beans, delicious pork bits on a bed of hot peppers, edamame …

And, it turned out, we were celebrating. Maybell had just attended her official college graduation ceremony the day before. And, they excitedly told us, the were going to get married this year. Just an official ceremony; they’re going to have a big reception with friends two years from now. But, still, what fun news!

We talked about the job market — both Maybell and her boyfriend are lucky to have good jobs they like, but their classmates are having a tough time of it. Kids signed on for conditional contracts are being laid off after their first year is up, and others can’t find jobs at all. Maybell said she doesn’t like talking about her ample teacher’s vacation time with them, because she feels like she’s rubbing it in her unemployed friends’ faces.

We toasted each other, shared travel ideas — Maybell gave us some great advice on an ancient town located just an hour outside of Luzhou — and made future plans. BF is really interested in cocktails, so we’re hoping to have a bartending night sometime soon. And we want to host them to a real American BBQ one of these days. We shared jokes, cultural tidbits, the meaning of life — all that kind of fun philosophizing that beer was meant to accompany.

At the end of the night, Maybell got a server to write down the address and phone number for us, so that we can return one day. And we will, because BF was right, the beer is even better than Golden Hans!

Delicious dinner with good friends

Dec 6, 2012

Chongqing: Cici Park

Seriously, go for the warmed plum wine

The cool crowd hangs at Cici Park
Plum wineCici Park

Cici Park came highly recommended in every piece of travel writing we read about the bar. And, in fact, we liked it so much that we went there both nights of our Chongqing stay.

Tucked away amongst closed-for-the-night shops on the second-floor rooftop of a large, old-looking building, we might have missed the bar were it not for the precise instructions that we got from the hostel staff. Cici Park is quiet, understated and chill as hell.

The weather was mild enough that there was competition for the outdoor tables and benches, but the inside was lovely as well. The walls were decked out with neon, Spirograph art pieces, and smooth, loungey jazz played softly over the PA.

This was yet another no-vomit-on-the-floor crowd (who would think that would be so special?), and we noticed that many merrymakers were drinking tea and soda in lieu of something alcoholic. Not us, though.

There was a small, handwritten sign advertising “The Naoke: Draft beer by handmade.” it came in two flavors — light and dark — there was just enough crisp in the air to make dark the right choice. And it was lovely: rich with a hint of coffee. Another highlight was the plum wine — nice flavor without being too sweet. After a consultation with the bartender, I chose to go for the warm over the cold, again, with reference to the crisp in the air.

We had to try the martini as well, which was OK. Served with ice in the glass, but you take what you can get.

Nov 22, 2012

Manchester United

The best bar in Luzhou

The barPeter with a Luzhou martini

How often have I whined about the dearth of decent cocktails here? Very often.

But I never gave up hope. And during our National Day explorations, we found Manchester United. The bar is in the square around the White Tower — an area with a ton of bars that serve lukewarm, expensive Budweiser. But ManU had a cocktail list in English and an Anglophone bartender.

Service is kind of slow — despite the fact that the bar has this menu, I think those drinks are rarely ordered and the bartender has to look up what’s involved. But they make a decent Black Russian. An even higher recommendation is that the crowd seems much older and relaxed than in other places we’ve tried, and there’s 100% less vomit on the floor of the bathroom there.

We can and do make better and cheaper drinks at home, but it’s nice to finally have an option for an occasional fun night out. Before returning home in time for 10pm curfew, that is.

Oct 18, 2012

Summer vacation: Where are we?

A simple martini in an unlikely location

At the Russian Bar

I’ll be honest, that evening our pre-dinner libations had been many and strong, and we were having a little trouble finding the restaurant where we wanted to eat. But we did find this Russian bar with internet access.

We ordered drinks and I looked up our destination (which would turn out to be about 50 feet further along). I got an adequate bloody Mary, but Peter’s vodka martini was quite good. The bartender took his time making it, and he looked very proud when Peter told him that it was as good as any vodka martini he had had in New York.

Oct 11, 2012

Summer vacation: Old Jack’s Bar

Our after-dinner drinks go up in smoke

Old Jack's Bar
Old Jack's Bar

We had espied this bar from a bus earlier in the week, and it looked like something we’d be into. Located on a relatively quiet street, Jack’s has a nice outdoor space, and the inside has a simple, cozy pub feel. And they had (non-Tsingdao) beer on tap, which is something that we almost never see.

After our Italian feast, we were hoping to sit back and settle in for the night. The vibe was relaxed and calm, and the drinks were nice and tasty. (Martini status: Good, dirty and strong!)

But, indoor smoking! I keep forgetting that, in most places here, no one has Bloombergered those butts outside. After one round, these non- and recovering smokers needed some air. The patio was full-up, so we sadly said good-bye to Old Jack.

Next up: Wedding-photo crashing …