Dali

Nov 10, 2013

Exit interview: Suzanne and Jim (aka, Mom and Dad)

Seeing China through fresh eyes

Our flight's on the runway.
Heeere's mom

“The experience was so foreign, I don’t know if it was anything we could have prepared for,” said my dad, Jim.

In August, my parents made the epic voyage across the Pacific Ocean to the Asian continent, placing themselves in my care as their guide for a three week tour through China. After a restful stop in Malaysia, we worked our way from from Kunming — in the far western province of Yunnan — to the east coast megacity of Shanghai.

I hadn’t seen my parents in almost two years at that point — in fact, I hadn’t seen anyone from my old life in almost two years — so I was very excited that they were coming to see us. What’s more, Peter and I were also excited to be able to show off our adopted home country to our first visitors. It’s a different life we lead, and we were eager share the first-hand experience of it with people that we love.

Late last month, I asked Suzanne (mom) and Jim to reflect on their trip. Over the course of our discussion, they spoke fondly and warmly of the people that they met along their way. There were the college students who accompanied them on their Dali bike ride (with whom they still correspond) to the guards at the Jiading museums who proudly pointed out notable parts of different exhibits — “They were so much more smiley than the guards at the Met,” said Suzanne. They made friends with local shopkeepers and exchanged hellos with apartment complex guards all over the country. Little old shop ladies refused their money and hotel clerks brought extra fruit by their room. “People clearly cared about us,” said Suzanne.

Heeere's dad

It made the language barrier a very non-problem, they both said. They knew they could get help if they needed it (and, actually, many young people in the bigger cities can speak at least a little English) and surrendering themselves to the kindness of strangers became “part of the adventure,” said Jim.

An adventure fueled by some amazing food, I must say. Each region of China is fiercely proud of its local cuisine, and from Yunnan to Shanghai we got a great sampling of the China’s great diversity. “[As you travel] the spices affected different parts of the mouth in different areas of the country,” Jim said he likes to tell people at home.

There was a clear winner, however, in our culinary wanderings: “Soup dumplings [a Shanghainese specialty] are the best thing in the world,” said Jim. Soup dumplings are steamed and filled with minced meat or seafood, and … soup! Bite the doughy skin, slurp up the soup and then pop the rest in your mouth. Garnish with ginger sauce for an extra kick. They’re a fantastically savory, salty treat that you’ll gobble right up as soon as they’re cool enough to not burn your lips off. Go find some now.

Dancing in KunmingTo the templeBreakfast at JiuchengBike riding outside DaliHere's a fancy stoneMom and Dad take a rest in Jiading

Over the course of our travels, Jim declared several different meals “the high point of the trip.” Beef hot pot, chuan chuan — Jim is now a member of the sticks club! —, Malaysian banana leaf … He even gamely went in for the frogs legs.

“The food wasn’t like the same country of food as American Chinese food,” said Suzanne. For her, the best meal was the Bai cuisine at Duan’s Kitchen in Dali. It helped that it was her birthday and the owner’s sister crafted a personalized menu just for us. Suzanne’s low light may have been the whole chicken head in her soup at lunch with the teachers in Luzhou. “Food in the parts of China, and Malaysia, we visited … are much less processed than at home,” Jim noted in his travel journal. (For the record, physics teacher Mr. Chen happily plucked the head from Suzanne’s bowl.)

China is all around a land of striking contrasts, where the very traditional exists right along side the ultra-modern. Suzanne saw it in Luzhou, where “just outside [the modern western-style stores] there were people with crates selling rabbits and chickens and ducks. People walked in from the village with yolks over their shoulders, and started selling things on the sidewalk.”

In Dali, on their bike ride, Jim and Suzanne went from the bustling center of an international tourist town to the middle of farm country where farmers worked their fields wearing straw hats and no shoes. And in Jiading, we all watched as a crew of retirement-age workers built a brick plaza by hand just outside the local entrance to the Shanghai metro. “This is a country that is on the move,” said Suzanne.

“When we were first planning the trip, it was just to see you and Peter,” said Jim. “But I had such a blast I would return even if you weren’t here.” I’m taking that as a testament to my travel planning skills (and I am available to lead future excursions — consider this your invitation). But it’s China that’s so impressive. And I am proud that I had the opportunity to share that with my mom and my dad.

Out in the countryside near Dali

Sep 28, 2013

Dali: Chilling in the old town

A backpacker’s paradise

Mom and dad found some friends and a sunflower field
In airport, on the way to DaliOur hostel, the Jade RooThe city walls of Dali old townIn the middle of the old townFresh vegetables outside of every restaurantA basic meal in the old townIt's not China without trafficSome buskersOn a bike ride outside the city

If you’re in Kunming, as everyone will tell you, you have to visit the nearby cities of Dali or Lijiang. Preferably both, but we didn’t have enough time; we only made it to Dali.

The city has a history as a backpacker’s haven from way back, for western and Chinese travellers alike, and its location in the mountains makes it an ideal starting point for hikers and campers. The Old Town — where we set up shop — is an ancient, walled-off collection of shops, restaurants, vendors and tourists a few blocks wide. (You can walk from end to end in about half an hour.)

You never forget that your in a touristy area, but the atmosphere is laid back and fun and international. Chinese kids busk along the streets, playing traditional tunes and western rock. Vendors sell stunning batiks and other handicrafts. Local ethnic restaurants are scattered throughout the area, as are coffee bars. There are also a few killer bakeries just along Renmin Lu. (Aside: Renmin Lu just means “The People’s Road.” There’s one in just about every Chinese city. In old Dali, Renmin Lu is where all the western restaurants and bars have set up shop these days. Don’t be fooled by “Foreigner’s Street,” which is one block over; if you’re looking for western, what you’re looking for is probably on Renmin Lu.)

Despite hosting so many temporary guests, the city is still friendly and welcoming. It’s also quite small. Picking up sandwiches one afternoon at Bakery 88, I met German owner Karine Kaffrell. We chatted a bit about living in China, and I had mentioned that I was here with my parents. “Oh yeah. I saw them!” she said, knowing, I don’t doubt, exactly who they were.

At Duan’s Kitchen, a chic Bai-style eatery that would have gotten a Times write up already if it was in Manhattan, the owner’s sister — English name Leah (“Like from ‘Star Wars’,” she told us) — went out of her way to give us a fantastic dinner. We didn’t have reservations and the restaurant was packed, so she kept the place open late, just to seat us, and planned us an off-menu meal that was beyond delicious. Tender plum beef, rich eggplant, asparagus and peach slices, a tofu and pork soup, and this superlative salad made with noodles of cheese. (Yup, you read that last bit right, cheese noodles.)

The Old Town has four city gates, one for each cardinal direction, and you can climb the city wall in some places to get an excellent view of the surrounding countryside. If you’re feeling the need to break out into that greenery — as my parents were — there are plenty of places to rent bikes and no shortage of people who will help you get where you want to go. On the road, my mom and dad teamed up with a few photography students from Chengdu who guided them around the sunflower fields and country roads. If you’re bike-averse, Peter and I can attest that there is some great scenery to be soaked while quaffing homebrewed beer at the Bad Monkey Bar. (You’ll want the outdoor seats, however, for maximum people-watching pleasure.)

We only had a few days, so we didn’t have time to check out new Dali city — a regular old modern metropolis, we hear, with some interesting sights. But Peter and I are already excited to go back.

Nothing but flowers

Sep 1, 2013

All across Asia: 26 days on the road

Chengdu • Penang • Kunming • Dali • Luzhou • Jiading • Shanghai

The breakneck itinerary

This August, my parents came to visit! They were our first visitors in two years, so we planned an epic trip across China (with a little Malaysia thrown in for comfort).

Peter and I started out in Chengdu, because that’s where the international airport is, and then we flew to meet my mom and dad in Penang, Malaysia. We figured a week on the beach in an English-speaking country would be a good introduction to a new continent for the folks.

From there, we eased into China in “the City of Eternal Spring,” Kunming, and backpacker haven Dali, both in China’s southwestern Yunnan Province. We amped up the foreign in our hometown of Luzhou, and then continued further east to the municipality of Shanghai.

Jiading is a small city outside Shanghai proper, and we spent a few days bumming around the suburbs before ending our journey in what’s known as both the New York and Paris of China, Shanghai. It was a whirlwind trip, with a full spectrum of experience – balmy to sizzling, countryside to urban, pizza to dumplings, and past to future.