Hello Uncle Foreigner

travel

Sep 8, 2013

Penang: Relaxing by the beach

A return to Malaysia, Truly Asia

Our apartment in Batu Ferringhi overlooked the beach
Art in GeorgetownOn Penang HillThere were some wicked rain stormsEating at Gurney PlazaMore public art in GeorgetownDad at Penang Hill

This time around, we stayed in a rental apartment — with pool! — across the street from the beach in Batu Ferringhi, the northern cost of Penang island. The area was packed with tourists, and it was a completely different experience than our last trip — where we were nestled into a local residential community — but we had a good time nonetheless: swimming with families from all over the world, drinking with the foreign retirees at the dive bar near our apartment, enjoying beach-side dinners with the other tourists.

The weather, surprisingly, was cooler than when Peter and I had visited in January, so we got to do a lot more walking around. Touring Georgetown one afternoon, we got to stumble upon the city’s public art projects that we had missed this winter while we were whizzing around in air conditioned cabs. It was pretty cool.

Of course, there was the eating. In Penang we set the food-ordering precedent for the trip: too much is just enough. The most egregious incidence of this being at Sri Ananda Bahwan, an Indian joint recommended by Liza, the woman who owned our apartment. But between the deep-fried cauliflower, the billion kinds of naan, the lovely and smokey tandoori chicken, the smooth saag paneer, and the banana leaf sets, I regret none of it.

Penang was my parents’ first stop in Asia and over our week, among us all, we compared it to: Florida, San Francisco, an Indiana Jones movie, and the Dominican Republic. Aside from some of the food, however, it was nothing like China.

Drinks on the beachBig Bamboo

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.

Jul 27, 2013

A taste of the international

Willkommen! Bienvenue! 欢迎!

Green Lake, in the center of its park
Other foreigners in Green Lake ParkBoat rides in Green Lake ParkMore Green Lake ParkMore foreigners in Green Lake ParkGreen Lake Park
Green Lake Park is a lovely hangout spot in the center of Kunming.
Dianchi LakeA park near Dianchi Lake聂耳 at his museumThe cable car up the West HillsDianchi Lake from the West Hills
The West Hills and Dianchi Lake are just a short cab ride outside the city. Don’t skip the 聂耳 museum tucked away behind the cluster of tourist eateries; it’s really cool!
Salvador's on Wenlin JieHeavenly Manna on Wenlin JieWenlin JieNighttime on Wenlin Jie
The cool kids hang out on Wenlin Jie.
Jinbi Square
Shopping in Jinbi Square; there’s a Carrefour around here somewhere.
The Hump RestaurantGoat cheese Burmese curry at the Hump
Get the goat cheese Burmese curry at The Hump.
Central KunmingCentral KunmingA sandwich in central Kunming
Street scenes around central Kunming
The mall where we found the Indian restaurantOur Indian meal
The Indian restaurant we went to was in a gigantic mall just outside the Second Ring Road.
The little alleyway where you can find the Lost Garden GuesthouseThe little alleyway where you can find the Lost Garden GuesthouseLost Garden's rooftop restaurantSnacks on the rooftop loungeLost Garden has pizzaThe real fire oven at Lost Garden
Lost Garden Guesthouse and environs were peaceful and beautiful. And their pizza was excellent.
Sunnyside massage centerBeauty spots in Kunming
There’s something fun tucked around every corner!
Fishing at Dianchi LakePineapple and cucumber -- yes, please
Left: A party of fishermen and -women at Dianchi Lake. Right: Yunnan food knows how to use its pineapple effectively.
A perfect bloody MaryA view from the rooftop at Lost Garden
A good drink in a relaxing hideaway: Bloody Marys on the terrace of our hostel were just too wonderful.

When we arrived in Kunming, it was almost like reverse culture shock.

I mean, we were still clearly in China. But it was a much different China than the one we’d been living in.

For one thing, Kunming is actually beautiful. There are green spaces, walkable neighborhoods, trees everywhere, architecture in a style other than “Communist Poured Concrete” … It’s the first city we’ve been to that visually dazzled.

It helped that we stayed right around the corner from Green Lake Park, an impeccably landscaped green space surrounding the titular body of water. We passed through there daily, and, it appeared, so did everyone else: tourists and locals, foreigners and nationals. Available activities: Snacks, street musicians, small pedal boats, people watching.

Further afield, we explored the beautiful West Hills overlooking Dianchi Lake, about a half-hour’s drive from the city center. As you ascend, there are temples and traditional structures interwoven into the nature, as well as an interesting museum about 聂耳, a young musician from Yunnan who rose impressively quickly through the ranks of the Communist party before dying at age 23. You can hike the mountains, though we took a bus and then a cable car across the lake. Fun, natural fun!

Between those two extremes was a city still ringed by the ginormous highways that define all Chinese cities, but tucked in between those were funky-cute nabes, with space for urban rambling, and trees and shops and people and traffic. We loved it.

Keep in mind, we are city people, however.

Peter from America: Do you like Kunming?

Peter from Malaysia: No. The oxygen is so bad.

— Malaysian Peter, a two-year Kunming veteran, introduced himself to us when we stopped at a street side stall to buy an icey coffee drink. We traded travel stories (“You’re from Malaysia?! We’ve been to Malaysia!”) while our drink was being made.

The other big loop thrower was how international our experience was. By which I don’t just mean the fact that there were other westerners, but that all cultures — Western, Chinese, local ethnic minorities, other Asians — mingled together in a hip, cosmopolitan way.

Particularly the neighborhood around Wenlin Jie — which felt like a transplanted Lower East Side with Chinese Characteristics — was lousy with foreigners, but exuded an “All are welcome” vibe. The bars, and there were many bars, served up western-style cocktails alongside Chinese nibbles (beware the mustard potatoes; they’re like boiled fries drenched in wasabi!). The crowds were always international and mixed. We did, however, run into three separate expat meet-up groups in that area over the course of our time there.

Outside of that area, it was less common to glimpse obvious foreigners, but we could tell that we were turning many fewer heads. Which was a nice thing. It’s fun being a superstar, but it’s also a constant reminder that we’re in but not of the place we’re calling home. We want a pot in which to melt, please.

Drunk Beijinger: Where are you from?

Emily and Peter: We’re American.

DB: [accusing, but friendly] I thought you were Italian!

Emily: Well, we’re not!

French friend of DB: I’m French. We can’t all be perfect. [leads drunk friend away]

— A nighttime encounter at a bar on Wenlin Jie. Later, when we went over to say goodbye, the pair said that they could tell we were English teachers because we spoke so slowly and carefully.

Actually, the extreme (to us) cosmopolitanality of Kunming was disorienting at times. It may have looked and sounded like we were just around the corner from somewhere familiar, but that really wasn’t the case. It led to confusing situations like when I asked the (Chinese) server at French Cafe if we could “sit outside.” He looked at me in panic and turned to get an English speaker. I realized my mistake, repeated my question in Chinese, and wondered what made me do that.

Emily: [reading a poster at a small Burmese cafe] Oh! They have a farmers market here on Sundays. That’s so great. We’ll have to come here … What am I saying?! We live in the middle of a farm.

— It only took a few days to forget my current countryside life. My only excuse is that I’m an urban girl. The Burmese curry, it must be mentioned, was fabulous.

But it was a relief to be reminded that we are still in China after all. We like living China! We like learning the Chinese language! And we love eating the Chinese food!

We didn’t get to eat as much Yunnan food as we wanted (we didn’t get to eat as much food as we wanted, full stop), but the one meal we had, at Heavenly Manna, was terrific. We, of course, ordered the fried goat cheese, which was light, gentle and delicious. We possibly “did it wrong” by dipping our triangles of cheese in the tangy sauce that came with the cucumbers and pineapple dish, but whatevs. I also got a fantastic pork and coriander plate, and we completed the meal with curried mashed potatoes, which should be eaten every day, all day.

And we wanted to. But we were too dazzled by all the options available to us. In one week, we did pizza, Mexican, Indian, felafel, Carrefour picnic, sandwiches, dumplings, french fries. Some of it was junk and some of it was the best, but all of it was different. All we knew was that there just weren’t enough meals in the day.

There is a fear
That it’s a misplaced bit of meat
Or an undercooked morsel.
But maybe you just ate too much.

— A late-night Emily original

On the first night (over wood-fired pizza at our hostel), we both decided that Kunming was the place for us. And then, we reminded each other to stay real. The second day (after hour-long massages and cupping treatments), we decided again that Kunming is the place for us. And then, again, we tried to keep our heads level. It became a joke for one of the other of us to declare, “I know it’s not cool for me to decide unilaterally, but we’re moving here.” But by the end of the trip, it wasn’t a joke, we know that Kunming is the place for us.

We love that you can get western food, obviously. But more than that, we’re really excited to see that fusion that occurs in an international city, where everyone has different ideas and wants to share them. It’s a city where language exchange programs are hosted in every other cafe; where the guy at the next table is more likely to ask to take that extra chair than to take your picture (that was embarrassing!); where there’s room for a couple of westerners to not only exist alongside and separate from the local goings on, but to integrate, interact and participate. We may not always understand each other (sometimes literally), but there’s a willingness and desire to have fun trying.

Chinese server: [handing over two wonderfully spiced bloody Marys] Can I ask you something? How do you like this kind of cocktail?

Peter and Emily: We love it!

Server: Really? I think it’s too crazy!

Peter: Well, it’s the best of this kind of drink that we’ve had in China!

Server: [big smile] Thank you!

— We spent a lot of time on the rooftop terrace at our hostel, because it was beautiful, the staff was super friendly, and they had great drinks.

Peter at Dianchi LakeEmily on the roof at Lost Garden

Jul 26, 2013

Fast facts: Kunming

A dream vacation in the spring city

Where is Kunming?

Kunming is the capital of Yunnan province, in the way southwest of China, nestled up next to Laos, Vietnam and Burma (Myanmar? If Hillary Clinton doesn’t know, than neither do I). The province also borders Tibet and is home to many of China’s ethnic minorities.

The city attracts tourists from all over the world — especially the SE Asian peninsula — as well as domestic travelers. With its reputation for laid-back fun and gorgeous weather, Kunming is a hit with everyone.

It’s about an hour from Luzhou by plane (direct flight!), and we carved out a week to spend there in early July. Weather: low 80s with short summer showers most days. Vibe: Chill and international. Return trip: already planned for August.

Jun 1, 2013

Chongqing Punk Fest: Going to the show

RAAAAAAAAAAWR!

Punk Rock at Nuts Club

A punk rock show was enticing enough, but when we found out that the Chongqing Punk Festival was to be headlined by SUBS, we were totally committed. The Beijing-based garage punkers come up in any discussion of yaogun as one of China’s foremost practitioners, and we leaped at the opportunity to see them live.

Stickers in the bathroomBlood on the bass

The Nuts Club, the evening’s host, is a small rock club near the campus of Sichuan University. Much like (New) Little Bar in Chengdu, the ground floor space is intimate and modern with a well-stocked bar. The walls are covered in arty posters, and the walls of the bathroom are stickered with various band names. Think CBGBs but much, much cleaner.

We skipped the early afternoon skateboarding portion of the festival, and arrived in time to catch Hell City. The band was fronted by a tall, mohawked man wearing a dress military jacket — totally punk rock. Their sound had a delightfully aggressive metal edge to it. “I would fight anyone for these guys,” I wrote in my notes. They ended their set with a rollicking cover of “Death or Glory.”

The Wheels took the stage shortly after Hell City left it, and they were a fun bunch of guys. Kind of Green Day-ish with a machine gun for a drummer. The bassist literally bled for us, and the crowd enthusiastically moshed for the first 10 seconds of each song.

As much buzz was in the room from the start, there was a noticeable uptick in energy as SUBS took the stage. Fronted by Kang Mao, a wild-child punk siren, SUBS captured the crowd and whipped us into a frenzy. Kang was all over the stage, screaming her guts out into the mic, and pounding on the keyboard. At one point she dove into the crowd, and she grabbed my hand! It was intensely Yeah Yeah Yeahs meets Battles meets Birthday Party, but a thing that was all its own. Both Peter and I agree, this ranks up there with some of the best live shows we’d ever seen.

After the show, we searched in vain for merch. I even asked Kang, who was exiting through the front room, if they 有 CDs. She told me to look online. As the club emptied out, we followed the exodus to the parking lot next door, where an enterprising crew had set up a BBQ situation. We midnight snacked on broccoli and lotus root (this is why we’re thinner in China), and yelled to each other about how awesome the show was.

We found delicious BBQ outside after the show

May 24, 2013

Chongqing Punk Fest: Back to Ciqikou

The rat-free Perfect Time is the perfect place

We found a great hot pot place by Ciqikou

We probably never would have gone back to Ciqikou were it not for punk rock. The Chongqing version of the ubiquitous replica “ancient” town doesn’t really invite repeat viewing, and the hostel there is too far from the city’s central peninsula to be convenient. But, it’s not far from Chongqing’s Shapingba district, home of the Nuts Club, host of this April’s Chongqing Punk Festival. When we heard about the concert, we had a reason to return. And this time around, we were quite charmed by the neighborhood.

It started when staying in such a touristy area meant that I could actually tell cab drivers where to go, instead of thrusting a page of scrawled out characters in their faces, which is my usual move. I feel so cool when I can talk to people!

After we settled in at the hostel, we ventured back out into Ciqikou for some Chongqing hot pot. There’s something of a rivalry between Sichuan and Chongqing (which used to be part of Sichuan but is now its own municipality) as to whose hot pot is the hottest, and there’s a hot pot restaurant pretty much every few feet in Ciqikou. We chose one that was just outside the neighborhood’s entrance gate, because it was the most crowded with people looking like they were having the most fun.

Look at this spice
This here, that’s only Meiguo spicy.

So, I’ll put it up front, Chongqing hot pot is SPICY! Spicier than we’ve had in Sichuan Province. They really aren’t messing around. They even held back on us, I think, seeing our non-Chinese faces. (Which, honestly, was a good call on their part.) We saw other tables’ pots packed with chili peppers — also a healthy scoop of lard, which initially surprised me, but accounts for the richness of the broth.

We got our usual array of vegetables, plus a few wild cards: rolled-up tofu skins — which weren’t a hit — and something that turned out to be the Mexican fruit! When that was delivered to our table, I pulled out my translation sheet and copied down the relevant menu item. Our waitress watched over my shoulder, cheering me on. Generally, I get a lot of smiles when I pull out this sheet — mostly copied from the menu at Tofu Hot Pot.

On our way home, walking through the closed down and mostly empty Ciqikou streets, we heard the sounds of Radiohead wafting on the breeze. This was a surprise, because most of the music we hear while out and about in China is of the terrible pop variety. It was even more surprising when we realized that it was live.

Without really even discussing it, Peter and I both turned down the small alley from where the music was coming. The alley ended in a series of stairs leading to a giant temple, but just before the temple entrance was a small bar. Led inside by our ears, we found a Chinese band playing American rock hits. It was magical.

Unfortunately, it was also quite short. We arrived almost at the end of their set. “I’m sorry, it’s over,” they said to us in English after they finished their last song. We were the only people besides the employees in the bar, so I’m not sure who was more disappointed in our timing. But we had a drink and a good time anyway.

Hey, there's a wedding
Hey! There’s a wedding outside our window!

Saturday we took it easy, resting up for the night’s concert. We breakfasted on roti pancakes, and coffee from a cute little coffee shop near the front gate of Ciqikou. After a quick Carrefour run to replenish our stocks of foreign herbs, spices, and olives, we mostly lazed about in the hostel, enjoying both the English-language channel on the TV, and the view of the river from our window. There was a giant inflatable slide set up outside, and we watched babies and their mother teeter up to the terrifying top and then make their dizzying descent. It was more exciting that it had any right to be. We also watched a wedding take place on the top floor of one of the floating seafood restaurants in the river. It was a big day for someone!

And then, before we knew it, it was time to rock.

May 12, 2013

清明节: At long last, Zigong

Our arrival in the big city is heralded by bugs and rain

Outside our hotel window
The bed in the room
Our hotel room wasn’t much larger than the bed, but it was a place to stay out of the rain.

Sarah was baffled that we were going to stay on in Zigong for not one but two more nights — “I’ve already shown you everything!” — but she helped us check into the Rongguang Business Hotel anyway. Our accommodations were basic and small, but cheap and clean. And the TV had CCTV-News. Luxury!

Nestled in the elbow of the Fuxi River, we were ideally situated for tourism Emily and Peter-style, which involves wandering around until we get lost and/or find something interesting, and then seeing what we could find to drink. Our plans were thwarted, however, by the unrelenting swarms of bugs that were everywhere. Seriously, Peter was wearing a bright yellow T-shirt, and every couple of seconds it was completely covered in black. It was almost Biblical.

Out in the marketZigong sceneryPeter found a Spider-Man toy at the bookstore
We found many treasures at the bookstore, including this Spider-Man puzzle!

The problem was, the aforementioned river was running quite low, and the marshy exposed banks were a fertile breeding ground for these icky little guys. The whole region, including Luzhou, had had quite a dry spell, and for weeks the cities had been trying to seed the clouds for rain, our boss Linda had told us.

We took cover from the bugs in a western restaurant, and while we were testing the bartender’s ability to make every cocktail pictured in the menu, the rain finally came. And did not stop until we caught a cab for the bus station out of town two days later.

But, damn the rain! We came here to see Zigong. We grabbed umbrellas and got walking.

The small hill in front of our hotel led up into a pedestrian path lined by small shops. This eventually tapered off into a small market street. Taking a zag up to the main road, we walked by the bigger chain stores that you see pretty much everywhere: Spider King (shoes), Aiyaya (make-up), Septwolves (men’s clothes), KFC (chicken) … All in all, slightly different scenery but pretty similar to Luzhou.

On the way back to the hotel our first evening, a young man greeted us in English. It turned out that this young Zigonger attended the Luzhou Teachers College, where I taught a course this summer. (He wasn’t my student.) We asked him what he thought of Luzhou. “The buses are very crowded,” he said.

Just after we exchanged numbers with our representative of This Small World, we got a flurry of text messages and calls from different Chinese friends. Melody sent a text asking about dinner plans. Young Jane called demanding to know where we were. (For the life of me, I could not get her to understand the word “Zigong.” When I saw her later that week, she told me that she thought I was saying the Chinese for “fish pond.” Also back in Luzhou, Tina told us that one of her classmates had seen us cavorting around the city.) It was a fun moment, to be on the road and realize that we’ve actually made a home in China. And that it missed us.

Apr 30, 2013

清明节: Fushun County breakfast

Wake up with bean curd and rice

Spicy tofu for breakfast

Every place in China seems to have a claim on something they do best. (Maybe this is true of every place in the world.) Usually it’s food related. And in Fushun County, according to Sarah, it’s the bean curd and rice breakfast. You can find it other places, but it won’t be as good, she said. It’s something in the water. (Hmm … this is sounding a lot like New Yorkers and their bagels, or Sicilians and their pizza … )

We’re still a little baffled by Chinese breakfast, and we weren’t sure of what to expect from tofu for morning meal, but it was actually pretty good. It came with a spicy dipping sauce that had hints of anise, and extra bean curd juice served up hot as a beverage. Sarah scolded us for our cold Vitamin Water that we had brought with us … but soup is not a drink!

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.