Hello Uncle Foreigner

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.

Nov 1, 2014

Video: A Good Night in Tai’an

Dinner in our favorite countryside neighborhood

A good night in Tai’an from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

For dinner most nights, rather than go into Luzhou city, we hang out in nearby Tai’an. And it’s always a good night.

Oct 18, 2014

Video: Postcard from the Moon

Fun on the night of the eclipse

Postcard from the moon from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

Dancing around after the October 8th Blood Moon. We missed the blood, but we found the dance. Music: Pugwash, “Answers on a Postcard”

Oct 18, 2014

Help and friends, and how that works

Hey, we’re more than getting by …

our new spa chair at home
It was a pretty big ordeal getting our new spa chair home.

Everywhere we go, people know us

When we lose our way, people show us

When we break down, people tow us

And send us on our way with a smile and a little wave

“Meeting Mr Miandad,” The Duckworth Lewis Method

The big question our students ask us basically boils down to: “If you don’t speak Chinese well, how do you get stuff done?” (A close second is, “Teacher, why here?” But to that I say, why not here?)

The answer is, the kindness and goodwill of friends and strangers is overwhelming. In all of our travels throughout China (and, really, the rest of the world, too), we’ve found that most people want to help. And doesn’t hurt that we’re willing to look like fools when necessary; I once, in a prolonged performance, acted the part of a dying mouse to a shop clerk who eventually figured out that we needed traps and showed us where they were.

My Chinese is steadily improving, too, which means daily life stuff is getting easier. But, sometimes a little information is dangerous. Like, for example, in the case of the Man who Helped Us on our way Home with Heavy Packages. We had a massage chair, and he had a taxi — I thought. Fantastic, because we needed a taxi. In fact, what he actually must have said was something like, “Let me help you carry that heavy thing to the bus stop,” because that’s what he did. And it was the wrong bus stop; there was just miscommunication all around.

But, are you going to be mad at that? This guy very sweetly came to our (perceived) aid and helped carry our giant massage chair kind of a long way. With — more! — help from an English-speaking student also at the bus stop, we sorted out what went wrong. Then, all that was left to do was to shake hands and part ways. “朋友,” Peter said to the man as we said goodbye, friends. And we got into a taxi.

Oct 12, 2014

Our surprise friend

A local kid continues our education

We made a new friend who sat and talked with us at River Restaurant

This summer and fall have been particularly lovely in Luzhou: Not too hot, not too much rain and way more blue sky days than you’d expect from a country with such a problem with air pollution. So we’ve been finding every excuse to spend our time outside. And one of our favorite outside haunts, we’ve been referring to as the River Restaurant. (Formerly, My Birthday Restaurant, because the first time we were there was to celebrate my first birthday in China.)

A few weeks ago, we met a new friend — a bold 12-year-old girl who pulled up a chair and sat with us for about a half hour. We practiced a little English, but mostly she peppered us with questions in Chinese. Do you have children? Is New York the capital of America? The usual. She also gave me a rapid-fire lesson on the Chinese holidays; at this point Mid-Autumn festival was just around the corner. We took a photo with her, and she left, with a vague promise that we’d meet again someday.

And then we did see her again, just two days ago. Her home is near the very tip of the Luzhou city peninsula. She walked with us to dinner (this time at Pork Rib restaurant), announcing to the staff proudly that we were her 美国朋友 — American friends — and telling us that the staff were her 中国朋友 — Chinese friends. Then she flitted off into the wind once more.

Oct 8, 2014

Video: Hello, Uncle Foreigner!

What if we were living a sitcom?

Hello, Uncle Foreigner from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo. Music: Josh Pike, “Clovis’ Son.”

We bought a new camera. Can you tell?

Oct 6, 2014

Video: Impressions of Luzhou

About town, 3 years

An original Whoop Wu production. Original score by Peter Sikoski (with some familiar voices).

Oct 4, 2014

September’s flavor of the month

It’s pork

Pork rib at the Kung Fu Bar

In addition to gallivanting around the north this summer, we’ve also made the most of our renewed time in Luzhou by exploring locally. And our latest gem, we found just as school was starting last month.

蜀南人家 is a restaurant decked out in a red lantern, old timey Chinese style — similar to Chinese Bar. “Kung Fu restaurants,” our friend Andrea calls them, which seems to be the new trendy thing. With waiters dressed up in a simple laborer’s costume, woven baskets on the walls and earthenware jugs full of preserved foods, there’s a definite theme element to the presentation. We think it’s fun, and these restaurants are certainly popular among the people of Luzhou. Is there an element of cheese to it? We don’t know. But, our grandparents would find this all very familiar, Maybell told us.

While Chinese Bar’s food is nothing special, 蜀南人家’s is phenomenal. Our first night there, our server advised us that the pork rib rack was the house specialty, so of course we had to get it. And it came out: an actual shovel full of spice-smothered, Flintstones-big arc of meat so tender that we could pick it apart with our chopsticks. We raved to each other as we ate, and celebrated Peter’s now fully carnivorous lifestyle.

And then, we went back five times in four weeks.

Oct 2, 2014

The Dragon’s Eyes are ripe

And there’s no escaping them

Emily-the-model poses in Zhongba Woods
We went for a photo shoot in the Longan Forest. This tree is more than 100 years old.

Longan fruit — a cousin of the lychee — is a Luzhou specialty, and they’ve recently come into season. Also known as the dragon eye fruit, these little fleshy baubles grow on trees all over the countryside around here, and when it’s time, farmers and salespeople cart them into the city by the bushel. You can buy them in the markets and from the street vendors, even along the highway. And, really, you don’t even need to buy them.

It started a few weeks ago when the owner’s young daughter at Around the Corner restaurant showered us with handfuls of the fruit upon our arrival.
Later that evening, we were small talking with some fellow diners and one asked us if we had eaten any longans yet. His buddy pointed at our piles and said, they have some right now, you goof!

Since then, our local shop owners, friends, and strangers keep sending us away with arms filled with the fruits. Last weekend, our photographer friend brought us out for a photo shoot in the park near the school. (Oh yeah, we’re models in China.) The Zhongba Woods Park is a landscaped upgrade of a hundreds-years-old longan forest, and our friend took many, many pictures of us picking, eating, and throwing the fruit. We fed each other the fruit, we posed with other park goers whose arms were also full of fruit, we avoided bees that were fat and drunk on the fruit. And we somehow went home with more longans than we started with.

The thing is, we don’t really love longan fruit. The actual meat is succulent and tasty, but thanks to a tough outer skin it’s a lot of work to get at, and each piece has only a little bit that’s edible. But the whole city is excitedly celebrating the longan fruit season, and it is fun to be a part of that.

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.