Suzhou: Ancient Capital of the Wu

Posted in Travel Log (Asia) at 1:05 pm by Benjamin Ross

This is the 1st entry in a series titled From the Delta to the Backwoods about my recent trip to China.

It was a rainy afternoon on March 3.  It had rained every single day since I had arrived in Shanghai on February 17.  Temperatures had been constantly hovering around the high 40’s.  After two and a half weeks of work in Shanghai, there wasn’t anything I wanted more than to get out of the city.  It’s not that I don’t like Shanghai per se, but my consulting work had me shacked up in a district full of ritzy foreign compounds, and constantly commuting across the city area and suburbs.  I was living in a district which had the vibe of an American suburb, only much, much more crowded, and I was spending two hours a day sitting in cabs in standstill traffic.  The work itself was productive and engaging, but from a personal stance, I still didn’t feel as if I had truly entered the Middle Kingdom I knew.  Combine this with the weather, and I was simply ready to get out.

My old buddy Tex (James L. Goode) from Fuzhou had planned to meet up with me on March 13th.  Our destination was to be the backwoods of Anhui.  In the meantime, I had nearly a week to explore some of the sights and sounds that Jiangsu and Zhejiang had to offer.  The first of which was the water town of Suzhou.  Fellow blogger Ryan McLaughlin (The Humanaught) and his wife Maggie, offered to put me up, and I spent two and a half days wandering the streets of the ancient capital of the Kingdom of Wu.

Because of its ancient canals which wind their way through the town, Suzhou is often referred to as the Venice of China.  During my first day of wandering through town, I came across a street called 平江路 (ping2 jiang1 lu4).
平江路 is located in the eastern part of the old city.  Adjacent to the old street flows a small canal, which I am assuming is the 平江.
Without the hustle and bustle, and troops of annoying vendors, 平江路 was one of the quaintest, non-touristy, tourist streets I have ever come upon in China.  Informative inscriptions (Chinese only) about its history are written on wooden posts along the canal.  I really feel that any trip to Suzhou necessitates a walk along 平江路.
What I enjoy most about Suzhou, and 平江路 exemplifies this as well as anywhere, is that Suzhou is one of the few places you travel to in China which actually looks a lot like what most people picture China looking like before they ever arrive there.  It has that warm, fuzzy, old style, Social-Studies-textbook feeling that is noticeably absent in most other “ancient” Chinese cities.
Even the newly constructed areas within the old city retain much of the their charm.
During my visit, I couldn’t detect much functional use for the canals anymore.  No goods being transported, taxi services, or anything of the like.  However there are tourist boats which run, and at several restaurants with their back to the canal, the water functions as the de facto men’s restroom.
Suzhou is probably most famous for its gardens.  I had seen Chinese gardens on several occasions before.  They are all quite scenic, but at the same time very similar (think Chinese temples!).  This particular garden was called the “Lion Grove.”
Of the numerous gardens in Suzhou, Ryan had recommended the Lion Grove because of the concrete maze which surrounds the water.  If you do make the trip to Suzhou, it is definitely worth it to check out one of the gardens, but I do stress the word one.
Going in early March, I had the advantage of the gardens being virtually empty of the usual commotion caused by herds of Chinese tourists with their colored hats, flags, and megaphones.  At the same time, I’d imagine the flora would be considerably more scenic during the summer.
Like any other Chinese city, Suzhou does have its share of white-tile-style architecture…
…as well as the typical cement boxes (right) as seen all over the Middle Kingdom.
This is the “City Safe Sanitary Subdivision.”  It did not appear to be any safer or more sanitary than the rest of Suzhou, which on the whole was both rather safe and sanitary, by my accounts at least.
Here’s a snack which isn’t necessarily endemic to Suzhou, but which I did both encounter and consume on several points throughout my trip.  It’s called a 麻辣饼 (ma2 la2 bing3), which literally means “spicy pastry,” and that is exactly what it is.
Another common snack whose name (both English and Chinese) completely escapes me at the moment.  Any help?
chestnuts (no open fire)
Here are some additional shots I took of less glorious examples of Suzhou architecture.
Throughout my three days in Suzhou I was constantly amazed at how well preserved the older architecture in Suzhou remained, even the more modest dwellings.  In this sense, Suzhou very much reminded me of Pingyao, the old Ming Dynasty banking center built along the road between Beijing and Xi’an.
In addition to the housing stock which dates back to the Qing and Ming Dynasties, Suzhou also has several pagodas which tower over the old city.  Like Beijing, Suzhou has regulations stipulating the maximum height of new constructions within the new city, so as not to over-impose on these historical constructions.
The old city is completely surrounded by a wide moat.
old city gate along the moat
On the Northern outskirts of the old city lies Tiger Hill, also with pagoda and Qing Dynasty housing stock.
Well, you knew it couldn’t all be ancient, right?  Smack dab in the middle of Suzhou, like the middle of most Chinese cities, lies what is known as a 步行街 (bu4 xing2 jie1) or “walking street.”  Suzhou’s walking street is called 观前街 (guan1 qian2 jie1).
观前街 is a great place to graze on street food.  This is where I encountered the famous “Suzhou Octoballs.”
It’s also the main shopping artery for the young and the affluent in this growing Chinese metropolis.
…and home to an entire store which sells nothing, but “Hello Kitty” merchandise.
Another popular attraction is the Suzhou Museum.  Containing much of the same ancient artifacts and calligraphy as most other Chinese museums, the collection itself is nothing out of the ordinary.  However, the building itself, designed by Chinese-American architect I. M. Pei, makes the museum worth a visit, especially since admission was free.
Again, I felt that exploring the common architecture and streetscape of Suzhou was infinitely more worthwhile than most of the designated tourist attractions.
One of Suzhou’s many Buddhist temples.  This would go in the “tourist attraction” category.
As would be expected, China is one of the world’s most pro-birth control countries.  Here’s a condom vending machine attached to the cement wall just outside the temple.  Notice the mother, father, and single (female) child.
On my second day of wandering through the streets of Suzhou, I came across the area which was the site of Suzhou’s former foreign enclave during the early part of the 20th Century.  This is Suzhou’s largest church, which today conducts church services in both Chinese and English, and also holds Christian-themed activities for Chinese and foreigners alike.
As I meandered down the road I inadvertently encountered the campus of Suzhou University.
Originally founded by Methodists in the year 1900, Suzhou University is one of the most aesthetically pleasing campuses in the Middle Kingdom.
In the middle of the campus was a large green space, similar to what you would find in most Western universities.
Grass is always at a premium in the Middle Kingdom, and the campus of Suzhou University contains a pleasing cornicopia of it.
The majority of the campus’ buildings retain the same early 1900’s style.
As one might expect, a canal runs through the university as well.
The mixture of Suzhou and Western styles make the Suzhou University campus a must-see for architectural enthusiasts.
Throughout my visit to Suzhou, and especially during my time spent in this area with its western influenced church and university, I was constantly intrigued with how seemingly unscathed Suzhou’s architecture had been by the Cultural Revolution.
However, a close look at this doorway reveals a small vestige of that turbulent period of Chinese history, during which universities were a major target of attack.
Painted down the right side of the doorway, and apparently intentionally rubbed off years later, remains the faded slogan 毛主席王随 (Long live Chairman Mao).
On the left side, the faded characters read 共产党万岁 (Long live the Communist Party).  During the Cultural Revolution it was common for university buildings to be defaced with such overly-patriotic slogans.  Today, this practice would be unheard of.
Outside the school gates was more buildings and canals, typical of Suzhou architecture.
another canal lined Suzhou thoroughfare
In addition to the canals themselves, Suzhou is also world renowned for its bridges which cross the canals.
Most of the bridges are constructed of cement and are several hundred years old.
In addition to tourists who come from all corners of the globe, Suzhou is also home to several thousand Westerners, many of whom work with the multitude of factories located in the vicinity of Suzhou, and take advantage of Suzhou’s various clubs and bars, including the…uhhh…the Pulp Fiction Aussie Bar.
As picturesque as Suzhou is during the daytime, it is even moreso at night, as thousands of lights illuminate most of the main roads.
平江路 (Pingjiang lu) especially, is worth a stroll both during the daytime and after nightfall.
I spent my last evening in Suzhou wandering around town and exploring the nighttime scenery with longtime Suzhou resident Joe Thong, or as I call him “SuJoe”
the entrance to 观前街 (the walking street) at night
A native of Malaysia, and fellow Chinese snack enthusiast, Joe led me through the various street food stalls in 观前街, where we grazed for over an hour.
One snack we enjoyed, which is not unique to Suzhou, is what I call the “Chinese pizza.”  It’s a flat bread with herbs, spices, and small pieces of pork sprinkled on top.
A new culinary delight which Joe introduced to me is called the 花生糊 (hua1 sheng1 hu2).  It’s a cold drink made of peanut butter and milk, and is completely refreshing after several hours of walking.
After two and a half days in Suzhou, I decided it was time to make a move.  I had a great time with Ryan and Maggie, and during my own exploration of the ancient Wu capital, but I only had less than two weeks of vacation time left, and more of the region to see.  Next stop, Linan, a county-level city an hour outside of Hangzhou.  More to come soon.



From the Delta to the Backwoods: Two weeks in Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and Anhui

Posted in Announcements, Travel Log (Asia) at 10:09 am by Benjamin Ross

Recently I returned from a month-long stint in China during which I was consulting for PacEth for two and a half weeks, and then traveling independently for another two.  At exactly 30 days, it was the shortest duration I have even stayed in the Middle Kingdom, but probably the most efficient in terms of both work, and play.

Nanjing Xinjiekou view from skybridge
Downtown Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu province, one of the more affluent major and modernized cities in the Middle Kingdom

My first two and a half weeks were spent working in Shanghai.  Located at the mouth of the Yangtze River Delta, Shanghai is the center of one of Mainland China’s two most prominent economic regions.  (The other being the Pearl River Delta).  Shanghai, Northern Zhejiang and Southern Jiangsu provinces collectively form a hyper-economic zone which has emerged as one of the wealthiest regions of modern China, representing the benefactors of Deng Xiaoping’s Reform and Opening Up policy.

However, right in the backyard of the Yangtze River Delta lies a province which bares little in common with the glamour and glitz of the Shanghai, Zhejiang and Jiangsu.  With soil and farmland far inferior to the fertile Yangtze River Delta and no port access, Anhui is one of the poorest provinces in China.  Unlike Shanghai with its youngsters touting PSPs and its businessmen chatting on iPhones, its café culture and western markets with organic produce, Anhui remains stuck somewhere between the economic woes of the 60s and 70s, and the economic miracle of the past 30 years.  Public infrastructure is poorly maintained, expendable income is low, and its inhabitants live in constant knowledge that their brothers and sisters, just an overnight train ride away, are sipping lattes and updating their Facebook statuses on mobile wifi.

rural Anhui village street
A city road in Taihe, located in Northwestern Anhui, one of China’s most economically lagging provinces

What Anhui does have though is people.  With a population slightly larger than that of the UK, Anhui is the source of millions of laborers who make the short journey east to Shanghai to work as housekeepers, construction workers, vegetable vendors, and a multitude of other occupations undesirable to Shanghai locals.  Within Shanghai, Anhui people comprise the rapidly expanding urban lower class, needed to support Shanghai’s growing urban elite.  As the dominant element in Shanghai’s working class, Anhui people have developed a reputation as the shysters, sneaks, and beggars which populate the city and draw the ire of its locals.  In the eyes of most Chinese, Anhui is a destitute land from which people come out, but nobody ever (willingly) goes in.

This is exactly why I wanted to spend a week of my vacation exploring Anhui.  Embarking from Shanghai, my two week excursion took me in a clockwise direction through the prosperous Yangtze River Delta, to the backwoods of Anhui, back through the Yangtze River Delta and returning to Shanghai from where I flew back to Chicago on March 19.

The following series explores my recent trip from one of China’s wealthiest regions, through one of its economic backwaters, and back.  In all, my journey took me to eight different cities, and there is a corresponding blog post, with images, for each of them.

Part 1  Suzhou: Ancient Capital of the Wu

Part 2  Linan: Stomping Grounds of the Chinese Small Town Upper-Middle Class

Part 3  Huang Shan: The Famous Yellow Mountain

Part 4: Anhui: Industrial Capital on the Plain

Part 5: Fuyang:  Into the Backwoods

Part 6: Taihe: Rural Anhui in all its Glory and Grit

Part 7: Nanjing:  Cultural Oasis of the South

Part 8:  Yangzhou: Home of the World’s Most Famous Fried Rice…and Jiang Zemin



Final Update from the Road

Posted in Travel Log (Asia) at 9:48 am by Benjamin Ross

Looking down at the clock, I have approximately 31 hours left in this most recent journey into the Middle Kingdom.  It’s been a short, sweet, trip, but like all good things, must come to an end.  Ever since this summer, I’ve been thinking that my ideal situation would be to somehow split my time between China and the US, and after being up North for 3 months this summer, and here around the Yangtze River Delta for the past month, I have a lot to be thankful with how things have been working out. 

Tex and I spent our first week of travel, in hyper-efficiency mode, visiting a new locale every day, waking up at 8, and maximizing each day with full immersion into China and no contact whatsoever with foreigners or the Western world.  As our journey began to wrap up, we decided to relax in Nanjing for a few days, stay at a laowai friendly youth hostel, and enjoy Nanjing for an extended day stay.  On Monday, we took a day trip to Yangzhou where we explored the town (reminded me of a mini-Suzhou), and ate copious quantities of Yangzhou fried rice.

Tex headed back to Yangzhou last night, and I’m going to be flying back to Chicago (via Shanghai) tomorrow afternoon.  I’ll be sure to begin logging our adventure in deeper detail (plus images) when I get back home this weekend.  Thanks to everybody who has been following thus far, and I’ll see you from the other side. 




Another Brief Update…Anhui -> Nanjing

Posted in Travel Log (Asia) at 1:29 pm by Benjamin Ross

It’s Saturday afternoon in Nanjing, the pre-Mao capital of China, and here’s another brief, raw, update from the road. 

Tex and I just finished a 2 hour walkthrough of the Nanjing Massacre Museum.  In terms of layout and information, it was probably the best museum I have ever seen in the Middle Kingdom.  It did come with the typical Chinese propaganda to ensure that viewers believed 100% in the facts which were already plainly obvious from all the images and artifacts (not to mention general worldwide historical consensus), but that’s a topic for a later post.

Before arriving in Nanjing this morning, Tex and I spent the past two days wandering around Northwestern Anhui, one of the poorest regions of the PRC.  Our goal for this trip was to experience locales which had nothing extraordinary about them, thus no tourism industry, and very little contact with outsiders. Our first day was spent wandering around Fuyang, the poorest (in terms of per capita GDP) city in Anhui.  Fuyang was surprisingly much larger than we had anticipated, but indeed quite economically disadvantaged.  The locals were quite friendly to us, but absolutely baffled at why we would ever come to Fuyang, with most thinking we were either secret businessmen, journalists, spies or some combination of the three.  One interesting little catch to Fuyang is that it is virtually impossible to find a restaurant with a menu.  Instead, sit-down restaurants consist mostly of ramshackle little abodes where you simply pick foodstuffs out of a refrigerator, tell the cook how to make it, and then get quoted a price.  There was however, an absolute cornicopia of street food, which is mainly what we subsisted upon.  But I’ll save more elaboration for Fuyang until I get back to the US, and have more time to write. 

From Fuyang, we traveled to a small town (县城)called Tianhe, where the locals were equally baffled at these two strange tall (I am 6’1 and Tex is 6’5) white men who had descended on their humble town.  Like Fuyang, Tianhe was much larger than we had anticipated as well, containing by our estimates, at least 100,000 residents.  We spent the day scowering the town on foot, consuming local snacks, and chatting with the locals, many of whom had never before seen a foreigner.  At one point, when we happened to pass by an elementary school gate around lunch time, we were accosted by a mob of eager sixth graders watching us eat street food.  After one of them pulled out his notebook and a pen and asked us to sign it, the others followed suit, and we spent close to half an hour signing autographs.  It was difficult to go anywhere without making a scene. 

I’ve taken several hundred pictures on this trip, and learned a lot about life in the Central Chinese Plain, which I’ll be sure to write up once I get back to the US.  We plan to spend 2 or 3 days here in Nanjing, and time permitting, may head out to a 县城 in Jiangsu (one of China’s richer provinces) to experience the contrast between small town life in Anhui and Jiangsu.  Until then, I’ll try to keep up with the quick updates.              



Another brief update, this one coming from Hefei

Posted in Travel Log (Asia) at 7:17 pm by Benjamin Ross

It’s been a few days since the last short update, and this one is coming to you from another smokey net bar, this time in Hefei, capital city of China’s Anhui province.  Tex and I met up yesterday in Hangzhou (he was coming from Wenzhou, and me from Linan), and from there made the trip out Huang Shan (Yellow Mountain).

Generally as a traveler, I’m not too interested in “scenic spots” of which China has hundreds, but Huang Shan has been recommended to me by enough people (Westerners and Chinese) that I decided we couldn’t come all the way to Anhui without checking it out.

First off, I must say Huang is expensive, very expensive, even during this relatively dead tourism season.  The ticket to the mountain itself was 200 RMB, however women could get in for 100 due to a special Women’s Day week discount.  If my memory serves me correctly, neither the Great Wall nor the Forbidden City in Beijing, both sites of presumably greater tourism magnitude than Huang Shan, eclipsed the 100 RMB mark, let alone 200.  In addition to the fee to enter the park, there was another 80 RMB fee to ride the cable car up (yes, I know we’re both wimps, no need to comment), plus an additional 80 RMB to ride the cable car down.  All said and done, I spent about the same amount of money in an afternoon at Huangshan, than I did in my 3 days in Suzhou and 2 days in Linan combined.

As for the mountain itself, it was nice…I’ll leave it at that.  The scenery was picturesque, but not the best I have ever seen, and not the best I have ever seen in the Middle Kingdom.  Hanging out at the summit is a pleasant experience, but in reality, not all that different from the various other “famous mountains” I have “climbed” in China.  The main attraction at the top seems to be various rocks and peaks which are officially described as resembling a particular animal or object.  Of note was 手机石, which resembles a cell phone, complete with pretruding antenna.  Passing guides could be heard asking the tourists what brand of cell phone the rock resembled.

We we were fortunate in that we were able to go to Huang Shan this time of year, because I imagine that during the summar and holidays, it is absolutely swamped by herds of tourists. As we climbed up to the cable car, we passed a sign which read “From this point 2 hour wait to cable car.”  We had no wait at all.  All in all, Huang Shan is a nice site, but I’m glad I didn’t travel all the way to Anhui just to see it.

So immediately after Huang Shan, Tex and I headed to Hefei to see the capital city of Anhui.  Like much of Anhui (excluding Huang Shan) Hefei is one of the more anonomyous capital cities in China.  It’s one of those cities few people would ever travel to for tourism.  We spent the day meandering through the streets of Hefei, exploring one of China’s more industrial capital cities, and taking in the local sites and sounds.  There is so much dust in the air that I can feel it between my teeth, but overall I like the friendly, innocent vibe of this town.  As soon as I finish this e-mail, we are off to a small alley along the downtown “walking street” where earlier today we found an excellent array of local street food (future blog post to come as well). 

In accordance with our original desire to experience some of Chna’s least fortunate parts, tomorow morning, we are heading off to Fuyang, the city with the lowest per capita GDP in Anhui.  We aren’t really sure to expect, but at least we know we won’t be paying through the wazoo like we did yesterday.  After that our plan (subject to change) is to pass through Bengbu, and then finally Nanjing.  More updates to come, and of course lots of pictures when I get back to the US on the 19th.          



Quick Update from Linan, Zhejiang

Posted in Travel Log (Asia) at 4:28 pm by Benjamin Ross

Well, I had an excellent 3 days in Suzhou, and have now continued on the next leg of my brief Yangtze River Delta excursion.  I’m writing this from a smokey internet bar in Linan, a 县及市 (county-level city) about an hour outside of Hangzhou. An old friend of mine who I met while living in Fuzhou is living here now, and I decided to drop in and pay her a visit for a few days.  On the 10th, my old buddy Tex (also met in Fuzhou) and I are going to meet up for the final leg of the trip, which will go through Nanjing and Anhui province.

Since this trip in China is a relatively short one (I go back home on the 19th), I’ve decided not to spend too much time blogging from the road, and instead will document most of my travels when I get back to Chicago.  I have been taking a lot of pictures, which I will post when I get back home, and also have been Twittering daily (@BenRoss) which can be done much quicker than blogging I am rapidly figuring out.    

So as for Linan, I am actually quite stoked to be here.  Thus far, my entire trip has consisted of 2 weeks in Shanghai (huge city, tons of foreign influence), and 3 days in Suzhou (relatively large city, lots of foreign influence as well).  Linan, on the other hand, is reminding me a lot of Fuqing, where I spent my first year and a half in the Middle Kingdom.  It’s a small city (probably a couple hundred thousand people) easily transversed on foot, or by cab for 5 RMB to virtually any location, I’m able to walk the streets without having watches, handbags, and prostitutes solicited to me, and the locals have a rural innocense to them that is typically lost in big city life. 

I’m going to save most of my elaboration (I could go on for pages about Chinese small towns like this) until I get back to Chicago, but just wanted to give everybody a quick update of the trip so far.  Next post will probably be coming to you from Anhui, home of Yellow Mouintain, excellent tea, and point of origination for most of Shanghai’s migrant labor force.   



Suzhou Octoballs

Posted in Food and Drink, Travel Log (Asia) at 10:39 am by Benjamin Ross

I generally like to think of myself as pretty adventurous when it comes to food, as well as pretty well traveled when it comes to China.  Therefore it really isn’t too often that I come across a new Chinese snack which I have yet to encounter.  But today, while walking through Suzhou’s Guan Qian Jie (did I mention I finally busted out of Shanghai on Wednesday?), I came across a sign advertising 章鱼丸 (octopus balls)….

Before anybody gets the wrong idea, let me just clarify that the term “balls” refers to the round shape into which the octopus meat is molded.
Having previously lived in Fuzhou for several years, I had been exposed to my fair share of fish balls (their local specialty), as well as a decent amount of octopus meat, which occasionally makes its way into Fuzhou cuisine as well.  But this was to be my first time ever consuming an eight-armed mollusk in spherical format.  The final product came in this specially designed box which actually refers to the balls as “Japanese style.”
The balls were then topped with a sauce which had both the look and consistency of mucous.  With its sweet and somewhat tangy flavor, it was the perfect condiment for my fried octoballs, and tasted nothing like the snot it so very much resembled  The vendor referred to it as 萨拉将, the common Chinese word for “mayonnaise.”  Sprinkled on top of the “mayo” were dried fish shavings for extra flavor.
The final product was served with wooden skewers as utensils, and at 7 RMB for a box of 6, was rather pricey for Chinese street fare.  However, they were quite filling, and I would certainly recommend them to anyone who has a chance to try.


By the way, my consulting project is all wrapped up, and I will be backpacking around the Yangtze River Delta region for the next couple weeks, until I head back to Chicago on 3/19.

Also, special thanks to Ryan McLaughlin and his wife Maggie for putting me up in Suzhou (not to mention letting me use his MacBook to blog).  Be sure to check out Ryan’s various China-related sites sites Lost Laowai, haohaoreport, Dao by Design, and The Humanaught.



What’s Ben eating in Shanghai?

Posted in Food and Drink at 9:20 pm by Benjamin Ross

Over the past couple weeks I’ve written about Chinese graffiti, signs floating in the Huangpu River, escalators, and the late great Mitch Hedberg. But when it comes to a trip to the Middle Kingdom, I think we all know which topic causes all others to pale in its shadow…the food.  Whenever I am in China, I try to remain cognizant of my culinary surroundings, and take up as much of the local flavor as possible.  However, I must admit, I have now been to Shanghai 4 times, and still have only a vague idea of what Shanghai food is exactly, other than that it’s similar to the cuisines of Zhejiang and Jiangsu (bland, somewhat sugary, lots of fish and aquatic creatures) and that the baozi explode with soup when you bite into them.

One of the reasons for this is probably that the population of Shanghai, like most major population centers in the world, is composed very much of people who are not from Shanghai.  Thus you encounter a lot of food from various other regions of the country, not to mention the world, whereas the cuisine of smaller cities tends to be considerably more regionalized.  With that in mind, I wanted to give a little sampling of what has been traveling through my digestive tract over the last week and a half.  And if you’re wondering about the apparent dearth of bona fide Shanghaiese cuisine, consider the above.  I plan on heading out to Anhui next week, and should be able to get a much better sampling of the local fare.

tie ban niu rou
铁板牛肉 (tie3 ban3 niu2 rou4), a mainstay in just about any part of the Middle Kingdom.  This is definitely not a representative example.  I ate it in a restaurant which claimed to be Anhui style.  I only thing Anhui about the restaurant I could detect was the waitresses.
gan bian niu rou
Here’s another poor example of one of my favorite spicy dishes 干煸牛肉 (gan4 bian1 niu2 rou4).  Spicy beef fried up in a bunch of oil and hot peppers, a typically Sichuan dish.
hang jiao niu rou
While we’re on the topic of beef, here’s one dish I’d never previously tried called 航椒牛肉 (hang2 jiao1 niu2 rou).  The beef is cooked in what I am presuming to be oyster sauce and a lot of sugar similar to 蚝油牛肉.  As for the peppers, they’re not the typical green ones you see in most markets in China, and I’m not sure what you’d call them in English.  As a beef enthusiast, it wasn’t my favorite Sino-bovine dishes, but still a nice way to change things up from time to time.
guilin rice noodles
Ahhh…this was possibly the best (not to mention cheapest) meal I’ve had yet this trip.  I’ve never actually been to Guilin, but I’ve eaten their famous rice noodles,桂林米粉 (gui4 lin2 mi3 fen3) all over the Middle Kingdom.  This spicy snack usually consists of rice noodles (duh!), small shards of beef, leafy greens, peanuts, and a ludicrously spicy broth.  Out of curiosity I asked the waitress what was in the broth and she replied by saying “It’s a complicated mix of Chinese herbs and spies, I don’t even know what exactly is in it.”  I wasn’t sure if she really didn’t know or was afraid I was going to open up my own Guilin rice noodle shop across the street.  FYI:  There was already another one two doors down.
hot and sour soup
Here’s a picturesque (but unfortunately not as tasty) example of another one of my all-time favorite Chinese dishes, hot and sour soup (酸辣汤 suan1 la4 tang1). The secret to hot and sour soup is white pepper (the hot) and vinegar (the sour).  Apparently these guys were out of white pepper, and just dumped a heaping teaspoon of hot sauce on top.  The result was a little disappointing…yet rather photogenic, eh?
cha shao rou
One of my co-researchers is from Hong Kong, and whenever she gets sick (as we all have been all week) she craves a meal at a 茶餐厅 (cha2 can1 ting1), a typical Hong Kong style restaurant, which serves most of its meals in individual portions, rather than family style, as is most common in China.  Cha Shao Pork (叉烧肉), pictured above (coupled with another kind of pork for which the name escapes me), is one of the most typical dishes in the 茶餐厅, and usually a pretty consistent order.
gu lao rou
Reminescent of American Chinese food, gu lao rou (characters are escaping me right now), is the candy of Chinese pork dishes.  I like to think of it as lots of oil and sugar, with little bits of pork inside.  As you can expect, the crispy result is mouth-wateringly delicious.
sichuan pao cai
Due in part to the inclinations of several clients and colleagues, I had a stretch earlier this week where I ate Sichuan food on four consecutive meals.  This would be enough to repulse your average Chinese diner, and maybe even some laowai (Sichuan cuisine is generally the most Westerner embraced cuisine in China), but being somewhat of a hyper-spicy food masochist myself, I was much obliged to consume massive amounts of hot chilis and peppercorns for 2 days straight.  It all started with some pickled Sichuan vegetables (四川泡菜 si4 chuan1 pao4 cai4), one of the best ways to clear a pallet, before the onslaught of fireyness begins.
gong bao ji ding
This is Chinese kung pao chicken (宫保鸡丁gong1 bao3 ji1 ding1), served slightly different from that of Sichuan, and completely different from the kung pao chicken we grew up with in the Midwestern United States.  Kung pao chicken, when made properly, derives its taste from a variety of sweet, salty, and spicy ingredients, including vinegar, soy sauce, ginger, garlic, chiles, peppercorns, salt, sugar, and MSG.  The complex, thick, flavor probably explains why it is arguably the most popular authentic Chinese dish among Westerners.
mapo tofu
Here’s another Sichuan classic, mapo tofu (ma2 po3 dou4 fu2).  One of our clients who had come out from the Bay Area, was eager to eat Chinese mapo tufu, because according to him, Californian Chinese restaurants never mix pork with any tofu dish, under the assumption that the only reason Americans would want to eat tofu was because they were vegetarians. (Maybe they just all keep kosher?)  Personally, I must say I like a little bit of pork with my tofu from time to time.  I eat this dish at least once a week.
bacon and smoked bamboo
Here’s another one of my all-time favorite dishes. 腊肉炒烟笋, or as I call it in English, “Bacon n’ Bamboo.” (I may be butchering the Chinese name of this one too)
sichuan toothpick beef
牙签牛肉 (ya2 qian1 niu2 rou4) is a spicy Sichuan dish which is almost as fun to eat as it is tasty.  Watch out for the toothpicks.
chinese dry wok Agrocybe mushrooms
Currently, my new favorite Chinese dish is 干果茶树菇 (gan1 guo3 cha2 shu4 gu3).  I’m not sure exactly how to translate it into English, other than dry wok Agrocybe mushrooms.  The stringy mushrooms are cooked along with hot peppers and peanuts, over a bed of onions, and allowed to slow cook in the dry wok.  It’s probably more of a Hunan dish than a Sichuan if you want to be technical, but most Sichuan restaurants in Shanghai serve it nonetheless.

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