05.25.13

Sichuan Food!!

Posted in Food and Drink, Travel Log (N. America & Europe) at 4:23 am by Benjamin Ross

The legendary streetfood of Chengdu may be a thing of the past, but that doesn’t mean there still isn’t a lot of good stuff to eat in the Sichuan Basin.  Here are some of the highlights from restaurants and 大排档s in Chengdu and Chongqing.

I’m never really sure how to translate 大排档 into English.  It’s sort of like an outdoor restaurant, which isn’t actually a real restaurant.  There’s a nearly full kitchen, but one that can easily be taken down and set back up again in the time it takes the 城管 (or police) to meander through the street.  This one was in Chongqing.
水煮鱼, or as I translate it “chopped up fish boiled in a ridiculously spicy brothy soup along with bits of cabbage.”
回锅肉, spicy pork belly.  It’s basically Sichuan style stir-fried bacon.
Here are some street snacks from Chengdu.  Of course they can now only be found inside of bona fide restaurants.
宫保豆腐  Kung Pao Tofu
水煮牛肉, same as the spicy fish above, except this time with beef
This is a Sichuan-ish version of 松子鱼, or as I call it “the inside-out fish.“  It isn’t really Sichuan food per se, but it looked too delicious in the picture on the menu, so we had to order it.
Here’s a Sichuan classic which is hard to find outside of the region:  stir-fried sticky rice.  I forget what this is called in Chinese.  Anybody know?
And finally, this is a bowl of 牛肉面 (beef noodles).  It’s a dish found virtually anywhere in China, but in Sichuan it has a regionalized spicy kick to it.  I had previously assumed that Sichuan, like most of the South, was solidly rice country.  However, I was pleasantly surprised by the variety and quality of the noodles available.  The diversity of food in this country never ceases to amaze me, and this was only the tip of the iceberg.

 

05.23.13

A Chinese City with no Streetfood?…Civilizing the masses.

Posted in Food and Drink at 3:29 am by Benjamin Ross

Several weeks ago, I was wandering around the streets of Chengdu. It was about 2 o’clock in the afternoon, and I noticed a strange feeling from my stomach, one which I had never felt before in my various backpacking excursions around the Middle Kingdom….hunger. It then occurred to me why. I had been exploring Chengdu on foot for the past 5 hours, and not once during that entire time had I come across a single street food vendor. This may not seem strange upfront, but anyone who has spent time in China will likely find this preposterous. Grazing around China, casually consuming stuff like this, this, and this, this, and this is a national pastime in the Middle Kingdom, one enjoyed by Chinese and foreign residents alike. Big city or small town, urban or rural, north or south, street food is ubiquitous in the Middle Kingdom and being anywhere in China without it is, in this author’s opinion, just, well….weird.

I recalled a conversation I had the previous evening with my host in Chengdu, eminent baijiu expert Derek Sandhaus who had stressed to me that “They killed street food in Chengdu.” At the time I didn’t think much of it. Not that I didn’t trust Derek’s expertise, but the very thought of a Chinese city without street food violated all my premonitions of China logic. And especially Chengdu, which is renowned throughout the country for its famous street snacks.

After two full days in town, it was painfully apparent that street food is indeed dead in Chengdu. There are probably a few scattered corners where you can find a 烧烤 (kabob) stand or an occasional 煎饼 (Chinese fried pancake). But for all practical purposes, food in Chengdu is only served inside of restaurants.

Chengdu’s crackdown on streetfood is most likely part of a series of campaigns across China promoting 文明, the idea of being “civilized.” This has been a trope of Chinese local leadership in recent years, and has various manifestations, with mixed results from the public. Earlier this month, Beijing announced it was going to crack down on 烧烤 (outdoor kabobbing) due to its alleged contributions to air pollution. Many Beijingers were appalled, and assumed this was simply a guise, another mis-guided attempt at “civilizing” the population. On the other hand, campaigns to encourage queuing, especially at subway and bus stops, also under the heading of “civilizing” have generally been met with a more positive response.

The promotion and enforcement of these “civilizing” campaigns vary across the country, and fortunately Chengdu appears to be somewhat of an anomaly in its moratorium on street vendors. Still, the thought of a Chinese city without streetfood doesn’t sit well in this author’s my stomach.


 

05.22.13

Guiyang: Last Stop in Guizhou

Posted in Travel Log (Asia) at 4:00 am by Benjamin Ross

Guiyang is the capital of Guizhou province, and after being based out of Kaili for 3 days, I made Guiyang the last stop on my brief tour through Guizhou.

Guizhou is by most statistical measures one of the poorer provinces in China, so I wasn’t entirely surprised that the train station where I got off still had the 1990’s white tile look to it, an architectural style ubiquitous all over China in the last decade, but rapidly disappearing from the architectural landscape these days.
However as I wandered from the train station to the city center, it became apparent that Guiyang, at least architecturally speaking, was much more modern and glitzy than I had expected.
Here’s 人民广场.  (People’s Square)
…and Guiyang’s token Mao Zedong statue, this one being oddly dwarfed by the peculiar spaceship-esque building behind it.
In many ways, Chinese capital cities are all very much alike, and Guiyang fits this model.  There is very little of the old left, with most of the cityscape having been redeveloped between the early 1990’s and the present.
However, as far as provincial capitals go, Guiyang still has relatively few foreigners.  And encountering one in the street often calls for an impromptu photo shoot.
Guizhou is interesting linguistically, because like most of Southwestern China, the native language is a dialect of Mandarin.  Not “dialect” in the sense of Southeastern China where the local tongues are mostly unintelligible from one another, but dialect in the sense that any speaker of Mandarin can understand at least 95% of what’s said. It just sounds a little different, and idioms are often localized.  As an American, I’d compare it to talking to someone with a thick Australian accent.
Because of the close linguistic relationship to standard Mandarin, people in Guizhou will often speak to outsiders using the dialect.  This is very different from my experience in Fujian, where conversation immediately switches to Mandarin when any outsiders (including Chinese) are present because of the (generally accurate) assumption that outsiders simply won’t understand any of the dialect at all.
This appears to be the tallest building in Guiyang, and is still under construction.
More office/condo towers.  From this, and many other angles, Guiyang looks very much like the developed provincial capitals on the East Coast.
It wasn’t the first time I’d seen this in China, but Guiyang is home to its very own bright pink “modern” woman hospital.
I’m sure folks in Gender Studies might have a thought or two on this :)
On to Guiyang street food.  I forget what this was called, but essentially a screen over a coal pit used to cook tofu squares which are then (like most food in Guizhou) topped with hot pepper
Here’s another collection of Guiyang street snacks.  One theme I noticed throughout the entire province was a lot of potatoes.
Here’s a meal I ate in a sit-down restaurant located in one of Guiyang’s few remaining pre-PRC neighborhoods.  These two dishes seemed fairly representative of restaurant food I saw in the region.  This first one is ground pork with peppers. (尖椒炒肉末)
The second is dried bamboo with pork.  (笋干炒肉丝).  It should go without saying that both came with hot peppers.
And finally, here is the last evening on my trip, spent on Hubin Lu, a popular outdoor dining venue.
Here’s my waiter at my first stop.  Apparently you don’t need to be 18 to serve liquor in China.
Here’s another local Guiyang specialty I discovered by fortunate luck.  It’s called 铁板烧.  You order from a big list of foods such as meats, vegetables, and tofus, and then the waitress brings it all to you, and cooks it all right in front of you in a big iron grill.
Here’s the finished product.
more shots from Hubin Lu
Well, there you have it.  I was only in Guiyang for about 14 hours, but I think that was about enough to take things in.  The city isn’t all that big, but certainly had enough to keep me occupied.  Culinarilly speaking, it’s above average for a Chinese capital city, so at very least in that regard it’s worth a stopover en route to Guizhou’s many destinations (only a small handful of which I had time to visit).  That’s it for the Chongqing-Guizhou pictures.  Hopefully more to come soon.

 

05.19.13

Zhenyuan, Random Guizhou

Posted in Travel Log (Asia) at 5:03 am by Benjamin Ross

One of my favorite activities in China has always been visiting random small towns which are off of the general tourist path.  So after my day in the tourist wonderland that is Xijiang, I opted for another day trip, to a town called Zhenyuan.

I had never heard of Zhenyuan until I was in Kaili, and a local woman I was sharing a cab with suggested I check it out.  It’s only about an hour and a half away from Kaili on the Guizhou mainline railroad, with trains going both directions on the hour, making for a convenient day trip.
Zhenyuan was originally the capital of Qiandongnan Miao Dong Autonomous Prefecture before it was moved to Kaili in the early PRC era.
As the former capital of the prefecture and home to an “ancient city” Zhenyuan is somewhat of a tourist site itself.  Although, I’d guess few people outside of Guizhou province have heard about it, let alone go there.
Zhenyuan evolved as a town spanning longitudinally across two sides of a river, and it is this river-bank architecture which I found to be its most appealing feature.
Zhenyuan’s “ancient city” was a bit of a letdown, with most of the old (or seemingly old) architecture primarily housing tourist trinket shops.
The flare of the “ancient city” is here represented in the architecture of the Zhenyuan train station.
And here’s a market shot.  Most of this pork was being lined up to be smoked and preserved into 腊肉.
No matter where I was in Guizhou, when I asked people what Guizhou food was like, the overwhelming majority answered something along the lines of “什么都要放辣椒。” (We add hot peppers to everything). And this assertion was well supported by the items sold at local markets.
Here is a collection of various plastic bottles reused, and filled with homemade hot sauce for sale at a convenience store.
I can’t seem to recall what this stuff was called, but it seemed to be the most prevalent local snack.  These meatballs and tofu balls were cooked in a scaldingly spicy hot oil, and then served in a soup with rice noodles.
Quite tasty I must say, and extreme high level on the spice.
Zhenyuan was a relaxing place to spend a day wandering around.  I wouldn’t recommend making a special trip there, nor would I recommend going if you don’t speak Mandarin, but for a short day trip from Kaili, it was a pleasant experience.  Next (and final) stop:  Guiyang.

 

05.18.13

Xijiang: An Ethnic Miao Tourism Village

Posted in Travel Log (Asia) at 9:04 pm by Benjamin Ross

China is home to 56 officially recognized ethnic groups, with 92% of the population belonging to the Han majority, the remaining 8% constituting the 55 minorities.  But it wasn’t always like that, at least not officially.  In the 1950’s, the Chinese government undertook the task of classifying the population by ethnicity.  When an elaborate census of the population revealed hundreds of distinct self-defined ethnic groups, the government settled on 56 nationalities, of which all Chinese citizens must belong to one.  Today most of the ethnic minorities live in the Western and Southwestern provinces.  Guizhou is one such province, with a high ethnic minority population.  Kaili serves as the capital of the Qiannandong, an “autonomous region” for the Dong and Miao (Hmong) minorities.  But with Kaili itself being heavily Sinicized, the village of Xijiang is often considered to be the center of Miao culture in Guizhou.

Xijiang is considered to be the largest Miao village in Guzhou.
It’s also home to the largest parking lot I’ve ever seen in a rural village, used for the hordes of tour buses and private cars which come in from Kaili.  (This is only a side street, not the main parking lot).
While Xijiang is indeed a large, intact, Miao minority village, it is also an officially designated government tourist attraction, and entering the village comes with a 100 RMB price tag.
I had a lot of conflicting thoughts in Xijiang.  On the one hand, the place is absolutely beautiful, and the Miao people do actually still live there in their traditional wooden houses.  On the other hand (as will be apparent in upcoming photos), the government has poured a ton of money into the place in order to create a veritable ethnic themepark to showcase the Miao culture to tourists.
Here are some Israeli friends I met up with in Kaili.  Because of the amount of tourists, many of the wooden houses have been converted to cafes and restaurants, such as this one with the excellent view behind.
The food was overpriced, but quite tasty.  This dish is bamboo shoots with smoked bacon.
The most popular street food in Xijiang seemed to be this spicy french fry concoction.
Now we are approaching the center of Xijiang, with our traditional wooden China Mobile shop.
Ethnic tourism is a big deal in China, with two of the primary attractions being the minority dances and minority traditional clothing.  Interestingly these two facets of minority culture seem to almost invariably be associated with the ethnic women.  At the center of town, Miao women, in costume, put on a never-ending show of their traditional song and dance.
Here again I was conflicted by this contrived iteration of Miao culture.  On the one hand, it seemed as if the village had monetarily benefited a great deal by the tourism brought in.  Whether it was being a professional dancer, running a restaurant, a guesthouse, or even selling soda and beer, there appeared to be a multitude of employment and business opportunities in Xijiang, all of which benefiting from the advantages of inflated tourist prices.  On the other hand, at times it was difficult to escape from the “animals at the zoo” feeling I was getting from watching the various Miao ethnic performances.
More crowds gathering to watch the song and dance at the town center.
These are the shops surrounding the town center.
Another hot business is the selling of Miao women’s clothing, available in all shapes and colors.
For a small fee, you can even rent the Miao clothes, and have your picture taken by a waterfall.
But over-commercialization aside, Xijiang is indeed quite scenic, and worth a visit, even considering the 100 RMB price tag.
This is the Xijiang Middle School.
Xijiang is home to several aesthetically pleasing bridges as well, though I’m not sure whether these came before or after the government tourist village designation.
The influx of tourism has also led to the opening of several bars, such as this one pictured above.
What I found to be most rewarding about Xijiang was a walk outside of the village itself and into the surrounding rice patty fields.  The following pics are all from that walk, starting just outside of the village, and heading outward on a dirt road.
After a pleasant day in Xijiang, I took the bus back to Kaili, and in the parking lot was met, once again, by a troop of dancing Miao women in costume.  The more of this kind of thing I saw, the more I wondered whether the Miao women even wear their ethnic dress on a regular basis, or if it’s simply a work uniform. If we excuse how contrived and commercialized this “ethnic tourism village” was, Xiajiang did make for a relaxing and interesting day trip, and the scenery itself makes this village a worthwhile destination.  As a western visitor, it’s easy to criticize the commercialization of ethnic minorities because this kind of tourism runs so contrary to what we would hope to see from such a site.  But at the same time, I would be curious what the actual impact on these villages is, especially from an economic perspective.  I tried asking these questions to some of the locals, but unfortunately, like most heavily touristed places, the residents were not very interested in discussing these matters with an outsider.  Any insight on the matter would be much appreciated.  Next stop in Guizhou:  Zhenyuan

 

…and on to Guizhou, first stop: Kaili

Posted in Travel Log (Asia) at 5:01 am by Benjamin Ross

Guizhou is a relatively poor and somewhat isolated province in Southern China.  It’s one of those places I’ve always wanted to visit, but for one reason or another, never had a specific reason to go.  So after a few days in Chongqing, Guizhou made for a logical next destination.

Before I even got off the train, I was amazed at the extent of the infrastructure in this otherwise rugged, rather isolated terrain.
My first stop was Kaili, a one-room train station kind of town, but a rather big one at that.
Kaili is the capital city of the Qiandongnan Autonomous Prefecture of Guizhou.  Home to many Miao (Hmong) and Dong ethnic minority peoples.
Despite it’s ethnic population, Kaili is very much like any other third/fourth tier Chinese city.
Urban residents of Kaili are for the most part completely Sinicized, speaking the Guizhou dialect of Mandarin as their mother tongue, and with every day life indistinguishable from Han Chinese.
There really isn’t a lot to do or see in Kaili, as it’s more of a jumping off.  Here’s the Kaili Ethnic Minorities Museum, which had some decent exhibits.  Extra points for the free admission and inscriptions written in English (as opposed to Chinglish).
One thing about Guizhou I discovered is that these people know what’s up when it comes to potatoes.  I probably saw more various potato concoctions in Guizhou than any other part of China I can think of off hand.  I forget what these were called, but they were essentially spicy home fries.
Guizhou, along with Guangxi and Yunnan, make up the belt across southern China where rice noodles make up an every day staple in the diet.  Interestingly enough, they are most commonly eaten for breakfast.
Kaili’s most famous contribution to Chinese cuisine is the use of 糯米 (fermented rice) to add sour flavor to soups.  This is 酸汤米粉, rice noodles in a sour soup.
Kaili’s most renowned dish is 酸汤鱼 (sour soup fish).  In this dish, a whole fish (or several fish) is cut up and boiled inside a pot of sour soup.  It usually serves at least 3-4 people.
Here’s just another typical Guizhou dish, this one made with pork belly.  Whenever I asked locals about Guizhou food, they simply said “什么都要放辣椒” (we add hot peppers to everything).
more random Kaili shots
The museum at night!
Despite being a relatively ordinary Chinese city, Kaili did have a fantastic street food/restaurant street.  It’s a small, uphill corridor, on the south side of Beijing Xi Lu, just east of the main intersection of Shanshan Lu.  Highly recommended to anybody who stops in Kaili.
So despite its majority ethnic population, there really isn’t much in Kaili which separates it from any of the other several hundred or so Chinese cities of its size.  Nonetheless, it’s a nice place to stay, and a convenient location to daytrip from, as will hopefully be shown in the upcoming posts on Xijiang and Zhenyuan.

 

05.15.13

Chongqing: It’s time to get vertical!

Posted in Travel Log (Asia) at 10:15 am by Benjamin Ross

For the labor day holiday this year, I took a trip to 2 places I had never visited, Chongqing and Guizhou.

Chongqing is one of China’s 4 municipalities (cities not part of a province and instead controlled directly by the central government).  It’s sometimes incorrectly referred to as the largest city in the world.  While technically not incorrect, the city of Chongqing has an area roughly the size of the state of South Carolina, the vast majority of which being rural land and mountains.
Nonetheless, it is still one of the largest, most concentrated urban areas in Asia, and the most developed city in Western China.  This and the following shots are all from the CBD.
Chongqing is very much a vertical city, due to its city center being located on a narrow peninsula created by the confluence of the Yangtze and Yaling Rivers.  This makes for an urban core resembling a mainland version of Hong Kong where space is at a premium and growth moves upward as much as it does outward.
At the center of which is Jie Fang Bei, this large phallic symbol, symbolizing China’s liberation following World War 2.
Chongqing is very much a poster child of China’s rapid industrialization and modernization.  At times, it feels as if the entire city is one giant construction site.  Nothing caught this feeling with me more than this bridge over the Jialing River just before it flows into the Yangtze, being built before my eyes.
Chongqing’s unique geography (basically hills sandwiched between 2 rivers) makes for some of the most unique architecture I’ve ever encountered in China.  Case in point:  Hongya Cave, an 11 story Disneyland-esque mall/hotel/entertainment district, built literally clinging to the side of a cliff.
Here’s another shot from below, with Hongya Cave in the bottom right.
another from below
 and a shot at night
While aesthetically pleasing, Hongya Cave (where my hostel was located as well) was miserable to get up and down, a commute necessary to get from my hostel below to the main street).  With its insufficient number of elevators, it often took 15 minutes to get to get from bottom to top.  Walking around would have probably taken twice as long and been entirely up hill.  This situation was made even worse when the entire building flooded, shutting down all elevator activity for an evening.
Chongqing’s CBD is home to some of the most posh office towers in China, but walking distance away, you are surrounded by visual reminders that this is still Western China.
Near the river docks are endless markets selling cheap, light manufactured goods, such as clothing, shoes, and low-end electronics, which have literally come right off the boat in big bags such as these behind these 2 migrant workers.
High Rise development has now spread far beyond the CBD and the peninsula.  This shot is looking North, I believe.
ships unloading on the docks
As Chongqing was the temporary capital of the KMT during World War II, the city is also filled with underground caves dug into cliffs.  This former air-raid shelter has now been converted into a popular, late-night restaurant.
There were at least 7 or 8 rooms such as this, stretching back to back, vertically, deep into the rock, and under the CBD.
Chongqing is also home to an absolutely fantastic urban planning museum.  Here are some shots of their models and exhibits.
more vertical Chongqing shots
the new opera house
and of course, more construction
Here’s the old Chongqing Opera House.  I’m sure it was grand in its time, but compared to what’s been built over the past 10 years, most of what’s left of old Chongqing is quite underwhelming.
and a look from outside
Here’s the building which houses the Chongqing Museum and the 3 Gorges Museum.  (here’s a post on some of the propaganda inside).
Here are some shots from the outer urban districts of Chongqing.  Notice how vertical the architecture is, even off of the peninsula.
more night views
One of the best ways to see Chongqing is via the elevated mass transit trains which fly through the city often several stories above ground.  The following group of pics were all taken from elevated subway stops.
And of course, there’s the food.  Here are some outdoor restaurants in the CBD.
Never seen this before, but young girls with guitars and amps strapped to their backs, would work the crowd at the outdoor restaurants.  Each carried a book of songs, and for 20 RMB, they would serenade your table.
ok, on to the food.  Chongqing is world-renowned for it’s spicy cuisine.  Here’s some 水煮鱼 (spicy fish in soup)
now up close
宫保鸡丁 (kung pao chicken)
回锅肉 (spicy, twice-cooked pork belly)
鱼香肉丝  (yuxiang pork)
And of course, we did a big hotpot meal (with a group of young, female, Chinese backpackers who were all staying at my hostel).
Chongqing was truly a fascinating city, and definitely a must for anyone interested in China’s rapid development and urbanization.  However, one caveat which you don’t get by looking at the pictures is that Chongqing is really fucking hot!!  And humid!   My trip was in late April, and temperature and humidity were both in the 90’s my entire stay (except for the half day when there was torrential downpour).  According to locals, the hot season hadn’t even started yet.  And coupled with the fact that so much of the walking is uphill, if I ever go back (and I certainly hope I do), it is definitely going to be in the winter.
So there you have it.  Chongqing is one of the most photogenic (in my humble opinion) cities in China.  I hope you enjoyed the pics.  Guizhou is next.

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