• Losing Musical Idols Like Losing Part of Yourself

    By now, most of the Pretty Reckless’ fans probably know about all of the turmoil that the band has faced over the last several years. But even those who don’t know can simply hear it on their latest album Death By Rock and RollWe recently spoke with frontwoman Taylor Momsen about some of those events, and she discussed why losing your musical heroes is so traumatic.

    It all started when the band was opening for Soundgarden on their spring headlining tour in 2017. Chris Cornell died after the last show they played together in Detroit, and Momsen was the last member of her crew to find out the news the next day.

    “This band formed over the love of two bands. It formed over the love of the Beatles and Soundgarden. To be that close in proximity and opening for Soundgarden was just the highest of highs. I couldn’t believe it, we were just elated to be there. ” she said.

    “And to have it end so tragically, that added a kind of shock. We were right there, we were there that night, I talked to Chris Cornell. I gave him a hug, I watched him leave the venue.”

    The singer doesn’t exactly know why losing your idols hurts as badly as it does, but she thinks it has to do with the connection you make to their music.

    “I think that music has such a power to it that even if you don’t know someone extraordinarily well personally, when you’ve related to their music and you’ve listened to those records throughout your whole life ad nauseam, it feels like a part of you,” she explained. “So I feel like losing someone like that… you feel like you’re losing a piece of yourself, in a way.”

    Momsen did point out that while the death of a beloved musician is painful, those people leave behind legacies of music that are eternal. She says that she hopes when she’s no longer here herself, she’s remembered for the music she’s shared with the world.

    To hear more about the hardships that shaped Death By Rock and Roll, watch our full interview with Momsen at the top of the page.

    12 Rock + Metal Artists Who Had Other Careers Before Music

  • Zakk Wylde Wouldn’t Be Part of a Pantera Tribute Tour

    Rex Brown has entertained the notion of a Pantera “tribute” tour in the past, which would ideally see him share the stage with Philip Anselmo to celebrate the legacy of the band. However, he’s shot down the idea of such tour featuring Zakk Wylde in place of Dimebag Darrell.

    “It would be sold out stadium shows,” Brown described to Eon Music of the potential tour. “Offers still come in for Philip and I to do it if we wanted to, but if you don’t have the other guys in the band it’s not going to sound the same. If we were ever to do something like that it would have to be spot on, or I wouldn’t do it. It would be a tribute.”

    Wylde was close friends with Darrell, and he kept in touch with the late guitarist’s girlfriend Rita Haney after his death. In early 2020, Haney voiced her support for a Pantera tribute tour that would see Wylde join Brown and Anselmo, but Brown is confident that that wouldn’t be the lineup they would go for.

    “It’s going to come up, and it wouldn’t be Zakk Wylde, I guarantee you that. I’ve just put it out there so we can get on past it,” the bassist declared.

    Brown and Anselmo would also have to recruit a drummer to fill in for the late Vinnie Paul if they were to pursue a tribute tour in honor of Pantera. Stone Sour drummer Roy Mayorga filled in for Paul on tour with Hellyeah in 2019.

    53 Rockers Who’ve Been in Multiple Successful Bands

  • Kenji’s Excellent Asian Adventures, Part 1: Beijing-Bound

    [Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

    Almost exactly a year ago today, after three and a half decades of East Coast life, my wife Adri and I packed up our New York apartment, shipped it off to the netherworld of long term storage, drove across the country, shaved my head, bought some big ol’ backpacks, and hopped on a plane to China, where we spent over a month traveling before moving on to Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Australia. It was meant to be the vacation of a lifetime, but as much as I promised my wife that I wouldn’t be working, it seemed almost criminal to pass up the opportunity to keep a travel diary. Sure it meant taking an hour or two out of each day to keep track of everything that happened to us, everything we ate, everything I thought, but now, reading back on it a year later, I can say with confidence that it was worth the trouble.

    I’ve shared a few of the highlights of my trip with you in the past. My foreigner’s survival guide to ordering Peking duck, my take on the best dishes in Sichuan and in Xi’an, or the amazing fried soup dumplings of Shanghai, but China is not all just noodles and dumplings. As a country currently going through a massive transition from a largely sleepy, rural, agrarian life to economic and cultural powerhouse, there’s never a dull (or particularly clean) moment.

    Here now is the first part of my Chinese travel diary in an only slightly abridged form. Hopefully it’ll make you want to hop on that day-long flight yourself.

    Check ou the rest of my Excellent Asian Adventures here.

    Day 1: Beijing Bound

    Location: Beijing, China

    It’s 4:07 a.m. here in Beijing. Adri and I arrived a few hours ago and just got back from eating the most delicious 4 a.m. food I’ve ever had in my life. That’s the reward for a 24 hour journey, I suppose.

    Our plane—a new flight from San Francisco direct to Chengdu—was something that called itself a “Dreamliner,” which roughly translates as “newish airplane made with composite materials that features really awesome windows that work sort of like those glasses that automatically turn into sunglasses when they get hit by the sun except you can control the tint with buttons at your seat.”

    The windows were awesome, especially because their manual controls get shut off after take-off, which means that the oblivious old lady who’s sleeping with her eyeshades on in seat 27F can’t accidentally render your entertainment system useless by leaving her shades open for the whole-13 hour flight.

    That is, of course, only if that entertainment system was working in the first place. I really look forward to long flights. They’re an excuse to catch up on all the new movies that I can’t ever justify spending the time to watch unless I’m stuck on an airplane. Unfortunately, the entertainment systems at our seats had no audio, which is rough when you’re going to spend over half a day sitting in the same position. I unsuccessfully tried to use that fact to wheedle my way into a first class seat, but the managing flight attendant wisely decided to give me a polite but firm no. Had she said yes, I would have spotted the weakness in the airline’s seating policies and I undoubtedly would now be scouring China’s heavily-censored internet for instructions on how to sabotage in-flight entertainment systems for a lifetime of free seat upgrades.

    It struck me, as we touched down amid the low warehouses and symmetrical apartment complexes, how much the city of Chengdu looks like a series of capacitors and microchips set into a giant motherboard when viewed from above.

    I could also mention that the lady behind me kept sticking her feet up in between the seats, so that every once in a while I’d feel a pair of besock’d toes bump up against my elbow, or that I spent my flight from Chengdu to Beijing sandwiched between a fellow who kept spitting peanut detritus into my ear as he shouted across the aisle to what could have been his best friend or worst enemy or perhaps just a casual acquaintance (I’ve quickly come to realize that tone and volume seem to have nothing to do with interpersonal relations in Chinese interactions), or that the one bag we reluctantly checked never made it to Beijing (though Air China swears it’ll be delivered to our hostel tomorrow afternoon), or that we waited over an hour for a taxi at the Beijing airport.

    I could mention all these things, but I shouldn’t. I am no longer a cynical New Yorker; I am now a happy-go-lucky, world-traveling West Coast dweller, and I should be counting my damn lucky stars.

    After all, I’m on the first day of a vacation that started by flying half way around the world in a giant metal cylinder, all for free (my wife, Adri, works wonders with airline miles), and if that’s not something that I should be satisfied with, then I don’t know what is. So no more complaining. Instead, how about some food?

    Adri and I walked out of the hostel doors shortly after arriving around 3 a.m., asking if there was any food available anywhere at this hour. We were told the 24-hour convenience store around the corner would have some snacks, and they did. Scary-looking bright red hot dogs available in two forms: naked (twirling in 7-Eleven-style hot dog rollers) and rolled into big steamed buns. The Chinese, the Japanese, and church potluck-goers all seem to have a thing for dough-wrapped wieners.

    Fortunately, just as we were about to submit to fate and enter the brightly lit shop, we caught the faint but undeniable aroma of hot coals. You know when Toucan Sam gets a sniff of Froot Loops and he floats away on the visible vapors that lead him to the bowl? It was kind of like that, if those vapors were occasionally overtaken by random scents like cat pee, human vomit, and overturned garbage cans. Nevertheless, we found the source: a small shop with four young folks watching a World Cup match, drinking liters of beer, and grilling skewers of meat on a live coal fire outside.

    I find that with most restaurants, it’s pretty easy to negotiate a deal even if you don’t speak a common language. Point at something, rub your first two fingers and thumb together (the universal symbol for “how much?”), nod in approval, and you’re good to go. This gets complicated when what you are trying to order is small pieces of meat on a stick. Does five fingers mean five pieces of meat per stick? Or does it mean five sticks? Or perhaps it means five yuan (about 75¢) for one stick? Or perhaps five yuan for five sticks, each with five nubs of meat?

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    We planned for the worst and hoped for the best and ended up getting more than we thought we would.

    First up, a plate of peanuts, boiled in salted water flavored with star anise. I’ve never loved boiled peanuts, but these guys were tasty, and a good accompaniment to the incredible cheap beer. Ah, Beijing, where the beer flows like water, and the water flows like grimy streams down the sidewalk.

    Next, our skewers. Turns out it was three skewers, each with five pieces of meat, and each for five yuan. Not a bad price, especially considering this was some of the tastiest street-meat-on-a-stick I’ve had anywhere. Alternating cubes of lean lamb meat and straight-up lamb fat, seasoned generously with salt, cumin, and ground red chili. The fat cubes were crisped up like the edges of a perfectly-cooked steak, rendering their juices over the lean meat. Our hosts, who very politely offered us cigarettes when they lit up (I can’t remember the last time I saw someone smoking in a restaurant, but I’d guess the opposite is true for Beijing residents) got a kick out of saying “you’re welcome,” when I sheepishly offered a xiexie. It was the least I could do for such tasty lamb.

    (Check out our own recipe for Beijing-style lamb skewers.)

    Walking down the dark street back towards our hostel, I had just finished telling Adri that given food this good, barring the loud noises and incessant loogie-hocking, China and I were going to get along just fine, when we spied a man and woman bent over, working in front of a giant wok set over a roaring gas flame, steam rising in a thick plume through a skyline of metal steamers.

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    OMG, this is everything I hoped and wished for, I said to myself. As we got closer we saw the duo cutting off balls of fresh, stretchy dough, rolling them out on a floured table top, stuffing them out of a big bowl of seasoned pork, and pleating them into tiny crescents at breakneck speed.

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    Six yuan and 30 seconds layer, Adri and I were sitting in front of a steaming array of a dozen of them. We got chastised as Adri poured black Chinkiang vinegar directly over them, the vinegar flowing straight through the wicker steaming tray and onto the table below. Silly foreigners, didn’t you see the bucket of small grab’em-yourself dipping dishes stacked pushed into the traditional dipping-dish-bucket at the back left corner or the restaurant?

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    Have you ever had that Total Recall-style experience that made you realize you’ve spent your whole life living a lie? That’s what happened to me as I bit into the first dumpling, feeling the pliant, stretchy, delicate skin pulling away between my teeth as the tiny nub of mildly seasoned pork released its juices.

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    Suddenly, even the best of those five-for-a-dollar dumplings I ate so many of in New York were revealed as the slipshod My-First-Dumplings that they are. Even my beloved Qingdao Garden in Cambridge, whose steamed zheng jiao were my gold-standard up to this point, now seem clumsy in comparison.

    As we were leaving, we spied the dumpling team folding a different kind of dumpling, these ones made with a leavened dough pleated into a drawn purse-shape, sort of like miniature xiao long bao, the soup-filled dumplings from Shanghai.

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    I’ve never seen dumplings like this state-side. The juicy pork filling was the same, but the skins were a softer, more absorbent dough. Still plenty stretchy with just enough structural integrity to hold back the juices within, but porous enough to absorb a good amount of vinegar and chili on dipping.

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    Any dumpling experts out there know what these are called?

    Here’s a pretty good rule of thumb for a tastier (and perhaps more dangerous) life: If you are in Asia and see smoke or steam coming out of a dark alleyway, investigate. I plan on following through with this rule several times tomorrow as we explore the alleyways of Beijing’s Nanluogu Xiang neighborhood.

    Day 2: Hot and Sour Soup is Gloopy Everywhere

    Location: Beijing, China

    SO MANY DUMPLINGS.

    This morning we woke up late, took a left from the hotel down Chaoyanmen Nanxiaojie, and stopped at the first steamed bun shop on the block. It was run by two old ladies who seemed very confused as to exactly what we wanted, which makes sense. I would be confused if two aliens, complete with funny hats and brightly colored clothing,* stood in front of me gesticulating wildly and making noises that I couldn’t possibly comprehend.

    * I’ve realized that what passes as fancy clothes in China is a lot like what passes as fancy tuna in Boston. See, tuna is often caught in the North Atlantic out of Boston or Cape Cod. It then gets bought by the Japanese and sent over to auction in Tokyo. Eventually, it may well make its way back to Boston to be sold in fancy sushi restaurants. Similarly, our clothes were made in China, sold in New York at exorbitantly high prices, then brought back to their place of origin, where they stand out (though unlike the tuna, they stand out more for their dorkiness than their classiness).

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    Eventually we managed to wrangle two buns, one filled with steamed cabbage and shiitake mushrooms, and the other (better) one with cabbage, carrots, and salted scrambled egg in some sort of rich, salty gravy. They were far too hot to eat immediately, so to pass the time, we bought ourselves a four-yuan pancake stuffed with WAY TOO MANY sautéed Chinese chives.

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    Too many as in, we couldn’t finish more than a couple of bites before admitting that it was just too sulfurous and pungent to consume. (I believe it was that scallion pancake that would come back to bite me in the bottom a few hours later.)

    But no matter, by that time the steamed had cooled enough to tear into. Just like yesterday’s 4 a.m. dumplings, these two buns, with their shiny, slightly tacky pellicle and tender, bread-like crumb, put the over-sweet, extra-poofy buns I used to buy twice a week for breakfast at Golden Steamer in their place.

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    It’s not that the unfortunately-named steamed-bun shop on Mott Street, just south of Grand (and around the corner from Serious Eats’ New York office) has bad buns per se, but put in the context of straight-from-China buns, they’re the equivalent of eating something advertised as “New York-style Pizza” in Europe: there may be redeeming qualities, and it may even be tasty for what it is, but it’s New York pizza in basic description only. A police sketch version of the real deal.

    After polishing off the buns we kept walking. Our goal today was to explore the old neighborhoods and side streets North of the Forbidden City in and around the Bell and Drum towers, Beijing’s old timekeepers that operated from the 15th century straight up until the 1940s.

    We made it about another half a block before we saw a restaurant with pictures of dumplings in the window. We had a long walk ahead of us, we were going to need our energy, and it looked like a half dozen dumplings for four yuan (about 75¢), so why not, right?

    There was even more ordering confusion this time, as the owner of the place kept making little folding and pinching motions with his hands. Yes, exactly. We want one order of dumplings! was what my gesticulations intended to convey. There was some miscommunication on both sides that became apparent a little on down the line.

    Turns out that the man was trying to say to us, “you can order dumplings, but I’ll have to make them from scratch, so it will lake a long time,” (there should be a universal sign for “have to make the dumplings”). Meanwhile, I apparently said to him, “please sir, find your largest plate and fill it from edge to edge with pork and cabbage dumplings, then find your second largest plate and do the same with pork and scallion dumplings, and while you’re at it, please bring us two bowls of murky cabbage water to wash them down, and perhaps some tea and a beer as well. For this service I will be happy to pay you whatever you deign appropriate to charge us.”

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    Despite the half hour wait (a half hour punctuated by several loud, angry-sounding conversations around us),* the dumplings were pretty spectacular. This time they were of the open-ended pan-fried variety known as dalian huoshao. They’re cooked like a standard pot-sticker: You fry them first to crisp up the bottom, then add water to the pan and cover it to steam the fillings and top of the skin. Eventually, the water evaporates, allowing you to fry the bottoms a second time to re-crisp them. They’re served flipped upside-down so that the crisp bottoms are presented on top.

    * Have I mentioned that every conversation we overhear here seems to sound angry? The only other place I’ve felt that way was in Germany, and I’d believe all Germans are angry all the time were it not for the fact that Germans smile and drink too much beer to actually be angry all the time.

    You don’t see the open-ended variety (rolled sort of like a cigarette paper around tobacco) all that often in the US, but I’d order them from time to time at Qingdao Garden in Cambridge, if only to remind myself of why I always ordered the steamed dumplings instead. Open-ended dumplings defeat the purpose of a dumpling, as they let tasty juices drip out before they can reach your mouth.

    But these dumplings seemed to defy that rule. Perhaps it was the skins—freshly rolled and more porous and absorbent than the average guo tie—that sopped up juices before they had a chance to drip out the ends. We ate valiantly, dipping the ends of the dumplings in plates of black vinegar and a chili oil made with finely ground roasted chilies (Adri very astutely asked “why don’t all dumpling shops in the U.S. have chili oil on the table by default?”). In the end, we managed to polish off all but three dumplings between the two of us, along with most of the unidentified (and frankly, not very tasty) cabbage water.

    When our bill arrived, we were pretty sure that we hadn’t just consumed 49 yuan-worth of food and drink, but we’re both terrible at haggling and making a scene (does this classify us as suckers?), so we paid it anyway, reasoning that at the very worst, we were out a couple bucks, or the equivalent of 30 minutes of rent in the average San Francisco or New York one-bedroom apartment. I’d move in half an hour late for a stellar plate of dumplings, wouldn’t you?

    Some other vastly under-informed generalizations I made about Beijing in my head today (maybe other people can verify their accuracy):

    • Turns out that if you see a large group of tourists in fishermen’s hats following an umbrella-toting tour guide, even in China the tourists are Chinese.*
    • Off of the main streets, there are no restrooms in restaurants or cafes. You have to use the communal toilets on the street, and for the record, most of them are door-less squat toilets with BYOTP (Bring Your Own Toilet Paper) status. The only reason you should use them is if you ate some questionable scallion pancakes earlier in the day. A packet of tissue paper and a bottle of hand sanitizer should be in your bag at all times.
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    • Despite the very clear “No Swimming, No Fishing, No Climbing, No Littering” signs posted around the gorgeous Qian Hai Lake in the center of Beijing, everybody swims and fishes, and you’ll see the occasional climber and litterer as well. Actually, I’m surprised that all the swimmers didn’t get caught on the hooks of all the fishers.
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    • The old-lady-with-shopping-cart-on-a-mission brigade that made me fear for my ankles on a daily basis during my commute in New York exists in real China too, but is augmented by the motorbike and bicycle brigade (I’m convinced that the Chinese characters painted on the street in what appears to be a motorcycle lane say “not for use, please drive on sidewalk, and if you have it in you, swerve precariously around slow-walking tourists.”).

    * There was a watershed moment some time in the last decade in which these groups of tourists ceased being Japanese and became Chinese. Old couples wearing matching Disney World sweatsuits are still Japanese, though I’ve seen a few old Chinese couples wearing matching Disney World knockoff sweatsuits (you’ve heard if Mikey and Mimi Mouse, right?).

    We got back to the hostel in the late afternoon to discover that our missing bag had been delivered from the airport (joy!), but that the zippers had been locked together with a sturdy plastic zip-tie, and that the pocket knife we thoughtfully packed precisely for situations in which we may need a device capable of cutting through sturdy plastic zip-ties was trapped securely inside the bag. I suppose Adri will just have to go without underwear until we can get our hands on a pair of scissors.

    Here is a funny restaurant name:

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    And here is a pot-bellied pig we met.

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    After an afternoon of exploring Beijing’s alleyways (and public restrooms), we decided to walk over to the Donghuamen night market for some snack in lieu of dinner (we were still stuffed from the dozens of dumplings we’d eaten earlier today). Turns out there are two reasons to go to the Donghuamen night market: to gawk at Australian tourists gawking at squids, endangered species, and novelty-size insects deep fried on sticks, and to be very disappointed by the most forgettable Peking duck I’ve ever had.

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    I guess it’s kind of like New York, where it’s possible to have both the best and worst pizza in the world, all within a couple of blocks.

    Seriously, do yourself a favor: If you do come to the night market to gawk, avoid actually buying anything. It’s all been sitting around for hours and is massively overpriced. Something just seems off about a row of several dozen food stands that all have basically the same menu, all run by people all wearing the same uniform.

    After being disappointed by the goods, we decided to hit up the same dumpling joint we went to last night, hoping they might have a couple new flavors or skins on the menu. But when we got there, in pace of a quiet dumpling joint, there was a raucous restaurant serving up mostly Sichuan specialties: sliced oxtail and tripe, beef cooked in a sizzling vat of chile oil, roasted whole fish with chiles, and the like.

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    We ordered a couple of big beers for four yuan apiece. Yanjing is China’s version of PBR. Cool, crisp, not-too-alcoholic, and incredibly refreshing when served ice cold. Then I asked for a plate of smashed cucumbers with garlic, and some slippery liang fen noodles (clear, watery noodles with an agar-like texture made from mung bean starch) tossed with vinegar, sugar, fresh chilies, garlic, and peanuts. This may have been the first dish I’ve tasted since coming to China where the version I know from Chinese restaurants in the US (like Legend in Chelsea) actually trumped the version here. Makes sense, given it was a Beijing restaurant doing Sichuan food.

    Adri, wanting to keep things light, decided to order a bowl of soup. We both love hot and sour soup—even the heavily-thickened Chinatown lunch special version (or perhaps especially)—so we were excited to see that what came to our table was actually not far off from what we were used to in the US. Perhaps a little heavier on the white pepper with slices of ham instead of roast pork, but everything from the gloppiness to the cheap plastic spoons was right there.

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    We didn’t quite expect to receive an entire half gallon of the stuff, but who’s complaining? Certainly not Adri.

    Day 3: Good God Are Jian Bing Good

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    Location: Beijing, China

    Today Adri and I hit the Forbidden city, which is totally awe-inspiring in a way you can’t really fathom until you are there. It’s much, much bigger than I thought it would be, and surprisingly less busy. I mean, it was busy, but the way Adri made it sound (she was here back in 2007), it was going to be like riding a 12-city-block-sized rush hour subway car. Once you get out of the main flow of traffic, there are some surprisingly beautiful and secluded spots within those massive walls.

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    The greatest part is that the English translation of what are undoubtedly regal and auspicious Chinese names for the various halls and pagodas end up all sounding like locations from a Zelda game. You enter the Gate of Supreme Harmony and can then head left to the Hall of Military Prowess or right to the Hall of Literary Glory (I’d suggest the right), before coming back to the Hall of Heavenly Purity (outside of which, if you so desire, you can nibble on chicken burgers, popcorn, and Coca-cola just as the Emperors have done since the Ming Dynasty).

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    The most awesome parts of the Museum are behind paywalls (as is usually the case), but it’s worth the extra 10 RMB to enter the clock and watch gallery, which is packed with ornate watches made in England, the US, France, Switzerland, and China, all dating from the 17th to 20th centuries, and some of them worth more than I will ever earn in my entire lifetime.

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    Notice how everything is sort of a hazy beige color? I’m not sure if we were just unlucky with hazy weather or if it’s the infamous Beijing smog, but it was like that every day we were here. It makes for some nice atmospheric long-distance photos, but I’m not sure what it did to our lungs.

    The Treasure Gallery along the Eastern wall is also worth the extra admission, especially for the small garden housed within it, packed with roughly pitted stones carted up from Southern China, and far, far less crowded than the Imperial Garden that leads you out through the north wall (through the awesomely-named Gate of Divine Prowess).

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    To be honest, the best sight-seeing part of the day came after we left the Forbidden City and headed up into Jingshan Park, which makes for a wonderfully calm and tourist-free stroll after the craziness of the Palace Museum. The pathways are gorgeous, the trees and rocks are beautiful, and if you’re up for a climb, you can head to the pagoda at the top of the hill in the center of the park (built from the earth dug out of the moat around the Forbidden City) for a spectacular view of the Forbidden City to the South (it’s more fun if you say ruthless Emperor-type things in your head to the ant-like peasants milling about below. “Prepare my litter” or “fold me an excess of dumplings!”) and the White Pagoda to the West, which looks sort of like what the Pope’s hat would look like if his head were the size of a Mt. Rushmore carving.

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    But enough sightseeing.

    This morning we had jian bing, China’s version of the French crepe, for breakfast. It’s a dish so damn delicious that I can’t fathom why it hasn’t become a staple food in Chinatowns all across the U.S. It’s essentially a batter-based crepe cooked with an egg smeared into one side, along with cilantro and scallions, that then gets brushed with a few sauces (a thick soy sauce, a hoisin-like bean sauce, and a ground chili sauce), then folded up, often with a baocui inside. The baocui is a puffed, crisply fried cracker that’s a specialty of beijing.

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    Essentially what you’ve got is a bit of carb-on-carb action, crisp wrapped in soft. We ordered ours with a piece of battered fried chicken wrapped up in there with the cracker. As the whole thing steams, the inner cracker softens a bit, but you still get an awesome mix of texture and flavors, especially with that chicken, which had a bit of a Colonel’s 11-secret-herbs-and-spices thing going for it.

    We split one for breakfast but were so full that we ended up almost skipping lunch. The only thing we ate in the afternoon was a few more of those tasty lamb skewers doused in cumin and chile powder. Not nearly as good as the ones we ate on the first night, but still pretty damn tasty.

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    It was only as we were walking back to the hostel after downing a few more lamb skewers that we realized that we’ve eaten nothing but snacks since arriving in Beijing. I mean, dumplings, meat-on-a-stick, folded-up-things-in-paper-pouches and bar food are all well and good, but perhaps it’s time for a real meal?

    Good thing I got a tip from Megha Rajagopalan, Reuter’s Beijing correspondent, on where to feast on the best Beijing duck in the city. Adri and I canceled our reservations for the ultra-modern Dadong and have our sites set on the more classic Siji Minfu to taste Beijing’s most famous dish in its home town for the first time.

    Read all about it here and stay tuned for the next part of the adventure, in which we visit the Great Wall, get really excited about some crayfish, and deal with the fallout of foreign bacteria attacking our native fauna.

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  • Kenji’s Excellent Asian Adventures, Part 2: Do Indoor Voices Exist in China?

    [Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

    Last year I took a three-month trip through China and Southeast Asia, keeping an on-again off-again diary for the whole trip. This is the second part of my Excellent Asian Adventures.

    Day 4: Do Indoor Voices Exist?

    Location: on the wrong side of the road between Beijing and Gubeikou, China

    Please let there not be a car around this next bend, I said to myself, my eyes half closed, my jaws clenched tight, and my feet shaking a little in the brand new, synthetic-material, fully breathable, quick-drying ultra-socks that Adri thoughtfully bought for me just before this trip.*

    * It was not a fully unselfish purchase, as those who know my feet can attest to.

    My wife Adri and I were in the back of a hired car along with another traveling duo we’d met that morning. We were being driven to the Jinshanling section of the Great Wall, near the small town of Gubeikou. Our driver had been on and off the phone all morning, yelling angrily in short, staccato bursts.

    Being driven by anger is something you should always avoid. Being driven by an angry driver even more so. Add to that a twisting mountain road with sharp inclines on either side, and the fact that the driver was very casually driving in the oncoming traffic lane, shifting gears, and steering, all with one hand tied up on the phone, and you can understand my heightened state of fear.

    China’s a very pushy culture, and I’m not talking pushy in the way that pottery hawkers in Turkish markets or time share-sellers in Cabo are pushy. I’m talking pushy in the way that the computer-controlled drivers in MarioKart are pushy.

    If you’ve been to a Chinatown in a major city, you know that. You can expect to be bumped into, pushed aside, crowded from behind, held up from in front, and generally ignored. In China, the concept of personal space exists sort of like string theory: they’ve heard of it, but nobody seems to really understand, much less believe in it.

    It’s even worse once they get behind the wheel. All normal rules of lane shifting, signaling, and general good road etiquette go out the window.

    In the US, hearing a horn on the road generally means one of four things (and only three of them are justified):

    “Hey fruitcake, I’m already in this lane. Next time check your blind spot before you turn!” is one of them.

    “Hey Guy Smiley, the light just changed. Why don’t you stop reading your text messages and get a move on? I have a prescription to pick up/kids to drop off/places to see/people to do” is the next most common.

    “I sentence you to kiss my a*&!” is a close runner up, but usually reserved for gavel-banging cartoon judges.

    All other uses of the horn signify one and only one thing: “Hey everybody, look at me, I’m a jerk!”

    Here, horns seem to have a different meaning entirely. They exist to announce just one thing to all traffic, whether it’s oncoming, orthogonal, merging, keeping up with the flow, or standing still: “I am moving along this trajectory and I will not, for any reason, be it life, limb, liberty, or minor paint damage, be swayed from my decision. All consequences from this point forward will be borne upon your shoulders. Come at me, bro.”

    It doesn’t help that hired cars and taxis in China do not have seat belts in the back.

    It’s the only country I’ve been to where when you overtake on the highway, the oncoming traffic is expected to swerve around you, swaying dangerously close to the totally unfazed old men riding three-wheeled motorbikes at Hoveround-speeds. It’s also the only car I’ve ever been in which was overtaken by a minivan while we were in the process of overtaking a bus, all in the width of a two-lane road.

    And did I mention the loud phone calls? I did? I feel like they’re worth talking about again, as it wasn’t just our driver who was engaging in them. In fact, every phone call I’ve heard since coming to Beijing has been conducted at top volume, whether it’s in the subway, on an elevator, in a restaurant, or from an otherwise completely tranquil alleyway. Conversations in general take place at high volume, but the phone seems to amplify the effect.

    I have three possible theories to explain it:

    • Phones in China are built with very weak microphones.
    • I know that Cantonese makes use of tonality as a part of speech. Perhaps Beijing has its own dialect which also makes use of volume. I plan on testing this theory by listening to phone conversations throughout the rest of the country.
    • There is some form of natural selection going on here that happens when populations concentrate. China is now at such a high population density that it has entered into a self-reinforcing cycle where only the loudest people in each generation can be heard and progress in society, thereby surviving (in evolutionary terms) to produce ever-louder generations. China’s relaxation of the one-child law can only augment this inevitable progression towards total cacophony.

    The third is my favorite explanation because it creates a Vonnegut-esque future scenario in which even the quietest Chinese whisper is screamed, Yosemite Sam-style at the top of the lungs. It’ll be interesting to see whether loudspeakers or aural-impediment devices will become the dominant market force in the future.

    20140620-beijing-great-wall-jinshanling-04.jpg

    All of this is to say that by the time we reached Jinshanling, we were in a heightened mood to appreciate the peace, quite, space, and tranquility of this relatively un-touristy part of the Great Wall. Our tour guide was a petite Chinese girl who was wearing a barbie-pink sweatsuit and baseball cap. One of the two other people in our shared car asked her if she had other matching sweatsuit-baseball-cap combos like, for instance, green. She let out an embarrassed giggle and let us know that to wear an all green sweatsuit-and-cap combo would be inappropriate for a girl like her. I’m trying my hardest to understand the culture but I’m still learning new things every day.

    She led us up a steep trek up to the start of the walk then left us to our own devices for several hours. The walk along the wall is punctuated by even steeper ups and downs, often over broken stones and un-repaired stairs, but thankfully the cold water saleswomen seem to have set up a one-per-watchtower rule amongst themselves, which means you don’t have to worry about being harassed too much. I’m led to believe this is a major problem at the more touristy Badaling and Mutianyu sections of the Great Wall.

    And dammit, I’m writing this in the hostel bar and they’ve just set up their “make your own dumpling” night (this happens at every hostel on Friday nights, I think), and man am I hungry after a day of trekking, so I’ll just let the pictures do the talking.

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    Needless to say, the Great Wall is one of the greatest sites you can visit. And that’s coming from a very excitable but extremely cynical seasoned traveler. No exaggeration.

    Day 5: Holy Crayfish, Batman!

    Location: Mystery Train Station, Beijing, China

    Crayfish season is a big deal around here. How big? Big enough that you see ads like this on the subway:

    20140621-crayfish.jpg

    “This soccer game is so damn exciting that I’m going to bite the head right off this crayfish, shell and all!”

    “I agree with you so much that I’m going to crush this crayfish in my bare hand until its juices run down the sleeve of this shirt I’m wear… wait a minute, why am I dressed like an airplane captain?!?”

    They seem to say.

    Also, apparently crayfish, beer, and couches are only for the men. This poster does, however, accurately portray the coupling situation here in China. One of those three men is going to end up single and lonely.

    Day 6: Rou Jia Bing, Beijing Yogurt, and Liangpi. You Want to Eat These.

    Location: Beijing, China

    We ate a sandwich for breakfast this morning, and it was good.

    Adri and I did our standard “let’s walk down the street and stop when something looks good to eat” routine after leaving the hostel on our way to Tiananmen square. Turns out that sleeping in until 10 a.m. is not a good idea if you’re going to wake up hungry. The Chinese take their meals early, which means that if you peer into most restaurants at 10, all you see is stacks of empty bamboo steamers that once housed delicious dumplings. It’s good incentive to get up early.

    What you can find any time is these:

    20140621-beijing-yogurt.jpg

    Adri made the good point that while I’ve been gifted with a huge appetite, a boundless love of adventure, and a moderate ability to string words together—all hallmarks of a decent food writer—what I lack is the guts. And she meant that literally. Occasionally my mouth writes checks that my intestines just can’t cash.

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    As I’ve mentioned, Beijing is not the best place to be when you need a bathroom stat, or if you’re used to Western standards of hygiene. I walked into a public restroom to find a cook from the restaurant next door squatting over a toilet with a cigarette in one hand and a cell phone in the other (screaming into it, of course). These are the types of things you don’t want to see right after having eaten at said restaurant, particularly when you realize that these restrooms have no running water.

    To help alleviate the situation that has quite explosively developed since arriving in Beijing, I’ve been sticking to a rigorous self-prescribed formula of pro-biotics, taken in the form of these little pots of heavily soured, moderately sweetened yogurt, served at nearly every cold drink kiosk in the city (that’s every 20 feet or so).

    We bought our yogurt and started walking back to the hostel, when my food radar registered a solid bleep.

    What is the disk-shaped object that man is holding in his hands? my eyes said to my brain. I’m not sure, let’s ask the nose, the brain responded responded.

    Smells faintly of cilantro, with perhaps a hint of braised pork and soy sauce, replied the nose.

    At that point, as often happens, my feet took charge of the rest of my body and turned us in the direction that the man had just come from. It was all I could do to tell my mouth to call after Adri and tell her I was being involuntarily led away.

    The source of the food was a small window a half block down, with a queue of three people and one dog in front of us. I peered into the small window and liked what I saw.

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    See, this was a rou jia bing shop. Bing is the Chinese word for all sorts of dough-based products. When they’re flat and crepe-shaped, they’re called jian bing (and you can read about the awesome ones I had yesterday). When they’re thin, stretchy, and pliant like a tortilla, they’re called bo bing (you’ve probably eaten them wrapped around moo shu pork or Peking Duck). When they’re disk-shaped, lightly leavened dough that’s split and stuffed with meat, the sandwich is called rou jia bing.

    20140621-beijing-bing-rou-02.jpg

    We watched as our man ripped off individual balls of dough after kneading the large mass on an oiled surface for several minutes. Eventually, each ball of dough got stretched and twisted around like a coiled snake before being placed into a cooker that simultaneously steamed it while griddling the top and bottom.

    The result is a flat disk that in many way resembles a Venezuelan-style arepa, but with a much lighter, fluffier inner texture.

    20140621-beijing-bing-rou-03.jpg

    While the dough-man made the bing, the woman up front fished out large chunks of braised pork from a vat of stewing liquid. I’d seen the woman in front of me ask for a particularly fatty bit of belly, and after some emphatic pointing, I managed to score the same.

    The pork was braised in a sweet and savory broth that to me tasted of soy, Chinese wine, and sugar, along with a couple of warm spices—star anise, cinnamon, and Sichuan peppercorn, perhaps a couple of others.

    She placed the chunks on a large chopping block, tossed a handful of cilantro and cooked hot green horn peppers on top, then chopped it all together with a cleaver.

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    She then split the bun and piled the mixture inside before wrapping it up, drizzling it with a bit more cooking liquid, and handing it to us.

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    Not too shabby for a 10 a.m. meal. There’s an awful lot going on in there, though the predominant flavors are sweet, savory, and fatty, with just a touch of heat and freshness from the cilantro and chilies. But it was the bread that stole the show. Nicely crisp on the outside, tender, hot, and moist, with just a bit of stretch on the interior.

    It’s a dish that’s actually far more common in Xi’an (if you live in New York, you may have seen a version sold as “Chinese Hamburgers” on the menu at Xi’an Famous Foods), but as we all know, the freshness of bread can make or break a sandwich, and seeing as we saw this particular bun being kneaded, shaped, and steam-griddles right in front of our faces, it doesn’t get any fresher than this.

    It also happened to have a higher ratio of cilantro and peppers mixed into the filling, as well as more filling within the bun than any version we would try after heading to Xi’an a few days later, where they’re EVERYWHERE.

    A bowl of liangpi noodles—hand-cut steamed wheat starch noodles tossed with cucumbers, sesame sauce, and chili oil—and a pork-filled bing is the burger and fries of Xi’an, if a burger and fries were something you ate morning, noon, and night.

    Ironically, the best liangpi we’ve had in China so far were also in Beijing, on that same afternoon, in fact.

    20140621-beijing-liangpi-00.jpg

    We bought them off a street vendor. The woman, who was dressed in heels and a very un-workmanlike knit top, folded a large, circular sheet of steamed starch like a business letter on top of a bamboo chopping block, then sliced it into half-inch strips with a heavy cleaver before adding them to a bowl and tossing them with blanched mung bean sprouts, shredded cucumber, a ladleful of sesame paste, some soy sauce and vinegar, and a good amount of chili oil.

    20140621-beijing-liangpi-01.jpg

    Are those croutons?, asked Adri, talking about the cubes of spongy-looking staff that sure as heck looked like croutons. But nope, they’re cubes of super-absorbent once-frozen tofu. Perfect sauce-soppers for a perfect sauce, if you ask me.

    Let me leave you with a picture of how hot and humid it is here:

    20140621-beijing-tiananmen-sqare-01.jpg

    Now doesn’t that just whet your appetite?

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  • Kenji’s Excellent Asian Adventures, Part 3: The Best Way to Order Food in China

    Lamb buns in Xi’an [Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

    Last year I took a three-month trip through China and Southeast Asia, keeping an on-again off-again diary for the whole trip. This is the third part of my Excellent Asian Adventures.

    Day 4 Redux: The Best Way to Order Food in China

    Location: Mysterious alley in Beijing, China

    I’ll have to apologize. While physical diaries are neatly laid out in chronological order, digital diaries have a tendency to get a little jumbled. We’re going to jump back a few days to the meal that Adri and I had on the evening of the day that we spent taking in the Great Wall.

    “I’ve done the Great Wall” is a phrase you will never hear me utter except to point out that I won’t be uttering it.

    It’s that word “done” in there. This thought is not spurred by any specific sight today, but a general pet peeve of mine that bubbles up when I’m surrounded by other travelers. Does it bother anyone else when people say things like “We’ve done the Grand Canyon,” or “Oh, we’ve done India.” It’s as if foreign countries and cultural experiences are roller coaster rides that you can hop on, go for a circuit, and leave, knowing that you’ve experienced all there is to experience. Even the Disney World “It’s a Small World” ride takes at least two or three trips around before you’ve seen every little dancing doll in action (though by that point you’re ready to tear their little mechanical heads off as the theme song rapidly drives you to madness).

    I hope that I’m never at a point where I can say I’ve “done” a culture to completion, because man, would it make traveling boring.

    After a long day of hiking along (not doing) the Great Wall, Adri and I weren’t in the mood to do anything fancy for dinner, so we took a walk down the street and employed the basic rule that has yet to fail to lead us to something delicious. Rule #1: If you see an alley with smoke or steam coming out of it, investigate. Our investigations led us to a smallish restaurant filled with mostly men, loudly cheering each other with glasses of the cheap Yanjing beer they serve everywhere for about 5 RMB for a half liter bottle (that’s about 80¢), picking at plates of dumplings and noodles, along with miniature woks emitting clouds of delicious steam. They were set on top of tabletop racks filled with hot coals.

    Want to know the secret to eating well and cheap in China without having to speak a lick of Chinese?

    Walk into any loud, raucous restaurant, look for the table that looks like it’s having the most fun (in this case it was easy, as one table yelled a toast at us as soon as we walked into the joint), point at what they’re eating, and point at your belly.

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    That’s how we ended up with two giant beers and a bowl of perfectly respectable zha jiang mian on our table. My mom used to serve us a dish she called “Peking noodles,” which always tasted like a vaguely Chinese spaghetti Bolognese. The real stuff is much funkier, colder, fresher, and at least in Beijing, less meaty as well.

    It wasn’t quite as fancy or tasty as the version we had at Siji Minfu, the Peking duck restaurant a couple nights before, and it was a little skimpy on its selection of toppings (just cucumber, watermelon radish, and a oily, funky, vegetarian bean paste), but the noodles were fresh-made, and we weren’t complaining.

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    Looks good, right?

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    Next up was something I would have never thought to order (nor would I have recognized it on a Chinese-only menu), but it was fan-freaking-tastic. Chunks of bone-in, deep-fried chicken cooked with dried chilies and fermented bean paste, along with fresh green hot capsicum and crunchy celery. It vaguely resembled the Sichuan dish of la zi ji (spicy deep fried chicken), and perhaps was the restaurant’s interpretation of the dish—far greener and vegetable-heavy than the dried chili-packed real version.

    We picked through the chunks of chicken, sucking off bits of crisp skin and tender spiced meat, and discovered that the bottom of the wok was filled with thinly sliced onions—onions that had been slowly caramelizing over the coal fire the wok was set on, all while absorbing the juices from the meat and vegetables above. Delicious.

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    Last up was these finger-shaped dumplings, which in many ways resembled the huo shao we’d eaten a few days before, except these had sealed ends. All the better for trapping in delicious juices. These were the first dumplings we had in China that came with no sauce for dipping, which was quite alright, as their pork and leek fillings were heavily-seasoned with vinegar and soy, and juicier than you could hope for inside.

    Day 6: You Want Some Creepy Crawlies?

    Location: Wangfujing Food Market in Beijing, China

    The Wangfujing food market is the daytime equivalent of the nighttime Dong Hua food market which I mentioned the other day, and it’s packed with just as many tourists, though during the day, most of the tourists seem to be Chinese, not Australian.

    It’s a good street to stroll down if you want to view a bunch of creepy-crawlies stuck on sticks (like live scorpions, with their barbs still flailing and pincers still pinching), though again, not the best place to go if you actually want the best food to eat. Almost all of it is a half-assed version of things you can find better elsewhere in the city, and at more reasonable prices.

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    Walk past the scorpion vendors and the men behind the counter will slam their hands down, sending the live scorpions into flurries of movement. Not sure how I feel about live animals on sticks being used as entertainment. Luckily the seahorses are already dead and dried. You can get anything grilled or deep-fried, along with giant spiders, silkworm chrysalises, and even larger scorpions.

    Adri and I tasted our way up and down the stalls and while fun, nothing blew us away with flavor. Like I said, it’s kind of a tourist trap. Here’s some of what we had:

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    Rice sticks done Korean-style in not-too-spicy chili sauce.

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    Japanese tako-yaki—octopus-filled spherical cakes that seem to be getting popular all over China in a rare example of reverse culture flow (many popular Japanese dishes—ramen and gyoza, for instance—are heavily influenced by Chinese cuisine, not so much the other way around)

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    Steamed, pork-filled bao, along with bowls of tofu with chili oil and vinegar. I’m pretty sure those are standard-issue corn dogs on the table as well, though we didn’t try them (word to the wise: hot dogs are not worth trying in China).

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    Looks like noodles, smells like shit, quite literally. Those are strips of thinly sliced tripe. They’re served with black vinegar, chili, and scallions, and depending on the vendor can range from mildly odorous to outright gag-inducing. I’m generally an avid tripe-eater, but no amount of chili oil or vinegar could get me to stomach this stuff. At least not with a decent Western toilet within butt-clenched running distance.

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    Sheng jian bao—pork filled leavened buns that are crisped up on a griddle with black sesame seeds and scallions. They’re served with vinegar for dipping and at this particular location, about as good as you’ll find in New York’s Chinatown. I’m waiting to get to Shanghai for the real deal.

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    Quail eggs cooked in what looks like a mini aebelskiver pan until crisp on the bottom, then shoved onto a stick. Actually quite tasty, but, as I soon found out, nothing compared to version you can get where we were headed tonight on an overnight sleeper train: Xi’an. But more on that later…

    Day 7: Terra So-What-A?

    Location: Xi’an, China

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    Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter

    This morning I overheard a conversation a girl was having with another girl in the lobby of our hostel. I couldn’t quite place where she was from. Israel, perhaps? Anyhow, it went something like this:

    Her: Have you been here long?

    Nice Family Traveling With Kids: Oh, just a couple of days.

    H: Have you found anything good to eat here?

    Please bear in mind: we’re in Xi’an. The terminus of the Silk Road. Where European, Arab, Persian, and Indian cultures have been imported into China for over two millenia. It’s one of the most culinarily rich breeding grounds on the planet, and she was wondering if there’s anything good to eat?

    NFTWK: Yeah! Actually, there’s a good noodle shop just down the street here.

    The kid then chimed in with a nod of approval and a “oh yeah, those were yummy spicy noodles!”

    H: Hmm, I don’t really like noodles, and I don’t like spicy food.

    NFTWK: Well what are you looking for? They have Western food in some restaurants here too.

    H: No, I like Chinese food, I was thinking something more like egg rolls though.

    At this point I sort of tuned out. Mostly at my wife’s behest, I do my very very best to try and be as un-snobby as possible, but that level of… I’m not sure what it is. Cultural ignorance? I suppose she’s traveled all the way here so is seems she’s probably at least trying to educate herself. Cultural indifference perhaps? Or is it just a failure to appreciate how large a role culinary history and tradition plays into culture?

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    Some of the best damn noodles in the world are just down the street!

    Let’s just go with that. That level of culinary indifference simply doesn’t sit right with me. And you see it all the time. The backpackers paying 30 RMB for French toast and bacon in the hostel dining room when you can get the best fucking liangpi noodles you’ve ever had for 4 RMB twenty feet down the street. The Australian girl we met who had just come from a month-long trek in Tibet who made a face and said Oh god, no! when I asked her if she had tried po cha, the famous Tibetan drink.

    I mean, who wouldn’t want to taste hyper-concentrated tea churned with fermented yak butter?

    Then again, people probably think the same of me as my eyes start to glaze over when they start talking emphatically about the historical sites they’ve visited.

    There was a Radiolab episode I listened to the other day called Things, in which one of the hosts, Robert Krulwich, talks about his obsession with objects of historical significance. He speaks about how by simply touching an object that he knows has historical significance—a piece of cloth that was taken to the moon by Neil Armstrong, for instance—he feels a connection to history, an electric jolt of sorts.

    His wife, on the other hand, feels none of it. Her reaction to sitting in the seat once reserved for the Dowager Empress Cixi, the last Empress of China? Meh. I would have ordered my servants to make more comfortable chairs.

    I’m right there with her. I can count the number of times I’ve been excited by the man-made history of an object on two fingers, and both of those fingers would be counting personal items that have been autographed by Beatles.

    Natural history? Bring it on. Mountains? Oceans? Fossils? The cosmos? I can’t get enough. But old temples and ancient monuments? Yawn.

    Even the Great Wall, while impressive in scope, was interesting to me more for its feats of engineering and awe-inspiring scale than for its historical significance.

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    Which is all to say that the least exciting portion of our visit to Xi’an was what by all rights should have been the most. I mean, the Terracotta Warrior Army is rated #1 on Trip Advisor’s top attractions in Xi’an. Judging from the hordes of people, the inflated entrance fee, and the jostling to get a good view of the four-times-a-football-field-sized pit in the first of its three large enclosures, there are plenty of folks who actually do find it extremely interesting.

    What isn’t interesting about seeing over 8,000 life-sized clay statues, each one completely different, depicting the armies of the first Emperor of China? These things are over 2,200 years old, and until they were accidentally discovered by farmers digging a well in 1974, were completely unknown to the world.

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    All of that is intellectually impressive to me, and in fact interesting—I read through their Wikipedia entry with rapt fascination. But looking at them? No electric shocks, no tingles, no oppressive weight of history upon my shoulders. My brain simply isn’t wired to connect physical objects to their stories. Food on the other hand, is all about its stories.

    All I could think as I was literally elbowed out of the way by a thin Chinese woman so that she could selfie herself in front of the clay soldiers was I wonder if that noodle shop by the bus station is any good?

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    The building it’s housed in is actually pretty cool. It’s big enough that the far end is partially obscured by haze. I’ve always been fascinated by airplane hangars, and large truss system analysis was my favorite part of the structures classes I had to take for my now-useless architecture degree.

    Man, I sound like an obnoxious, ungrateful, first-world-problem-riddled git, don’t I? For all you history buffs out there who would give an arm and a leg to visit this site, I truly hope you make it here one day and appreciate it extra hard to make up for my nonchalance.

    Adri wanted to take my photograph in front of the largest pit and I did my very best to look excited. This is how it turned out:

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    I’m really terrible at faking emotions.

    After looking at this picture, it occurred to me that there were several thousand other people in this room who were at least as bored as I was:

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    I guess I’d’ve been bored too if Qin, the first Emperor of China had just declared “Okay troops, now, stand still please—we’re going to capture your exact likenesses and despite our fabulous recent technological advances in the realms of writing, the printing press, and archery, we haven’t quite yet gotten around to photographs or 3D scanners yet so we’re gonna have to do this the old fashioned way, and… Hey! Ming! Quit it with the rabbit ears, will you? We’ll do a fun one afterwards, I promise, okay?”

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    So why did we come here? Well, it’s for the same reason that made me want to facepalm when I heard that girl asking where you can get egg rolls in Xi’an: I’d have to be a complete jerk to travel half way around the world to the site of what’s recognized as one of the world’s greatest archaeological finds and not spend the half a day it takes to take it in.

    That and Adri certainly enjoys this kind of in situ historical-type stuff*

    * I’ve always had the bored-to-tears-by-museums gene and have never been afraid to admit it. What I only found out two days ago is that Adri happens to have that gene as well. When we got married and she found out that I have it, she was so relieved to know that she wouldn’t have to spend a lifetime pretending to be interested in them just for my benefit. I find it very endearing and probably quite indicative of how much our relationship has progressed since then. These days she’d have no problem letting me know that something bore her, even if it’s the most exciting thing in the world for me.

    I have a sneaking suspicion that at least a handful of the hundreds of folks who gave those five-star ratings on Trip Advisor feel the same way I do but fake some excitement out of a sense of obligation to history. To all of you out there: it’s okay to not be enthralled by that which you should be enthralled by!

    Anyhow, I don’t mean this to sound like I’m having anything other than a blast and a half. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that we’ve been saving and planning for for half a decade, and while the historical sites might not be on the top of my list, the culinary and cultural experience has been nothing short of spectacular so far, nowhere more so than in Xi’an. Turns out the noodle shop by the bus station actually wasn’t particularly good, but we made up for that meal in spades later on in the evening when we were eating these:

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    and these:

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    and these:

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    Check out my guide to Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter for an in-depth look at some of the cross-cultural food you find in the city.

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  • Kenji’s Excellent Asian Adventures, Part 4: The Long, Smelly Road to Chengdu

    [Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

    Last year I took a three-month trip through China and Southeast Asia, keeping an on-again off-again diary for the whole trip. This is the fourth part of my Excellent Asian Adventures.

    Day 11: I Dream of Xi’An

    Location: Overnight train K879, from Xi’an to Chengdu, China

    It’ll be okay, I’m sure there are plenty of spaces left, I told my wife, Adri, as we joined the massive, jumbled queue at the Xi’an train station’s ticket office two days ago to buy our tickets for Chengdu.

    Famous last words.

    It’s difficult to type effectively right now, when your laptop is balanced on a single knee, even when that laptop is a brand new, ultra-light, super-slim, ideal-for-a-traveler-on-the-road, 11-inch MacBook Air (I mention it because this may be the happiest I’ve ever been with a device, and I’m a device junkie). Why don’t I put my knees together and place my computer in my lap like a normal traveling-writer, you may ask? Well, if I were to do that, I’d end up putting my shoes in the puddle of human urine on the floor in front of me, duh.

    But we’ll get to that.

    I haven’t been keeping up with my daily updates. It’s partly because our internet connection in Xi’an was abysmal, but more because I’ve been so busy wandering Xi’an,* breathing in the aroma of toasting cumin and smoky chiles that permeates the narrow streets to find the time to sit down and write.

    * And okay, taking a ride around the Ming-era city walls on a bicycle built for two along with a day trip to see a few thousand ultimately unexciting terracotta warriors.

    I have plenty of time now, not to mention a whole different set of aromas.

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    Oh, those innocent, halcyon days in Xi’an where the litter of thousands of nightly visitors covers the streets of the Muslim Quarter each morning, the greasy paper bowls that were once filled with spicy noodles or fried potatoes decorating the pavement like cumin-scented votives. If you want to taste the most truly unique food of the region, stuff that makes you cock your head and go “wait, this is Chinese food,” then the Muslim Quarter is everything it’s cracked up to be. Indeed, it was the first touristy site we’d been to in China that was actually worth eating at. The Muslim population in the neighborhood has been around since the 7th Century AD and has put its mark on the local cuisine in no small way.

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    Lamb rouchuan are grilled over charcoal and painted with a thick chili sauce.

    The whole place feels like a mix between a North African bazaar, a Hong Kong dim sum shop, and a slightly outdated theme park. Think: overflowing baskets of dried persimmons and nuts wedged in between rickety jenga-like towers of bamboo steamers packed with lamb dumplings. Throw in the ever-pervasive aroma of cumin, chilies, Sichuan peppercorn, and star anise, along with a good deal of live fire and a healthy dose of a taxed sewage system and you’re getting pretty close.

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    Hand-pulled noodles are made to order and served with a spicy, vinegary beef soup.

    Adri and I spent an afternoon and a night losing ourselves in its twisted streets, slurping down hand-pulled noodles, picking fried quail eggs painted with chili sauce off of skewers, chewing through mochi-like persimmon doughnuts, and eating lamb prepared in more ways than we previously knew was possible.

    Want more Xi’anese food? Read more about it in my guide to the 11 Must-Eat Dishes in the Muslim Quarter and Beyond.

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    Doughy persimmon doughnuts.

    Our first stop each morning was restaurant housed in a small painted plywood shack on the corner. Wanna find this particular place? Just look for the two terracotta warrior replicas standing guard and you’ll get there (or perhaps one of the thousands of other tiny restaurants guarded by terracotta warrior knockoffs* in Xi’an. Don’t worry, it’s just as likely to have good food as we found very little bad food in Xi’an, the one exception being a bowl of deliciously chewy and fresh hand-pulled noodles served in what tasted like Campbell’s tomato soup).

    * That, in all honesty, were more exciting than the real thing due to their closer proximity to good food.

    Our restaurant had a hand-painted menu on a sandwich board in Chinese, a faded printed English menu laminated in thick plastic that seemed to bear no relation to the Chinese menu, and a variety of food on display that seemed to bear no relation to either menu. This was in stark contrast to the fake brand-name stores all over the city that bear a remarkable resemblance to the real deal. Fake Apple stores even have fake uniformed Apple associates and fake Genius Bars. The only thing that tips you off is the occasional smattering of Chinglish in their displays or major typos in places where there should very obviously not be typos (like, say, in big letters on their front doors).

    Fortunately we’d been around long enough to know a thing or two about ordering food in China and we could see the entire kitchen operations from our vantage point on the street: a single propane tank-fueled burner and a stainless steel table with a few aluminum bins of various chopped and pickled ingredients formed their entire selection. Your fingers are your best tools in situations like these.

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    Liangpi noodles

    With a bit of emphatic pointing, smiling, and nodding, we’d find ourselves with a big bowl of liangpi noodles, the true staple of the city. They’re made by washing dough in water until the starches are completely stripped off. That starchy water is then rested overnight until the starch forms a thick, sticky layer at the bottom. Pour off the excess water from the top, steam the resulting starch-cake, cut it into ribbons, and you have yourself a meal that’s eaten breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The noodles typically come dressed with cucumbers, sesame paste, chili oil, and black vinegar, and more often than not you’ll find a rou jia mo sitting, flying saucer-like, at their side.

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    The breakfast version of this ubiquitous sandwich starts out as a steam-griddled bun split in half with a whole boiled egg shoved into it. After that, you go through a Chipotle-style fixin’s bar where you can add your choice of pickled cabbage and long beans, sliced hot peppers, fresh bean sprouts, shredded semi-cooked potatoes dressed with chili oil, pickled shallots, or a pile of dried seaweed. I recommend getting a bit of everything, especially if you spent the night drinking on the street as Adri and I did on our second night.

    It was one of our wiser “ah, f&%k it” moves. We had the option of going to bed early and waking up in time for a quiet morning stroll to the old Drum Tower well before the streets started crowding with folks headed to buy genuine iPads from the “Appel Store” or monkey face-emblazoned t-shirts from the “Daul Frank” outlets. Instead, we decided to sleep in and stay up drinking cheap beer with the locals.

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    We spent our second night in Xi’an perched precariously on top of little plastic chairs pulled up around a knee-high table on the sidewalk in the alley just outside our hostel. Two terracotta warrior replicas stood guard (these guys are everywhere) as we ordered bottle after bottle of large Yanjings or Snows (I honestly can’t tell the difference), feasting on dime-sized chunks of lamb that came skewered onto short lengths of piano wire for 1RMB (about 16¢) apiece. The Chinese have a clever way of keeping track of your tab: you just leave the empty bottles on your table. At the end of the night (or when your table gets too full to use—whichever comes first) you count the bottles, pay your bill, and start again (or, if you’re wiser, stumble home). With a choice of only two different types of beer, both of them at the same price (3RMB or 50¢), the math isn’t that hard, even when you’ve had enough ultra low-proof Yanjing to leave you inebriated.

    What I wouldn’t give for an ice cold Yanjing right now to keep me company through the long, dark, odor-packed night ahead.

    Taking a Train in China? Get Your Tickets Early.

    You see, I’m currently sitting on a hard wooden seat with at most an inch of useless foam padding. Attached to this plank, at a precise 90-degree angle, is a seat-back that has been custom-designed to be just compressive enough that a train ticket-seller can describe it as “soft-backed,” without actually providing any of the physical comforts of a soft back. Seated on the other half of the plank is Adri. She’s currently leaning against the window, which is steamed over with what can only be condensed sweat, perhaps mixed with the vapors rising out of dozens of bowls of instant noodles. (My own Spicy Beef-flavored noodles are under my seat, waiting. I’m rationing myself—there’s a long ride ahead).

    Adri just downed two Nyquil. She says it’s to treat a cold, but I have a sneaking suspicion that she’s in it for the soporifics. Those sniffles she claimed to have yesterday? She was paving the road to have an excuse to pop these pills tonight and sleep her way through our 16-hour train ride. It was a long con, but it looks like it’s paying off.

    Our first train experience in China, an overnight ride from Beijing to Xi’an couldn’t have been more pleasant. We opted to pony up for the soft sleepers on that 12-hour journey. For a few hundred yuan, you get a spot in an air-conditioned room with a latching door and a total of four bunks. They’re dressed with clean sheets, a very comfy bedspread, and a pillow that you can get lost in. Adri and I had the top two bunks (they’re slightly cheaper), but if we had been on the bottom bunks, we also would have gotten a small table, along with a never-ending hot water dispenser for making tea or noodles to our hearts content.

    That table and hot water dispenser was put to good use by our cabin-mates, the world’s sweetest old Chinese couple: A granddad and grandmother who sequentially offered us a bit of every single type of food they carried with them until we finally relented and accepted a cucumber. I can safely say that it was the first time I’ve ever peeled and eaten a cucumber on a train, and also the first time I’ve ever accepted a cucumber as a gift. Have you ever said the phrase “accepted a cucumber” to yourself? Now you have. I offered them some of my Pickled Green Peppercorn and Fried Fish-flavored potato chips in exchange, but they politely declined. They were probably more the Grilled Texas Barbecue-flavored potato chip type.*

    * Turns out it’s not just us who butchers their food in the US. The butchering goes both ways! Aside from the obvious oxymoron a Texan would spot in the phrase “grilled barbecue,” these particular chips had a distinctly sweet, Kansas City-style barbecue sauce flavor.

    I stayed up reading about Xi’anese cuisine in the cool, dry, cabin air until the gentle, silent rocking of the train put me to sleep. I woke up bright-eyed and fresh the next morning to the sound of the old lady clapping her hands across her arms rhythmically while the old man did his morning toe-touches. The Chinese are pretty serious about good blood flow. I was refreshed, ready to tackle everything that Xi’an could throw at me.

    That was then and this is now.

    About that urine between my legs. It’s not mine, if you were wondering.

    Granted, it’s baby urine, and it was recently emitted by a particularly cute baby (with no warning, I might add. Smiling, gurgling, reaching for crackers one second, giving the floor his own special rinse the next), but still, it’s urine, ferchrissakes.

    If you haven’t been to China, you may at this point be wondering how it is that this particular cute baby’s liquidy discharge managed to make it past the absorbent barriers that his parents thoughtfully girded his loins with before bringing him aboard the public transport that is to be his home for the next two thirds of a day. If, on the other hand, you have been here, you’d know that it’s perfectly common to see children under the age of five walking around wearing sweatpants that have been neatly split down the center, allowing them to relieve themselves willy-nilly.

    So far, I’ve seen children going on a street corner outside the train station, in the middle of a line while waiting to enter the Terracotta Warriors archaeological site, in pretty much every public park I’ve been to, and on the floor of a fully-loaded long-distance passenger train. I’ve even seen a young girl well past toddling-age hike up her skirt, pull down her underwear, and pop a squat in the middle of a paved path in a public park in broad daylight before sprinting off to join her friends.

    It really makes you wonder how the housebreaking process goes if children are trained that it’s okay to pee whenever and wherever the urge strikes. But come to think of it, just before our train took off, we watched as a railroad worker casually whipped it out to lay his stream on the tracks in full view of the hundreds of passengers currently aboard our train. This at least partly answered my question about housebreaking. Obviously, some folks never learn it.

    Things on the train got a little hairier when I had to rapidly tuck my feet underneath my plank seat when the little tyke decided that simply urinating wasn’t good enough. In addition to my new laptop, I treated myself to a pair of new hiking shoes (some fabulously comfortable ones from Merrell), and while I fully expect them to get beat up and dirtied over the course of our 10-week adventure, I’m not quite prepared to let them be shat on quite yet.

    The odor combination of Roast Pork and Shiitake Mushroom instant noodles (being eaten by the man across the aisle), mapo tofu (being carted up and down the aisle), and baby poop (right in front of me) is not one I’ve experienced before, and one that I hope never to experience again. I’ve been put right off the “Finger Licking Braised Pork Flavor” potato chips I was enjoying. And oh god, the mother of the sweet-but-stinky child just opened a banana, the only thing that could possibly make this cacophony of odors any worse.

    I lied. Things just got worse. Turns out it’s not just the baby who enjoys soiling the floor. The child’s mother just dumped out half a bottle of milk directly onto the floor between my feet. Milk! Come on, lady, there’s a drain right at the end of the car. Or were you perhaps trying to wash away the urine with your milk? I shot her a sort of incredulous are you serious? look totally involuntarily and she seemed to get the message; she handed off the baby to his grandmother while she walksedoff down the aisle, hopefully in search of a mop. I momentarily consider how humorous life is.

    She came back, mop in hand, and oh god, did she just come from that hallway? Please don’t be the mop from the bathroom please don’t be the mop from the bathroom please don’t be the mop from the bathroom, I tell myself as I hold my breath. You know that carnival game where you shoot the stream of water onto the quarter-sized target to blow up the balloon? Now imagine that you’re playing that game while on a moving vehicle and instead of a quarter-sized target you’ve got a hole in the ground that can literally no longer be seen due to the 1/4-inch of brownish sludge covering the entire floor area. You’ve just totally forgotten where you were aiming that stream, haven’t you? Don’t worry, you’re in good company. The bathroom on this train isn’t so much a room as it is a general zone.

    I just took a short, exploratory inhalation which confirmed my worst nightmare. Yes, it’s the mop from the All-Purpose Bodily Fluid-Relief Area that just dripped its way down the corridor. I suppose a little more urine here or there isn’t going to hurt matters.

    There was a point to this whole story, and that’s that if you plan on traveling by train in China, get to the train station early, and for god’s sake, take the sleeper.

    I think I’m going to take a stroll down to the end of the car so that I can get a breath of fresh air near the toilets and the smokers. We shall see what the next 15 hours will bring us.

    I’m fairly certain that the first shower I take when we arrive in Chengdu will be the best shower ever.

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  • Kenji’s Excellent Asian Adventures, Part 5: There’s More to Sichuan Than Just the Food

    Noodles and rolls on Jinli [Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

    Last year I took a three-month trip through China and Southeast Asia, keeping an on-again off-again diary for the whole trip. This is the fifth part of my Excellent Asian Adventures.

    Day 12: Chengdu is My Culinary Mecca

    Location: Chengdu, China

    The last time I wrote, I was confronted by a very cute baby under circumstances of very questionable hygiene. It was on the longest train ride of my life, both temporally and mentally, and the shower I took when we reached our slightly damp hostel in Chengdu was indeed the best shower I’ve ever taken in my life. Chengdu is a gorgeous city, and I sighed as the lukewarm trickle in our room washed away the literal human filth that had been caked to my ankles.

    Now that I was certain that my hands were not going to give me dysentery as I ate, it was time to go exploring, and what delicious exploration it was.

    Wanna know how great my wife Adri is? She’s the kind of a person who would endure a nerve-wracking, immune system-testing 16-hour train trip all so that her loving but often demanding and occasionally insane husband could taste a single dish of food at a single restaurant. It’s a food (and in fact an entire cuisine) that she doesn’t even like. Isn’t that sweet?

    Okay, to be fair, there were actually a few dishes I wanted to taste beyond mapo doufu, the Sichuan classic of silken tofu and ground beef glazed with a slick of crimson-red chili oil and a dusting of toasted Sichuan peppercorns, but we managed to track down nearly every one of them. Luckily, Sichuan Province, with its mountainous terrain and cool, misty air, is a much easier place to go exploring as a pedestrian than the grimy hustle and bustle of Beijing or Xi’an. Chengdu—a city over 20 million-strong that still feels in many ways like a small town—was one of the highlights of our time in China. Not only is it one of the best food cities in the world, it’s also the only city we visited in China where drivers actually wait for pedestrians to cross the road, and where public restrooms regularly provide running water.

    Sichuan Province and neighboring Chongqing (they split in the ’90s) are home to some of my favorite foods of all time; Foods that I’ve eaten countless times in Sichuan restaurants stateside, foods that I’ve made at home over and over again to perfect them, foods I’ve read about in every book on Sichuan cuisine I could find, but also foods I’d never ever tasted in their home territory. We tracked down an unparalleled version of fuqi feipian: shavings of braised and chilled beef tongue or heart, along with thin slices of tendon and tripe, paper-thin and crunchy in texture. The slices were tossed with a chili vinaigrette and served with roasted peanuts and chopped cilantro.

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    We walked down the street towards the very pleasant Renmin Park and stopped at the first shop that struck our fancy. They were serving steam-griddled bing (think: English muffins meet a Chinese steamed bun) stuffed with your choice of 40 or so different menu items. Adri and I followed our standard trick and pointed at what the person in front of us got and were met with a bun stuffed with a meltingly-soft, chili-packed stew of pork and potatoes.

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    We strolled through the winding, tourist-packed Jinli walking street where we ate cups full of spiced fried potatoes, bean starch jelly flavored with chili and vinegar, and grilled skewered meats. In any restaurant in the U.S., all three would have been showstoppers, but I feel like you have the right to raise your standards when you’re in the motherland. We saved space and instead sat down at a small bar. We ordered two large Yanjings and were mildly amused to find that nearly every other patron was drinking Budweiser, and at a very hefty price tag to boot. The locals were probably equally amused to see us drinking their national piss-water when that glorious Bud was only a few dozen Yuan more.

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    There’s gongbao jiding, or kung pao chicken, which, in its original incarnation, is far more subtle and sweet than either the gloppy bell pepper and celery-studded lunch specials I grew up on or the fiery and funky hardcore version I’ve been making for myself for years. I may well have to add a third recipe to my arsenal now that I know what it’s supposed to taste like.

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    And of course we hit Chen, the restaurant that was built on the fame of Grandma Chen herself, the eponymous pockmarked lady who supposedly created Mapo Doufu. You can find the dish at nearly every restaurant in China (and, in fact, at nearly every Chinese restaurant I’ve ever been to in my life), but nowhere have I had it as good as here. It comes to the table in a hot cast iron pot, the cubes of tender tofu quivering in the bubbling chili oil, the aromas of roasted chilies, fermented horsebeans, Sichuan peppercorns, and garlic rising through the plumes of steam. It doesn’t have the blast of chili heat you might expect from looking at it. Rather, it has a more subtle, layered burn with chilies that come through alternately as sweet and hot with the rich, almost raisin-like flavor of dried fruit.

    We ate nearly non-stop and we ate well, but there’s more to see and do in Chengdu than just eat (really!). (Check out my article on the 14 Essential Dishes of Chengdu and Chongqing for more details on the food.)

    There’s not an awful lot by way of touristy sites compared to, say, Beijing, but it has quite a few really lovely public parks. Once inside, you can participate in such varied activities as singing with old folks, practicing ballroom dance with old folks, drinking tea with old folks, or—my favorite—getting your ears cleaned by young men.

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    What have we got here?

    You do not want to know what this fellow found while spelunking my inner canals. Suffice it to say, I figured out why my hearing seemed to bad lately.

    So yeah, the city itself is great, but if you want to experience the real cool stuff in Sichuan, you’d do best to get out of it, and your first stop should be the pandas. China ain’t exactly well-known as a beacon of animal rights, but the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding is by all means one of the most well-run animal research and conservation organizations I’ve ever visited. The habitats are natural, the pandas are generally kept well away from the visitors (though in typical Chinese fashion, those with lots of RMB to spare can pay an exorbitant fee to join a caretaker in feeding the baby pandas up close and personal), and the place is extraordinarily clean and efficient.

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    Adolescent panda

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    Panda butt

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    Baby pandas climbing stumps

    Did you know that pandas can climb trees and are totally cool sleeping in them like ninjas?

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    Ninja sleep

    There are a number of peafowl that roam the grounds as well. Chinese children seemed strangely afraid of them. We spotted this guy taking his little peachick out for a walk:

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    Peafowl

    Did you know that red pandas and giant pandas are not actually related at all? I always acted like a smart aleck as a kid, because I knew from the ZooBooks series that giant panda bears are not actually bears, but are more closely related to raccoons, just like those red pandas.

    Joke’s on me, because it turns out that after some debate, scientists decided that pandas in fact are bears. Next they’re going to tell us that margarine is unhealthy or that fat-free cookies can still make you fat.

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    Red pandas

    Red pandas are cute and all, but not nearly as cute as giant pandas. I mean, just look at this guy:

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    Fine dining

    LOOK AT HIM.

    Day 14 and 15: Times I Wish I Packed Lighter

    Location: Emei Shan, Sichuan Province

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    Incense holder

    After some wildly delicious food in Chengdu, Adri and I made our way over to Emei Shan, one of the four holy Buddhist mountain sites in China, and a place of unspeakable natural beauty.

    The town of Emei itself is not much to look at or visit. People use it and the nearby Baoguo village as their base camp when taking the multi-day trek up and down Mt. Emei. Covered in fir, cedar, and bamboo trees, the mountain is over 3,000 meters tall, and while the path up and down the mountain is paved in stone and has resting points ever few kilometers, it’s still a good 30-kilometer trek during which time you’re constantly going up and down stairs and takes most young folks a good 10 to 12 hours to complete one-way.

    In other words, it’s not the kind of climb an out-of-shape food-writing schlub like myself should take on lightly.

    With limited time, Adri and I wisely decided that the best way for us to see the whole trail without spending three days on the mountain would be to get a ride to the very impressive Jinding temple at the top via a combination of bus and cable car, then walk down over the course of two days, spending the night at one of several wooden temples along the path down.

    The first part of the trip—taking the bus and cable car up—went exactly as planned. We arrived at the top in the early afternoon, the giant 48-meter-tall multi-dimensional Samantabhadra looming out through the mist as dozens of the devout walked slowly towards it, kneeling to pray with each step.

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    Holy fog!

    The statue, though not particularly old, is nonetheless striking in its scale and craftsmanship.

    Look straight ahead, and that’s what you see. But glance over to your right, and you have this:

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    Not so pretty

    As often happened in China, I found the juxtaposition between the most beautiful and the ugliest bits of human creation to be almost comical, though not as comical as I found this sign to be:

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    Loving life.

    Loving life. Don’t turn round the hand rail.

    Good advice. I’m assuming it means “stay on this side of the bar if you want to live.”

    The tourists are thick at the bus-accessible portion of the mountain, and hawkers selling pork belly, smoked sausage flavored with Sichuan peppercorns, and fried arepa-like corn cakes are as dense on the ground as the piles of empty plastic bags and bottles that litter the sides of the trail. We grabbed a few snacks (the pork belly was fantastic) and started walking.

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    Snacks

    Looking at the piles of non-biodegradable trash that blanketed one of the holiest sites in China, I couldn’t help muttering to Adri man, people are jerks.

    It was only later, after we’d left the throngs of tourists and settled into the first hour of our real walk that we realized it wasn’t actually the people who were jerks, it was these guys:

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    Look at this jerk!

    The macaques that hang out near the base and summit of the mountain, as well as at a few of the temples along the way, are, to put it bluntly, jerks.

    To put it not so bluntly, they are complete, utter jerks with no manners, compassion, or basic sense of decency whatsoever that would happily rip a baby out of its mother’s arms if it thought that it could get a potato chip out of the process. The worst part is, they’re crafty and bold to boot.

    Those snack wrappers and empty bottles littered along the side of the trail? Those aren’t from people throwing them out, they’re from monkeys stealing them from people and throwing them out. I know this, because I was a victim of such a crime. The tube of Finger-Licking Braised Pork Flavor Lay’s Stax that I’d carried with me all the way from Xi’an, and which was intended to provide me with sustenance for the first day of trekking was stolen out of my bag by this jerk here:

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    Stole my Pringles!

    She just walked right up, hissed at me, bared her teeth, jumped onto my bakpack, stuck her hands in and fished around, grabbed the Lays, and took them to a tree, sitting down right by this sign:

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    Good friends, my butt.

    You know how I’ve mentioned that nobody in China seems to follow posted signs? I couldn’t help but to think that perhaps the monkeys are learning from us as I watched that monkey eat my chips one by one, daring me to do something about it.

    Good friends of mankind, my ass.

    But it’s hard to stay mad at a monkey when you’re surrounded by gorgeous things like this temple built into the side of a mountain, which despite bing run down, still makes you think about the effort that went into building it in the first place.

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    Temple

    And of course, the natural beauty can’t be beat:

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    Misty mountains

    The mountain spent almost all day shrouded in mist—as it is 6 out of 7 days a week—but the mist got thicker and thicker as the day drew to a close

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    Trees through the mist

    The good thing about walking downhill at a site where most folks make the holy pilgrimage in the opposite direction is that you mostly bump into people going the other way, making your encounters very brief. And as the slow stream of pilgrims slowed to a light trickle before finally shutting off completely, our afternoon was as quiet and peaceful as the rest of China is busy. Though it was odd: I couldn’t help but notice that every time people walked by us, they’d give us a strange look up and down, often accompanied by a little smirk or pause of disbelief.

    At first I thought they might find it odd we were walking down instead of up, or perhaps that we were foreigners. Eventually I figured out what it was: they were laughing at our loadout.

    While most folks store their bags at the base, bringing perhaps an overnight bag with a single change of clothing with them onto the mountain for the trek, we had, unwisely, brought all of our belongings with us.

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    Morning mountains

    That’s two full packs each, with a couple weeks’ worth of clothing, toiletries, books, medicine, a laptop, a couple of iPads, water bottles, extra shoes, a full-sized DSLR camera with an extra lens, and everything else that you need for a 10-week backpacking trip—a little over 40 pounds of gear apiece, worn on the front and the back. It wasn’t the easiest way to hike 30 kilometers with over 2,000 meters of altitude shift, not counting the snaking ups and downs the path takes.

    By the time we stopped for the night about four hours into the trip, we were beyond pooped.

    Accommodations on the side of the mountain at Yuxian temple are as utilitarian as it gets. Simple wooden bunks, squat toilets that empty out onto the side of the mountain, and a shower. Dinner was a simple but surprisingly entirely vegetarian meal with some smoky, spicy eggplant, charred cabbage, steamed green beans, and lettuce in a savory broth with plenty of rice. We ate family style, sharing a table with a middle aged man and his young son who offered to show us how to properly drink the cabbage-flavored broth served with the rice.

    We ate up and passed out, waking up the next morning at 6 a.m., our joints creaking in pain, thinking we’d be back in Emei in time to catch a 1pm bus to Chongqing.

    Boy were we optimistic.

    The second leg of the trip was, if anything, even more gorgeous than the first leg as a largely coniferous forest slowly gave way to deciduous trees and shrubs, small waterfalls and creeks slowly winding their way around the path.

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    Downstairs

    Our legs had long since transitioned from the oh-my-god-this-hurts-so-much phase, through the crap-my-legs-are-shaking-and-I-can’t-stop-them phase, and into the phase where they simply give up attempting to tell you that you are putting them through something they were not designed to go through and resign themselves to their fate.

    A day that started with a good hour of walking into spiderwebs (the early bird may catch the worm, but the early hiker is the sucker who clears all the spiderwebs for everyone else to follow) with almost unbearable pain in my joints became positively joyful when we made a brief pitstop to soak our feet in an ice cold, clear mountain stream.

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    Waterfall

    As the day wore on to near noontime, we started hearing shrieks and yells from humans up ahead. We’d made it down to the so-called “Ecological Monkey Zone,” which is a mistranslation of the Chinese phrase meaning “zone where two groups of equally jerky primates can freely harass each other.”

    It turns out that earlier, when I gave humans a pass and decided that the macaques were the jerks on this mountain, I was not entirely correct: we came across a group of a dozen or so high school-aged kids who were alternately shrieking at the monkeys and attracting them with bags of peanuts, then threatening them with sticks and slingshots.

    No wonder these monkeys are such jerks, I thought to myself. I’d be a jerk too if I spent my whole life being teased like this.

    Adri and I quickly separated ourselves from the other humans and started walking away until we found this little guy playing with a slug:

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    As I squatted down to take a quick picture of him, along with another quick snap of a mother and her infant, I didn’t notice the big ol’ scarface sneaking up behind me until it was too late.

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    Mother and child

    He made a grab for my camera, which I had to yank back out of his hands. He lunged for my hat and hissed at me as I tried to back away, discovering that I was surrounded on all sides by a good 12 monkeys and that Adri was in a similar situation a little further up the path.

    The old geezer made one last grab, this time for my backpack where he managed to grab hold of my water bottle and made off with it. I vaguely remembered reading a sign post a few kilometers back that had warned us to stay in a group and carry a large rock when approached by monkeys.

    I found a lose stone by my feet and picked it up, immediately causing the monkeys to scatter and glare at us from a few meters away.

    Adri and I backed away slowly, watching as the old fellow deftly unscrewed my water bottle using his hind legs and his teeth.

    Death by monkey is one of those phrases that probably looks way cooler on your tombstone than it feels in real life.

    The good news was that the pack of teenagers we’d run into were on a day trip from the base of the mountain, which meant that we only had another five to 10 kilometers to go.

    At this stage, the path in the mountain splits, with one path taking you back towards Baoguo village, and the other, slightly shorter path taking you to a bust station where you can catch a ride the rest of the way. Feeling our feet getting ready to give out, we decided to take the shorter route.

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    Look! It’s gorges!

    It all started out well, with paths through deep gorges and river walks that were if anything the most beautiful part of the walk yet. I even got to strip down to my underwear for a quick shower under a gushing waterfall. What you don’t see is the eddy hidden behind the rocks where all the empty plastic bottles like to congregate.

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    Shower time!

    A shower that was only partially interrupted by a Chinese couple who didn’t notice me in the background.

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    I am over here!

    We were in great spirits as we passed this pretty pagoda on a small formation reached by two bridges:

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    Red pagoda

    Pretty, right?

    We reached the small town near the bus station and noticed that it was surprisingly quiet. Isn’t this a tourist town? Shouldn’t there be, like, vans and taxis and all manner of transport ready to take our money to deliver us to wherever we’d like to go?

    Instead, there was a deserted parking lot and a big chain around the door of the bus station.

    Several of the small towns in the area, including the one that houses the bus station, were in the middle of protests against the government turning their small farming communities upside down with the increasing tourism that Emei Shan is drawing. In other words, the two tourists who randomly showed up in their town were the two folks least likely to find anything by way of help there.

    The best they could offer us was a finger pointed down a steep staircase as they said Baoguo.

    It doesn’t look like that path leads to Bauguo we thought to ourselves as all hopes of making it to Chongqing that night left our minds. But what choice to we have?

    We started down the staircase sullenly, our feet leaden and our wills battered, just as it began raining.

    The road was hard going. Unlike the well-trodden stone pathway up to the top of the mountain, this path seemed like it hadn’t been used in years, probably because it hadn’t. The guardrails had long since collapsed, leaving cracked concrete stumps. The stones were covered in a thick layer of moss, trees and grasses sprouting up between them. That’s when they were there, at least. In many spots, the stones had been completely swept away, leaving a wall of rocks on our right and a steep drop-off to a rocky, flowing river on our left, with streams and waterfalls cutting across our path.

    What few structures we came across were abandoned, their wooden roofs long ago rotted in, their moss-covered walls crawling with centipedes.

    Remember those goofy Chinglish signs we saw earlier up on top of the mountain? If only there had been a handrail for us, loving life, at this moment to not turn round. Unfortunately, all there was blocking us from the slippery fate of a hundred meter drop was the questionable grip our shoes held on the mud-slicked stones.

    I’d never feared for Adri’s life more than I did during those last couple of rainy hours. The worst part was not knowing how far we had to walk, or even knowing if we were heading in the right direction. My worst fear was that we’d end up at a dead end, forcing us to retrace our footsteps as it started to get dark.

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    Adri ain’t happy.

    Finally, we heard the sound of trucks up ahead, as other signs of civilization started appearing. Stairs that had been recently swept. Small concrete houses with laundry hanging up outside. Wires strung up with runner beans and squash.

    The path eventually deposited us on the side of a highway where we spotted a police car, monitoring a nearby town in case the protests got out of hand.

    We dug out our guidebook, looked up the phrase for “Help me please, I’m lost,” did our best to ask them for a ride to Baoguo, and were met with a finger pointed along the highway.

    With desperation we tried explaining to them that we were so tired and shaken up that we could barely stand, but were met with blank stares.

    We started walking down the highway, thinking that at least on paved road, it wouldn’t be so bad. We failed to account for the craziness that is Chinese drivers. Adri and I walked, pressed as close up to the guardrail as possible when I saw two cars emerging from a corner in front of us at high speed, one of them overtaking the other.

    I mentally gauged their distance and determined that we were safe at our current position. Then I realized that there was a third car, and it was overtaking the car that was already overtaking the first car. They were now driving three-cars-wide down a one lane highway on a curvy mountain road at high speed.

    The third car was forced to drive not just in the oncoming traffic lane, but to actually hit the opposite shoulder in order to perform his daredevil stunt. This is all while Adri and I were walking in that shoulder. We dove up onto the guardrail protecting us from a drop to the river below.

    This time, I’d never been more afraid for my own life.

    That’s when we said fuck this, we’re hitching a ride back, no matter what it takes.

    Pro-tip: When hitching a ride in China, putting your thumb out will only get drivers to enthusiastically thumbs-up you back. Similarly, waving will get you plenty of smiles and waves, but no rides. If you want to get a ride, stick your hands out in front of you with your palms facing downward and slowly wave at the floor. Or better yet, do what we did: jump up and down waving your arms frantically like a man on a deserted island who’s just seen a low-flying plane pass by.

    We finally got picked up by a family of four who happened to have a couple of spare seats in their van, which was decorated with a big, gold, grinning Buddha on the dashboard. The man driving asked us for 30 Yuan (about $5) for his troubles. We gladly would have payed him anything he asked at that point.

    Our bus to Chongqing had long since left, so we decided to spend the night in Baoguo. Our hostel, the Teddy Bear Hotel, turned out to be one of the nicest on our trip. You remember that shower I took when I got to Chengdu? The greatest shower of all time? The shower I took at the Teddy Bear Hotel blew that one away. As we checked in and started walking up to our room (please no more stairs!), we could hear the desk clerk telling another backpacker “you must go to this bus station, because the other one is closed for protests.”

    If only we’d known.

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    Fish Fragrant Pork doesn’t actually have any fish in it.

    Only once we’d showered, drank a couple of beers, and filled up on some mapo tofu, fish-fragrant pork, and pork and pickle soup from the restaurant down the block did we feel relaxed enough to take stock of the days events. Despite all the pain, trauma, and fear-of-death involved, it was, up to then, the best two days we’d had in China, with the kind of natural beauty we’d never expected to see before coming here. Even now, as I write this from the upper deck of a train in Thailand on our way from Nong Khai to Bangkok, I feel the same way.

    It’s a trip I’d recommend to anyone with an appreciation for nature and a desire to put themselves through a bit of healthy pain, though I’d suggest you learn from our mistake: if you plan on climbing up or down the mountain, spend the night before in Emei or Baoguo and take only a light bag with the bare essentials with you. And for god’s sake, make sure to check on those bus stations!

    It’s a particularly nice trip to make if you want to get away from those sites that attract lots of foreign tourists. Once we got away from the very peak of the mountain near the bus station, we only ran into two non-Chinese tourists during the entire two day ordeal (and one of those tourists mistook me for a Chinese tourist—it took me a while to understand why an American had said nihao to me as he walked by).

    Epilogue

    Later on that night I decided to reward myself for two days of good exercise with a massage at the one fancy hotels in Baoguo. What I got was the absolute least relaxing massage I’ve ever had in my life. The room itself was gorgeous, the massage chairs were soft, clean, and comfy, and the masseuse seemed to know what she was doing—at least, when she wasn’t checking messages on her cell phone. But man, is it difficult to relax when four hotel employees are watching Chinese sitcoms on TV with the volume at full blast in the same room where you’re getting your massage, all while eating, burping, clearing their throats, and spitting directly on that gorgeous marble floor.

    WTF, China?

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  • Kenji’s Excellent Asian Adventures, Part 6: This is Not the Cruise You’re Looking For

    [Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

    Last year I took a three-month trip through China and Southeast Asia, keeping an on-again off-again diary for the whole trip. This is the sixth part of my Excellent Asian Adventures.

    Days 18 to 20: This is Not the Cruise You’re Looking For

    Location: Somewhere between Chongqing and Yiching, China

    It’s 5 a.m. and I’m woken up by an earsplitting, crackling hiss, followed by pre-recorded message that sounds like an angry monk reading Vogon poetry over a New York subway PA system. It’s not quite the last thing you want to hear in the morning, but it’s close. The last thing you want to hear in the morning is what follows: a two minute excerpt of Kenny G’s interpretation of The Girl From Ipanema, played in a loop over those same PA speakers.

    I’m fairly certain that the best and brightest minds in China have been hard at work coming up with a series of sounds scientifically proven to be the most efficient way to deprive innocent ship passengers of sleep. If hell had a waiting room, this would be the soundtrack.

    This, by the way, is the same noise I awoke to yesterday morning at 5 a.m. It was on a repeated loop that played continuously until 7, when it finally gave way to China’s normal soundtrack: loogie hocking, coughing, and the dramatically-loud pitter patter of unrestrained children, no doubt looking for a corner to pee in. I’m fairly certain it’s going to happen again today. The only upside is that it drowns out the noise of the air conditioning unit, which does nothing but cycle the same wet air around the room, occasionally giving out a little gurgling groan to let you know that it’s still alive and you better not unplug it or you’ll be cut out of the will.

    Waking up at 5 a.m. wouldn’t be so bad if it happened to be after a good night’s sleep in a comfortable bed to the smell of a hot breakfast being prepared. Instead, everything is damp. And I mean everything. The bed is damp. The sheets are damp and moldy-smelling. The pillows are damp. My hair is damp (and I don’t even have hair right now). The carpet, coated in decades of grime and spit, are damp. The dried spicy shredded squid I bought as a snack packed in a sealed plastic pouch with a packet of silicone desiccant guaranteed to keep it dry, is damp. Even our ultra-fast-drying synthetic fiber clothing, which we were assured would have to break the basic laws of thermodynamics in order to get damp, are damp.

    Ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard the pride of the Yangtze, and your home away from home for the next three days.

    I’m not normally a “cruise” kind of guy. I’ve taken one cruise in my life, but after a hectic week in Beijing, followed by some heavy hiking on Emei Shan (complete with those jerky monkeys), and a few more hectic days in Sichuan and Chongqing, a slow, lazy, romantic cruise on the Yangtze river, surrounded by the famous Three Gorges sounded pretty heavenly, and we decided to go full-immersion by skipping the International cruise lines and opting for an operator that caters to Chinese tourists. Apart from a sweet young Swiss girl traveling alone, we were the only non-Chinese tourists on the trip.

    As we were herded aboard our ship via a long concrete staircase (the funicular next to the stairs looked like it hadn’t moved up or down its rusted tracks for decades), the first thing we noticed was the smell. Water-bound vessels always have some kind of pungent aroma. That comes with the territory. But this was something different. After locating the source of the stench—which I’ll get to—we seriously considered eating the cost of the tickets and stepping off before we even left port. In retrospect, I kinda wish we had.

    The ship itself was a sort of floating time machine. The interior, with its wall-to-wall carpeting complete with cigarette burns and the stains of every bodily fluid you can name and a few you can’t, looked like a dim sum restaurant that hasn’t been cleaned or redecorated since 1972. The main lounge had two wooden benches (also burned with cigarettes), a chandelier with 16 lights (only three worked), a refrigerator full of warm beer and Red Bull, and a counter that sold dried squid, baiju (Chinese firewater) and instant noodles.

    The warm beer and baiju would become my best friends for the next couple of days.

    Through the smoke-filled haze that had already permeated the room, I could barely make out a “no smoking” sign above one of the benches. It was right next to a sign that said “No spitting.” In case that sign wasn’t specific enough, there was a third sign on the wall that said “No spitting ANYWHERE.”

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    There must have been a fourth sign posted somewhere that read “Please disregard all posted signs,” perhaps stuck somewhere on the dingy carpet where it was obscured by gobs of spit and discarded cigarette butts.

    Walking up the curved staircase to the second level of the lounge, I saw a long line of tourists, each one carrying a large thermos in their hand. Ah, that door down there must be where you fill up your hot water bottle for instant noodles and tea, I thought.

    I was correct, but it’s not all the room was. It was also the lone public restroom on the boat, and the source of the offensive odors. Why did it smell so bad, you ask? Because already, before we had even left port, the squat toilet had been clogged. A layer of brown, streaky liquid was slicked across the floor.* You had to step into it to get at the hot water dispenser. The clog was so severe that murky brown water was backing up into the sink. Folks were standing in piss, holding their thermoses inches above raw sewage in order to fill them with the water that they’d be cooking with and drinking from for the next three days.

    * If there’s one advantage to the Chinese steadfast refusal to supply toilet paper to the public, it’s that at least when bathroom floors are covered in piss or worse, you don’t get any of those disgusting pulpy masses of paper that come along with it.

    It’s okay, I said to Adri as I saw her eyes widening in horror, her body instinctively drifting towards the nearest exit. We’ll just avoid public spaces. So long as we have safe refuge in our First Class, air-conditioned cabin, complete with Western toilet and in-room shower, we’ll be able to relax, right? I said to her as the ship finally pulled out into the brown, muddy water of the Yangtze.

    We found our cabin and unlocked it.

    “The horror! The horror!” I whispered weakly as the door creaked open.

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    I suppose this does qualify as a Western toilet, though it may as well have been a squat, because there’s no way in hell my any part of my body was getting anywhere near that thing. It’s normal in China for showers to be a simple hose-and-nozzle situation attached to the wall in the bathroom. In this particular case, you had to stand or sit on that toilet in order to use the shower.

    Well, I thought, so long as we can use the sink, at least we can stay mildly clean.

    I turned on the tap. As soon as water started circling down, a wave of raw sewage odors shot up out of the drain. I quickly glanced under the sink and saw the problem: it was a straight PVC tube going down to the floor. No U-bend, no valve, literally nothing separating the river of sewage that ran under our room from every other toilet on the same floor and the drain in our sink. We slammed the door shut, mentally slapping an “Open in case of emergencies only” sticker across it.

    We went for a wander to the upper observation deck, and nearly burst out laughing when we found that the “shaded observation area” had already been strung up end to end with underwear, pajamas, and t-shirts attempting to dry in the evening mist.

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    We laughed even harder when we realized that it had only been 20 minutes since we boarded, which meant that folks must have come onto the ship fully prepared to wash their clothes immediately in order to get at the prime drying spots before anyone else. That laundry stayed up there for the remainder of the trip.

    There were some upsides, but they were few and far between. The “towns” you stop to visit are either strings of shops selling tourist knick knacks, or large, industrial, concrete numbers (sometimes both). We used these short off-shore excursions as a means to gorge ourselves on spicy bean starch noodles, dumplings, and coal-roasted potatoes, as well as to replenish our supply of dried squid and peanuts seasoned with Sichuan peppercorns and chili.

    It was on one of these walks that I discovered one of my new favorite snacks: “Dried Horse Bean With Mysterious Flavor,” which are in fact quite dry, but not all that mysterious. The dried fava beans come with a thick coating of a sweet-and-spicy fermented chili and Sichuan pepper spice blend. We spent hours on the upper deck of the ship, playing cards, eating fermented horse beans, and attempting to numb away our general sense of queasiness with warm beer and hot tea.

    On the second day of the trip we discovered exactly what it is the morning announcements interspersed between the Kenny-G were saying: the menu for the day. Turns out there’s a dining cabin in the aft section of the second floor of the cruise ship which offers a full menu of Chinese standards. We sat at a communal table with the single Swiss girl, a Chinese family, and middle-aged Chinese man who was halfway through a solo bottle of baiju. He offered us each a slug then giggled as we coughed and sputtered while trying to knock it back.

    The mapo tofu, braised greens, scrambled eggs with tomatoes, and stir-fried chicken we ordered were not half bad considering the surroundings. A step or two below standard American food court Chinese fare. We were a bit concerned as to the general hygiene of the kitchen producing it, but it was delivered to the dining room via the screen of a dumbwaiter so it was possible (though not easy) to imagine that the kitchen was clean.

    This was the first and last meal we took there, and it required us to cut down the imaginary “emergencies only” tape we had placed over the bathroom door.

    The one stop we were really looking forward to, the famed Fengdu Ghost City was skipped due to time constraints. The Three Gorges themselves are relatively impressive, though I hear that they are far less so after the construction of the Three Gorges dam.

    The Smaller Three Gorges, which you reach via a day trip on a mid-sized boat followed by a small wooden skiff were even nicer than the actual Three Gorges. The gorgeous natural beauty makes even the hackneyed tour guide schtick bearable, though headphones help even more.

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    The mid-sized boat you take to access the Smaller Three Gorges has an upper-upper deck where you can pay 30 Yuan for a cup of tea, which then allows you to sit up there for the remainder of the 6 hour trip. This, at least, saves you from being shoved mercilessly by umbrella-toting grannies.

    It also ensures that you won’t accidentally get hit by one of the cigarette butts, banana peels, or half-eaten corn cobs wrapped in plastic bags that get chucked willy-nilly into what were undoubtedly once clean waters.

    It’s kind of depressing to be taken on a nature-baed cruise and watch as it is literally polluted right before your eyes.

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    I have never been shoved around as much as I have been for the last couple weeks in China. People will literally hold you back with their hand as they cut into a line just as you’re about to start talking to a cashier or ticket-seller without even offering a bit of eye contact by way of an “excuse me.” The only upside to it is that nobody seems to care if you call them out on it and shove them right back out. And the shoving seems to know no age, gender, or class borders either. You’re just as likely to get shoved by a young, well-dressed young girl in high heels as by a disheveled grandmother with a pushcart or a man in a business suit.

    Like countries that have a haggling culture, it’s a part of every day life that I just find extremely unpleasant.

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    China is a wonderful country to visit with incredible food, gorgeous scenery, and a rich history, but I can’t with any sort of sincerity recommend visiting the Three Gorges on a cruise. Do yourself a favor: If you’re on your way from Chongqing to Shanghai, skip the boat and jump straight on a flight. There are far better things to see (and more importantly, tastier things to eat) once you get there.

    Day 21: Giggling is Universal

    Location: Wuhan, China

    Our harrowing cruise ended three days after it began and we caught a bus from Yiching to Wuhan. Day buses are not an altogether unpleasant way to travel in China, provided you get a seat towards the front of the bus. At the back of the bus you have to put up with the bathroom odors which get pleasantly wafted through the cabin by the swinging door that invariably has a broken latch. In the center of the bus, where we were seated, you have another pleasantry to keep you occupied: the communal spit bucket.

    It’s nothing more than a plastic tub that sits in the aisle and serves as both a garbage can and spittoon. There’s nothing more relaxing during a drive through the Chinese countryside than the hocchhhhhh-p’too-SMACK of laser-precision loogie-hocking next to your seat. The upside was that the seats and floors were relatively free of bodily fluids.

    The only stop we made during the 180-mile journey was at a highway rest stop. Oh man I wish we could trade in our McDonald’s and convenience stores for Chinese rest stops! Chinese fast food means noodles, but the ones at the rest stop were actually good. You pay a few Yuan for a basic bowl, then ask them to gussy it up with a wide array of fresh steamed vegetable, sauces and chili oils, ground meat or nuts, and broths. It’s a hot, fresh, satisfying, and cheap meal that gets served hot in a matter of seconds. It’s almost enough to make you forget about the state of bathrooms in Chinese rest stops (hint: not good).

    If noodles aren’t you’re thing, there’s also the usual array of Chinese convenience store snacks that range from shrimp chips to cryo-vacked Peking duck to dried fruit to meat- and seafood-flavored Pringles. Head over to the right side of the convenience store and you’ve reached the fried-duck-parts depot. Think: the clear acrylic bins with plastic scoops at the bulk candy shop, but instead of Sour Patch Kids and malt balls you’ve got fried duck legs, gizzards, and heads. You pick out the ones you want, scoop them into plastic bags, then gnaw on them to extract bits of skin and cartilage (you find little actual meat).

    For the rest of the bus trip, the communal spit bucket becomes the communal duck bones and spit bucket.

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    One of the problems of looking vaguely Chinese but not being at all Chinese in China is that not only do Chinese people try to speak to you in Chinese, but you actually have a tough time convincing them that you don’t speak Chinese.

    Have you ever noticed that when faced with someone who doesn’t speak a lick of their language, English-speaking tourists slowly turn into Tarzan?

    Man to confused waiter: “Do you guys have egg rolls?”

    Woman to man: “Honey, I don’t think they understand…”

    Man to woman: “It’s ok, honey. They’ll get it. Watch.” To waiter: “You have egg roll?”

    Woman: “Dear, I really don’t…”

    Man: “EGG ROLL? YOU HAVE? ME HUNGRY. BRING EGG ROLL.”

    After two and a half weeks in China, I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of that.

    One thing that does translate well into any language is uncontrolled giggling. Adri and I spent a short night in Wuhan, en route from Yichang to Shanghai. After a long pleasant walk and a meal of almost-too-hot-to-eat mushroom, pepper, and Chinese chive skewers painted with chili paste and grilled over charcoal on Hubu Xiang, Wuhan’s snack street, we spotted a storefront offering foot massages delivered by fish.

    Inside the shop is a long row of foot-level, open-topped aquariums housing Garra rufa, the so-called “Doctor Fish” from Turkey. The nice lady running the shop didn’t speak any English, but it was pretty easy to understand. You pick your tank based, I suppose, on how large you like your feet-eating fish (they ranged from tanks with thousands of dime-sized specimens to those housing two dozen fish the size of Persian cucumbers), and how hungry they appear: As you walk by the tanks, the fish swarm towards you, sensing that a meal is in store.

    We picked tanks with the smallest fish in them, sat down in the comfortable green-upholstered massage chairs, slipped off our sandals, and stuck our feet in. The fish immediately swarmed, scraping at our skin with their tiny toothless mouths, burrowing between our toes, nibbling at our ankles.

    It feels not unlike a battalion of tiny dwarves armed with feather-tipped pikes suddenly attacking your feet on command. I burst out into a fit of uncontrolled giggling that got everyone in the store going. Adri, the shopkeeper and her husband, along with two large, very serious-looking Chinese tourists with their feet in the big-boy tanks all bonded as they laughed and pointed at the Chinese-looking guy who couldn’t handle it when the fish went at him.

    I eventually settled down as my feet became numb to the tickling, until I lifted them and gave the fish access to the undersides, which triggered a whole new bout of giggling, laughing, and pointing.

    There’s plenty of debate as to whether this sort of treatment is actually good for your skin or not—the fish supposedly eat dead skin cells, leaving your feet smooth and refreshed. Our feet did feel smooth, but perhaps that was just a function of the 30-minute soak. We’d have to do some rigorous side-by-side testing, but I’m not sure I’m cut out for that particular job.

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