Tasty and Frightening – Food Photos!

Untitled by Darcy Knoll (darcyknoll) on 500px.com

It slowly continues on.

As mentioned in my previous post, I’ve been gradually working to organize photos from our trip. While going through my Beijing pics I decided to put my photos of the glorious street fare together in one set, which then led to the decision to put all of the food photos in my portfolio together.

So here it is. See if you can guess what’s what.

http://darcyknoll.500px.com/food_photography

Shanghai Photos!

Shanghai, China

Together, Sara and I have amassed probably 10,000 photos from our trip. It’s almost overwhelming trying to figure out what to do with these. Such will be the challenge for 2012.

And so over the coming months I hope to post several photo collections from my portfolio.

The first from our time in Shanghai.

http://darcyknoll.500px.com/shanghai_china/

Hanoi via Nanning…

(Lack of Internet access and a week off of the blog has led to a major backlog in writing. I’ll try to get caught up before I leave Vietnam, but no guarantees…)

They say it was a typhoon. I haven’t read the weather report myself, but it certainly looked and felt like one. We took a seven hour bus from Yangshuo to Nanning and mostly saw beautiful scenery drenched in rain.

We arrived in Nanning in a covered station, grabbed our bags, bought a ticket for Hanoi the next day and searched for a bus in the pouring rain. To hell with this. We took a cab although our paper map was now soaked and torrn. The driver was not impressed with Sara trying to put the clumps of paper together to form an address. But, again, it was a typhoon we walked through.

Eventually, our drenched bags and bodies made it to the hostel. Dry clothes, a mediocre supper, a lame movie on television. Bed.

Up at 6am and out at 7. Walk through the rain and get on a packed bus. Arrive at an even more packed station and, for our first time in China, there’s no English whatsoever. But this is China and helpful people point us in the right direction.

The ride was uneventful with a nerviousness of what was coming up to the south. A brief stop for lunch, one military checkpoint, 15 minutes later, the actual border.

Our bus drops us off and we take a shuttle to passport control. The Chinese side is clean and efficient. We go through, get our stamp and we’re out of China. Done.

We walk about 50 metres alone to a gate where a couple guys in uniform are chatting. They usher us through, glance at our passport as though this is what they’re supposed to do, but they don’t really care.

Vietnames passport control is not clean and efficient. It’s a counter with guards sitting behind glass and a packed cluster of angry Chinese people on the other side. One woman who spoke English told us the guards were asking for a 10Y bribe. The Chinese stick the money in their passports. One lady refused and was told there would be a one and a half hour wait plus medical checkup. Yikes.

We don’t pay and nothing is said. Instead our passport is thrown in a pile in front of a guy with his uniform unbuttoned, head back, yawning. Sara sits down with our bags. I wait at the counter. Finally, he slowly looks through and scans our passports, another guy stamps and passes back.

Brief medical check requiring us to look into some sort of camera. Baggage scan. On another shuttle (Chinese give more money) and on a bus to Hanoi.

Stunning Yangshuo

The bus ride from the rice terraces was smooth enough, meaning we got to Yangshuo without problems (but not so smooth in that I couldn’t write a legible thing in my book). We knew the hotel wasn’t far, but we couldn’t find any street names to orient us.

Sara went to look down a sidestreet and I stood looking at a map when a early-20ish guy approached me on a bike. He offered to help and he called the hotel and walked us to a place where the owner came to meet us. Again, China is oh so friendly.

As we were walking, he asked me if I knew of any Canadian universities. He said he was thinking of going to Carleton. “Carleton?!”, thinking I heard him wrong. Yes, Carleton University in Ottawa, my home for four years. Random.

Before we parted ways, I gave him my contact info and said if he ever needed help in any way in Ottawa to contact me. I would be so pleased to return the favour.

We checked into a lovely room up four long flights of stairs at the West Lily Hotel (roughly $10 a night). We then sat at a table outside at a nearby dumpling shop and enjoyed the afternoon with Liq Nature beer and pork dumplings.

Yanghuo is what I pictured Guilin to be. A pleasent town surrounded by amazing karst mountains piercing the flatlands throughout. Very pretty although parts are a little touristy.

We walked around the town and a woman approached us about a bamboo boat ride. This was the best weather we had seen yet and I knew the approachiing sunset would be perfect for photos. So we said no and walked away quickly through a market and down some steps.

As expected, she caught up to us and dropped her price to 150Y from earlier 185Y. Eventually, we settled at 100 for a two hour cruise, just the two of us on a bamboo boat with a driver. The photos do not do the trip justice.

 

Returning to Yangshuo.

Hiking the dragon’s backbone

The Longji (or Dragon's Backbone) rice terraces.

There is nothing quite like the feeling of satisfaction you get from finally setting your bags down in a room after a long hike to find your hotel. For most of our trip in China this has involved taxis and buses and looking at poorly marked maps and unmarked streets.

But at the Longji rice terraces north of Guilin, finding our hotel meant hiking up small stone steps for almost an hour before throwing our knapsacks on the floor and looking out at layer upon layer of golden rice fields surrounded by mist soaked mountains.

We had long wanted to visit these rice fields during our trip to China although we weren’t quite sure how. My friend Lonely Planet left me with the impression that they were close to Guilin, but on further inspection I learned it was close to a three hour drive.

Many tour agencies and hotels offer excursions to the rice fields, but most of these same-day trips seemed expensive and rushed. So we decided to do it ourselves.

There are a couple ways this can be done barring hiring a taxi. You can take a bus to Longsheng and transfer to Dazhai or (and this seems to be kept low key) you can take the daily 8:30 a.m. bus to Dazhai from the Guilin railway station. Always get someone to write your location down in Chinese so you can confirm with the driver.

We paid 50Y each and hopped aboard the minibus for a bumpy scenic journey. We then stopped at some sort of Chinese tourist location and a woman got on our bus asking for money. We didn’t know about this part and weren’t sure what was happening.

The guy in front of me turned around and said in perfect English, “It’s the entrance fee for the park, 80 kuai.”

Oh. Thank you.

It turns out he worked at the Canadian embassy in Beijing and was taking his parents on a holiday. Dad was wearing a bright red Canada hat with a matching red and white t-shirt. Looked pretty proud.

The next part of the drive was really windy, with the driver honking the horn at each curve, as is the custom of driving in Asia. Finally, we stop and get out. We’re surrounded by several old ladies with worn faces and baskets on ther backs asking to carry our stuff. They’re wearing brightly coloured clothes with patterns in red, black, purple, and gold. On their heads was what almost looked like a turban.

Our Chinese friend tells us they are from a minority in China in which the woman rarely cut their hair. One of the ladies, he said, hadn’t cut her hair in more than 30 years.

They look to be the same height as my great grandmother was at around 4’10. I think of this and decide to carry my own bags. After all, it can’t be too far.

We walk about 10 minutes to the first town of Dazhai. We walk through the town and hike upwards until we find a hotel listed in our guidebook. We wait and it appears empty.

One of the porter ladies returns saying something we don’t understand. We follow and meet up with our Chinese friend who tells us there’s a room available in the next town. Sounds good.

By the time we reach our hotel, we’re covered in sweat from the long uphill hike, but looking out at the rice fields make it all worth it.

Our hotel is called the Tianti Hotel in the small village of Tiantouzhai. It’s an old wooden building with creaky floors, but fits with the overall ambiance of the setting. A sign hangs outside the hotel that reads: “Welcome to our home. We don’t speak English but we will host you with our warmest hospitality.”

The only sounds are daily life of the villagers mixed with birds and wildlife. There’s no traffic or incessant honking as the town is only accessible by foot or horse. A delightful escape from the city.

From our hotel we could easily hike to several viewpoints overlooking the rice fields. Although we were hoping for a bright sunny day, the mist and the clouds made the scene look almost dreamlike.

The Longji rice terraces. The village of Tiantouzhai can be seen.

It also turned out to be a great place for local eating. We had rice and sweet rice wine from the fields out our window, fresh onions our waiter went to pick after we ordered, and earlier in the day we saw a horse carrying two live pigs up the steep path.

The next day we woke up early and hiked back down the hill for a 9 a.m. bus to Yangshuo (signs in the village said 65Y, but the driver asked 85Y due to the approaching holiday). I hired a porter to carry my bag for 30Y as my neck was sore from earlier in our travels.

Unfortunately, our time in China was growing short. However, we could have easily stayed for another day of hiking and eating delicious rice from fields that seemed to climb to the heavens.

Chengdu to Guilin, people and places

The flight from Chengdu to Guilin is fairly similar to any other flight I’ve been on except for a couple things. Just before takeoff, literally just before takeoff, I guy gets up to take pictures of his friends. The girl beside me pulls out a cob of corn as a snack. The flight attendants hand out beef jerkey for a mid-flight meal.

The flight is only 1.5 hours long and we grab a shuttle to Guilin. It drops us off at where we believe is the train station, but we’re not sure exactly and we can’t see any street names so to the map is no help.

We walk for a bit past people siitting eatting street food on plastic chairs and there it is: Wada Hostel. Check in to our dormroom, put my stuff into a locker with a painted Chinese flag.

We go to the bar for a drink. There’s only a few people in the bar: a really drunk Norwegian girl, a couple Aussies (one who apparently finds out his partner is pregnant that night on the phone), and a 60+ year old Canadian who grew up in Winnipeg, but lived in Kitchener. Only two months ago, his wife of 40+ years died. He sold everything and has decided to travel.

I hope he finds what he’s looking for.

*     *     *

Guilin is nice, but it’s still a busy city, not quite what I was expecting. We get up early and find a noodle shop for breakfast (two delicious spicy beef noodle for 10Y). So good.

We decide to rent bikes from the hostel. Most have flat tires. We grab two and set out. My pedal is loose and my handlebars turn and wobbles. I return my bike and get another in similar condition. We abandon the bike ride and take a bus downtown.

We eat candied fruit on a stick and walk past the sellers to the river. We sit and watch two fishermen on bamboo boats as large black birds (cormorants I believe) sit beside them waiting patiently.

A fisherman with his birds on a bamboo boat in Guilin, China.

We walk across the bridge and escape the heat in the Seven Stars park. Pretty gardens, trees and bamboo decorate the pleasent paths. We hike the stairs to the top of two karst hills, large mountains that jut out from the landscape, giving us a nice panorama of the city and its surrounding hills.

Many signs say to avoid the wild monkeys, we don’t see any, but I kind of wish we did – from a distance.

*     *     *

Catch the bus back and hang out at the hostel. We chat with two American backpackers who are from Minneapolis. They give some good advice for travelling through Southeast Asiia.

“How long are you travelling?” I ask.
“Three years.”
“Wow, that’s a long time. So you must be working or something?”
“Oh god no. We’re just travelling.”

Oh. I leave it there as I envision wealthy parents somewhere in the distance or just many boring nights before hitting the road.

But they’ve clearly seen the world, although I don’t know if could travel that long. Beyond missing family and friends, I would miss politics and engaging with the world back home, rather than just touring.

You can visit their page at www.livingif.com . Some parts verge on being a little cheesy (but I’m not one to cast the first stone on this charge), yet there are some interesting articles. They wrote their blogs together rather than the hyper-competitive dueling blogs we created.

Maybe I’m just envious of the three-year thing, I’m not sure, but it’s definitely made me think.

A cold day in Pingyao

The old city of Pingyao, China.

It’s pouring rain at 5:30 a.m. when we stumble off the train at the Pingyao station after a 12-hour ride from Beijing. We find shelter under an outdoor waiting area. I pull a coat out of my bag.

Another Westerner gets off the train and approaches us. Turns out he’s from Montreal. He’s not sure where to stay so a tout offers to drive him to his hostel, taking us along with the hope we’ll stay as well.

I’m surprised to find out it’s not a cab, but rather a three-wheeled contraption that looks like a few seats added to a moped with a third wheel for stabilization. We climb in and the driver pulls a plastic sheet down to shield us from the rain.

We drive through quiet, empty streets – a stark contrast to Beijing or Shanghai. We stop at Harmony hostel and someone tries to convince us to stay. Sorry, reservations elsewhere.

Around the corner, we’re dropped off at our hostel. Windows dark, closed door. We set our bags down, the roof hangs enough that we stay dry, but still cold. Our driver makes a phone call and hands me the phone. It’s the previous hostel again trying to convince me to stay with them. Tempting, but we already have reservations.

The driver leaves and we’re alone. It’s around 6:00 now and raining. Someone comes by, sees us, and bangs on the window repeatedly. Inside, we see a guy without a shirt stumble over, open the door and disappear. We walk in, Sara sleeps on the couch, I watch our bags and wait.

People come in and out by around 7, but no one seems to notice our bags scattered everywhere or two random Canadians sleeping on their couches. Finally, I get someone’s attention. Turns out we’re in the wrong part of the hostel and we’re shuffled down the street where we check in.

Beyond the cold weather and the start to the day, Pingyao is a pretty nice town. We rented bikes for 10Y each and just toured this old walled city for the day. It was pretty relaxing and also nice to have wi-fi in our hostel for the first time for a while (which again is why all these posts are a few days behind and coming from notes in my journal).

Pingyao, China (not sure if this is the same guy on the bike as the top photo).

The next day we packed up for a bus ride to Xi’an. In preparation, I headed off to find snacks as Sara got the bags together. I picked up some peanuts roasted with pepper and chilis (absolutely delicious), cookies and water.

I stopped at one store and looked around at dried fruit and some large ceramic jars as high as my waste. The woman at the store asked if I wanted a sample. Yes of course, thinking it to be the tasty looking dried fruit.

She grabs a large spoon and a glass and opens the jar. It looks completely empty, but I can see her pull a clear liquid with the large spoon. I instantly know what’s coming next. She pours me a giant shot, I smell it (think nail polish remover) and down the glass. A particularly potent Chinese firewater as I suspected.

Wanting to look tough, I hold back from coughing, shake my head and walk out of the store. Wow.

On the bus at 1245 and less than seven hours later we would be in Xi’an.