By Mishi at 7:16 PM
Once you have muscled through the blissful introductory vacation feeling, long term travel begins to have its routines. For a newbie like me, I opted to learn most of my must-haves the hard way. I set out from home with a too-small duffle so haphazardly packed that the following 2 months were spent acquiring what I needed.
Some things I learned along the way:
1) Pack enough undies for at least 2 weeks. Seriously. When you combine general vacation malaise with a tight budget and un-guaranteed laundry facilities, you need at least a two week supply to keep yourself from getting into a situation.
2) Make sure your sleeping pills are not past their expiry date before you board your 20 hour flight.
3) Consider the fastest, most convenient way to access relevant world news while you’re away.
The list of things I didn’t do is quite a bit longer than this, but let’s focus, for a moment, on number 3. I was on the road from the end of September until the end November, which meant the presidential election fell right in the middle of my adventure.
Despite the allure of oolong tea and stinky tofu, I was kicked out of my political apathy by the election, and felt nearly desperate for news from home. Of course, the only thing I had to help me was the Chinese internet.
I haven’t yet spoken of the delights that await the average internet user in China. The service is slower than dial-up, censorship is alive and well. Of course, all the Chinese sites work at lightning speed, but as previously mentioned, I can’t read characters, so that did me no good. I had to download a VPN on my Galaxy to access all the good stuff (read: facebook), and even then I was likely to be booted off the network every 30 seconds, so it wasn’t worth it.
Trying to get news was excruciating.
I promised myself that I would find a way have better access on my next trip. Luckily for me, the nice folks at PressReader have allowed me to sample their app. With PressReader, you can download newspapers directly to your phone or tablet computer. You can select newspapers from several different countries so you can keep up with the shenanigans of Kwame Kilpatrick with the Detroit Free Press, and see what’s up in Parisian politics with Le Monde. Or whatever tickles your fancy.
How it worked for me? I picked out 3 newspapers to follow. Once selected, they downloaded automatically. The papers are easy to scroll through, and the articles are easy to enlarge and read. Its the newspaper at your fingertips. Bonus: smart phone apps are easier (not 100% reliable, but easier) to access that internet browsers in countries that censor internet access.
If you’re the type of person who likes to flip through the paper at breakfast (or skim the titles, like me), this app is worth trying. Especially if you will be on the road - for any period of time.
By Mishi at 6:11 PM
My experience of Chinese desserts in America was limited to almond cookies and fortune cookies. If you’ve never tasted either, they are basically dried out, slightly sweetened cardboard novelties that are thrown in with your MSG-ed Golden Dragon take-out like a consolation prize. You know, instead of a happy meal toy. Oh, and they come with bits of philosophy, lucky numbers, and/or cryptic glimpses of the future.
My experience of Chinese desserts in Korea was non-existent. After a few ill-fated forays into the omnipresent “Paris Baguette” where I sampled delights like garlic bread coated in sugar, hard-boiled hot dogs wrapped in abusively doughy pastry, and chocolate chip cookies so hard they actually caused tears of frustration, I called it quits with all Korean experimental offshoot attempts at “foreign” sweets.
In Chengdu, on the way back from a Buddhist temple in a carefully preserved (read: tourist trap) district, there was a bakery bumping with so much traffic you would think they were giving away the goods for free. Thick wisps of sweetened steam coiled over the counter, tickling my tongue with fresh-baked-delicious smell. There was a glass partition behind which sat heavy silver trays, stuffed with confections covered in eye-catching sugar, nut, and chocolate details. Despite my previous, rather traumatic, introduction to Chinese sweets, I was compelled to stop there by one of my oldest, truest, travel rules:
If there is a crowd at a place, that’s where you want to eat.
The exchange of goods was terrifying. People were hustling up to the counter in no discernible pattern, shouting in rapid Chinese to one baker, taking pounds (seriously, pounds) of sweets by the bagful from another, and paying another. My friend, who accompanied me from my hostel, stood with me staring at these rapid transactions. The agile, suspiciously thin bakers balanced tall stiff white hats and wore pristine white aprons. With wicked precision they snatched the treats from multiple trays and tossed them into clear plastic bags. We watched this dance for about five full minutes before braving up. We turned to each other and said: “Let’s do this.”
We hopped in the line, which was coiling from about 3 different directions, moving respectfully with the flow of traffic.
Ok, that’s a bald faced lie.
Fun fact: Living in Korea has caused me to lose some manors. I push in lines, I hop over short people, I elbow my way through the crowd. This story is not about that, though.
So, we got to the front of the line. I guided my friend ahead of me (she was too polite for pushing), and she stood looking helplessly from one bustling baker to another until one finally paid attention to her.
That’s where the fun began.
With pointing and finger counting, she indicated what she wanted: 1 of this, 3 of that, and 2 of that sugary thing there.
The baker stared.
My friend pointed again.
The baker stared, her face reddened, and she fired off fifty million unintelligible words in an incredulous tone that translated, to my mind, like this:
“What the hell did you just order, you idiot?”
Uh-oh. She hates us.
I watched my friend again indicate what she wanted, trying to search the situation for clues. What was she doing wrong? The pointing was direct. Finger counting was understood by all. Why would the woman not hand the bag to the cashier and move on?
Disgusted, the baker finally shoved the treats into the bag as directed, grunting and rolling her eyes. Then she turned to me.
I was totally brilliant, ordered perfectly, and she was super nice to me.
Her eyes bugged and her throat worked an angry, dry heave so rapidly I thought she was going to asphyxiate.
She flippin’ hates us.
As the people around me bought and sold, I realized that they weren’t just buying huge quantities because of their gluttonous desire for delicious baked goods. This was a bulk-only bakery.
Too bad I couldn’t communicate that I understood. The only Chinese I had mastered was “Thank you” and “noodle”. Not useful.
Ok, that’s also a lie. I could never say noodle. I had it written down on a piece of paper that I kept in my pocket.
Still, you get me.
I didn’t then, and don’t now, know the Chinese for “my bad” and “I’ll take a kilo of that”. And to be truthful, given my experiences, I didn’t want a kilo. I just wanted a taste. So gave the baker my what’s-the-problem? eyes and waited her to fill my bag. I even managed to keep from flinching as she glared, withering my soul with the force of my own stupidity.
Turns out, the lady in the line behind us spoke some English. I know this, because Janey-came-lately ran after us after she’d bought her treats and said, “You bought too little.”
Thanks for the bulletin, lady.
Giggling, we shuffled away from there quick, leaving the muttering and resentment behind. I dug into my bag right away, getting sugar and flaky pastry all over my fingers and chin. I ripped through the puffed pastry and then chowed into an egg tart, the only thing on the menu I recognized.
And you know what? Egg tarts are fabulous.
It was totally worth it.
By Mishi at 12:04 PM
|Photo credit: Hua Jiao Blog|
Trying to eat vegetarian in China is unnecessarily tricky. It shouldn’t be, truly. The veggie dishes in Chinese cuisine are multiple and delicious. I stuffed myself with so many veggies, fruits, rices, and other non meaty things while I was winding my way up the east coast that it never occurred to me that a vegetarian would suffer trying to find suitable meal choices.
While I was in Chendgu, I met a girl who totally changed my mind. This girl had been on the road for twice as long as me in China, and she told me the most shocking, funny, awful thing ever: When you tell people that you’re vegetarian in China, they serve you rice and lettuce.
Rice. And Lettuce.
I actually laughed when she told me this, then felt sad for her stomach. So sad that I allowed her to drag me to a vegetarian restaurant that night, out of solidarity.
I was down for whatever, food wise. I had sampled a few Sichuan dishes already (including a beer soaked rabbit), and everything was yummy. Plus, most of the American Chinese food is Schezuan (which is just the American spelling of Sichuan) so whatevs. It’s all yums in my tums.
Spoiler: it is NOT all yums.
The Sichuan region of China is famous for having spicy food. Really, really spicy food. The spiciest food in China, to be exact. But whatevs, I’d just spent two years in Korea having my American taste buds blasted to oblivion, so I figured this “spicy” was just code for “whimp-nuggets”.
With my ego inflated, I followed my new friends to the restaurant. We had a slip of paper that said the Chinese character for “vegetarian” (written by the people who worked at our hostel). We pressed this paper against the window, eyebrows pleading. The lady working behind the window nodded.
Loaded up with veggie dishes, we carried our trays into the dining area and started eating. The food was cold, but palatable. I sighed internally and tucked in. It wasn’t the most delicious thing I’d had in China, but it wasn’t half bad.
About five bites in, I noticed a major problem: my tongue was going numb.
I contemplated this, eating more slowly. The numbness spread up to the roof of my mouth, coated my tonsils, and started to travel down my throat. This is when I realized that I must be eating the famous Sichuan flower pepper.
When I said that Sichuan was famous for the most spicy food in China, I should have been more specific. Yes, they are known for eating stupidly spicy stuff. But it’s the combination of numb and spicy that gives Sichuan food its distinct kick. The flower pepper (reportedly) contains the same ingredients as novocaine.
Imagine, putting novocaine in your mouth ON PURPOSE. For the nummy jollies that it brings.
Seriously, try to imagine that.
I was trying to wrap my mind around this thought, when I realized that my mouth was on fire. I mean, I could sense that my lips, tongue, gums, hell, everything felt like they were being eaten away by corrosive acid. The only reason I wasn’t totally panicked was because the sensation was overwhelmed by the medical grade numb-out I had going. This horrifying feeling was coupled with another realization:
What comes in, must go out.
I put my chopsticks down. I mean, I’ve done a lot of ill-advised things for the sake of adventure. But purposefully ingestive numbing, corrosive foodstuff that are guaranteed to numb my bum hole one minute and leave it burning the next - feelings I would have to navigate on a SQUATTY potty - I couldn’t go on. I began chugging water and shoveling rice, attempting to ameliorate the effects.
My friend laughed at me. “Too spicy for you?” She chuckled.
I didn’t wanna share my thoughts with her. She was enjoying the food, and besides, this was the first meal she’d had that didn’t include wilted lettuce. It seemed too cruel to take that away with my own paranoia.
So I just watched her eat.
It was actually kind of funny. I mean, that food was so spicy that despite the fact that it was stone cold, she kept sucking her spit and attempting to cool her mouth. The food, making her tongue more burned and sensitive with each bite, was causing pain. I mean, she was actually saying “ouch”.
This is not a sensation that I list up there with “good food” associations.
I slurped up a chinese medicine drink (a tip I learned from a beijinger - it instantly neutralizes spicy food), and she just kept eating.
When she finally declared herself full, words slipped out. I said,
“You’re braver than me. I’m too afraid of digestive problems to eat that much numb stuff.”
My words fell over her face like a dark cloud as my meaning sunk in. “Oh no!” she said, “why didn’t you say anything earlier?” she said.
“I’m sorry!” I said, “You were enjoying yourself!”
When ran to the 24 hour mart. We bought milk, bread and water. Neutralization was key. Also, I was still starving. I gorged on my snacks, then went to bed, terrified.
No burning, numbing digestive issue. A little tummy ache, probably from the entire tube of Chinese rip-off pringles I had bought as my bread item, but nothing more than that.
I know that’s anti-climatic for you, but for me?
Whew, lordy, I was so relieved. I mean, there is no way to escape fire peppers in Sichuan, and if I couldn’t eat them, it was gonna be in for a rough time.
After that, my attempt to avoid flower peppers was purely based on foodie snobbery.
Numb is not delicious, folks. End of story.