By Mishi at 11:09 AM
I promised myself that I would see the Chinese opera. I made many such promises before my trip began. I guess you could call it my to-do list. When I arrived in Chengdu I knew I wanted to see pandas, and treat myself to the modern day version of Madam Butterfly.
I have never seen Madam Butterfly. That was just another idea that was stuck in my head.
I arranged a ticket and a driver to the Sichuan Opera through my hostel’s tourist desk. It was over 200 yuan, a price that made me gulp, but I paid up. I keep my promises.
Thirty minutes before the show I hopped into a boxy mini-van alone with a driver who spoke no English, and sped through the smog-orange night streets of Chengdu.
Among the crowd of early arrivers I found an usher who guided me through a sea of empty, unnumbered chairs, then by some magic, pointed out my seat. Planted solitarily in the row of wicker, I waited for the rest of the audience to arrive. In front of my knees there was a low table. Small white tea cups were in front of each place, along with a basket of peanuts to share. Two seconds after my usher departed, another appeared with a teapot and some loose leaves. She served me, and left. I sipped the tea, not expecting much.
I must stop to make a brief note on tea in China.
This is not your average 12-month-old, shredded, over-baked, over-priced leaf peddled by Lipton. Oh, no. Lipton is only the sad, anorexic cousin of this tea. The tea in China is festival of subtle and phenomenal flavor which constantly surprises the tongue. There are different varieties (the only name of which I can remember is Oolong...shame on me!) which can be strained with flowers to produce further layers of fantasticness. While I definitely enjoy Earl Grey, Chai, or the wide selection of herbal teas available in America I must say this, friends: you have not experienced tea unless you have had in China.
Delighted, I sipped my share slowly, savoring while the theater filled up. About halfway through my cup I witness something wonderful: There was an usher carrying a pot of hot water that had a long, thin spout so that he could reach over the legs of the guests easily, and fill individual cups without spilling a drop.
I drained my cup immediately. Poof! More magic! The usher appeared 30 seconds later, and refilled it.
I began chugging greedily. It was a delicious game. It was wonderful and magical.
It was a mistake.
Before for the lights dimmed, I started to feel a slight pressure around my gut. In my tea-craze, I ignored the feeling. The lights went up. More magic! Enter, stage right a small woman with a mask-white face and dramatically drawn eyebrows, dressed in colorful gold brocade. The blue lights cast mystical shadows on her costume and then she sang - her mouth opened and she enchanted me.
The show was actually a sort of variety show. There was singing, acting, and acrobatics - the kind that always makes me hold my breath and pray to jeebus that no one gets killed due to the lack of safety nets.
About halfway through these antics, a singer hit a high note, and so did my bladder. I twisted from my seat and hobbled to the back of the theater, regretting my gluttonous tea slurping. More magic! There was a beautiful bathroom, full of western. style. toilets. Thank googly moogly! I returned quickly, resenting myself for the minutes lost. But before I could feel too bad, the lights dimmed again and a new act my began.
This is what happened.
Music rolled in and behind a screen there appeared a shadow man. He bowed, stepped out of the spotlight, leaving only his hands visible. As the music swelled his shadow fingers transformed into a bird, flying over a mountain. Stopping to groom itself on a branch. Transformed into a rabbit, into a horse, into many animals so fluidly that I could not even breath because my eyes took all my energy, watching.
Transform, transform, transform.
With every change, I gasped and gaped. I was five years old again, believing everything. Then, the music sighed and fingers reappeared at last, the end. One collective gasp, then the audience laughed and clapped. We were totally delighted.
The rest of the show just continued to get more magical after that point, although I truthfully cannot say that I remember the details. Just the feeling: enchanted and happy. I was so elated that when it was all over, I did something so stupid, so touristy that I still shocked by myself.
I paid to have my picture taken with the actors.
The price was a little over 2 US dollars. Not much in the grand scheme of things, but in Chengdu 20 yuan could be a nice meal, 10 bus rides, or even half the price of a night at a hostel. The point that I am trying to make was that it was a stupid price.
And I paid it anyways.
The picture taking was even more fun than the show itself. Mostly because they actors, looking as bright and exotic as alien birds. were staring at ME in shock. And me, and I stare at the camera with a big cheesy grin.
I felt like...just so much happy, there wasn’t enough room on my face.
By Mishi at 3:26 PM
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.