I write this post from the deliciously tropical Luang Prabang, Laos. We’ve been in Laos for four days and have only just had space to breath from our non-stop driving adventures in China.
We experienced joys and frustrations on our journey through the heartland of China. Amongst the unpleasant experiences, we count the sudden and unexpected disappearance of our beloved street food egg wraps (attributed to “cultural differences”, bah), having wailing children hoisted on us for photos, and having the crap beaten out of us by tiny, vindictive Chinese masseuses. Joys include finding peanut butter, binging on said peanut butter, and having the crap beaten out of us by tiny, vindictive Chinese masseuses.
Turns out China is enormous. Our driving tour through the heartland of the country (cutting through the middle, north to south) took just under a month, total. We spent the month sharing our trusty lil’ car with Luke’s sister Jo, accompanied by four camper van groups, whom we have come to love. Jens, our young Chinese guide, valiantly led us and amused us. We all cried when we said goodbye to him at the Lao border, and we cried some more when we said goodbye to each other a couple days ago in Luang Namtha, northern Laos. Luckily, we’ll meet most of them again along our journeys before our trips are over. Jo flies back to Australia tomorrow, and Luke and I will be left to our own lonely devices.
Even a week before we hit Laos, we felt that we were very firmly in Southeast Asia. There were terraced hillsides with vegetable and rice fields, winding mountain roads through villages of “ethnic minority” people in colourful traditional clothes, and silly-looking dragonfruit in the outdoor market stalls. For those of you waiting with baited breath for news of Luke’s level of travel happiness: he’s gotten over some of his travel fatigue and is quite happy now. And of course I’m just happy as a clam about this latest geographical advance (though I have found myself needing more “me time” with so many friends around all the time).
Most of this post was written within China, so just go ahead and assume that everything I write is about China. Laos will have to wait for her turn for the next post.
The most important topic of this post, food
It’s been fun to taste (or sometimes just observe) the food changing as we drive through China. Often we Westerners tend to think of Chinese food as one monolithic Chicken-Chow-Mein entity. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. First of all, the market foods are very seasonal and local. Farther north, we were eating delicious juicy apples. The apples are now wrinkly and on their way out, and pomegranates are ubiquitous. Those flamboyant dragonfruits have just started to make their tentative entrance onto the market scene. Bok choi and other greens weren’t much available up north, but down here, they are everywhere. Mangoes have only just appeared for the first time since we were in Australia.
Dishes themselves are very different too. There are obvious differences in sauces, frying styles, noodles vs. rice. Sichuan food was definitely more spicy, and homemade tofu in buckets is more prevalent in Yunnan province. I desperately miss this dumpling style from Beijing. And we’ve only just seen our first grasshoppers and grubs appear at food stalls.
Unfortunately, dog has also made an appearance. I won’t give details, but we avoid it.
And now for the people
Unfortunately, I have a tendency to think of Chinese people as a monolithic culture as well. Perhaps you know this, but people of Han ethnicity are only about 91% of the population. The rest of the folks belong to one of the 55 “ethnic minority” groups, scattered throughout China. Some are famous, like Tibetans, but some I had never heard of, like Yi and Mosu. They have really distinctive types of clothing, writing scripts, house decorations, and less visible cultural aspects like religion and family structures. Jo and I are geeking out learning about this stuff. It’s the first real-life application of my anthropology degree since I graduated 10 years ago.
In fact, we feel a certain affinity and love for the ethnic minority folks, because they don’t seem to give a shit about us. In our limited experience and observation, they don’t crowd around us to take photos and they don’t shove their babies at us. In wild speculation, I would guess that they are too used to being unwilling photo subjects themselves. Many (especially the older women) do wear really cool clothes.
But it’s not totally gone
We found a bit of a cooling off in regards to the intense curiosity as we got further south in China. There were still lots and lots of annoying photo ops, but not as many. I did, however, have one unpleasant experience in the distressingly touristy Lijiang. In a narrow alleyway packed with tourists, there was a mother, clearly a domestic tourist, holding her toddler, with father close by. Grandpa spotted me and started aggressively shouting at me to come get the toddler and take a photo (in Chinese, but it was obvious). Toddler began wailing, not wanting to be handed over to a weird stranger. Mom and Dad were trying to tell me, without grandpa seeing, to please not take the toddler. Grandpa kept shouting, poking me, and following me through the crowd. I smilingly feigned ignorance, gave a sympathetic knowing smile to Mom, and escaped into the crowd as quickly as possible. Luke has had similar experiences, including twice having parents try to put their older girls (5-8) on Luke’s lap. Awkward.
Real quick: PANDAS
One important stop in China was at the Chengdu Giant Panda Research Centre. This was a favorite of kids and grownups alike. We saw baby, teenager, and grown up pandas. Common traits of these fluffy lil’ fellas is buttcheek scratching and slovenly eating postures. Below, I have included a particularly impactful butt itching/bamboo binging video for your viewing pleasure.
Life in a tour group
Our trip through China was completely different with a group and guide than if we had been travelling alone. We travelled a lot faster with the group – no more “weekend” breaks for us. We had 2 or 3 rest days in 4 weeks, but that generally means rushing to get things done that we can’t do while driving or sightseeing, such as laundry or fixing stuff I’ve broken on the car. (For example, I ripped off an internal door handle with my she-hulk strength, and it took Luke and Jerome 3 hours to fix it.)
We’ve seen tourist locations that we might have otherwise skipped given the Lonely Planet descriptions (like the section of the Great Wall we saw). Jens likes to take us to places that are shiny, new, and paved. We like to go to places that are old, authentic, and natural. We work to find a balance. Jens took us to Lijiang, an ancient city that is now crammed with karaoke bars and souvenir shops. It’s got some charm if you don’t mind the mental gymnastics of hearing 6 off-pitch karaoke renditions at the same time.
However, trusty ol’ Lonely Planet told us that Baisha, 10 kilometres away, has the same setup sans the cacophony. Luke, Jo and I slipped away for a few hours and explored – it was indeed magical. We stumbled into a courtyard home, where there were women working in a silk embroidery workshop in one of the rooms surrounding the courtyard. There was a woman who had taken time off of the family business to learn English at university (at Kunming, apparently the uni at Lijiang is no good), so she explained everything to us. The embroidery was out of this world, and the family has been doing it since – wait for it – the Ming Dynasty. That’s 800 years.
In defence of fluffy puppies
I had a not so nice moment in Baisha, though, where all my powers of cultural relativism flew out the window. We went into a restaurant, clearly catering to Westerners as well as domestic tourists due to it’s English menu. There was a tiny, adorable, fluffy puppy running around inside. The waiter, seeing me looking at the puppy, violently kicked some chairs at it to get it out of the restaurant. It yelped and ran away.
I know that some cultures have different ideas about how to treat dogs, but I couldn’t abide by this. So I kind of shouted at the guy. Oops. He laughed at first, but, even without understanding English, realised I was serious and got a little sheepish. Luckily, puppy (and it’s mom) came back and we blatantly petted them and fed them the delicious fat from our pork ribs. Doggies did not enjoy the tofu, however.
Next Day Lake
Our tour company also had a slightly different idea of a nice campspot than our Western standards. We like to fall asleep to the sound of crickets and wake up to dappled light through gently swaying trees. Well, our campsites on this trip have almost exclusively been in enormous empty parking lots of big tourist sites. This is of course quite handy, because it’s easy access to the tourist site. But this is a big reason that Jo, Luke, and I usually stay in hotels rather than camping. Sometimes our group pull their vans into a protective rectangle and we camp in the middle. But really, whilst we were enjoying the sites, we were all just holding out for what we dubbed “Next Day Lake”. For some reason, we always thought we would be driving to this lake (for a nature campspot) the Next Day. Many Next Days later, we made it to Lugu Lake.
It was everything we dreamed of. We listened to the water slapping against the marshy lakeshore, we “faffed about” cleaning out our car in the sunshine, we rode quiet electric scooters around the little lake. It was rejuvenating.
Another side of China
However, we also some much more intimate views into Chinese culture with Jens by our side. We got so local that we often couldn’t find hotels – they don’t allow foreigners at many. Once, Jo and I, having been sent on a hotel finding mission, were rejected by 5 hotels in a row – excepting one, which would rent us a room for 1 hour. Just 1 hour. Goodness knows what story they’ve concocted about what our purpose was.
We also got to meet some of Jens’ family – his wife and his father. We happened to be passing through his hometown, so his Dad stopped by our campsite to say hello. He is an excellent calligrapher and had done a painting for each group. He even came back later in the day to gives us big share bags of succulent duck meat, a local speciality. I’m sorry to say we didn’t really get into the feet, but the breast was great. Jerome did eat a head.
Bully, Jens’ wife, joined us for hot pot in Chengdu, where Jens and her live. She is also trained as a tour guide, and she is incredibly sweet and impossibly adorably petit. She brought us moon cakes and spoke nicely to the children. She ordered our hot pot dishes for us and gave us tips on how to eat it (it’s complicated!). She was lovely and we love her.
As previously mentioned, Jens also took us to karoake, which is not new to Luke and I – Chinese private karaoke rooms are standard in Sydney. However, it was quite a cultural experience in China, with a group hailing from Belgium, France, Germany, Australia, the US, and of course China itself. When we had exhausted all of the English songs, and our vocal chords, we moved into watching the French children rap for us in rapid French. Actually rapping. Personally, I got applause for my convincing rendition of Eminem’s seminal rap classic from “8 Mile”. After all, as the only person in the room with Michigander ancestry, I felt I should represent Detroit.
Unfortunately, our karaoke joy turned to drama when one of our group (not to be named, but it wasn’t Luke, Jo or I) accidentally drank an entire bottle of Chinese schnapps (we think) and had the hangover of a generation. The rest of the group went on and we stayed with our ailing friend and their vehicle. We ended up getting an hour driving done and landed at the uninspiring logging town of Gejiu in rural Yunnan province, where we stopped for the night. We went on a hunt for KFC but found $10 peanut butter and (unrelated) gastro instead. Good times.
The massage story
Jo, Luke and I decided one day to skip out on walking some ancient city walls in some cool ancient city, in favour or pampering ourselves with a nice relaxing massage. We had gotten to chatting with a waitress in a cafe who kindly found and booked a massage place for us. They were waiting for us when we arrived – a phalanx of fancily uniformed men and women who ushered us into a room with three comfy reclining beds in a row. Hot herbal tea steaming was on the side tables and dry spicy peas were on little platters. They then handed us OUR uniforms – floral silk jammies, yellow for me and pink for both Luke and Jo. They then closed the door and left, so we jammied up. I am sorry to say that Luke will not allow me to post a photo of him in his way too tight pink floral PJ shorts and collared shirt, so you will just have to beg him for the photo when he’s drunk one day.
Anyway, our 3 masseuses filed into the room and began their work on us. They did not tell us what they were doing in advance. They did not ask us if we had injuries. They did not seem to mind if we were in pain. In fact, they delighted in our pain and our shouts only seemed to encourage them.
Our guide, Jens, tells us that when you have lots of bruises after a “massage”, it means that you have too much fluid in your system. Following this logic, I had the most fluid in my system of the three of us.
Some things the masseuses did were nice. They rubbed our heads and shoulders gently, and did that chopping motion up and down. However, they also dug their knuckles into the bottom of our feet and forced their elbows into our spines. When we were sitting up, they grabbed us by the shoulders and twisted us so far around that Luke’s neck is still hurting. Theys pinched the skin around our spine, terribly hard (Jo called it “the most excruciating” and Luke adds that it was “pointless.”) At one point, they even climbed on top of us and dug their knees into the small of our backs. Of course, all of this was happening to the three of us in tandem, making everything more hilarious.
Although he didn’t listen to my shouts of pain, my masseuse did listen to me when I giggled – I’m very ticklish on my feet and legs. He thought it was hilarious and annoying. He kept telling me to breath through it (using motions – no English).
When it was all over, we collected our bruised and battered bodies, slipped on the complimentary pantyhose socks, and made our way out. About 10 masseuses were lined up in the front lobby, doing company cheers and drills. (This is totally a thing in China.) I think they were pumping themselves up for the next lot of Westerners to beat to a pulp.
And now for the photos!