Hi all. Or should I say nee how :) I have been here in this amazing country for 3 days now and I am having a wonderful time. This is mostly due to Andrew's incredibly generous and welcoming family. At this point
I am greatly in debt to Andrew's mom, Auntie Linda (Auntie is an acknowledgement that she is from an elder generation than I). Auntie Linda has organized every waking moment and provided generously for us at every turn.
7 of us arrived from the states on Saturday night in Shanghai. Andrew, Yurah, Steve, Derek, Alan (Andrew's brother), Julie (Alan's girlfriend) and I had an easy and uneventful flight. We were greeted at the airport by Leo, Alan and Andrew's other brother. We were driven by Auntie Linda's driver, Chou Chou Young and another driver on loan. We went straight to dinner at a fancy restaurant, all courtesy of Auntie Linda of course. That night, the 5 of us who are "Andrew's friends" were shown to our own furnished 2 bedroom apartment, in Auntie Linda's building, on loan from a friend. It was a very luxurious place by US standards as was Auntie Linda's fantastically decorated apartment.
On our first full day we had a whirlwind tour of things. We started at 7 am with a trip to the local market and breakfast at a local restaurant. Breakfast consisted of warm sweet soymilk, dumplings, and salty and sweet sticky rice logs. The sweet sticky rice logs are my favorite things so far. I am told they are very Taiwanese. The market was rustic and full of interesting things, one of which was a basket of live eels squirming around. After the market, we headed out as a group of 12 (Andrew's sister and her boyfriend as well as Leo's girlfriend joined us). We visited the Yu Gardens and a Dao Temple. Then we went to an antique mall that Auntie Linda likes to frequent before heading off to the best dim sum restaurant in Shanghai. While there, I tried chicken feet, which are actually quite tasty. I also got to know Leo's girlfriend, Song, a bit better. Turns out she's from Fremont :) After lunch the boys went to get massages and the ladies went to the hair salon. For about $20 we got our backs massaged, hair shampooed, and a stylish blow-dry. All courtesy of Auntie Linda and tons of fun. Then we headed back to the apartment to get ready for Yurah and Andrew's Chinese wedding reception. It was an elegant affair at the Westin hotel, complete with ice sculpture, giant picture of Yurah & Andrew, and a 7 course sit down meal. Steve, Derek, Yurah and I sat at the "English speaking table" were we were joined by international folks from the Philippines, South Africa, and Belgium to name a few. We figured out that collectively we knew 13 languages. After dinner, the "kids" all went out to a bar on the Bund. The Bund is an old section of Shanghai that was very glamorous in the 1930s (and still is). Finally we went home to bed.
Day 2 we had another huge breakfast. Never in my life have I NOT looked forward to eating until now. Every meal is a multi course affair with delicacies that I must try for fear of missing out. After breakfast all 12 of us headed to the airport for our flight to Jinghong in the Yunnan province in the south. We were met there by Andrew's other sister, Lynn and her husband, Gerard. The area is quite poor (think Yucatan Mexico), but Lynn and Gerard live on an amazing estate up in the hills overlooking the river that they designed themselves. It is an unbelievable house, beautifully done. Actually it is made up of several structures, all of which naturally combine indoors and outdoors in a flowing manner. Again, the 5 of us have our own place, including beds with mosquito nets that I refer to as the fairy princess beds. I will send pictures as soon as I can, but suffice it to say this place should be in Architectural Digest. We had another huge, wonderful meal and then sat around on the open dining room overlooking the river.
Today is Chinese New Year's Eve. There has been a lot of food preparation by the maids and I am told we will eat two dinners tonight. One at 6 pm and one after midnight. There will also be fireworks and lots to drink. We ate a leisurely breakfast today and then went in to town. On our way to town, we stopped by the neighbors, Uli and Vicky. Uli is German and Vicky is local to the area. They have a beautiful house next to Lynn and Gerard. After our visit, we proceeded to town. Town is very foreign and filled with exciting sites and smells. Julie and I went off on our own and ended up at a market where many people were carrying live chickens home for their special New Year's meals. I came home early, as it was getting pretty hot. I spent some time talking to my host, Gerard, about living here and all that they have built. He is Swiss and an environmentalist. He taught me about many interesting things that pertain to the area, the local people and the environment. I also spent some time helping the maids prepare food. We had fun teaching each other the names for things in our own languages. Speaking of the maids, no one in the upper class of China (which Andrew's family clearly belongs to) does any cooking, cleaning or driving for himself or herself. Everything is taken care of by the maids. In fact, they sometimes take offence if you try to help yourself. If it quite a cultural difference, but a nice one while on vacation.
OK - I should get cleaned up for our New Year's celebration. I miss you all but am having the time of my life. Hopefully I will write more in a few days.
Take care - Andrea
All 14 of us spent New Year’s Day riding around in our hired bus with Lynn as our tour guide. We stopped at a temple on the way to a Dai village. At this particular Dai village, Lynn knows most of the people including her gardener, Iwan. We had tea and snack of sticky rice and peanut butter steamed in banana leaves at Iwan’s house. His wife came with us for the rest of the day. We all admired her traditional outfit and her beautiful silver belt. We toured the rest of the village and bought some beautiful woven cloth. In the afternoon we headed back into Jinghong to visit a medicinal garden and do a little shopping. On our way from the gardens to shopping, we bought some of the sweetest, juiciest sugar cane I have ever tasted. Thanks to Lynn and her knowledge of local shops, most of the girls were able to purchase silver belts similar to the one Iwan’s wife had. After shopping in town, we headed back out to another Dai village for dinner. The Dai houses are made of wood and are all built on stilts. The living area is about 10 feet off the ground and has an indoor side and an outdoor side. We sat outdoors on low stools around a wicker table and enjoyed many new and wonderful dishes. The Dai like spicy and sour which are two of my favorite flavors. After dinner we stopped again in town to do a bit of shopping and then hit the supermarket to get supplies for our trek the next day.
On Thursday, we got up early and piled on the hired bus. We headed west towards the border of Burma. We took a Bulang guide with us named Inipa. Our first stop was a village market up in the mountains. We wandered around the crowded street eyeing exotic spices, fruits and meats. We stopped at a small table (not even a stall really) and had noodles with a meat and greens sauce and all kinds of wonderful condiments. Each tasty bowl cost about 12 cents. Steve and Derek ventured out for their own food and were rewarded with incredibly good fried dough filled with sweet red bean. We got back on the bus and drove a few more hours to, Bada, the village that we would begin our 2 day trek from. That afternoon we walked about 5 miles to a very remote Bulang village. The village had running water and electricity but was quite primitive by US standards. We had another exotic dinner of about 5 different Bulang dishes including roasted peanuts and an egg and tomato dish that we all loved. After dinner we went to see a very large fig tree and sample some tea leaves right off of a tea plant. Then we saw the village temple, which was cool, dark and beautiful. On our way back to our host house, we discovered the local bathrooms. The bathrooms consisted of a wooden shack divided into two rooms (one side for men and one for women). It was built out over a cliff with some wide spaces between the slats that dropped about 20 feet down to the ground below. They were actually quite clean and comfortable compared to some of the other bathrooms we had encountered. What made them quite special however, were the pigs that waited below to “clean up”. None of us have been too keen on eating pork since. Because we were such a large group, we had to split up into two houses. The 5 of us plus Leo and Song went to another house. We slept on a long row of pallets on the floor, but used our own blankets. We all settled in and the light was turned off. I woke up a bit later to find the light back on and several of the villages clustered around the cooking fire watching us. Andrew was up with them (they spoke a little Chinese in addition to their local dialect). It turns out that after we went to bed, some of the locals wanted to talk to us so they stood at the end of our beds saying “wake up wake up”. Andrew is the only one who responded. He suffered through 2 hours of difficult communication and some home movies (they had a TV which we thought was interesting). In addition to Andrew’s late night politeness, the price of housing us for the night was a bag of sugar.
On Friday we got up early, had some noodles and a few leftovers for breakfast, and then got on the trail. We hiked far down into a river valley that still had a bit of rainforest, despite it being the dry season and the deforestation that is happening everywhere. After a rest near the bottom, we began the steep climb out of the valley. It was hot but shady. Over the next mountain we came to another village. We only stopped long enough to take a few pictures. Our group was the largest and possibly the slowest that Inipa had ever led. It ended up being quite a long, dusty hike. About 15 miles total. Alan, Andrew’s brother got sick so he and his girlfriend were able to hitch a ride on a tractor for most of the way down out of the mountains. Steve, Yurah, Andrew, Derek and I had fun exchanging cultural jokes with Luc to pass some of the time. We met up with the bus as the sun was setting. After a quick trip to the border of Burma (just to say we went), we drove 3 hours back home to showers, dinner and Auntie Linda who had not come on the trek.
By Saturday, some of the group decided to spend a day at home. Andrew, Yurah, Derek, Steve, Leo, Song, Auntie Linda and I took the hired bus an hour and a half to a rainforest canopy walk park. It was filled with Chinese tourists but was still fun. After that we stopped for lunch on the road at a tourist restaurant. We had fried rice and 12 other dishes including tiny fried fish that we ate whole. In one of the dishes there was some Chinese peppercorn. When you eat it, it makes your mouth numb. After lunch we continued on to one of the largest botanical gardens in China. We hired a guide who showed us around one tiny fraction of the entire, enormous place. We saw a tree so poisonous that if the sap touched an open wound, you would die. We wandered around for a couple of hours and then came back to the shops at the entrance. We found several fruit vendors and Steve and I bought an egg fruit that, once it is ripe, supposedly tastes like egg yolks. Then we happened upon our greatest discovery yet. A little red berry about the size of a cranberry that, once you eat it, makes everything sour taste sweet. We tried it with pomellos and passion fruit and it was the most unusual and amazing taste sensation I have ever experienced. Soon everyone was in on the fun. We named it “Flavor 180”. It wore off in about 15 minutes. We headed back home and cleaned up. For dinner, the whole group headed in to town to one of Jinghong’s hottest nightlife spots. It was a big open market near the river, filled with BBQ stalls. All kinds of strange meats and vegetables were displayed including brain, intestine, snails, pig gums, liver, and tripe. We picked out the more benign stuff and a few exotic things. All of it was grilled over an open flame and brought to our table. This feast set the 14 of us back 400 RMB or about $50. The Fear Factor moment of the dinner was when we ate fried bees. I found them crispy and tasteless, but perhaps a good starting place for insect cuisine. After dinner some of us walked around the carnival like area. We played games and rode bumper cars. On our way home we stopped for blind man massage. Not all of the masseurs were blind, but some really were. An hour long body massage cost about $8. Then it was home to bed.
Today is Sunday and despite having many options available to us, we are taking it easy around the house. All of our culinary daring is starting to catch up with us as well. Fortunately Lynn and Gerard’s home is a comfortable paradise complete with wireless access. I hope you are all doing well. I will write more in a few days. - Drea
Sunday afternoon, several of us went in to town to do more shopping. We visited a wooden comb store with tons of beautifully crafted pieces. We also bought silver and cloth, all under the guidance of Lynn who knew where to find the real deal and Auntie Linda who new how to bargain for the real deal. The shopping fever was so great, even Derek and Andrew got matching silver bracelets with peanut charms on them.
That night we had a feast of over 500 dumplings to send off most of the family who was leaving the next day. We also enjoyed a special treat of cheeses that Luc and Audrey had brought from Belgium along with some wine. We took it easy that night and sat around the fire pit playing Carcassonne and roasting marshmallows.
On Monday, we said a fond farewell to Luc, Audrey, Leo, Song, Alan, Julie and Auntie Linda as they all headed back up north. We spent a quiet morning with Lynn and Gerard lounging around. We even played another game of Carcassonne until a giant wind (think dust storm) came up out of nowhere and pretty much blew everything not nailed down off the side of the hill. Steve, Derek and I were in the midst of it and did not know whether to flee or rescue game pieces. Fortunately, the wind stopped as suddenly as it had started and we were able to clean everything up. That afternoon, Yurah and I went in to town to do even more shopping. We almost made it completely on our own, but ended up using the cell phone to have Lynn bargain with a shop owner for us.
That night, the 7 of us had a most welcome western style dinner of roast goat, spaghetti, pumpkin gratin and salad. I had even lugged some special chocolates from the States to celebrate Valentine's Day with everyone. Turns out we were in for a bonus surprise as the chocolates (which I bought at the newsstand in Rincon) had hatched fly larvae. For once, something from America managed to be the grossest food at dinner.
On Tuesday we rose early, packed and had our final breakfast overlooking the river. Lynn drove us to the airport and we said a sad good-bye, unable to say thanks enough times to cover our gratitude for their hospitality. We flew to Kunming and had lunch in the airport. We were on our own now and had to completely rely on Andrew as the only Chinese speaker. We caught a connecting flight and arrived in Lijiang in the late afternoon. Lijiang is also in the Yunnan province, near the border of Tibet. At about 8500 feet, is surrounded by beautiful snow capped mountains. The local minority people are called Naxi. We stayed in the old town at a guest house run by a very nice Naxi man. The old town is very charming with cobblestone streets and small canals. Its only downside is that it has become somewhat commercial and is crowded with Chinese tourists and cheesy crafts shops. It was also quite cold there. That night, we ate at a Naxi-style restaurant by a canal. That may have been my downfall.
I spent the entire next day in bed, near the bathroom, in our tiny, dim room. I was lucky to have a bathroom in the room, even if you were not allowed to throw toilet paper in the toilet. Steve, who had been the only really sick one thus far, was feeling better so Derek, Yurah, Andrew and Steve hired a bus and went to see some of the local sites. Their major stop for the day was Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, which at 18,000, boasts the highest chairlift in Asia. In the end, we had a hard time deciding who had the worst day though as they had to wait in 6 or 7 lines for over 3 hours in sub-zero temperatures, fighting off other tourists vying for their place in line. All this to see a complete white out once they reached the top.
The next day I felt a bit better, but was weak and wary of the local food. I made do with a bit of bread, a banana and a snickers bar for the entire day. Steve was down again and Yurah had had a pretty bad night. Andrew had a few bouts as well. All except Steve managed to venture out a bit into the Old Town. Fortunately the sun was out so it was a bit warmer that day. It really was too bad we were all so sick, because I am sure there were some interesting things to see if I had had the strength. By the time we left for the airport at 7 pm, I was once again tethered to the toilet. As depressing as it was to max out on Imodium two days in a row, I was so glad to have my friends there to keep my spirits up. Our flight was delayed and we did not get in to Kunming until almost midnight, but we had a wonderful treat waiting for us. Leo had booked us a room at a 4 star hotel at a special rate. I took a luxurious shower and slept soundly between crisp sheets on a real bed. The cruel irony came Friday morning, when I was unable to really make good use of the American breakfast buffet that was included with our rooms. I was happy to have recognizable food though and my intestinal woes seemed to finally be on the mend. That morning, Derek came down with a fever. We had finally all been beaten. China 5, team USA 0.
We flew back to Shanghai that afternoon to the security of Auntie Linda's hospitality. Alan and Julie were still there and 10 of us had dinner that night at a very hip Shanghainese restaurant that would not have been out of place in San Francisco. After we ate, we got to hear the story of how Auntie Linda had raised her 5 kids on her own and made a life for herself first in the US and then later on Shanghai as an artist and decorator. Fortunately all of us made it through dinner with no stomach problems and we went home to bed.
On Saturday, we rose early, had breakfast with Auntie Linda and then 7 of us (Derek was down again) drove out to Suzhou to see the house Auntie Linda is building on Tai Hu, a huge freshwater lake about 2 hours outside of Shanghai. The house is being built on a beautiful spot near the water and will be large enough to house all the kids once it is complete. We had lunch at a nearby fancy hotel. We ate some of the specialties from the lake including white shrimp and a white fish. After lunch we visited the Qi Gardens, the Yan Gardens, and a temple with a pagoda. It was excruciatingly cold out however, so we stopped for some tea before heading home. That night, we had a feast at Auntie Linda's, prepared by Chou Young, her maid. I tried pigs feet for the first time. Tastes like the rest of the pig if you ask me. That night, Leo took a couple of us out to a bar called Luna, owned and run by some of his friends. It was a blast! Not only were we treated like VIPs due to Leo's connections, but there was an amazing Filipino 80's rock cover band. They did everything from Guns-n-Roses to 99 Red Balloons. They did an amazing job at sounding just like the original singers. They also had Budweiser in a bottle and a lot of Americans in the audience. It was a little bit of home.
By Sunday, we were down to the 5 of us, Auntie Linda, Leo and Song (who live in Shanghai as well). In the morning, Yurah, Steve, Derek and I went to the Shanghai museum with Chou Young while Auntie Linda and Andrew took Alan to the airport. The museum was very well done, but we only had time to see a little bit of it before we headed off meet Andrew's godparents, Frank and Nancy, for dim sum. Lunch was tasty as usual and it was fun to talk to Frank and Nancy as they were very nice and have known Andrew's family for so long. After lunch there was more shopping. This time we headed to an outdoor market of cheap knock-offs. It was a crazy place filled with North Face jackets, Gucci bags and even a few Banana Republic sweaters. Bargaining down to a tiny fraction of the original asking price was half the fun. We then stopped at the Garden Hotel for some more high end cashmere and pearl purchases. For dinner, we ate at a Japanese "all you can eat" restaurant that was another local hot spot. We had sashimi, tempura, raw beef, and tons of other dishes. After yet another huge meal, we returned home to spend our last few hourss looking at all our shopping treasures and chatting with Auntie Linda.
On Monday morning, we had our final breakfast of sweet soy milk and donuts (my new favorite) and loaded all our bags into two cars. On the way to the airport, we made a little side trip to a train station. Turns out is wasn't just any old train station, but was for the fastest train in the world, the Shanghai Maglev. Reaching a top speed of over 250 miles per hour, it covered the rest of the 30 minute drive to the airport in a mere 8 minutes. It was a great parting activity for our trip. We had lunch in the airport with Auntie Linda until it was time to board our plane. When I said good-bye, I was again overwhelmed at the hospitality and generosity of my host and tour guide. I can only hope to reciprocate a tiny fraction of it the next time Auntie Linda visits the Bay Area. The flight home was uneventful and we arrived home tired yet fulfilled. It was a truly amazing trip and I am so lucky to have been included as a part of Andrew's family. So that's my China trip. Thanks for reading - Drea