Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Yangshuo, China (Guangxi Province) - Hello From A Tiny Dot on the World Map

Yangshuo, China

I've been to Southeastern China many times in the last few years, but the trip to Hong Kong this time would be different because I would be going with my other half. If you've been following J's blog, you'll know that she's been backpacking for the last few weeks with her brother in Vietnam. As a teacher, she's got a crapload of time off. So she decided to meet me in Hong Kong and Macau. This would be a good chance to see how J and I do in a foreign land. We get along very well but of course, we have our downfalls. For example, fighting over color correction in photo editing. Fun stuff.

Yangshuo Bear Zoo

We decided to backpack in a small town two hours away from the beautiful city of Guilin. Guilin is known for its beautiful, lush karst peaks, two long rivers, the Yulong and Li and weird circus acts pictured above (thanks Jozy!). But its also known for its large influx of Chinese tourists. If my parents have been there, then for sure it's touristy. No thanks. We read in Lonely Planet that Yangshuo was the place to be for those interested in NOT being on a tour and those that tread away from the beaten path. Getting to Yangshuo was not easy... an hour bus ride to the airport, two delays, an hour flight, a 2 hour taxi ride that finally got us in at 2 am, when we were supposed to arrive at 9 pm. We found a place off Hostels.com called the Yangshuo Culture House which got an A rating from reviewers. For $11 a night per person, we got A/C, wireless internet, comfortable beds, 2 cooked meals a day and a choice between Chinese calligraphy, cooking or Tai Chi classes daily. Not bad. It was different once we got there though. It was 2 am, muggy, raining and we were greeted by a sleepy owner, named Wei. There's a reason why there aren't many photos of this place on the internet. Well, simply because the hostel was built in an underdeveloped area with absolutly no street lamps. Things didn't look good at this point and the only thing we could think about was showering and sleeping. But what we didn't know, was that this place would change our lives, open our minds even more and leave a memorable experience inside our hearts. For only $11 a night.

Yangshuo Culture House

One thing everyone talked about on Hostels.com was the fact that Wei and his family, who also live there, really make you feel at home. As soon as I walked in, he asked me to take my dirty ass Pumas off. So Asian, I like it.

Yangshuo Wei

Here's Wei and I outside. Many people online have also commended Wei on his willingness to take care of everything for you. As an ex-travel agent, his English is very good and makes things much easier for China newbies. From raft rides to taxis to minibuses - anything you want, Wei will take care of it for you. Wei also states on his site that many people in the Yangshuo town will pretend they are him and take you to another hotel. On his site, it read, "You only have to look at my right hand and see that I only have four fingers." When we arrived and shook Wei's hand, we knew it was him right away. *Kinda tickled.*

Yangshuo Backpackers

Fellow backpackers from Portland, Netherlands, UK and Spain.

Yangshuo Family Meal

Wei and his family weren't joking when they said that family meals were provided. I don't have a wide lens on my camera, but you can see that there are clearly over 11 dishes of awesome homecooked food... all ingredients picked fresh from the local market and fields. I usually don't like rice, but I was eating the food non-stop. The setup was great. 6:30 pm we showed up for dinner and seated with the rest of the backpackers, 14 total. Beer and soda was available in a small fridge for only 4 RMB. FYI, the exchange rate for US to China RMB is 1 to 7.5. Yes, ice cold beer for only $0.53, whichs is SIX TIMES more expensive than the beer J & her brother were drinking in Vietnam.

After a night of full rest, we walked out to the main area in Yangshuo called West Street to explore.
Yangshuo Oldman

I took one look at this old man (I named him 'Old Man Liu') and knew this would be a classic shot. He's playing an instrument called an 'er hu', a two string chinese violin which sounds super sad. If he played Celine Dion's titanic song on the 'er hu', he could drive people mad. I gave him some money and he happily fiddled away. Time for our first meal in Yangshuo.

Yangshuo Guilin Mifun

Yangshuo Guilin Mifun

This is Guilin's most popular dish, 'mi fun', which means 'rice noodle'. This soup noodle dish consists of preserved vegetables, ground pork, roasted peanuts, noodles in a powerful chicken broth. God, the broth in China rocks. Only 5 RMB. A taxi driver we had met expressed his anger in the price increase of this dish due to tourism. It USED to be 2 RMB. Was there a point in time when everything was once FREE in China?

Yangshuo Wontons

Yangshuo Wontons

These are Yangshuo-style wontons, which mainly consist of ground pork, unlike Hong Kong-style wontons which have ground pork, shrimp, dried fish and yellow chives. These were absolutely delicious. The wontons were cooked for no more than 2 mins in a delicious chicken broth and the freshly made wonton skins melted like snowflakes. I think I ordered another bowl of these.

Yangshuo Guilin Chili Sauce

Guilin is also known for their craft in making excellent chili sauce, 'gui lin la jiao'. I say you put Sriracha down for once and go pick up this sauce at your local Chinese market. Its perfect for dumpling sauce, stir fries and soup noodles. I use this when I make my Chinese beef noodle soup and it kicks people's asses!

Yangshuo Claypot Rice

Besides porridge, the Chinese like to eat a type of 'wet rice' or 'soupy rice' called 'xi fan' (pronounced 'she faan'). This must've been a staple here in Yangshuo because we saw nearly 12-15 of these restaurants in town. While you're 'xi fan' was being cooked over high charcoal heat, you got to choose your own meats and veggies as you can see in the image. You would then hand it to the cook who cooked everyone's meal in an assembly line fashion. Definitely not as cheesy as those mongolian-style joints you'll find at mall food courts. They weren't using 3-foot long chopstickers either.

Yangshuo Young Fisherman

After lunch, J and I headed to West Street and chilled at a cafe called 7th Heaven, one of 25+ eateries where the foreigners hung out. There, you could get western food, WiFi and cheap alcohol.
Yangshuo Tsingtao

It was only 1 pm and it was damn hot. I usually don't practice the religion of drinking alcohol in the sun because of its dizzying effects on the head, but rules change on vacation. Yes, this Tsingtao beer tasted as refreshing as it looked.

Yangshuo Li Quan Beer of Guilin

LiQ is Guilin's standard beer with 10% alcohol. 10% for a beer is way higher than domestic American beers but it certainly didn't taste bad at all. Even J was downing the beer because it was simply refreshing in the humidity. I also tried Guilin's official rice wine and it was quite possibly the most awful thing ever... with just a few notches above the plastic Popov Vodka bottles you can find at Albertson's for only $7. It was so nasty that I had another 6 shots. Beer after beer, shot after shot... I was in a happy place at about 2 pm. J just looked at me and shook her head with that 'you're a loser' look. Yes I know J, but I'm on vacation.

Yangshuo Scooter Time!

Next thing I know, I'm bugging J to get off her stupid laptop and go do something. I looked over to my left and saw a few people renting out bicycles and scooters. I walked over to them.

Me: "How much does a bike cost a day?"
Lady: "30 RMB."
Me: "Ok, not bad. How about the electric scooter?"
Lady: "50 RMB."
Me: "Wait, so for us to get two bikes and expend our own energy, it'll cost 60 RMB."
Lady: "Yes."
Me: "Give me the electric scooter!"
Lady: "Ok, 500 RMB deposit though."
Me: "No problem."

Even if I didn't return it, a scooter for 500 RMB is not bad at all. I could have a scooter for myself until the police tracked me down. I called J over and we both got on the scooter. Problem was, my motor skills weren't exactly at 100%. Apparently I was twisting the accelerator the wrong way and going a whopping 8 mph. The people that rented us the scooter just laughed at us. Old people were walking by faster than us. Was this some joke??? Once I pressed the accelerator in the right way, it was definitely business time.

J: "Where we going?"
Me: "Who cares. Let's just go!"
J: "Let me get the map."
Me: "Fuck the map."

Within a few minutes we're out of West Street and stopped on the main street. Boy, did it look like the Frogger video game. At top speed (20 mph), we were no match for buses, motorcycles and even really fast old people on bicycles. Things were moving around EVERYWHERE. I really didn't know why there were lanes to begin with. Alright, here we go.

1.... 2.... 3....

We put trust in our little electric scooter, 'Frogger', and gunned it across the street. Never have I heard J scream so much and say things like "Watch out for the TRACTOR!" The Chinese LOVE to use the horn, so I took advantage of it. Honking at slow bikes, slow people and big trucks. I didn't see one middle finger haha. Within a few miles, my alcohol buzz had worn off and fear had converted to pure andrenaline and joy, and we were on the road to nowhere. Exactly what we wanted.

Seems like the thing to do in Yangshuo, if you're a guy, is to hangout on your bike on the street, smoke cigarettes and watch people go by. Maybe it's not a choice if you're unemployed. We stopped over and asked this random guy for some directions. His name was Mr. Hsu, and for 5 RMB, he offered to take us around the countryside... ROUNDTRIP. Hell yeah!

Yangshuo Random Guy Mr. Hsu

Yangshuo Moon Hill

This is called Moon Hill, a tourist destination that requires YOU to pay THEM to WALK up a steep mountain. No thanks. Mr. Hsu gladly showed us a nice vista point. For how much? All inclusive of the 5 RMB tour. After this, Mr. Hsu took us to three other areas and it was just awesome. We then started to hunt for restaurants serving dog meat. Every place we went to ran out of it... or maybe IT ran away. Oh well, maybe the whole dog meat thing is a myth started by PETA. As I was coasting at 20 mph on a scooter with J holding me from behind, I couldn't help but smile and appreciate the fact that life couldn't be better even with J's constant screaming as vehicles approached. The scenery was simply amazing and pristine. I realized that I started a little late in seeing China and the possibility of traversing China as a whole was all but too slim. If I were to die that day and get roadkilled by some tractor, it would be all good. We thanked Mr. Hsu for the 3 hour ride and payed him 35 RMB instead of 5 RMB. He looked like he was going to cry.

When we got back to the Yangshuo Culture House, we were still thinking about our awesome scooter trip. Like a redneck convincing people about his alien abduction, we told all the other backpackers about our day and they all wanted to do the same. The next day, we decided to hangout with a group from Portland, Oregon.

Yangshuo Massage Menu

After lunch, we decided to get a massage for dessert. Look at these prices... for 2 HOUR massages. Divide by 7.75 and that's the US rate. I can afford a $10 massage! The 5 of us were just silent in the massage parlour. Nobody said a word; it was just too good. Portland had been traveling for nearly 5 months, coming from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos most recently – and a foot massage was long overdue.

Yangshuo Portland 7th Heaven

Here's a shot with Portland. 2 hours later and in a higher level of relaxation, we took them to the same cafe yesterday. Walking over there was pure bliss. I've never had a foot massage b/c I know it can be painful, but they seriously turned my feet into pillows. An hour later, we said bye to Portland and we were off to our next thing.

Yangshuo Street Market

I love to cook and I'll even do it on my vacation. We signed up for the Yangshuo Cooking School, which we found online a few months ago. Bob, tell them what they get! For only 100 RMB, a van will pick you up, take you to see the local market, teach you how to cook 5 Yangshuo favorites, eat the 5 things you cooked, admire the stellar view of the karst peaks during sunset AND take you back home. Nice! The following are shots from the market tour.

Yangshuo BBQ at the Market

Yangshuo Tofu

This lady was totally dozing off. I don't blame her because the heat here was intense. I was just waiting for her to take a face dive into the tofu sheet. Look at the beautiful fresh tofu.

Yangshuo Chickens

Chickens were everywhere. So was the smell of an incense used to burn off the odor of freshly killed meat. It smelled like the anti-mosquito stuff you use while camping.

Yangshuo Pigeons

I think I might have a new favorite bird. I didn't eat pigeon here in Yangshuo, but I did a few days earlier in Macau. I had it served like roasted duck. The pigeon meat does taste like duck but is definitely not as fatty as duck; neither is the skin. Not a bad way to get rid of the rats of the sky.

Yangshuo Clay Eggs

These are similar to the 'thousand year old eggs' called 'pi dan', only they are buried in clay/mud for long periods of time.

Yangshuo Cleavers

This is probably one of my favorite shots. So manly and grisly. I love the remaining morsels of whatever beast was killed for our gastronomic pleasures. The meat dept. in the market didn't seem too fresh. There was absolutely no refridgeration and meat was left out on benches for immediate purchase. It was already 3:30 pm and I could smell the odor of old meat. I saw a man taking a nap on the bench next to some pork butt and pork belly, and asked our cooking school tour guide how much that guy cost per pound. She didn't find that too funny and continued walking.

Yangshuo Cooking School

Yangshuo Cooking School

After the market tour, we were herded to a small pocket in town laden with chickens and dogs on the road. The architecture changed dramatically as we drove. I looked back and smiled as the town shrank to a tiny dot. Here the buildings were made of bricks that may not pass US inspection, but you know that they've been here for probably close to a century. I felt like I was on the set of a Asian period film, like Crouching Tiger. If only I had long straight hair, a silky man-gown and levitation capabilities.

Yangshuo Cooking School Introduction

Our class consisted of two instructors and about 14 students, mainly from the UK. Like our buddies back at the hostel, they had also been traveling for a few months. We each had our own setup: wok, burner, cleaver and ingredients. The class was a lot of fun and lasted almost 3 hours.

Yangshuo Cooking School Garden

One of the workers at the cooking school picking out fresh scallions in the huge garden.

Yangshuo Cooking School Steamed Food

Here are three things the people of Yangshuo love to steam: squash blossoms, mushrooms and fried tofu cubes. Each of the items were stuffed with a filling consisting of ground pork, scallions, garlic, ginger and oyster sauce.

Yangshuo Cooking School Steam Baskets

After we stuffed the items, we stack-steamed them and had to remember our number for later retrieval.

Yangshuo Cooking School Prepping

I haven't used a cleaver in such a long time and I actually missed it. I forgot how versatile this tool is. While American and French cooks rely on several different knives in a knife block, the Chinese use this one tool for everything, including circumcision. Just kidding.

Yangshuo Cooking School

Beware of people with cleavers. They are usually angry and very hungry. Especially the 1/2 vietnamese, 1/2 japanese ones wearing white hats.

Yangshuo Cooking School Prep

Yangshuo Cooking School Eggplant

Yangshuo Cooking School Cashew Chicken

Yangshuo Cooking School Beer Fish

This dish I was excited for. I had read about Yangshuo's famous dish, Beer fish. First, carp fish is fried skin-side down and then tossed with beer, pickled chilis, garli, ginger, oyster sauce and scallions. The result is a very tasty and light dish that is reminiscent of Chinese home cooking.

Yangshuo Cooking School Beer Fish

Yangshuo Cooking School View

This was our view at the cooking school as we ate the food we cooked. There was something amazing about eating rural Chinese food with huge karst peaks all around you. You could hear the loud buzzing of cicadas all throughout the valley. We were a bit sad to leave.

When we got back, we had another family dinner, which was excellent. For some strange reason, I decided to buy the nasty Guilin rice wine and bring it back to the hostel. After a few of us killed the whole bottle, we were hungry. And you haven't had the full experience of China until you've paid a visit to the night market, like Taiwan. Party time!

Yangshuo Fellow Backpackers from Spain

Here's a shot with Spain, Jeff and Maria. Jeff looks like 'Jesus with a Trim'. And guess what, he's a carpenter. No kidding.

Yangshuo Li River Shrimp

Oh man, one of my favorites of the night. This is Li River shrimp and grow no larger than 1.25 inches. They are deep fried and then stir fried with veggies. This is the REAL popcorn shrimp – the shells fried crispy and flavored with the perfect amount of salt. I probably ate 30-40 pcs.

Yangshuo Chili Snails

Another great Yangshuo treat... snails. These took a bit more work because you had to take each shell one by one and suck them out of their shells. Nonetheless, a big reward for a small task.

Yangshuo Grilled Oysters

These were a night market favorite. I didn't try these grilled oysters though.

Yangshuo Eels

Fresh river eels.

Yangshuo Grilled Chinese Sausage

Do I make your horngry? Grilled sweet sausages.

Yangshuo Pickled Chilis

Chopping up pickled chilis.

Yangshou Garlic Chives

Another favorite of mine... skewered garlic chives. These were flash fried for 2 seconds and brushed with a spicy satay bbq sauce. Killer!

Yangshuo Noodle Man

This man is not jumproping. He is making fresh hand-pulled noodles.

Yangshuo Hand-Pulled Noodles

Yangshuo Dog

Out of respect for those that own a furry friend, I am using a fork and knife as a metaphor for what really went on. What I saw in the market the other day was definitely grisly and I myself am not comfortable showing anyone the photos. But before you call PETA on me, please understand that China is not a rich country and will eat anything to get by. We love pork, beef and chicken... just as they do. Americans find it odd to eat dogs but in China, there are only 4 species of dog that they eat: black, white, spotted and brown. And according to my friend Nick, that is the same ranking in quality with black dogs being the USDA Prime and brown dogs being the canned meat. There are no cute chihuahuas with pink ribbons, golden retrievers that bring you your daily newspaper or poodles that sing and hop on two feet. These are mutts, animals that have naturally roamed the land like wolves and coyotes do. Asians found it odd that Americans were so into beef because in Asia, cattle provides labor in the fields, much like a dog provides companionship. After searching for dog meat in the outskirts of Yangshuo, I was finally able to find this delicacy. I approached a young girl working a small stand. She asked me what I wanted, and after asking 10+ times for dog, I had given up hope.

Girl: "What do you want? What can I make for you?"
Me: "Do you have dog meat?"
Girl: "Yes!"

My eyes grew big and face lit up in joy. In the most barbaric, beastly way. So did the other backpackers.

Me: "How do you cook it?"
Girl: "Quick braise and stir fry it with chilis, celery, garlic and chives."
Me: "How much?"
Girl: "35 RMB."
Me: "30 RMB."
Girl looks at me and pauses and finally gives a nod and starts running off.
Girl: "Be right back!"
Us: "Nice!"

We took a seat at the tables and ordered up some beer. We were all very excited. 5 mins. 10 mins. 15 mins. 20 mins. 25 mins. 30 mins. Wait a minute, the fact that we saw her run off and still hasn't returned in 30 mins seemed bizarre. We grew more curious. Suddenly, as I lifted up my beer for another cool sip, I see a blurry figure running towards me.

It was the Girl. Holding a dish. With the dog meat in it.

She placed the plate down and we all put down our beers and gathered around it like a campfire. It smelled great! I went first. And I'll tell you what, this is the some of the TASTIEST RED MEAT I HAVE EVER TASTED. J wasn't with us so I asked the girl to well, doggybag the dog, so that J could taste it. J and the other backpackers loved it. The meat, like kobe beef, is extremely rich. On a gaminess level, it's way softer than lamb but has a taste that makes you want to eat more and more. One of the backpackers said he would convert to a dog meat eater if it was more available in the UK.

Yangshuo Bamboo Rat

We decided to go to Round 2 of fear factor. As we paid the bill for the dog mcnuggets, I saw what appeared to be a rodent that looked like it was ironed by a semi truck. I looked at the other backpackers and without saying, we nodded. It was a bamboo rat, not rodentus lowereastsidenewyorkus. The guy working the stall grabbed the rat and chopped the hell out of it, head first. He then stir fried it with chili, soy sauce, chives and ginger. The result was a plate of small brown bits. We took a bite and tasted skin and bones, no meat whatsoever. The bones were brittle enough to be eaten but this dish was definitely more work than pleasure. I recommend dog over rat for sure.

Yangshou Frog

Frog legs are easy to find in the SGV, but to watch the whole preparation of the frog is really awesome. Our guy picked out 3 fat frogs about 7-8 inches long from a net. He took one frog in one hand and lightly banged the head of the frog a few times. He set the frog down on the chopping block and I watched as the frog started to spit out foam. The banging technique was apparently used to knock the frog unconscious so it wouldn't hop away. The guy then picked up the frog and exposed the belly to us and used the cleaver to make an incision to remove the organs. It was quite gross. Spain filmed the whole thing on their digital camera and will probably put it on YouTube soon.

Yangshou Frog

And here is Kerokerokeroppi, cooked with garlic, chives and bell peppers. The skin on the frog came off like skin on steamed fish, exposing white meat that resembled chicken. And guess what, it tastes like really fresh, juicy chicken. Very good!

Yangshou Grilled Corn

Now for some more Fear Factor food. Grilled corn with spicy satay sauce. Awesome.

Yangshuo Happiness at the Night Market

Look at the smile on my face. I was like a kid at the county fair, only I didn't eat corndogs or deep fried twinkies. No, I definitely didn't haha.

Yangshuo Hammer Time

The next day, we decided to team up with Spain and ride the scooters through the countryside. We again saw Mr. Hsu hanging out on his bike at the same spot. We asked him to take us around but he only ended up taking us to really touristy areas. We really just wanted to be alone. On the way up, we saw some construction workers hacking away at rock. They looked exhausted. Spain decided to help them out a bit and started hacking away. I took a hammer and started to hack away too. Damn, 8 hours of this a day. I think I'd rather stick to YouTube all day long.

Yangshuo Peeing in Public

China is a BIG PLACE. Of all the places I chose to water the plants, I had unknowingly picked an area with a huge sign saying:

"Implement the policy of preservation for soil conservation. Control the soil erosion caused by mankind activities."

Oops, sorry Mao!

Yangshuo Steamed Dumplings

Yangshuo Dumpling Dough

Yangshuo Steamed Dumplings

Yangshuo Xiao Long Bao

Pictured above are more of Yangshuo's food we had for lunch. They prefer steaming their dumplings then panfrying. Spain had never had these and loved them. The last photo of the buns are Yangshuo's version of 'xiao long bao' (soupy dumplings) which sucked.
Doughy with zero pork juice.

Yangshuo Swimming in the Li River

Yangshuo Swimming in the Li River

And this is where we finally ended up at after an hour in the countryside. Exactly what we were looking for. It was bliss. You can see me swimming in the photo above. I really can't explain the feeling of jumping into a warm river that provides so much for the small town of Yangshuo. Seeing little fish swim around you, investigating your foreign body. Watching old men on rafts glide by, making the moment seem timeless. I didn't know what time it was or what day it was really and this place was certainly a home I'd never have. I realized that to backpack through a country is to leave all that you have behind and taking only what you need. But the same ideology works on a physical and mental level. You have to leave any thoughts and concerns you may have, go with the flow and keep an open mind. Even if it means staring at a dog that lays motionless on a wooden bench in the market. He is at peace, whether or not you believe it. It means no itineraries. No annoying tours. No sense of place. Only to live as the locals would live. And for me and J, China was the place for us to do this. And I'd give anything to ride through the countryside again with J on that 18-mph scooter.

Thank you to J for sharing an amazing trip with me, to the awesome backpackers, Wei and to you for reading.

Check out Portland's thoughts on Yangshuo.
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