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Seven Weeks in Tibet: Part 1

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I confess I did not really spend seven weeks in Tibet during this past September and October. Instead, I spent seven weeks altogether in Hong Kong, China and Tibet. But who could have resisted the title?

Those of you who have come to know these travelogues are already familiar with the mix of danger (albeit riotous danger), delight, culinary adventure and inexplicably bizarre human conduct that makes travel so enjoyable. You may not, however, be familiar with the tale of the smelly bag.

That's because I've been remiss in reporting on my trips, and haven't yet caught you all up on last year's trek in Nepal (or, for that matter, my trip earlier this year to language-school in Honduras). To make a long, smelly story short: there was a porter (he might colloquially and incorrectly be called a sherpa); there was a duffel bag, a lovely yellow North Face bag, that this porter carried for several weeks on the trail; there was much contact and transfer of perspiration between the porter and the bag due to the exertion of carrying my bag pack-style through a number of ecosystems and to altitudes in excess of 18,000 feet; and the smell followed me home.

Over the course of several months, I applied a variety of legal and controlled substances to that bag. I used soap, bleach, various products that were “guaranteed to get the smell out or your money back!” a couple of chemicals I got in unmarked containers from a friend in medical school, and even something called Nature's Miracle, which is an enzyme based cleaner intended for removing all traces of the smell of pet urine. I hung the bag in the window for weeks, through rain and snow and other conditions that the postman allegedly braves, though not in my neighborhood. (As well, I endured nosy neighbors asking, “What's up with the bag in your window? Going somewhere? Heh, heh!”). Nothing worked.

So, a year later, my still-smelly bag in hand, I set off for the other side of the Himalayas, this time the Tibet side, with a primary mission of having the adventure of a lifetime, and the secondary mission of finding a solvent or perhaps even a holy person who could eradicate, once and for all, the smell from the smelly bag. But I digress.

On the first segment of the trip, I traveled with a group under the auspices of an Australian company called Intrepid Travel, which my research (four years ago I met an Aussie guy en route to Everest Base Camp who told me about Intrepid; at home I looked the company up online and have been following their progress and growth ever since) had indicated would represent a good middle ground between the undesirable extremes of, on the one hand, being reckless (according to my husband -- traveling alone as a woman in rural China) or, on the other hand, taking a dumbed down bus tour with no real opportunities for cultural contact (there are plenty of those available, some at great expense). Taking advantage of numbers and significantly decreasing the hassle factor of getting around the country (which in a country like China are significant), Intrepid arranges economical trips for small groups of adventurous travelers who desire minimal supervision but prefer to benefit from the expertise of an operator that knows and has local contacts in the region. There is a general itinerary in place in advance, with a start and end date and an outline of points in between. There is a leader-liaison to deal with transportation and lodging for the group. And a few key cultural activities are pre-planned. But the rest is highly flexible, and most appealing to me was that all meals are up to you, so you can eat alone, with other members of the group, or not at all. None of this pre-arranged banquet stuff that ruins so many meals for tour groups the world over. The trip was scheduled to last 19 days, and it was recommended that we each budget $200 for meals. That's $200 for the whole 19 days, not $200 per day as one might budget in New York, Paris, or Tokyo.

I met up with the other six members of my group, as well as our group leader-liaison, in Hong Kong. We went around the table and did the old “tell us about yourself” thing. The cast of characters:

– a young brother and sister from Australia (John, 18, a fourth generation farmer -- cattle and apples -- and Amy, around 23, a Ph.D. student in soil ecology or something akin to that); John had never been out of the country and Amy had decided to invite her “little” brother along for the adventure (talk about a crash course in culture shock);

– Wendy, a mid-30s techie from New Zealand;

– Kay, a 40-something pharmacist from England;

– Bev and Martin a 50s-ish couple from New Zealand (she a teacher, he a producer of, primarily, high end horse feed);

– our leader-liaison, Sylwia, a young 30-something Polish immigrant to Australia; and

– me.

We were then treated to an inspiring speech from our leader-liaison, a summary of which is “It's China. Shit goes wrong. Don’t bitch to me about it.” That aside, the members of the group all seemed extremely nice, and seeing as it was the first night and we all wanted to be amicable, everyone chose to dine together at a nearby restaurant recommended by Sylwia. I restrained myself from taking photos at the table that first night (you know, that first night you can either become someone the group likes, or you can become the annoying American bitch who takes photos at the table; I wanted to wait at least a day before establishing that reputation), but what a smorgasbord it was. (Perhaps someday I'll endeavor to learn the Chinese term for smorgasbord, if there is one.) It was approachable Chinese food, delicious but not worth describing in depth here (we need to get on to the real culinary adventures and then some), with an assortment of dishes based on pork, chicken, shrimp, vegetables, and starches, and everyone grabbed a pair of chopsticks and a rice bowl and dug in. John -- farmer John, if you must have a mnemonic to get you through this -- had never used chopsticks before and this was one of many occasions when his easy going personality served him, and us, well. He wasn't he least bit daunted, not even by fried peanuts or rice. Then again, this was Hong Kong, where people spit their bones on the table and their phlegm on the floor.

One reason you have to spend a lot of time in China is that it's so big. You can't go for a week and expect to cover very much of it. Even in seven weeks, you only get a snapshot of a few sub-regions. But the other reason you have to spend a lot of time in China is that you have to spend almost a week and several billion brain cells just getting to your first real destination. To recap, I had started in New York City and flown to Hong Kong via Japan, a process that took just about 24 hours but did allow for a viewing of Win a Date with Tad Hamilton. Then there were two nights in Hong Kong (the night my flight arrived and the night I met my group). And then there was to be an exciting bout of train travel in order to get to Yangshuo, our stepping-off point in China.




(On the street in Hong Kong, a woman demonstrates, infomercial-style, the wonders of this plastic ladle, which removes the layers of fat from the broth . . . voila!)

The border crossing into China was uneventful except for the number of vehicles we utilized -- a taxi and three buses -- in order to drive the one hour to the border. Before we got off our bus on the Hong Kong side, we were “stickered” by our bus driver (yes, we were given round stickers to apply to our clothing). This was so that after we passed Hong Kong customs our driver could identify us on the other side and usher us back onto the correct bus. After everyone was reloaded, he walked up the aisle collecting the stickers. I wonder what he worried we might have done with them had we kept them.

We were dropped in Guangzhou, where we had about 45 minutes to amuse ourselves until we headed for the train station. Sylwia was eager to point out the McDonald’s and mentioned more than once that, while she waited with our bags, if someone would be kind enough to get her a shake and fries at McDonald’s, she would be much obliged. I went in search of an ATM and a couple of snacks to fortify me for the upcoming 13-hour overnight train ride to Guilin.

Somehow, rather than taxiing or riding the subway, we ended up walking with our personal effects to the train station, where we waited on the slippery-with-spit floor amongst the hundreds of other passengers eager to board the train. Each car had an open interior layout with back-to-back rows of three-tiered bunk beds. In our class of service (“hard sleeper,” which somehow doesn’t refer to the softness of the bed -- it is more padded than the majority of Chinese beds I slept in after -- but rather to the number of beds in the railroad car) we were each provided with a blanket, pillow and sheets, and there was a ladder at the aisle end of each stack of bunks so that those in the middle and top bunks could access their beds. I was in a middle bunk (about 5.5 feet off the floor) and, once situated in there, I was loathe to get out during the night.

The train car was bustling with commerce. Vendors roamed the aisles selling everything from dried noodle buckets (think KFC meets Ramen), to overflowing foam containers full of cooked rice with a side of, presumably, some sort of meat and vegetables, to fresh cut fruit, to spinning tops that do tricks and illuminate, to decks of playing cards. There was a hot water tank with boiling water at one end of each car (so people could make tea and “cook” their noodles) and there was also a dining car on the train, where a few members of our group dined and gave the following report: one dish good, two dishes mediocre. I was surprised by the variety, apparent quality and reasonable prices. We were a captive audience, so I’d have supposed the markups would have been similar to food in an airport or at a ballgame, but here the markups were inconsequential, even relative to Chinese pricing. Lights out at 10:00.



The lights came on and the speakers were blaring by 6am the next morning, and we were due to arrive into Guilin 30 minutes later. Though the train would be continuing on for another 12 hours, we had ample time, along with the other passengers alighting in Guangzhou, to get off the train with all of our gear. Bleary eyed, we staggered off the platform and out through the station to get to our next and last mode of transportation -- a mini bus -- to Yangshuo, where, thankfully, we were to remain for the next two nights and actually do stuff.

Sylwia negotiated for our mini bus -- we would only take it if we weren’t waiting for the bus to fill up with passengers. Yes, yes of course -- get on, get on. No, really, we won’t wait for the bus to fill up, we want to leave immediately. Yes, of course, of course (this, by the way is all taking place in “Chiniculation” -- my designation for the language of broken Chinese and gesticulation that was to become the mainstay of communication for the trip).

Once we were loaded on to the bus with our packs and bags, with no possibility of escape, the money handler (each mini bus was administered by a team consisting of a driver and a money handler) of course went right ahead and tried to encourage other people to board the bus. The bus driver, magically forgetting his promise of immediate departure, waited while the hawking, money-handling lady unsuccessfully solicited other passengers to our bus bound for Yangshuo. After that delay, the driver kicked the engine to life and we chug chugged out of the parking lot and into the throng of four wheeled (cars and trucks), three wheeled (motor tricycle -- like a tuk tuk) two wheeled (bicycles, rickshaws, animal drawn carts), motorized and human-powered traffic.

After a short walk from the bus station to our hotel, we hauled our bags upwards one last time, first up a hill and then up multiple flights of stairs, to our safe haven the Fawlty Towers Hotel (next door to, by the way, the Hard Seat Café). We had 15 minutes in our rooms and then we would assemble downstairs for a quick orientation walk around Yangshuo before setting off to explore as we wished. Because there were an odd number of female participants, the three of us would rotate roommates and so I was blessed with my own room for the next two nights.


Sylwia walked us through the quaint old cobblestone streets of Yangshuo (read: tourist area) and pointed out an internet “bar,” a good place for Chinese pressure-point massage, and some dining options, including the best coffee in town. The tour ended at Sylwia's favorite restaurant and bar, where we were all invited to join her for breakfast. I wasn't interested, so Bev, Martin, and I (I had scarcely spoken to them other than for introductions and exchanges of pleasantries) decided to explore the town rather than settle for a Western breakfast at a western oriented tourist restaurant on Xi Jie Road (the main tourist drag).




We explored for five hours without pause -- so much was going on, there was no opportunity to stop moving.





Just across the street from the cobblestone tourist streets was the famed Yangshuo Square, which, as far as I could tell, was a parking lot. It just so happened that there amidst the fresh vegetables, raw meat, live poultry and dead rodents (an ingredient, not pestilence) being sold at the outdoor street market, and amidst the two-wheeled hand-drawn cart for garbage collection, was a fashion show.

At the fashion show, in addition to fashions, were three brand-spanking-new Volkswagens. The stage (aka the parking lot), cordoned off with a piece of rope (not the red velvet sort), was at the center of the public square. There were two announcers with hand-held wireless microphones standing just to the rear of the three new cars, which were well spaced so the announcers would be prominent. And off on the right edge of the parking lot/stage was a tour bus functioning as the “backstage.” Visible through the front windshield up the aisle of the bus was a line of young Chinese women in tiny, shiny, skin-tight skirts or shorts with belly shirts or halter tops or mini halter dresses -- all covering only the essentials. Pinned to the front of each model was a number, which, I deduced, indicated that the event had the status of competition rather than fashion show.

The women stood on the bus awaiting their turns. The one on deck would stand poised on the bottom step of the bus, eager to strut her stuff. When one strutting woman made the pivot, signaling her return to the bus, the next was en route, making her parking lot debut. She would reach her designated car and then proceed to stroke it, bend over it -- perhaps open a door and run her hand suggestively along the frame -- whatever might turn the tide to make her queen of the Yangshuo parking lot. From the car she would then strut over to the two MCs, where one would give her a microphone and our model (now a “spokesmodel” in Star Search terms) would make a little speech. Then she would make her pivot and the next girl would set out on her walk to Yangshuo fame.

Lined up just behind the rope were a number of photographers jockeying for position, and even a television crew or two. We decided to pass on the skinned rat, turned our backs to the fashion show, and walked on.

Not long after our encounter with celebrity, we stumbled upon an indoor market. This was my first of many indoor markets in China and I browsed the aisles of ingredients and remembered what I had been told many times leading up to this moment: if it flies, walks, buzzes, crows, swims, or moves, the [insert province] eat it. Chicken Little was in one pen with her sisters; Ping was in another; Little Bunny Foo Foo was next door; Fido was gutted and on a table; Wilbur was in parts on another table; Daisy lay across the way; and Frog and Toad were contained in net bags sitting on the floor. Vegetables were plentiful and fresh; eggs from all manner of poultry were available; and dry goods like rice, soy sauce, whole chilis and chili powder, noodles and dried beans were laid out for inspection. The market itself (a cement floor with a peaked sheet-metal roof) was clean and did not smell beyond the odor of the inhabitants. I was happy to see that Fido looked nothing like our bulldog, Momo, but rather was a mean-looking wild dog sort with rigor mortis and teeth bared.









It was nearing 1:00 pm, we were due to meet a local guide who would take us for a cruise on the Li River to see the karsts (karsts are limestone formations; you've probably seen photos of them, and if you haven't you'll see mine), and we still had not eaten. We considered a number of roadside restaurants and in the end settled on a restaurant with outside tables within the perimeter of the cobblestone streets. There were only Chinese customers and a wide selection of dishes were available, so we flopped down and watched the world go by. In the meantime, another patron ordered the highly touted “beer fish” of Yangshuo. This refers to the preparation of the fish (yes, with beer), rather than to the fish itself -- though the locals do refer to that species of fish simply as beer fish.




Everyone in the group had opted to spend the afternoon taking a cruise on the Li River, and together we had hired a local guide named “Gloria.” We boarded a local mini bus and waited for the seats to fill before we could depart. As is the local practice, we stopped to pick up passengers who waved us down. The money handler stood watch and, upon packing each additional passenger onto the bus, she would indicate the fare due.

A woman climbed on carrying a chicken, which she held by its feet hanging upside-down. Nothing particularly unusual about that. Later I noticed that the woman with the chicken was about to get off the bus but her chicken was AWOL. She stood by the money handler, who was wearing a rectangular bag approximately the size of a magazine cross-wise against her body. Shortly before the chicken woman got off the bus, the money handler reached into her bag and, as if by magic, pulled the chicken out by its feet. The chicken, still upside down, flapped and cackled and raised its head to look around and eyeball nearby passengers and then settled her feathers and tucked her wings back into her breasts and hung there still and silent.

We walked through the small farming village of Fuli, with its narrow stone lanes leading to dirt tracks down to the Li River. There we boarded a wooden boat with a small outboard motor and we cruised first up the river and then down. This was reputed to be one of the best places to view the limestone karsts.







Later that evening I decided to try to have my favorite pair of linen trousers duplicated (something I’ve done in Nepal in the past). On our walk earlier that day, we had passed a street with a cluster of tailor shops and I was going to try to navigate my way back there and see what I could negotiate.

None of the shops seemed to have linen available, but one did have some textured fabric that I thought might make a nice substitute. The seamstress had no English, but I was armed with my phrasebook and was confident in my Chiniculation so I gave it a shot. The shop was a three-sided store with no front (presumably a shutter of some sort is attached at closing time). There was a single bare light-bulb, the illumination from which was questionable at best. It was completely dark outside and the street had no illumination of its own. It did cross my mind that I was fighting a losing battle. I finally decided to give it a shot, so I pulled out the pants I wanted copied and held them up for viewing. The woman nodded her head indicating (I hoped) that yes, she could copy them. I still couldn’t see if the material was blue or black. I thought I’d try to find someone on the street who might speak a little English. I found no such person. As I was calling it quits, the woman beckoned me back again. Idiot that I was, I returned to her shop.

She pulled out the same material again and, when she saw my hesitation, she pulled out others in an effort to tempt me. None of them piqued my interest. I settled on the first fabric and again motioned to my sample trousers. She took out her measuring tape and took down a couple of measurements. I had only one more day in Yangshuo so I needed to be able to pick up the finished product by tomorrow night. How do you communicate this to someone when you have no language -- no words in common? I pointed to my watch and tried to gesture ahead for the time. She looked at me blankly. I took out my calculator and typed in the day’s date and pointed down, to indicate today then I typed in the next days date and gestured forward. A blank stare. I tried this on paper too; perhaps clearing the date on the calculator was confusing her. In the end, we settled on a price, she wrote out a receipt (on which she wrote in Western numerals the day's date!) and I walked away, having left my favorite pair of linen trousers behind without any clue as to what the outcome might be. I passed a hotel en route to Binjiang Road and the Lijiang River, so I stopped in to see if the girl at the desk could make heads or tales of the receipt. This young woman, who spoke English and Mandarin and who could read the Chinese characters, was unable to learn anything further from the receipt beyond what I already had deduced. I’d see the next night if the pants were ready and if my own trousers were still intact.

The next day we were to take a bicycle ride through the countryside. The bike ride was the source of much irritation during the planning stages of my trip. I had an itinerary that I had printed out from the internet, and I showed it to my husband, my mother, my brother and various others. For some inexplicable reason, every single one of them fixated on this one-day bike ride. After reading the entire itinerary, which included more wonders of the world than you could shake a stick at, they would forget everything save for the stupid bike ride. Within minutes, the questions about the trip would be phrased, “So when are you leaving for your bicycle trip through China?” To this day, people ask me, “How was your bicycle trip in China?” So far I haven't killed anyone.

Eager to get the bike ride over with, I got outfitted with a passable mountain bike. I was then instructed to ride up and down the extremely busy main street to make sure the brakes worked and the gears shifted. After adjustments here and there, our group (all members of which were still, miraculously, alive after the brake-testing exercise) attempted to cross the road. Did I mention that in China they don’t believe in or even appear to know about protective headgear?

Making a left turn across the traffic seemed impossible without loss of life, but we got a lucky break in the action and made a mad dash for the far side. Then we turned onto a little-traveled but paved back-road through farmland and then onto dirt roads through small villages. The ride lasted all day and, while it was hot, we meandered more than rode, so we were never long between stops and the pace was leisurely.






We made a stop in order to climb Moon Hill, a karst with a half-moon shape eroded out of its middle third. It was a steep climb and the temperature was high. Entrepreneurial women carrying little Styrofoam coolers and selling cold drinks each attached themselves to one of us and proceeded to follow us up the trail’s many stone steps (more than 1,200), in the hopes that en route to the half-moon or at the top they might convince us to buy their heavily marked-up cold drinks.

A nice woman accompanied me to the top and we chatted along the way. Ordinarily, I don’t reward pestering by vendors, but she actually wasn’t pressing me to buy -- mostly she walked alongside me making conversation and asking me questions, or we walked in amiable silence. At the half moon, the stone trail ended and that’s where the pack of ladies stopped. We all continued up to the top, where we scaled a narrow and somewhat treacherous steep dirt trail with roots and rocks sticking out at all angles.



When I got back down to the half moon, my escort was awaiting my return. While I had some water in my backpack, I couldn’t bear not to buy a bottle of water from this woman who had just made the climb alongside me for the who-knows-how-many-th time that day. And anyway, the cold water tasted great. As long as I had bought a beverage, might she also have some coins from home for her collection? I didn’t have any US coins on me, but I did have one from Hong Kong. I gave it to her and she walked alongside me back down the trail. At the bottom she made a bee-line for her bike and she was off before I could sit down.


Our lunch in a nearby village was a terrific feast prepared by “Jane” (most everyone who deals with Westerners picks out a Western name), one of our two adorable, intelligent and conscientious Chinese guides. We were fed beer fish, stir fried eggplant with garlic sauce, egg and tomato, and stir fried lotus root, amongst other dishes.

Our day on bikes ended at the cooking school. It was an optional activity, and I was tired, but I knew I had to do it for my fellow eGullet Society members.

After a dip in the river, we parked our bikes at the old stone farmhouse with enclosed courtyard where the Chinese cooking class was to take place. The cooking school is a new endeavor started by a former Intrepid guide who leases the farm house and employs local women to teach the classes and run the school.

“Jackie” -- a young, energetic and somewhat frenetic individual -- taught our class. Each of us was stationed at a wok that rested on a single-burner catering stove -- very high-tech and high-concept for where we were. We each had a spatula, a cleaver and cutting board, seasonings and sauces (salt, oyster sauce, and soy sauce), oil, and all of our ingredients prepped and ready to go sitting below the counter.

Jackie stood at the front and quickly barked out instructions. There were two middle aged women checking out our work (in addition to the six participants from our group, four other people were taking the class) and bringing out additional ingredients (perhaps from a refrigerator?!) as needed. Between trying to follow the instructions and taking photos, I was heavily occupied and therefore always behind and continuously asking my neighbors what the heck I was supposed to be doing. Fortunately for me, the two women -- neither of whom spoke any English -- were both adept at grabbing the cleaver out of my hand and demonstrating what I should be doing. Crush the garlic with the blade of the cleaver; slice the carrot thinner; chop the spring onion finer—each instruction conveyed by demonstration and gesticulation.




We cooked each dish and ate it while it was hot, standing at our woks. On the menu was: eggplant Yangshuo style (recipes and photos to follow), steamed stuffed pumpkin flower, Pijiu Yu (beer fish), chicken with cashew nuts, and green vegetables with garlic. The fish was filleted, though still full of bones. That was the last thing we cooked and we took it to the table in the courtyard to enjoy the fruits (or, rather, fishes) of our labors. Beer and soft drinks were available for those who were interested, at an additional cost. The cost of the class and the food was 80 RMB (just shy of $10 US at the exchange rate of 8.25 RMB to the USD).


Safely carted by bus back to town with our bicycles, the only thing left to do before collapsing into bed was return to the tailor.

I found my way to her door by 9:00 pm. A young girl, who was sitting in the one chair in the shop, was sleeping. I clicked my feet on the steps as I walked in, hoping she would stir. She raised her head and met me with a blank stare. I spoke in English, which she didn’t understand. I figured I had to be the only Western customer they had ever had, so I assumed (incorrectly) that word would have gotten around and she would know why I was there. No such luck.

I pulled out the receipt and placed it in front of her, and finally the proverbial light-bulb went on. She gestured, indicating that I should stay there, and she ran out of the shop to retrieve the older woman with whom I had dealt the night before. The woman appeared from the dark street, carrying the new trousers in one hand and a big pair of tailor’s shears in the other. My originals were nowhere in sight. She held the new trousers up to me, and I Chiniculated that I wanted to try them on. She pulled down a piece of fabric that was strung across a string and indicated that I could change behind it. I dropped my trousers and tried on the new ones.

It wasn’t pretty. Somehow, even though I had left my original trousers with her, the fit was not right. It was as if she had cut the fabric unevenly, such that there was a bigger piece in the front and a smaller piece in the back. Actually, now that I think about it, it is possible that she had sewn the bigger back piece (designed to accommodate my Western ass) to the front and vice versa. But I am no seamstress. I just knew that my ass didn’t fit in those pants.

I shook my head in disapproval. I tried on my original trousers and Chiniculated vigorously, explaining that the old ones fit while the new ones didn't. I tried on the new ones again and shook my head in disapproval. All the while she was taking out her measuring tape and stringing it across both pair of trousers and Chinicluating, falsely, that the pants were the same!

There was no way I was taking those defective pants with me. At the same time, I couldn’t just leave without paying the woman something. I didn’t want to cause her any hardship. Were this an affluent area, I’d have left with my originals and not looked back. But this was a different scenario and I didn’t feel it would be right to do that. So I picked up my original pants and made a big production of placing them on the table in the shop and gesturing that I was leaving them there, as security of a sort, and I turned and walked out in search of language assistance. I asked people up and down the street if they spoke English, but I couldn't find a single person who had as much English as I had Chinese (approximately five words, half of which were food related and half related to cost and negotiation thereof). So I headed back to the hotel and hoped someone there might help me.

There was only one young woman at the desk. I told her my predicament and asked if she could help me. She told me she couldn't leave the desk. I asked her to write that the trousers did not fit, that I was not going to take them, that the seamstress could keep them and that I would pay her half of the agreed upon fee. She wrote all of this out for me, I think, and I walked back to the store. I felt this was an equitable arrangement, especially since I had not haggled with the woman over the price of the trousers in the first place and was therefore probably paying at least twice the going local rate anyway. Still, I was dreading the encounter. I had seen and heard many Chinese people yelling at each other, and I’m not one for dramatic confrontation.

I returned to the shop, picked up my trousers and handed the woman the piece of paper and the money. She looked at me quizzically. With her brow furrowed, she positioned herself under the light of the single light bulb and bent her head down to read the paper. I was motioning to walk away but didn't want to go before the message registered. She finished reading and looked up. She was not shouting. I turned and walked away and, when I looked over my shoulder, it appeared that our arrangement had registerd. The woman gave a friendly wave and I was on my way.

From the Chinese cooking class:

Eggplant Yangshuo Style

1 large eggplant (or by weight, approximately ½ pound, 250 g) thinly sliced in ½ inch strips

4 tablespoons peanut oil

1 red pepper, sliced

4 cloves of garlic, crushed

4 spring onions, chopped

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon oyster sauce

1 tablespoon water

Heat wok and add oil. Heat oil until smoking, then add eggplant and fry until browned and cooked through. Move eggplant to side, away from center of wok, reduce heat and fry garlic, ginger and pepper for one minute. Mix eggplant in with vegetables, salt, water and oyster sauce. Add spring onions and serve. Note: while we were cooking, all of our measurements were done by eye and taste. You can do the same or follow the recipe exactly, which I have also tested.

Steamed Stuffed Pumpkin Flowers

100 g minced pork

½ bunch chives, chopped (or spring onions or scallions)

½ teaspoon salt

Pumpkin flowers

Mix the minced pork (minced or finely chopped tofu is a tasty vegetarian alternative), salt and chives together. Stuff vegetables and steam for 15 minutes in a steamer (we used a bamboo steamer placed on top of a wok with water). Note: any edible vegetable flower with a pocket can be used as an alternative to pumpkin flowers -- including zucchini flowers. Other variations could include (but not limited to): vegetables -- peppers, mushrooms and tomatoes -- and quarter sized cream puff shells (break through the dough and stuff with the minced mixture). Minced chicken or beef can also be substituted for the pork.

Beer Fish

200 g fish (firm white fish with skin on)

3 tablespoons peanut oil

1 tomato, chopped

1 red pepper, sliced

1 green pepper, sliced

2 tablespoons of sliced garlic tops or spring onion

25 g ginger, sliced

4 cloves garlic, crushed

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup beer

Heat wok. Add oil and heat. Put fish into wok, skin side down. Put salt on top of fish and fry on each side for about 3 minutes or until skin is brown. Put all vegetables, garlic and ginger on top of fish. Add soy sauce and beer. Cover and cook for 5 minutes. Remove lid to reduce liquid (approximately 2-3 minutes).

Chicken with Cashew Nuts

150 g chicken breast (boneless, skinless), thinly sliced

½ cup roasted cashew nuts (if nuts are raw, as most nuts sold in China are, fry in a little oil first, which is what we did)

2 tablespoons peanut oil

4 cloves garlic, crushed

1 carrot, sliced

4 spring onions or garlic tops

2 tablespoons water

1 tablespoon soy sauce

½ tablespoon oyster sauce

½ teaspoon salt

Heat wok and add half of the oil. Add chicken and garlic and fry until chicken turns white and feels firm. Add soy sauce and remove from wok. Add remaining oil and cook carrot and salt. Fry one minute. Return chicken to wok. Add water and cook until only a little sauce remains. Add oyster sauce, spring onion and cashew nuts. Heat through to serve.

Green Vegetables with Garlic

1 bunch green vegetables

3 cloves crushed garlic

1 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons water

Heat wok. Add oil and heat oil. Add garlic, salt and greens. Stir fry. Add water and continue cooking for 2 minutes or until cooked. Any number of different green vegetables can be used including bok choy, spinach, snow peas, even green beans. We used a green leafy vegetable, which would take less time to cook than, for example, string beans.

>> next installment >>

Ellen Shapiro


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WOW AWE INSPIRING Thank you as always. As someone that thinks of "roughing it" as a motel with black and white tv and an unheated swimming pool, your travel and adventures always amaze and enlighten me. I am looking forward to the rest of your trip. Your photos are great also. Thank you again.


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Fantastic, Ellen!

What a story. Fido not looking so lucky there. Karsts look amazing. Is this the same valley with the tombs in the cliff walls that are getting flooded soon?

I noticed a very interesting pattern on the cutting boards at the cooking school. Were they logs of some kind, cross-sectioned perhaps? They look familiar ...

"I took the habit of asking Pierre to bring me whatever looks good today and he would bring out the most wonderful things," - bleudauvergne

foodblogs: Dining Downeast I - Dining Downeast II

Portland Food Map.com

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Ellen, absolutely wonderful as always.

Just last week I was discussing some of your Mongolia adventures with my wife, and was wondering when we'd see another travelogue from you.

Thanks for sharing.

...I thought I had an appetite for destruction but all I wanted was a club sandwich.

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your travelogues are gripping. i am hopeful that you'll share the rest of your trip with us all in as much detail as you shared the first 2 days!

from overheard in new york:

Kid #1: Paper beats rock. BAM! Your rock is blowed up!

Kid #2: "Bam" doesn't blow up, "bam" makes it spicy. Now I got a SPICY ROCK! You can't defeat that!

--6 Train

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johnnyd, this isn't the Three Gorges on the Yangtze River. No flooding is going to happen here, unless it’s a natural occurrence. We were cruising on the Li River to get a good view of the karsts, which are all around Guilin and are what makes the region famous.

As for the cutting boards, good eye! I really liked them too, which is why I schlepped one home for FG—it weighs a ton. Would you believe they're made out of pieces of bamboo? It's really strong stuff—harder than maple, they say—they use it for scaffolding all over the east.

Ellen Shapiro


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Interesting read and beautiful photography.

Need to find better tailors, I guess though!

Can't wait to read part deux


�As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy, and to make plans.� - Ernest Hemingway, in �A Moveable Feast�

Brooklyn, NY, USA

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This is the best. I went on a trip to Korea took a ton of pictures and then left the camera on the dam plane. Looking at these I am kicking myself all over again. Thanks for bringing us arm chair travelers along. Again this is soo neat. The Dog,although I doubt it would agree is priceless!


Ah, it's been way too long since I did a butt. - Susan Fahning aka "snowangel"


One summers evening drunk to hell, I sat there nearly lifeless…Warren

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Some Googling indicates that the technical term for this style of chopping block is "end grain bamboo" and that it is, by whatever method they measure such things, exactly 16% harder than maple. It is also, we are told, an environmentally friendly, renewable resource. Here in the US, they sell them at, among others, Sur La Table -- where it costs $65 (US). Ellen reports that she paid 45 CYR (China Yuan Renminbi) for the item, which apparently translates to $5.44.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Some Googling indicates that the technical term for this style of chopping block is "end grain bamboo" and that it is, by whatever method they measure such things, exactly 16% harder than maple. It is also, we are told, an environmentally friendly, renewable resource. Here in the US, they sell them at, among others, Sur La Table -- where it costs $65 (US). Ellen reports that she paid 45 CYR (China Yuan Renminbi) for the item, which apparently translates to $5.44.

Actually, I believe I paid 35 RMB (abbreviation used for Renminbi), though I can't remember for sure.

Ellen Shapiro


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Thanks so much for this vicarious trip. I can't wait to read more.

"Some people see a sheet of seaweed and want to be wrapped in it. I want to see it around a piece of fish."-- William Grimes

"People are bastard-coated bastards, with bastard filling." - Dr. Cox on Scrubs

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Fascinating adventure, Ellen! Thanks for posting this for us. Very nice work.

My great-Aunt was one of the first people to enter China after the doors were opened again to the world -- I wish I had her photos to go along with the written journal.

Judith Love

North of the 30th parallel

One woman very courteously approached me in a grocery store, saying, "Excuse me, but I must ask why you've brought your dog into the store." I told her that Grace is a service dog.... "Excuse me, but you told me that your dog is allowed in the store because she's a service dog. Is she Army or Navy?" Terry Thistlewaite

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Thanks, Ellen. My first and only trip to China was in 1980. Much has changed, much is the same.

And, your pants. Probably cut off grain (seamstress in me). Makes things just flat not fit.

Susan Fahning aka "snowangel"
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Ellen, there's only one thing wrong with your travelogue posts: That there aren't more of them! :biggrin:

We're so privileged that you spend the time to share these with us.

Michael aka "Pan"


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Some Googling indicates that the technical term for this style of chopping block is "end grain bamboo" and that it is, by whatever method they measure such things, exactly 16% harder than maple. It is also, we are told, an environmentally friendly, renewable resource. Here in the US, they sell them at, among others, Sur La Table -- where it costs $65 (US). Ellen reports that she paid 45 CYR (China Yuan Renminbi) for the item, which apparently translates to $5.44.

This would make a great item for the [future] eGullet Store...

Ellen, take some notes!


"I took the habit of asking Pierre to bring me whatever looks good today and he would bring out the most wonderful things," - bleudauvergne

foodblogs: Dining Downeast I - Dining Downeast II

Portland Food Map.com

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For the uninitiated, you should take a look at Ellen's magnum opus about her trip to Mongolia:

Mongolia. Seriously. Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI and Part VII.

Technically part of the above series, but a bit different in content, we've also got the tale of her last trip to China--Beijing in that case.

Jon Lurie, aka "jhlurie"

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Some Googling indicates that the technical term for this style of chopping block is "end grain bamboo" and that it is, by whatever method they measure such things, exactly 16% harder than maple. It is also, we are told, an environmentally friendly, renewable resource. Here in the US, they sell them at, among others, Sur La Table -- where it costs $65 (US). Ellen reports that she paid 45 CYR (China Yuan Renminbi) for the item, which apparently translates to $5.44.

I've read comments here on eGullet and elsewhere that bamboo is too hard on knives but if it's only 16-percent harder, it seems that concern would be mute. I rather like that chopping block.

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I've had the bamboo chopping block in heavy use for more than a month now, and it doesn't seem to be rough on my knives at all. I don't know a lot about wood, but intuitively it seems that the end-grain design provides a sturdy yet forgiving surface. There appear to be several variants of bamboo cutting boards, and if you Google around you'll find that the overwhelming majority of the ones on offer in the West are not of the end-grain variety. Maybe those non-end-grain boards are the ones that are rough on knives.

The only negative I've observed about this thing is that it's too highly absorbent of odors. I'm going to need to experiment with mineral oil and such.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Ellen, another wonderful photo essay. Thank you for taking the time.

"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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