Tuesday, 23 September 2014

The Best and Worst of China

Despite my equal love of food and travel my fondest food memories are unfortunately intermingled with my worst travel memories. In my early twenties I went on a trip to China. It was an exciting small group grassroots adventure with Geckos Adventures travelling from Hong Kong to Beijing on an inland route using all local transport. It had all the makings of a trip of a lifetime. Nights spent eating pot noodles on overnight trains clacking through the countryside at impossibly slow speeds, cruising down the Yangtze River making friends with the local children along the way, hiking the heights of the Great Wall of China, wandering the cobbled streets of Yangshuo, what more could you ask for it is adventure at it’s best.

Well it would have been anyway if I had of been more selective on my choice of travel partner or gone on my own. I had already recognised I was in a crappy relationship, we had nothing in common, he had mental health issues, played terrible mind games and had been borderline violent but somehow in my early 20’s wisdom I clung onto this relationship for nearly a year, that was until we went to China.

When I look back on this trip I can’t work out how marred my experience of China was by the situation I found myself in. There were some highlights for sure, holding a young Panda at the Chengdu Panda Breeding Centre, Playing Mahjong with the local ladies on our river cruise boat who took no mercy on our novice skills, sailing through the limestone karsts on the Li River watching local fishermen and their captive cormorants, it truly was a unique experience. But there will be things about China I will never forget for all the wrong reasons, the pollution is confounding, the poverty confronting and the hygiene practices have scarred me forever, it took me at least a week after returning to eliminate the smell of urine from my nasal cavity. In reflection I do have to ask myself would these things have bothered me so much if I wasn't having a mini personal crisis at the same time? Does being told to F#$@ off by your “partner” in every city in China possibly change your opinion of that place, most likely.

Despite all of this there is one thing I know for sure about China, the food is friggin amazing. It rocked my world and regardless of all the things I didn't like about China I would go back just to eat. Prior to this the only Chinese food I knew was from the many Chinese restaurants in our country town serving various standards of  Westernised “Chinese” Food, you know the ones "The Lotus", "The Camelia" every country Australian town has them. Not exactly authentic and in some cases downright terrible.

I knew we were in for a treat from the first stop after departing our ferry in Guangzhou. To be honest I don’t even know exactly where we were. Somewhere on the road from Guangzhou to Guilin I am guessing. Our fabulous tour guide Chen led us through the streets stopping traffic to let us “sandwich” people cross the road. The locals affectionately know the backpackers by this term not due to our Western habit of eating sandwiches but because we tend to wear a backpack on the back & a smaller one on the front essentially making a tourist sandwich. Anyway back to the food. So we were led by Chen to a small restaurant where the menus had pictures but no english which is a lot more than we came to expect on the rest of our trip. So we selected our food items by pointing at the pictures, some of us went for stranger looking items feeling adventurous on our first stop. The food that turned up certainly wasn't a highlight of the trip but being our first introduction to real Chinese food it left an impression on me. The chicken dish left me with the strongest impression for two reasons, the sheer quantity of whole red chillies in this dish which outnumbered the pieces of chicken and the very rustic nature of the chicken which was not nicely trimmed and cleaned like we would expect at home. Followed up by sticky gooey candied chunks of potato it was an eye opener.

It was only a hint of what was to come. We spent most of the trip eating in small local establishments as the prices were astounding. I steered clear of options like snake, rat, cat, guinea pig etc. etc and opted for what I like to convince myself were western staples like beef and pork. One morning we gorged ourselves on juicy, delicious freshly steamed dumplings of all variety and when the bill came it cost us the equivalent of $2 each. We would have banquet style feasts on overflowing lazy susans' for $5 a head and you can be sure we always doubled the quantity of food recommended by Chen who didn't seem to fully grasp the Western appetite.

 The Szechuan Province of course changed my life. This region of China is renowned for it’s bold, pungent and spicy cuisine. At this point in my life I was not a foodie by any stretch of the imagination. My restaurant experiences were what you would expect of living in regional Australia. This was the first time in my life I had been introduced to such flavours and it blew my mind.

In Chongqing we were taken out to a hot pot restaurant. I had no idea what hot pot was and when we first entered the restaurant I was intimidated. Tables full of Chinese families reaching into steaming cauldrons of bubbling broth and celebrating in a raucous fashion. Chen led us through the maze by ordering the dozens of items that were presented to our table. Knowing the Western palate he steered clear of the local delicacies like tripe and ears and chose a mind boggling array consisting of prawns, squid, thinly sliced frozen lamb, beef, pork, wedges of potato, enoki mushrooms, noodles and the list goes on. We had two broths in our divided cauldron. The outer ring had a mild broth with fish carcasses floating around. The inner hot pot ring is where I found my Nirvana. A fiery red broth with a sheen of chilli oil floating menacingly on the surface and Szechuan peppercorns bobbing unassumingly awaiting for an inexperienced tourist to taste their numbing qualities. I ate till I could eat no more, dipping my individual ingredients into the broth to cook and then back via a bowl of sauce and into my mouth. It was thrilling. It was unlike anything I had done or eaten in my sheltered existence in regional Australia. The night ended with our little group of backpackers sheltering from a wild food fight that had broken out amongst the locals. It seemed to be all in good humor and the staff did not seem to be overly concerned by the terrific mess being made.

I learnt another lesson in China, besides not to travel with an a'hole and that was that Chilli Oil is not processed well by the human body and comes out as hot as it went it, the price was worth it though.

The latter half of my trip consisted of my searching out more hot pot. I couldn't get enough. The further north went went though the less awesome the hot pot was. No one does it like they do in the Szechuan province.

I think my new found love of really spicy food emboldened me. I came home from that trip a single girl and spent the next few weeks in my parents kitchen creating my own hot pots with a little fondue set I was once given as a gift and had never used.

I like to think about that trip as an awakening in so many ways. I saw how so much of the world live and eat so differently to what I am use to, I found a passion for world food and I learnt to not stand for being treated like crap by a man. The vision of hindsight has allowed me to see it overall as quite a successful venture even if there were some moments I wanted to get out of there.

In the clouds at the Giant Buddha in Hong Kong. This place has been totally tourist-ified since my first trip but still worth a visit

Yangshuo in Southern China, my favourite spot in all of China

Yangshuo again

Hotpot!!!!!!!!!!!!!

OMG is this girl just too cute, the Panda not me oh why did I not wear makeup on this trip?

So many stairs at the great wall!

Originally posted on Tuesday, 23 September 2014 by

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