Monday, August 17, 2009

Feasting on Street Food

August 16, 2009

I am having a serious love affair with street food in China. It all started with my breakfast dim sum; now Geoff and I search out street food whenever we can. While we were in Chengde, we discovered jianbing. It starts out as a paper thin crepe on a big griddle. When it's half cooked, it's flipped over and two eggs are spread over the crepe. It's flipped one more time to cook the egg. Will the egg is cooking the crepe is brushed with a mildly spicy dark sauce, seasoned, and sprinkled with coriander and scallions. Then a big rice crisp is placed on top. The whole thing is folded over into a nifty eat-and-carry size. Great flavor in every bite!

 In Xi'an we are treated to street after street of stalls in the Muslim Quarter. Fantastic! An experience to encompass all the senses.  Vendors overflow from their shops onto the sidewalks. Everywhere there is food.  Sometimes there are wafts of bread frying to a crisp. Then it's the spicy, meaty smell of barbequing kabobs or some yummy smell I can't quite place.  You can get all the food to go, but most vendors have a little whole-in-the-wall seating area.  Cooking is generally done on the sidewalk using coal or an open flame.  Geoff and I will spend an hour poking our heads into random restaurants deciding where we want to experiment. On the first night we settled on dish of hand-pulled noodles, beef and potatoes in a spicy broth. The meat was so tender and juicy; it couldn't have been better. The noodles were made by the shop owner's eldest son. He makes them as a sort of performance at the entrance of the restaurant. Geoff and I plowed in with our chops sticks and had it gone in 5 minutes. We spent another hour walking the streets trying this and that. Geoff spent $0.45 on "Chinese pizza": layers of paper thin fried flat bread filled with a seasoned cabbage mixture. Tonight we treated the whole Quarter  like an all you can eat buffet. We snacked on the best little beef kabobs, crisp fried flat bread stuffed with seasoned ground beef, mutton gyoza, a bun made out of bread that was like a big German pretzel, and some kid of desert on a stick with a name I don't know.  The whole night cost $4.25, and we were stuffed.  The only miss was a red fried patty, sweet rice paste maybe, with an indescribably bad filling.  That one went straight to the trash. At the end of the evening we found a vendor who sells jianbing. The first we've seen in Xi'an. You can bet that that will be our first stop in the morning.

- Cindy

Random musings

Boy my dogs are tired.
One of the few things that my aging memory gets right about the last big trip we took was that we walked ourselves silly most days while we were out and about.
I assumed that there would be a similar amount of walking involved in this trip but was I ever wrong.  The Chinese build things big.  With over a billion people in the country they understand crowd control.  One way they accomplish this is with the enormous scale of their tourist sites.  Whoppers they are.  With no easy way to get from point A to point B.  So we are forced to hoof it for miles every day. Unless it's a travel or planning day, we realized that we are walking a minimum of 5 and up to 10 hours every day.  Woof.

Random observations:
Guy with roles of tissue stuffed up his nose while he was working because he had a cold.  The ubiquitous male belly proudly  displayed to all ,,regardless of its girth because its hot out.  Entire outfits made from the same name brand manufacturer, shoes, socks, shorts, shirt and I assume undies.  The male or female counterpart to this fashion bonanza will be wearing the same ensemble from another manufacturer.  Spitting.  Everywhere , anytime.  I think it means hello or something.  Couples wearing the same outfit.  Same undies assumption?  Hmmmm.   All the women wear pantyhose socks regardless of what else they are wearing.  Taxi drivers don't like to open the trunk of their cabs.  McDonalds and Starbucks are always packed.  Shirts worn generally by the tragically hip and young with nonsense English phrases on them.  Some weird spa treatment that involves sticking a candle in your ear.  That I don't look in the mirror very often anymore.  That it's possible to layer blisters on top of each other.  There are as many older than 30 travelers in hostels these days than younger travelers.  Beer comes in 600 ml bottles.  Love that one.  Play slapping is a large form of flirting.   Netbooks are an essential accessory of all travelers.  Americans are still really loud, sound really stupid and like to proselytize about all sorts of shit they know nothing about to anyone they can trap into listening. 

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Fluidity of travel

Today we are finally out of Beijing.  We are finding it a little difficult moving around the country because it's the local tourist season and all of China is on the move right now.  All the trains are booked out a week or so in advance.  We had expected to leave for Xi'an a few days earlier but the only tickets available were for last night and with a more expensive "soft sleeper" bed on the train.  Not a bad way to travel except it did put a dent in our travel budget. 
The trains have up to four classes of travel depending on how far they go and if the route runs overnight.  They are as follows:  Hard seat - basically just a non padded bench that 3 people squeeze onto and sit upright at alarmingly straight angles for the duration of the passage. (I could maybe have managed that when I was younger but now I wont even entertain the idea). Soft Seat - basically the same seat but with a little padding on them and they only have 2 people to a seat (We took this on a four hour run to Chende and it was quite nice).  Hard bed – 6 bunks in an open compartment, three on each side with minimal padding on the bunk.  Soft sleeper – 4 bunks in a closed compartment two on each side.  They are firm but nicely padded and come with linen.

Our bunks were the top and our bunkmates below were the cutest elderly Chinese couple and their grandchild.  With an 11 hour trip to Xi'an, it was a very enjoyable way to travel.  There were flat screen tv's on the wall at the end of the bunk, ample storage for our packs, hot water for tea, both Western and Asian toilets, and very clean.  Quite nice actually. 
Conversely, now that we are savvy to the fact that the trains are so booked up, we spent the day today planning the rest of our route in china instead of just winging it like we had originally thought to do.  The old plan was to head south to Kunming in about 4 days and then continue on to Laos because Cindy's Chinese visa is only good for 30 days at a time.  We were going to pop into that country and tramp for a few weeks and then come back to China and head to Chengdu and then Tibet. Unfortunately we found out that the trains heading south were full for the next 9 days.  Crazy.
So new plans.  We were able to get a train from here to Chengdu (hard sleeper) 5 days from now.  We are cutting out our southern China plans and heading east after exploreing Xi'an. All in all, we will probably only spend 4 weeks in China instead of the 6 we had planned. Such is the folly of long term travel.  You have to flow with the river instead of fighting it.   We are not giving up the idea of going to Laos but that may have to happen after Nepal and India.  Stay tuned......