China – Reflections on our last trip to China !
Read our previous posting at “Yangshuo and the Li River cruise”
ASTOUNDING PROGRESS & MANY CHANGES since our last visit to China in the mid’90’s …
Where are the bikes in China …? During our visit to the Chinese mainland in the ‘90’s, we saw few cars and virtually no traffic jams. There are so many cars now in China in the cities (Beijing, Xi’an, Chengdu, Chongqing, Yichang, Shanghai) that there is steady congestion, especially in Beijing. We are told that the Chinese government is trying to minimize the problem in Beijing by restricting purchase of cars to a “lottery” system, and limiting daily usage of driving. Clearly, the daily commute problems have gone from physically to mentally challenging.
Where are the gray Maoist unisex uniforms in China? … plenty of skin now shows and the young women, in particular, are into the sexy short shorts and skirts, ultra high heels, tight leggings & tight shirts of the western world. Sensibility has disappeared and “sexy” is used to sell products – after all, the new Chinese regime is pragmatic.
Where in China are the dark nights after sunset? … I wondered during our previous visit if the Chinese simply went to bed after sunset because very little if any artificial lights appeared to be on in the evening, but now the Chinese live in a high tech, highly-wired, neon world and their cities are dynamically illuminated at night while their apartments and even small homes in the middle of nowhere seem to be electrified … or at least are comfortably lit up with gas lighting.
How about the “Chinese-only” food orientation, or Chinese-tasting “American” food? … this too is replaced by a wider “international cuisine” focus. Imagine, being served “pizza” and “popcorn fried chicken a la KFC” as some of the 30 or so platters at the Captain’s Banquet on board the Yangtze River cruise !
Where in China is the blank stare when I ask a question in English? … Since our last visit, tourism has clearly become a major industry in China and we learned from our guides that many cities now consider tourism a top priority. Consequently, the younger generation is learning English, and I rarely felt lost asking for help or directions in English … a monumental difference from our last visit. Even many of the older people we met were eager to respond to Denis as he re-surfaced his Mandarin with a big grin – either responding in Mandarin or translating from English into Mandarin when appropriate. However, it is worth noting that while Mandarin may be the official language in China, local dialects are still thriving … so don’t think that if you speak Mandarin you will understand the language everywhere you go!
Infrastructure for the 21st century has sprouted up throughout China! … The truly gigantic, ultra-modern, ultra-comfortable, well-organized airports in X’ian & Shanghai & elsewhere, the spacious 4-6 lane highways leading to China’s World Heritage sites like the Terra Cotta Warriors, the many hi-tech wide bridges spanning their rivers, the updating of many of their museums …WOW, were they impressive. While the US lets its infrastructure crumble, China is investing & investing & …
Rest Rooms in China from squat to super hi-tech … there seems to be a difference in preference between the more “traditionally-oriented” Beijing, Xi’an, Chengdu, etc, and the more “western-oriented” Shanghai and Hong Kong. I’ll take the “western” version of what we know as a standard toilet with a seat (even if I don’t actually sit on it) to the Chinese traditional preference of a toilet in the ground over which you have no choice but to squat and squat low or you’ll miss your aim. And please give me toilet paper and soap. Hmm … there’s some catching up in this arena for much of China. But — I was super impressed by many of the ultra high-tech bathrooms throughout Hong Kong and Shanghai with automatic everything, from flush to soap-dispensing, including both automated aeration along with incense to keep the bathroom smelling fresh.
There has been a fusion – not an invasion – of cultures in China. The Chinese clearly love their traditions and their culture, but in this 21st century internet world and with the more liberal policies of the more recent Chinese governments, combined with the profits from China’s extraordinary growth in international trade, the Chinese are now becoming “trendy”, especially the younger generation. From hair dyed red to lots of makeup, to all styles of absurdly high heels and hip neon colored Converse and running shoes, from a wide selection of TV programs, to mobile phones for everyone and cars – new ones !—causing western-style traffic jams — to speaking some English, the young generation here is going to make a monumental difference in the 21st century. Freed now of the one-size-fits-all philosophy, the Chinese are embracing individualism and self-expression, and, for sure, materialism. Plus the younger generation is fleeing the farms and small rural communities for the big cities, even if that means living with their parents until they are well into their ‘30’s to be able to afford their own apartment.
Monumental changes for sure in China over the past 17 years !
CUISINE IN CHINA
The Chinese love their food … it’s a pleasure to see them enjoy and share a meal … Chinese tables, as we see in many American Chinese restaurants, are built with large Lazy Susans for “sharing dishes”. Our guide in Beijing, Jeff (his English name), told us that Chinese meals are as much about sharing the enjoyment of the food as they are about eating per se … so you might say that along with their well-known Teahouse ritual of sharing tea and conversation, eating a meal with others is also a “ritual” for the Chinese.
The Hotpot which we enjoyed for dinner in Chengdu … (we are told that the origin of this dish is from Chongqing) is based on the same concept as the Swiss Broth Fondue, the dunking of meats and veggies into boiling bouillon to cook them, followed by eating them with a sauce. In the case of Hotpot, the traditional bouillon is heavily spiced with chilies, but since Denis doesn’t eat chili, we opted for a “divided” pot with one-half containing a non-spicy, wild mushroom bouillon base for cooking. At the recommendation of our guide, Ben, whom we had invited to share dinner with us, we ordered a selection of pork, beef, and mutton as well as bok choy, Chinese greens, and mushrooms. As the food simmered in its bouillon, the bouillon took on layers of flavor. So in a culture where nothing is wasted, we were served the wild mushroom bouillon to eat as soup several times throughout the meal as we used it to cook Denis’ meal and a bit of mine. Only one sauce was served for dunking the cooked food, but it was divine … a rich sesame oil flavored with minced garlic. Be forewarned if you try Hotpot … the longer you leave the chilies boiling in their cooking liquid, the spicier the liquid becomes! I ventured cautiously into the “chili” side of the Hotpot, while Denis stayed carefully on the wild mushroom side, but Ben ate uniquely from the “chili” side of the pot. By the end of the meal, his face was visibly full of perspiration and his eyes were dilated … what chili can do to you even if you are a chili habitual (!)
Breakfast in China … As much as I was uninspired by a Chinese breakfast when I first traveled with Denis to China in the mid-‘90’s, I actually looked forward to starting my day with a Chinese breakfast of fresh fruit – including the black-spotted Dragon fruit –, followed by some thick stir-fried noodles with thin slices of veggies and a little bit of meat. Then I spoon a little bit of chili sauce over the noodles and yum ! Or I enjoyed dim sum dipped into a simple sauce of soya, black vinegar and fresh ginger.
China is Noodle heaven … I wonder what would happen if the Chinese and Italians did a noodle cook-off – who would win !?! Some of our most creative and flavorful meals have been noodle dishes, noodle soups, and of course, variations on dumplings made of the same type of dough as noodles, be they wheat- or rice-based … although I have to say we have mainly eaten wheat-based noodles. Say “noodle”, and Denis lights up – here or in Italy ! From Zhajian Mian (Beijing noodles with meat sauce), Yangrou Paomo (Xi’an mutton with pancakes, which are really tiny pieces of noodle), and Dan Dan Mian (Chengdu thick noodles with spicy pork sauce) to Suzhou Tang Mian (Suzhou Noodle Soup), and other Noodle Soups, even for breakfast (cooked with egg) – some with skinny noodles, others with wide flat noodles, or deep-fried noodles, we don’t miss an opportunity to sample and savor the Chinese noodle cuisine.
We also have done our share of appreciating their Dumpling culture. One of my favorite meals was at Din Tai Fung, a Taiwanese chain specializing in dumplings, especially crab and pork ones. I’ve enjoyed my share of dumplings, or Dim Sum, in many Chinese restaurants, from Philadelphia to NYC, Montreal, San Francisco and even Rockville, Md (where there is a thriving Chinese community), but Din Tai Fung makes by far the best I’ve ever eaten. Why? … because when I bite into the dumpling, there’s an immediate pop of delightful warm flavor that exudes from the inside of the dumpling — our guide, Steve, says that he thinks this comes from the little bit of pork skin with pork fat that is put inside the dumpling for richness . Plus, the dough wrapping was light and airy … and I know why. As we were leaving Din Tai Fung, we passed by a large window which showcased at least 6 people, both chefs and cooks, most professionally rolling out little balls of perfectly textured dough into small circles, and then filling them with one of an assortment of visibly well seasoned fillings, and then exhibiting the art of twisting and sealing the little dumplings, from Shamai, with their tops left slightly open, to the more traditional closed dumplings … although these dumpling pros exhibited several ways to seal a dumpling. And when they saw Denis & me staring intensely at their work, they even came right up to our window to seal the dumpling in front of our eyes. Din Tai Fung is rightly proud of its dumplings!
Wines & wine-pairings in China … China is not missing the opportunity to join the civilized world on focusing on the significance of wine with food. Yes Chinese tea is still served with a meal, but expensive foreign wines are widely available, especially in Michelin starred restaurants … oh yes, they are now important in the New China … and it appears that a Tasting menu in China would now not be complete without the offering of a wine pairing … who would have expected this ???
Street food in China … while we didn’t dare sample it, our mouths watered at the many offerings everywhere we went. At lunchtime, tea-time and dinner-time, the streets would come alive with vendors selling local specialities. And in many locations people would come out not only to buy but to sit and eat together with their friends and communities. I thought many times how the serious, skinny, under-fed look I had noted back in the ‘90’s is now replaced by a happy, well-fed, and even perhaps a tad over-weight appearance … China certainly is feeding its people now and “Skinny” is out, “well-fed” is in! Plus the ritual of food-sharing has expanded, indeed proliferated onto the streets.
HIGHLIGHTS OF THE CHINA TRIP
Beijing … the warm celebratory welcome at the Shangri-La Hotel, from the “Welcome back, Mr. Gagnon” to the chocolate Happy Anniversary cake, bottle of French Bordeaux, card, flowers and box of chocolates in the room combined with photo-taking with and by the Horizon Club staff and a welcome serenade of Happy Anniversary” when we opened our door to our suite! … totally unexpected ! Read “Shangri-La Hotels welcome in Beijing China” !
Xi’an … Muslim street which quickly showed me how the “Minority Groups”, which is the official Chinese term for non-Han peoples, live together in harmony with the rest of the Chinese people … the infra-structure built to showcase the World Heritage site of the Terra Cotta warriors, including an amazingly gigantesque airport and the super-sized, only “non-traffic-infested” highways we experienced in China … and, of course, the unearthed and archaeologically restored Terra Cotta Warriors with their horses and their accoutrements in their pits – simply awesome, especially given their production date of over 2000 years ago! Read “Terracotta Warriors of Xi’An” !
Chengdu … why feeding the pandas, of course, and having the pandas we had already fed and be-friended come when around to greet us when we moved from the front of their enclosure to the back … plus the animated stroll down Jinli Street full of its open-air shops and street food places … the head & neck massage at the open-air Tea room, and the divine Hotpot dinner in a private room with Ben, our guide, attending to our every need … and the amazingly divine room service meal we had served by the Executive Chef of the Chengdu Shangri-La himself ! Read “Panda Bear keeper for a day!”
Chongqing … although we only had an afternoon to quickly visit the biggest city in China (30 million including the suburbs) as we were en route to the Yangtse River cruise, the central square of this dynamic Yangtse port city with its animated street life, old China buildings, narrow streets, and magnificent views over the harbor, provided another snapshot of life in China. Read “Choingqing : Mountain city, foggy city!”
Yangtze River Cruise … The primary raison d’etre for taking this cruise is to visit the famous Three Gorges Dam, an architectural feat which makes the Chinese people swell with pride – in fact, Denis and I watched a very interesting PBS documentary about the building of this dam, including the displacement of millions of poor Chinese farmers in the river valley. However, we took the cruise for the sheer enjoyment of being on the water and seeing the villages as we passed them by. When we entered the ship, which Denis’ research had identified as a top-rated and newest cruising line on the Yangtse, we were extremely impressed by the beauty and quality of the ship and its high tech conveniences. Our room was surprisingly spacious for a river boat ship, we had a large balcony and a walk-in shower, spacious closets, but … I noted that all the signs were in Mandarin, the announcement signs on board the ship – Mandarin only, and I quickly told Denis that this ship was not set up to receive Anglophones. I was right.
Dinner our first night was not included in our cruising package so we had order from the menu – normally, not a problem as the menu has pictures and actually had some English. Denis saw “spaghetti Bolognese” and was set. But I wanted my daily fix of green vegetables and there was no such photo in sight. So we asked a waiter if they had green vegetables. Four waiters and a half hour later, no response, — I was fuming and Denis was disgusted, and so I finally got up and went to Reception where I pointed out that the ship was not set up to received Americans and they should never have taken our money — I told them to either find someone who can deal with us or give us our money and we leave. Well that changed things. We were served properly, given 2 magnificent portions of Chinese green vegetables and dessert on the house. And the next morning, we were told we would be taking our meals in the exclusive VIP lounge at the top desk with beautiful views and – most importantly – several charming young waiters who spoke enough English to take our order and respond to our needs. I loved these guys – they totally transformed our trip from a nightmare to a pleasure. When a young Chinese woman traveling with her parents heard me speaking English to them, she turned to talk with me, and the next thing we knew, she invited us to eat with her and her non-English speaking parents … and the waiters were moving us over to their table.
For the Captain’s Banquet the last night of the ship, we were surprised to be seated not at the table with the 2 other Anglophones on board – the English guy (married to a Chinese woman) and the New Zealand guy (also with a Chinese wife), neither of whom obviously had “translation” problems since they had Chinese wives – but with the young lady and other Chinese people from her home town in the Cantonese province of Guandong. Believe it or not, one of the men at our table offered us some of his brandy and made welcome toasts to us, Denis bought some red wine and responded in kind, and the whole table chatted with us as we relied upon my little friend’s translation and Denis’ Mandarin – which really is memorable! – to communicate. So we managed to turn lemons into lemonade and we have some very fond memories now of being on board that ship! Read “Three Gorges Dam River Cruise”
Shanghai … the panoramic view of the Bund and the Huangpu River (a tributary of the Yangtse) from our expansive room with its 3 (!) widescreen TVs (who needs 3 tvs?) – this view was so lovely that it was very hard to close our curtains to go to sleep at night, but we had to because the light from the river full of party and tour boats 30 floors below would have invaded our room … the views over the “new China” from the Oriental Pearl Tower … the Urban Planning Exhibition Hall with its amazing aerial reproduction of every single street & building in downtown Shanghai … the Bund, of course, but also – not too surprisingly — the French Concession (stilled so-named from the division of Shanghai into British, American, French & German concessions after the defeat of the Chinese in the Opium Wars) where French style outdoor cafes and boutiques and, dare I say a bit of “Parisian charm” abound? Read “Shanghai : the future of China”
Guilin… the picturesque views of the “Karst” mountains and the not-to-be-missed 4-hour Li River Cruise down to Yichang … an immediate first impression leaves no doubt why these mountains have inspired centuries of Chinese painters. Read “Yangshuo and the Li River cruise”
Yichang … we only had a couple of hours here after our Li River cruise docked before we had to depart for the airport , so we walked through the street market … impossible not to! … and had an unforgettable meal highlighted by Yangshuo Beerfish.
Hong Kong … the glorious views over Hong Kong, Kowloon and Victoria Harbour from Victoria Peak, and the descending views by car which were slightly reminiscent of the Grande Corniche from Monte Carlo to Nice … lunch at The Square, a one-star Michelin restaurant at The Stock Exchange … the many antique shops which we very much enjoyed wandering through but are sadly being forgotten in today’s high-tech contemporary world … our ferry trip to Macao with its very different influences of Portuguese food & culture and Las Vegas 24-hour/day gambling culture!
The Shangri-La Hotels … a mecca of pleasure and pampering, especially from The Horizon Club with its unforgettable panoramic views over the city … we will return!
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