Food Tour

Stopovers in Taipei & Singapore

Raohe Street night market scenes and colors.

Raohe Street night market scenes and colors.

These two small cities have little alike and are not even close on the map. But on our way out of Japan, we decided on five days of hopping from Tokyo to Taipei, to Singapore and finally Yangon, Myanmar. We loved every minute of Japan, and know all too well that the journey back to real backpacking will be difficult. Taipei and Singapore to the rescue (we hope).

We couldn’t get enough milk tea. 

We couldn’t get enough milk tea. 

Taipei

We land in Taipei, quickly taken over by the flair of the new country. How to describe Taipei? For the short version, take China, remove communism and teach English to all, add two ounces of Korea, and one and a half of Japan. Taipei is known for excellent food all around, shopping more than you could ever wish for, and gritty night markets that smell of stinky tofu, blood cakes, and all things cooked over fire. We opt for the food version of Taipei, feeling a little out of place when we pass by the many shops. Noise is up a few decibels; there’s no complicated subway out of the airport, and poverty shows at the train station.

We arrive at Beimen Poshtel near the main station and immediately scavenge for milk tea - the national drink. Lots of rain and wind greet us on the first day; we’re in the midst of typhoon season. A quick nap at the hotel and we’re out to the Raohe Street night market. An inquisitive temple greets us at the front, but we’re here for one thing only: the food. In the span of an hour, we’ll eat juicy pork buns, XiaoMao dumplings, stinky tofu, XiaoLongBao dumplings, chocolate and custard mini pancakes - and will taste everything offered. A stuffed belly puts us to bed.

Taipei has about a dozen night markets, so it was hard to pick just one. We heard Raohe was smaller and had a more local feel than Shilin, so we headed across town to do what we came to Taiwan to do: Eat XiaoLongBao, pork pepper sesame buns, stinky tofu, and more. (And drink as many bubble teas as possible.)

Taipei has about a dozen night markets, so it was hard to pick just one. We heard Raohe was smaller and had a more local feel than Shilin, so we headed across town to do what we came to Taiwan to do: Eat XiaoLongBao, pork pepper sesame buns, stinky tofu, and more. (And drink as many bubble teas as possible.)

Our second day in the city, after a large breakfast at the hostel (when is the last time I made eggs?) - we head over to Din Tai Fung, the successful franchise now found worldwide. Victor, a photographer friend of Madie who lives in Taipei, assures us it’s still better here. And it is. XiaoLongBao dumplings, sweet potato greens, dumplings in hot sauces, and those fried in a pan - with pork fried rice of course. A little burp later, we’re unsuccessful in finding Little Mermaid, Madie’s new craze since Japan, but stumble upon a French bakery, with a whole chicken baked in a loaf bread. We’ll settle for a classic croissant and go find another milk tea. We meet Victor at night for beef noodle soup, another Taiwanese tradition, spicy pork intestine stuffed with rice, and shaved ice with all the toppings.

Din Tai Fung’s XiaoLongBao dumplings in the making.

Din Tai Fung’s XiaoLongBao dumplings in the making.

Happy and full after dinner with Victor, who showed us where the locals eat!

Happy and full after dinner with Victor, who showed us where the locals eat!

The typhoon comes, and with it we fall back below ground to walk to our hotel, getting lost in the underground. There are incredible subterranean metro malls all over Taipei. We could walk for miles without ever seeing the sun, spending money on the latest fashion. The tourists are here in numbers, from Korea, Japan, and China, to shop. The rest of the island is however seldom visited, and in our short time here, we will not have time for more. Instead, we drink one last milk tea, as we carefully track the weather and hope for no delay for our flight to Singapore. 

Or maybe we should have had a little delay. The take off is the roughest we’ve experienced, as we fly around the typhoon hitting the island, and fall in tall air pockets making a group of ladies scream (and me, piss myself a little). The Taiwanese are used to typhoons, this one is no exception. We make it, four hours flying to Singapore, and are in for another culture shock.

We’ve never seen a place so modern, and with so many efforts in keeping it clean and green. 

We’ve never seen a place so modern, and with so many efforts in keeping it clean and green. 

Inside the cool Cloud Forest biodome, a mere 137 kilometers from the equator.

Inside the cool Cloud Forest biodome, a mere 137 kilometers from the equator.

Singapore

How to describe Singapore? Take a small island on the most southern point in Malaysia, only 137 kilometers north the equator, and create a tax haven. Add strong dashes of Malay, Indian, and Korean - and a ton of money, as much as you can get your hands on, then go ask Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates for more. You’ll get a sort of Asian Monaco, without the casinos. The city is the cleanest in the world (chewing gum not allowed), has the largest inequality gap, and also the highest approval by its population - 90% of them can afford a home on the island. The metro stations will quickly tell you all the languages spoken here - Chinese, Malay, Indian, Korean - but the official language is in fact, English. On a single street block, we were able to visit a mosque, a Hindu temple, and a Buddhist temple.

Downtown is an incredible succession of buildings all more daring and beautiful than the other - one with multiple levels of gardens encased into the facade - the super tree grove at Gardens By The Bay; the famous Marina Bay Sands and its large boat with an infinity pool on top; the art and science museum, modeled after a blooming flower; and two soccer stadiums, one floating on water, the other with a roof opening at the top. Singapore does not disappoint with amazing architecture. The F1 Grand Prix is only a few days away, and most streets are already closed. 

The super grove of solar-powered super trees.

The super grove of solar-powered super trees.

We eat our coconut snack (longing for Hong Kong’s) and make it to the top of the giant boat building, carefully walking to the side (at least I am). Next we visit the Gardens by the Bay and its super trees, of course with another milk tea, and visit the indoor rainforest - an incredible construction only Singapore can pull off. I miss the real rainforest dearly - we feel out of our element in a large, rich city. We’re only an hour away from Bukit Lawang after all.

But Singapore also knows cheap and delicious food. We head over to Chinatown and attempt to eat at the cheapest Michelin star in the world, a mere 2.5 Singapore Dollars for a chicken meal that won a precious star. Unfortunately, at 4:45 pm, we’re already too late and all the chicken is gone. We’ll settle for second best soya chicken of the eatery. A couple juice drinks later, we head back to our capsule and settle in our bed, exhausted from plane rides and food. Tomorrow at the wee hours, we head to Myanmar, an all too different place, a largely under-developed country with civil war, and another culture shock.


Links

  • Taipei is the main city in the island of Taiwan. It has many sights to offer, including historical buildings - but as you saw, we invested our time in the delicious food!
    • Taipei has an excellent subway system, including endless malls if that’s your cup of (milk) tea.
    • Night markets are a craze in Taipei and should not be missed. We decided on the Raohe Street Market, for its reputation to be more local than Shilin.
    • Din Tai Fung restaurants are all over the world now, and for a good reason!
    • Beef noodle soup is a local specialty. We had ours at Yong Kang Beef Noodles, thanks to our friend Victor. Shaved ice is the other great specialty for dessert! Close to our previous spot is 政江號傳統小吃店 (don’t ask).
  • Singapore is greatest in its downtown and in Marina Bay, where you can gaze upwards for hours at buildings and architecture. Not to be missed:

Japan - Kuidaore in Osaka, Ukiyo in Kyoto

On our first afternoon in Kyoto we climbed the small tree-covered mountain of Inari to pass through its 10,000 torii (gates), some of which date back to 711 AD. 

On our first afternoon in Kyoto we climbed the small tree-covered mountain of Inari to pass through its 10,000 torii (gates), some of which date back to 711 AD. 

Bonobo - 7th Sevens

We’re on a short flight from Shanghai to Osaka, Japan. China has a strong character, and it started to weigh on us. We enjoyed it as much as other countries, especially its food, culture, and grand sights, though it was not always welcoming (not unlike the streets of Paris). As with other border crossings, we try to reset, remove feelings of the last country and preconceptions of the next, but this time it takes a bit more effort; there’s more to erase, past and future. We have high hopes for Japan and its culture, knowing it more than other countries we’ve been to. Me, from my early childhood days watching anime in the morning (Club Dorothée is deeply ingrained in me) to all the Murakami books I’ve devoured the past ten years, and more recently, all the mangas filling the long bus rides of our travels. Madie, studied Japanese for three years in high school (おはよ ございます、 さかはら せんせい!).

The beautiful Osaka Castle, surrounded and protected by several large moats, gates, and bridges. This landmark played a major role in the unification of Japan during the sixteenth century, and was level one of Alex’s Pokémon Go adventure.

The beautiful Osaka Castle, surrounded and protected by several large moats, gates, and bridges. This landmark played a major role in the unification of Japan during the sixteenth century, and was level one of Alex’s Pokémon Go adventure.

Osaka

It is a common theme that we don’t know anything about anywhere. As soon as we land, we’re hit by the food kingdom that is Osaka. The airport arrival has a flurry of renowned restaurants. We start the day with tonkatsu, to fill Madie’s heart. The Japanese language and deep bows welcome us warmly. The giggles come back to her face - this is a good sign.

It’s a complicated train ride to town, setting the pace for what will be an amazing twelve days in Japan. I feel out of place. My clothes are dirty; I’m stinky, sweaty, and hairy; we’re the only ones with giant backpacks. The train and subway crowds are orderly. Most men are in black or deep blue suits with white shirts. Women are coquettish, pretty and simple. We walk through Osaka’s business district for two kilometers. The hotel is nice, classy even. Kimonos, the smell of cigarettes, and a toilet with too many buttons wait for us in our tiny room. We thank credit card points for letting us visit Japan. At $80 a night for the cheapest place we could find, we could not have afforded it any other way.

We didn’t know much about Osaka when we booked our tickets, but it has quickly stolen our hearts with its food, its people, its pace, and its scenic river walks. (Alex said it reminded him of Lyon.) Here’s a much busier side of town, albeit still charming at golden hour.

We didn’t know much about Osaka when we booked our tickets, but it has quickly stolen our hearts with its food, its people, its pace, and its scenic river walks. (Alex said it reminded him of Lyon.) Here’s a much busier side of town, albeit still charming at golden hour.

It is a love affair with Osaka, or rather a one-night-stand - a passionate fling of indulgence and decadence. We find a few blog posts for restaurant tips and decide to explore the city following its best plates, bowls, and skewers. The airport started us with delicious tonkatsu, our first traditional meal with all the fixings. Dinner is a variant of ramen we’ll never find again, with a richly flavored paste sitting at the bottom of the bowl. (Close to tsukemen, but not a broth.) Pastries for snacks, one after the other, few rivaling the best bakeries in France. “That’s what a Cronut should taste like,” Madie will boldly exclaim, deeply falling for the Little Mermaid pastry shop. After a mandatory visit to the Osaka Castle, and a first Pokémon GO adventure (it was fitting to start there), we eat sushi at a small hole-in-the-wall recommended by Migrationology, find takoyaki, fried octopus balls, and matcha green tea ice cream to finish off. We take a short break of 90 minutes, strolling in the shopping district, amongst the bright colors of pachinkos and fake food stores. We’re back on okonomiyaki, bonito flakes twisting around, then walk another 15 minutes for yakitori - in a restaurant known for using all parts of the pig (and yes, we had all parts). Our first 36 hours in Japan, we already hit six food stops. The pounds we lost in the past four months are back and then some. But we’re happy. And desperately full. I catch a couple more Pidgeys and fall deeply asleep feeling like a Snorlax.

Our yakitori chef behind the grill. Loved the feel of this place... Old wood, sake bottles, and smoke permeating the air. 

Our yakitori chef behind the grill. Loved the feel of this place... Old wood, sake bottles, and smoke permeating the air. 

We made a special trip from Osaka to Kobe to have wagyu beef at La Shomon. This photo doesn’t do it justice, but it was the best meal of our four months on the road so far, and perhaps the best beef we've ever had. As @meandfrenchie would say, it was like butter.

We made a special trip from Osaka to Kobe to have wagyu beef at La Shomon. This photo doesn’t do it justice, but it was the best meal of our four months on the road so far, and perhaps the best beef we've ever had. As @meandfrenchie would say, it was like butter.

Perfectly marbled Kobe beef.

Perfectly marbled Kobe beef.

Kobe

We head to Kobe, home of the famous wagyu beef, on (what should have been) a 30 minute train ride. After getting lost for 2 hours in the JR train system, we finally make it to La Shomon (焼肉バル) and have the best meal of our trip, and the best beef we’ve ever had, for only $20 each (another gem from Migrationology). Additional pastries bought at the train station, we hop on our ride back, mischievous children in school uniforms accompanying us. For our readers watching anime, the Japanese train rides look just like that: a quiet train passing through suburban Japan, peaceful neighborhoods of single homes, always allowing nature to peek through, most people traveling on bike or trains, and youthful voices creating the soundtrack. Tempura closes our first volume of food adventures.

Kinkaku-ji’s story is one of rebirth. The original 500+ year old structure was burned in 1950 when a young monk attempted suicide. Five years later it was rebuilt, covered in gold to purify the temple of negative thoughts about death, and crowned with a golden phoenix. No wonder it’s one of Kyoto’s most visited sites.

Kinkaku-ji’s story is one of rebirth. The original 500+ year old structure was burned in 1950 when a young monk attempted suicide. Five years later it was rebuilt, covered in gold to purify the temple of negative thoughts about death, and crowned with a golden phoenix. No wonder it’s one of Kyoto’s most visited sites.

The stunning bamboo forest in Arashiyama on the west side of Kyoto. Did you know some bamboo species grow one meter a day? Incredible! 

The stunning bamboo forest in Arashiyama on the west side of Kyoto. Did you know some bamboo species grow one meter a day? Incredible! 

Kyoto

We make our way to Kyoto and explore the many gates of Fushimi Inari Daisha after a filling lunch of loco moco, tonkatsu, and my very first fresh tofu - which I now understand I’ve been missing out on this entire time. After performing the water ritual at the crowded entrance, we hike further into the park, hoping to lose the few tourists. We cross path multiple times with a smiling grandpa, helping us find our way. I wonder if he has a side-quest for us, but he is only here for Shinrin-Yoku (森林浴), literally “forest bathing,” a word for a visit to the forest for relaxation and health. The park is a complex of Japanese shrines: thousands of bright orange gates, set in a deep green forest amongst the dark grays of traditional tombs. We learn the word Komorebi (木漏れ日), “sunlight shining through the leaves of trees.” China had a sense for the epic; Japan has a profound one for the aesthetic, the tasteful and subtle beauty, the perfect harmony. Geishas pass by, some are simply locals dressing up, others are the ‘real’ ones, entertainers of the Gion district. Ukiyo (浮世 "floating world") describes the urban lifestyle, especially the pleasure-seeking aspects of this world. 

After a two hour hike through the park, Madie and I cool down with amazake, a cold, sweet, fermented rice drink with ginger, and agree that if we had the opportunity to live here, we’d probably do it. The high-pitched laughter of children echo from a nearby elementary school - the usual trigger for us to think about the future. Our dinner is a bowl of rice and raw fish on which we pour dashi, the tasty Japanese broth. We pick up on a new tradition, eating yogurt (or chocolate pudding) at night in our tiny hotel room. 

Kyoto, Japan's most beautiful city, home to thousands of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, and where local and foreign tourists dress in the most vibrant kimonos to tour them. 

Kyoto, Japan's most beautiful city, home to thousands of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, and where local and foreign tourists dress in the most vibrant kimonos to tour them. 

Inari is the kami (spirit that is worshipped in Shinto religion) of prosperity, success, and rice. It’s why many companies and businesses donate a vermilion-colored shrine - for thanks and hope for more good fortune.   Here you can see their names engraved on the pillars.

Inari is the kami (spirit that is worshipped in Shinto religion) of prosperity, success, and rice. It’s why many companies and businesses donate a vermilion-colored shrine - for thanks and hope for more good fortune. Here you can see their names engraved on the pillars.

Taking a break at the temple garden.

Taking a break at the temple garden.

Young girls dressed as gieshas in Kyoto.

Young girls dressed as gieshas in Kyoto.

Ending the day and our time in Kyoto at the viewpoint by Kiyomizu-dera. Still so much left to explore here. We will surely be back.

Ending the day and our time in Kyoto at the viewpoint by Kiyomizu-dera. Still so much left to explore here. We will surely be back.

Kyoto, home of Emperors and Japan’s capital for a millennia before Tokyo, is reputed the most beautiful city in the country and carries high hopes for the traveler - it did not disappoint. For the next days, we do our best to explore the city - amongst the tall greens of Arashimaya, the bamboo forest where a Meowth hides; at a sunset at Kiyomizu-dera, a temple in a light drizzle; along the Philosopher’s Path with matcha ice cream; in a peaceful cemetery. We make the obligatory visit to Kinkaku-ji, the golden temple and its proud Phoenix remembering the monk who attempted suicide by fire; we meander through the Imperial Park, finally resting under the red gate of Shishinden, until the next matcha ice cream at Ninen-zaka after dark; we properly learn the water purification ritual at the zen gardens of Ryōan-ji and Higashiyama Jisho-ji. We stroll for kilometers, powered by minced tuna rice bowls, okonomiyaki and, what the heck, the best pizza we’ve had in a long time. My Pokémon score is off the charts. 

We’re love-struck, longing to see Japan in the winter, spring, and fall. The aesthetic is omnipresent, harmony is ingrained in Japan’s culture, and the pursuit of being better in its philosophy. It’s peaceful, easy even, a feeling we haven’t had since we left - a breath of fresh air after four months in Asia.

And as with all refreshing breaths of air, fill it up with soup, ramen, if possible, one for her and tsukemen for me. Kuidaore (食い倒れ) is the Japanese word for “eating yourself to bankruptcy.”  Tomorrow, we wake up early for a ride to a different world, the Japanese Alps. We won’t quite go to sleep before another yogurt and a couple Ratatats, though.


Links

  • Osaka is reputed for the best food in Japan. From what we can tell, it is well deserved. Migrationology has a great post on his favorite spots. It is also a cheap flight from Shanghai, and well-connected by train.
  • Kobe is only a 30 minute train ride away. It’d be a shame to miss the best beef in the world. We chose to go to La Shomon, recommended by Migrationology for its relatively inexpensive prices.
  • Kyoto is 90 minutes away by train from Osaka. The historical sites are endless, and in only 3-4 days there, we missed too many places (including the manga museum!). The golden temple Kinkaku-ji, the bamboo forest Arashimaya, and the Imperial palace are the most touristic spots, but we particularly enjoyed walking in Fushimi Inari-taisha, the Philosopher’s Path, and Ryōan-ji
  • Few websites will recommend a JR Pass for a week or two. While it may seem like a good option, be aware that:
    • It can only be purchased outside of Japan.
    • It only allows travel on JR trains (there are many other local tracks and companies).
    • It is limited in time (one or two weeks). Lots of travel needs to be done in a short time to make it worth it. At our pace, only the two-week pass would have saved us money.

China - Beijing, Xi’an, and Zhangjiajie

One of us still recovering from the flu, we hiked almost 3 hours between the Jinshanling and Simatai sections of the wall. It was hot, steep, slippery, and intense, making the views from the stone watchtowers on the highest parts of the Great Wall all the more rewarding.

One of us still recovering from the flu, we hiked almost 3 hours between the Jinshanling and Simatai sections of the wall. It was hot, steep, slippery, and intense, making the views from the stone watchtowers on the highest parts of the Great Wall all the more rewarding.

A flight from Hong Kong takes us to China, a country not on our roadmap at first. But I am eager to see my old colleagues and we already have a cheap flight from Shanghai to Osaka. Here for 12 days, barely enough to scratch the surface of a 3,000 year old country almost as big as the United States, we have to be selective. So we settle on Beijing, the massive capital, Xi'an, home of the Terracotta Army, and Zhangjiajie, the national park of tall towers.

Beijing bikes parked on our hutong. There's a lot of grit and charm in the small streets of this big city.

Beijing bikes parked on our hutong. There's a lot of grit and charm in the small streets of this big city.

Beijing

We arrive in the center of Beijing in a typical hutong neighborhood, with its dark gray brick walls and narrow streets - decorations are seldom, pops of bright red are common. Our first steps in the city confirm our departure from South East Asia a couple thousand kilometers ago. We’re impressed by the order, the efficient subway system, the absence of scooters, and how clean streets can be - a stroll at night takes us to a crafted Italian pizza and salad; this is a developed country after all, albeit a second-world one (a term I somehow never used until today).

The Tiananmen Square imposes on us the grandeur the Chinese government likes to display: a large square surrounded by red flags and monumental buildings; Mao’s giant portrait, overlooking the square and the line to his mausoleum. We dive into the incredible range of Chinese food, from delicious savory dishes of the North to the unbearable spices of Sichuan & Hunan. At night we adventure on street food with Beijing noodles and pig intestine soup, and dine with a friend on spicy crawfish with his shy four year old. 

My dear colleagues treat us to an incredible lunch at Beijing Najia Xiaojiuguan, with - amongst many others - the unmistakable Peking duck dish. Seeing familiar faces from work is heartwarming; we banter, talk politics, innovation, and technology; I talk about work too quickly. We tried our best to look decent in our backpacker clothes - I did my best to tame my hair down this morning. The inevitable question arises: “When are you coming back?” - We don’t even know where we will come back to.

Happy to see familiar faces in Beijing! Xièxiè for a delicious lunch.

Happy to see familiar faces in Beijing! Xièxiè for a delicious lunch.

China is not what we expected; its population is changing rapidly - Beijing first, one of the most progressive cities in China. Technology companies, industries, shops and almost everyone works in a free market, as in a capitalist country - leaving infrastructure, transport, and a few others to be controlled by the State. China’s past reputation of copying Western ideas is long gone; the country now innovates and creates, with often a better environment to execute.

The main structure in the Temple of Heaven complex, and the oldest wooden edifice in China. The layout and architecture of the grounds symbolize the relationship between Heaven and Earth, with circles representing the former, and squares, the latter. And like throughout the country, the holy structure is decorated in bright reds and other vivid colors, including blue roof tiles, which again is a sign of Heaven.

The main structure in the Temple of Heaven complex, and the oldest wooden edifice in China. The layout and architecture of the grounds symbolize the relationship between Heaven and Earth, with circles representing the former, and squares, the latter. And like throughout the country, the holy structure is decorated in bright reds and other vivid colors, including blue roof tiles, which again is a sign of Heaven.

The steep stone steps of the Great Wall of China.

The steep stone steps of the Great Wall of China.

We explore Beijing’s long history - the capital is one of the oldest cities in the world. We visit the Temple of Heaven, amongst older people playing cards and the seldom blond tourists assailed for photos of and with their kids. We arrive too late at the Forbidden City, only looking over its massive walls, hoping for more. A passerby hears us speak English and hands us his brand new phone. Confused at first, we finally understand the phone is in English and he can only read Chinese, so we help him through setting the new language. Of all the countries we’ve visited in Asia, we realized then how little English is spoken in China, despite their much more advanced education. In many other countries, English is the language of survival, the one to attract tourists - here, there’s already one billion local tourists.

We take the obligatory day trip to the Great Wall at a spot recommended by a coworker. In a few hours, we will climb many hills and slippery slopes, made to prevent the Mongol horses from advancing. A small fort or tower raises at each top, with the obligatory souvenir vendor. The hike is a tiny fraction of the 8,800 kilometers of the wall, and every sight was more incredible than the last.


Xi’an

It’s already time to head to Xi’an. After buying tickets online for an early high-speed train, I convince Madie we can easily show up 20 minutes before the train leaves - it’s only a train station after all, and this is the practice in France. Too easily accustomed to the universal order we’ve experienced in Beijing, we were not prepared for the absolute chaos of the train station. Granted, automatic e-ticket dispensers do not work for us, poor holders of foreign passports, so we have to get in line and experience all the bad things we had heard about Chinese culture: Elbows, shouting and stressed out customers, long lines disrespected by many, scary grandmas yelling at us, with heavy backpacks, trying to make sense of the sign above the counter. We manage to get our tickets and jump in another line for security screening and run for our train, three minutes early, but two minutes too late. The guy at the counter shows me the sign - Sorry sir, we close five minutes before departure. Defeated, we return to the dreadful counters and wait in line for another ticket, ready to plead our case and beg on our knees (the tickets cost $88 USD each, a fortune for the backpacking traveler). After going through the wrong line twice, we make it to the right counter, show the new time we want and are immediately handed over new tickets, as well as $2 USD in refunds. As it turns out, we could have changed the tickets immediately. Exhausted, and with six hours to wait, we (subconsciously) land at Mc Donald’s, with coffee and a blueberry muffin.

The busy streets of Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter, where Arabic merchants and students made their way here during the Western Han Dynasty, as it was the starting point of the ancient Silk Road. This area is kind of amazing - a blend of Chinese and Muslim cultures, from the food, the clothing, the decorated mosques, and the characters and script. It’s fascinating!

The busy streets of Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter, where Arabic merchants and students made their way here during the Western Han Dynasty, as it was the starting point of the ancient Silk Road. This area is kind of amazing - a blend of Chinese and Muslim cultures, from the food, the clothing, the decorated mosques, and the characters and script. It’s fascinating!

We arrive in Xi’an after the six-hour train ride across the empty countryside. We skillfully walk around the fake taxis touts to the real ones. Xi’an welcomes us with smells of lamb, rose water and barbecue. This is one of the few regions in China with a Muslim community, resulting in one of the best mix of cuisines we’ve had - Chinese flavors with Middle-Eastern spices. Lamb quarters are hanging every few steps, slowly carved by the cook, the skewers are renowned throughout the country (well deserved) and perfect with a bowl of the local bread soup. The food is delicious, unlike anything I was prepared for, and very, very spicy. At the end of the meal, I treat myself with yogurt, a new tradition picked up here, where the drinkable yogurt bottles are found everywhere.

The intersection of Chinese and Middle Eastern flavors is so uniquely delicious; Imagine hand-pulled noodles, soy bean pastes, chili sauces, lamb, cumin, yogurts, saffron rice, rose water, nuts, and dried fruits. The aromas are intoxicating, and the visuals are a feast for the eyes. Here a young vendor is carving lamb to skewer and grill, right on the street.

The intersection of Chinese and Middle Eastern flavors is so uniquely delicious; Imagine hand-pulled noodles, soy bean pastes, chili sauces, lamb, cumin, yogurts, saffron rice, rose water, nuts, and dried fruits. The aromas are intoxicating, and the visuals are a feast for the eyes. Here a young vendor is carving lamb to skewer and grill, right on the street.

We get on a local bus to the Terracotta soldiers, thankful for the previous research as we see a long line for one bus number and almost none for the second (there are actually three buses going there). As in most places in China it seems, we’re the only western tourists. We get the occasional stare, the picture with a local, and no preferential treatment. After a walk through the park, we finally enter a large hangar, full of 2,000 soldiers, horses, and carriages - each made of clay, and buried here with the Emperor Qin Shi to protect him in the afterlife (much, much better than sacrificing slaves). It is believed that more than 6,000 will eventually be uncovered; the site, more than 2,000 years old, was only discovered in 1975 when farmers were digging for a well.

The famous Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an receives more than 2M visitors per year, albeit very few westerners. Currently 2,000 soldiers are unearthed and it is believed that another 4,000 lie underground - all created to protect Emperor Qin Shi Huang in the afterlife. It’s crazy that they were discovered by local farmers only 40 years ago! 

The famous Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an receives more than 2M visitors per year, albeit very few westerners. Currently 2,000 soldiers are unearthed and it is believed that another 4,000 lie underground - all created to protect Emperor Qin Shi Huang in the afterlife. It’s crazy that they were discovered by local farmers only 40 years ago! 


Zhangjiajie

A short flight takes us to Zhangjiajie in the province of Wulingyuan, close to the national park of incredible forests and pillar formations. We’re at a second tier entrance, quieter, and hosted by the nicest lady with a butt naked baby who seems particularly interested in me and my sunglasses. We explore the park walking amongst tall narrow earth towers created by ice, millions of years ago. The green of trees at the top of each pillar contrasts with its beige, brown and purple colors - the haze in the morning always replaced by a bright blue sky for the rest of the day. A couple gondolas make for incredible rides between the natural columns, unfortunately overflooding the park with local tourists as if we were in a theme park. But it is easy to escape, walk amongst skyscraping trees and cliffs (with the occasional phone blaring music). 

A view of a few of Zhangjiajie’s famous sandstone peaks. Sea water carved them out millions of years ago giving way to these magnificent karst pillars. It takes four days to fully explore the entire national park. We decided to stop at day two, and skip the elevator waits and new longest and tallest glass bridge in the world, which opened last weekend.

A view of a few of Zhangjiajie’s famous sandstone peaks. Sea water carved them out millions of years ago giving way to these magnificent karst pillars. It takes four days to fully explore the entire national park. We decided to stop at day two, and skip the elevator waits and new longest and tallest glass bridge in the world, which opened last weekend.

Scenes from Zhangjiajie National Forest Park.

Scenes from Zhangjiajie National Forest Park.

After three days of hiking, Madie and I have dinner at the guesthouse, exhausted, happy, and of course sharing a beer. The host’s mom gently offers a meat dish for free, and the following discussion ensues.

“What is it?” I ask.
“Meat. Wild.”
“Wild? Wild animal?”
“Yes.”
“A boar? Deer?”
(She looks on her phone for the translating app).
“Doh.”
“Doe?”
“Doh. Wild Doh.”
“Doh? Dog??”
“Yes! Dog!”

It is in fact, wild dog, caught by a trap - a cause for celebration, so they’ve invited the only two neighbors. Her son shows me the picture of the trapped creature on his phone. A real treat.

A long day of bus and train takes us to Shanghai, where we will do nothing for two days, waiting for our flight to Osaka. The People’s Republic of China exhausted us with ancient history, incredible sights, and strong character. We rest, catch up on photos, writing, and family back home. I somehow know I’ll be back, maybe without Madie, when work becomes reality again.


Links

  • Although Hong Kong is actually part of China, it still has many exceptions for the traveler (in addition to a much different culture). Mainland China requires a $200 USD visa for all US and European (and more) citizens while Hong Kong does not. Make sure to check your nearest Chinese embassy.
  • Our Hong Kong flight to Beijing was only 4 hours and around $150 USD. You can directly ferry into China from HK (but we had little to do in this part of the country).
  • Beijing is full of incredible things to visit and is well connected via subway (thanks to the Olympic Games, we were told), but it is a really large city. We’d specifically recommend staying in the Dongcheng area on a hutong, the district with the Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, and more.
  • The Great Wall is unmissable. Many day tours are available and will take you to different sections. We were recommended to go to Jinshanling for a three-hour hike on the wall, with fewer tourists than other areas.
  • The bullet train took us from Beijing to Xi’an in less than five hours. Just make sure you get to the train station at least an hour early.
  • Xi’an is the home of the Terracotta Army and a few other sights. You do not need a tour to get there, public buses get there fast and you can easily find a certified English speaking guide at the entrance.
  • A cheap hour-long flight took us to Zhangjiajie. The town is actually quite far from the park, so we stayed at one of the lesser frequented entrances of the park, Yangjiajie on the Western part. We stayed at the Yangjiajie Inn
  • We managed to get to Shanghai by bus and train in one day, while not obvious to sort out, we had plenty of time to transfer via Changsha.