Searching for China’s Kyoto


“Wherever we went as we traveled down the Yangtze we saw the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution: temples smashed, statues toppled, and old towns wrecked. Little evidence remained of China’s ancient civilization. But the loss went even deeper than this. Not only had China destroyed most of its beautiful things, it had lost its appreciation of them, and was unable to make new ones. Except for the much-scarred but still stunning landscape, China had become an ugly country.”

–Jung Chang, Wild Swans

Kyoto was the imperial capital of Japan for over one thousand years, and still today is considered the cultural heart of the country. Famously, it was spared from bombing during WWII, so unlike most major Japanese cities, it retains its traditional architecture, dating as far back as the 15th century. Modern Kyoto also has its share of ugly IMG_4562 apartment blocks, neon, and concrete, but the overall atmosphere of the city remains genteel. It’s in a beautiful setting, bisected by a river and surrounded by mountains on three sides. Traditional festivals still take place as they have for hundreds of years. Alongside the fast-food restaurants and accessory stores of the shopping arcades are “old Kyoto” restaurants and inns. Traditional woodcarvers, painters, potters–and the occasional geisha–still make their livings there. It claims several imperial palaces, historic buildings, and supposedly, over a thousand temples and shrines. On the cultural side, Kyoto is the origin of Japanese haute cuisine, and is the best place in the country to see traditional performing arts. Many small towns boast historic centers or “samurai streets,” but none can compare to the significance of Kyoto. Just as many American schools take field trips to Washington, D.C., Japanese schoolchildren are packed off to Kyoto.

Is there a place in China that so perfectly captures the rich history and traditional culture of the country? Where is its cultural heart, so to speak? We started our search in Dali, an old walled city in Yunnan province. While it impressed us with its traditional architecture and beautiful setting, it was lacking in the cultural and artistic department.


Souvenir shopping, Lijiang

Our next stop, Lijiang, struck us the same way. The shops all sell the same mass- produced stuff. I’m pretty sure that there are only four or five stores in all of Lijiang and Dali, copied a hundred times over. Each city puts on concerts of traditional music, but other than that there was very little to see or do. In Dali, there is a temple complex, which costs a steep Y121 to enter. In Lijiang, there is an old house belonging to the former clan leader of the area. That’s it. After seeing these attractions, there is nothing left to do but eat, shop, and turn down old ladies offering you ganja. Dali had a few interesting independent cafes, but on the whole, it seemed like there was nothing original in either city.

Yunnan has dozens of ethnic minority groups, so a trip to the area does offer a chance to learn something about non-Han culture. However, Lijiang and Dali are so touristified that any encounter with minority culture will probably be in a restaurant. To experience anything more, an excursion to a minority village (and probably a guide) would be necessary.

But we were searching for insights into Han Chinese culture, not minority traditions. Maybe Xi’an is a better place to look. The first capital of unified China, it was the eastern terminus of the Silk Road. Nowadays its main claim to fame is that the 2200-year-old Terracotta Warriors lie just out of town. The city itself retains a traditional feel. Like most old Chinese cities once were, it is a walled city. There is little traditional architecture, yet to me, it had an older atmosphere than Dali and Lijiang. Vendors sell much of the same mass-produced junk, but there were some more interesting shops along the Artist’s Street, plus the food scene was much better than in Lijiang or Dali.


Section of Xi'an's city wall

Although Xi’an is not that big, its long history means it has interesting attractions (besides the Warriors) and unique traditions, especially due to the ancient traders’ Islamic influence. Like Kyoto, it both epitomizes traditional China yet maintains a distinct culture. Something was still missing, though. I think that while Xi’an certainly has the history, it doesn’t have the culture.

Our final stop in China was Beijing. By far a much bigger city than any others we visited, I hadn’t expected to find much history in Beijing. But it could also lay claim to being the Kyoto of China. While many sites of importance were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, a few imperial palaces, and parts of the old city wall still stand.


Hallway at the Forbidden City

But for every one of these, there seemed to be a thousand new, functionalist buildings, so it was difficult to feel like I was in an old city. The only time I felt I’d stepped back in time was when strolling through the hutongs. They reminded me very much of the narrow back alleys of Kyoto. They’re being destroyed, however, and without them, Beijing looks a lot like any other modern Asian metropolis. Like Kyotoites compared to other Japanese speakers, Beijingers are also considered to speak with a more refined accent than other Mandarin speakers. But that quirk alone wasn’t enough to convince me. I guess certain things were similar, but the old, refined atmosphere was missing.

Ultimately, China may not have a Kyoto. Thirty-five years after the end of the Cultural Revolution, I think the situation has improved, since traditions that were banned are now allowed to flourish. There’s still a long way to go, however. Many countries worry about how best to preserve their traditions. China doesn’t just have to preserve their traditional culture; in some cases they have to recreate it. As of right now, China’s cultural heart remains fragmented.


An Afternoon at the Opera

Being a big fan of the performing arts, I had hoped that at least somewhere in China, there would be the possibility of seeing some Chinese opera. I didn’t really care what style of opera we saw—Sichuan, Peking, it didn’t matter. In Chengdu, I checked the entertainment listings for information, and found that there are daily shows put on for tourists, but the price was US$30 per person. It seemed awfully high for China, but I really wanted to see a show, so I was prepared to pay it.

Then we met Tray Lee. Self-billed as a cultural tour guide, he hangs around Renmin Park, chatting up foreigners and handing out business cards. (He’s also listed in Frommer’s China guide.) One of the tours he offers is to go see Sichuan opera, at a “local’s theater.” Including the price of the show, transport, snacks, and his services as an interpreter, it cost $5 less than the tourist show. His English was excellent, and he promised us our money back if we saw any other white people at the show. With that guarantee, we agreed to hire him for Saturday.

IMG_0798 We arrived one hour before curtain, in order to watch the actors get into costume and makeup. The actors and their families were just sitting around and chatting with each other—it seemed to be a pretty tight-knit little troupe. It reminded me of the community and college theater groups I used to be involved in. There were no playbills, just a blackboard listing today’s performances. There were four plays on schedule, but each one is short, about thirty minutes. It being a local theater, everyone put on their own makeup, even though it’s much more elaborate than typical stage makeup. There were also costumes to get into, beards to attach, and wigs to put on.  The  dressing room was small and we were taking up valuable empty space, so we went to go take our front-row seats. The theater eventually filled to about 80% capacity, but except for the actors’ families and us, I didn’t see any young people. IMG_0819There weren’t even any middle-aged people. I commented on this to Tray, and he said that Chinese youth have no interest in traditional performing arts. I asked him what they were interested in. “Shopping.”

Tray himself is forty years old, which is young for an opera fan, but he said that he remembers these stories from when he was a kid. His mother or grandmother would sing them to him. During the Cultural Revolution, productions of all but a few approved revolutionary plays were banned outright. For older people, watching these shows is nostalgic, but anyone born after a certain year (who didn’t have an opera-fan older relative) didn’t grow up with these stories.

We ate and drank throughout the show, and people whispered to each other and occasionally entered and exited the theater. Once in a while, a lady came around and refilled our teacups with hot water. It was a really relaxed atmosphere. The shows are highly visual, but without a guide or prior knowledge, we wouldn’t have had any idea what was happening.

The first piece was set in the Three Kingdoms era of China, and focused on two of the three kings. One king wanted to insult the other one, so he sent him a woman’s dress and makeup. The king who received the “gift” was really mad, so he made the messenger drink lots of wine, who then drunkenly spilled out the entire plan. IMG_0837

So instead he decided to wear the dress when he went to visit the other king, and pretend like he was fine with it. When he got there, he thanked the other king profusely, saying he really liked the dress. Then something interesting happened. Some of the audience members went up to the stage and handed some money to the actors.


Forget flowers after the show- in China you give cash, DURING the show. 10 yuan seemed to be the norm, and the actors would stop what they were doing to accept the money and tuck it into their pockets, while the audience clapped politely. Then they’d go back to performing. Anyway, King #2 told King #1 “if you want me to be a woman, I’ll be a woman.” Then he proposed marriage. King #1, who originally sent the dress, got angry, and realized that his plan had totally backfired. Crossdressing is universally hilarious, isn’t it?

Next was a story of unrequited love. A man is in love with his boss’s daughter, who has gone to work in the city as an embroiderer. However, she’s come back home to visit her father, maybe because he was sick? But she must go back to the city and back to her job. The man is from a poor family and doesn’t think he has a chance with this girl, but he tries anyway, telling her how he will help take care of her father while she’s in the city, and how much he likes her father, blah blah blah. Then she gives him a pair of embroidered shoes.IMG_0856

Apparently, in traditional China, it was a REALLY big deal if a woman gave a man a pair of shoes. That meant she definitely liked him. Heartened by this, the man suggests that they go do something together—go have a cup of tea? I forgot. Anyway, the end.

The third play was another love story, but with a better ending. A fox fairy (I know, bear with me here) has been getting up to no good. A man has been sent to kill her. When he sees her, though, he falls in love with her. They fight, but she’s as good a fighter as he is, and nothing is accomplished. IMG_0875

At some point, I guess, he changes his mind and asks her to marry him. She rebukes him over and over, but really she’s just playing hard to get. He eventually wins her over and carries her offstage.

The last play was quite sad. It was about the family of a man who’s gone off to the city for several months. The women and children all stayed in the countryside. As soon as he left, his concubine kicked the wife and grandmother out of the house. The two women, outside in the cold, cried and bemoaned their situation. The actress who played the grandma was so good, she almost made me cry. IMG_0884

There were no big names (not that I know any big names in Chinese opera anyway,) and the theater was certainly not much to look at, but the actors were superb. This has really got to be one of the great bargains of the performing arts world—to see a show of this quality, with an interpreter, would cost much more in most countries. And, true to Tray’s promise, we didn’t see any other white people.

Climbing the Great Wall

You’re in China. Maybe you’re off exploring the Tibetan Plateau, or tasting beer in Qingdao, or lazily drifting down the Li River, admiring the emerald green karsts of Guilin. None of that is going to matter to your family or friends when you get back home, though. The number one question they’ll have for you is, “Did you go to the Great Wall?” You don’t want to disappoint them by answering incorrectly, so you had better squeeze it into your itinerary.

You’ll be glad you did, though, because (loathe as a I am to use this phrase) the Great Wall really is a must-see. However, famous as it is, figuring out how to go about seeing it can be a little confusing. It’s not as simple as telling your taxi driver, “Please take me to the Great Wall.” First, he probably has no idea what you just said. Second, the Great Wall is long – really, really long – so you’ll need to know what specific section of the Great Wall you want to see. There are several options, each offering a different experience. Because of its proximity to Beijing and because it’s been completely restored, Badaling is the most popular section for tourists. It’s the most accessible, but as such, is also swarming with vendors who follow said tourists around, grabbing their arms and yelling at them in Chinese until they just buy something out of exasperation. There’s another section very popular among hikers, which connects Simatai and Jinshanling (about 10 km, but it’s tough going). Simatai was closed for restoration, so we weren’t able to attempt this hike. Instead, we decided to go to a section called Huanghua, which is officially closed to tourists.


Notice I said, “officially.” Unofficially, you can climb all over it, in exchange for a small fee paid directly to the locals who own the land. The reason these signs exist is to discourage people from coming to Huanghua and to encourage them instead to go to one of the other sections owned by the Chinese government, which will then charge them a much higher fee to see essentially the same wall. Technically, you do run the risk of being fined by the authorities if they catch you, but we never had the impression that we might be caught, or that the police would even bother. There’s a restaurant (English menu) as well as a few souvenir vendors set up near the entrance, so it’s not like it’s a big secret that tourists are coming to Huanghua.

The great thing about Huanghua is that it hasn’t been restored and looks properly old and weathered, right out of the Ming Dynasty. Most of it’s in good shape, but you had better watch your step in some parts:


Another advantage is that even in the middle of the day, you don’t have a lot of company. Apart from the four of us, there were only a few other groups climbing. That meant we could take lots of unobstructed photos of just ourselves and the Wall and the mountains beyond. But it’s not so bad getting stuck behind a Chinese family, especially if they take a liking to you and the grandma decides to give you several cucumbers, some hard-boiled eggs, and a tomato.

The most delicious cucumber I've ever eaten on a UNESCO World Heritage Site

You’ll also have a chance to appear in their family album:


No matter what section you choose, though, it’s unlikely that you’ll leave feeling disappointed. The Great Wall is an attraction that fully lives up to its hype; not only is the wall itself an engineering marvel, but the backdrop is fantastic, and the views would be worth the two-hour taxi ride from Beijing, wall or no wall. Most importantly, though, the Great Wall is truly unique; quite a few times on our trip, I would fall into the bad habit of comparing some new site or experience with ones from places we’ve already been. “This city looks a lot like Osaka,” I’d say, or, “I saw something similar in Chiang Mai.” It’s a feeling common to anyone who’s seen and done as much as we have in such a short period of time. Sometimes I even noticed myself enjoying a place less than I ought to, because all I could think about is what it reminded me of. The Great Wall is one of those rare, incomparable places – there’s simply nothing like it.


Eating China

I couldn’t write about China without writing a post about food, now could I?

Chinese food in China is a world away from the Americanized version. The food we get in the States is usually Cantonese food, and it’s not even good Cantonese food. I don’t want to become one of those people who always compares American restaurants with their foreign counterparts. I find it snobby, to be honest… “This pizza tastes nothing like the pizza in Italy.” But let’s be honest. Most American Chinese food is bland and greasy. I’ve been to a couple of good restaurants, but a whole lot of subpar ones. Compared to anything, it doesn’t stack up well. Just ask my friend Katie about the stir-fried hot dog incident.

Keeping that image in your mind, take a look at these Yunnanese mashed potatoes. Which would you rather eat? IMG_0019

Inside China, Yunnan province is well known for having spicy cuisine. Also, as I previously mentioned, it’s subtropical, which is reflected in the ingredients. Some favorite dishes of ours: stir-fried beef with cumin, served on a bed of fried mint leaves; stir-fried tea tree mushrooms, and the aforementioned mashed potatoes.


Hmm... we accidentally ordered too much

It may sound like a lot of fried food. A typical Chinese meal includes a selection of stir-fried dishes, a soup, steamed rice, and usually beer. Everything is eaten from communal dishes, so mealtimes in China are sad for solo travelers.


There are always noodle soups, though–popular among busy people at lunchtime and students at anytime. Cheap and always served in individual portions.  In most of China, these are wheat noodles, but in Yunnan, rice noodles are the specialty.

Sichuan province is also well known for its spicy food, both inside and outside of China. However, it’s a different kind of hotness- the Sichuan peppercorn is often called “numbing-hot,” because it numbs the tastebuds. It is sometimes crushed and sprinkled on top of a dish, but sometimes added whole. The first time Bob accidentally bit into a whole one, he said his mouth was vibrating. When I assured him that was normal, he thought for a minute, and then said it felt like tasting all flavors at once.

Our favorite Sichuan dish was mapo tofu, which we managed to eat five times in one week. For the uninitiated: it consists of tofu, ground pork or beef, and leeks; seasoned with soy sauce and rice wine, stir-fried in chili oil, and garnished with Sichuan peppercorn. At Chen’s Mapo Tofu (the original restaurant in Chengdu serving mapo tofu,) it arrives at your table sizzling, in an iron claypot.  IMG_0639


Eating jiaozi with some new friends

For breakfast nearly every day, we ate steamed dumplings (jiaozi) or steamed buns (baozi), usually stuffed with ground pork and chives. A bowl of rice or millet porridge rounds out the meal. A few times, we had deep-fried dough sticks (like churros) which are served with fresh soy milk and sugar. You’re supposed to dissolve the sugar in the soy milk and dip the dough sticks in, but I preferred to dip them first in the milk, and then in the sugar. It had a nicer texture.

IMG_1112On arrival in every city, one of the first things we did was to scout out breakfast joints. In Xi’an, we happened upon a place with a fantastic range of steamed buns. There must have been at least twenty different types of fillings: spinach and garlic, spicy potato, etc. My favorite one was filled with mapo tofu- what an excellent idea!

In touristy areas, the food quality often suffers, but Xi’an had surprisingly good food. One of the local specialties is biang biang mian, which is a noodle soup of extra-wide wheat noodles in a spicy broth, along with cabbage, beef, and chives.IMG_1113

It’s also written with the most complicated character I’ve ever seen: IMG_1322In Beijing, I continued my tradition of taking cooking classes (I’ve taken them in six countries now!) By this time, we had some visitors: my mom and her friend Liz had flown out to meet us. Together, the four of us learned how to properly wield a cleaver and stir-fry in a wok.

Under the tutelage of the brother-sisters trio at Hutong Cuisine, we made four dishes, including stir-fried cumin beef, spare ribs with black bean and chili sauce, dan dan noodles (with handmade noodles!) and of course, mapo tofu. If I may say so, Bob’s mapo tofu was just as good as Chen’s… maybe better.

So I apologize in advance, for when I get back to the States, I won’t be able to order Chinese takeout. I’m going to be one of those annoying people. The food in China is really so much better than the Chinese food in America. I’ll just have to cook it myself.

Hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge, Day 3

Our third day was our shortest day: all we did was hike down to the Tiger Leaping Stone and back. There are two trails; both cost 10 yuan to enter. We chose the one near Sandy’s Guesthouse, which we were told was faster, because it utilizes two ladders.


The other trail has no ladders, only switchbacks. A guy we met along the trail told us that the other trail was more scenic, but we had heard that to go down one trail and come back another would cost double. The trails are run by locals, so the official Tiger Leaping Gorge ticket doesn’t cover entry to these paths. Normally an extra 20 yuan wouldn’t bother us, but we were low on cash and had to save our money for the bus ride back to Lijiang. We hadn’t budgeted well, and there are no ATMs or places to exchange money in the gorge. There are ATMs in Qiaotou, but we tried two of them, and they didn’t accept our card. Maybe they don’t accept foreign cards? Anyway, lesson learned. Again.

It took us just under an hour for each of the descent and ascent. We had seen such incredible scenery on our first two days of hiking that today was a bit of a letdown. There’s not much to see along the way. Reaching the bottom and sitting near the rushing water was exhilarating, but there was little else to look at. The view from the road, high above the gorge, is more impressive than the view up close. As every other visitor before us has probably done, we discussed whether it was possible for a tiger to leap across the river. We decided it was unlikely.


And we took the obligatory commemorative photos:


We went back to Lijiang in a minibus run by Tina’s Guesthouse, which cost 50 yuan per person. Sandy’s Guesthouse also runs minibuses, for the same price. To go back only as far as Qiaotou is 20 yuan. On our first day, we paid 37 yuan each for the bus from Lijiang to Qiaotou, so 50 from the Middle Gorge seemed reasonable to me.

From Qiaotou, it’s also possible to get a minibus TO the Middle Gorge and then just take day hikes, such as to the Tiger Leaping Stone or to one of the waterfalls. I think that while the Middle Gorge is spectacular, I enjoyed the scenery the whole way. I’m glad that we did the whole hike, and if you are inclined and able-bodied, that’s what I would recommend.

All guesthouses serve food, which is mostly bland, generic Chinese and Western food, written out on bamboo stick menus. Prices are about 10-20 yuan for a main dish, and 10 yuan for a large bottle of Dali beer.

Tea Horse Guesthouse
For hikers who aim to complete the trek in two days, this place is at a very convenient stopping point. A bed in a dorm is 25 yuan per night. The pita bread dishes are good value- the pieces of bread are very big. The noodle soups are pretty good, too. The lady who runs the place is very friendly. If they’re full, there is another guesthouse next door, whose name escapes me.

Tina’s Guesthouse
Affiliated with HI/YHA, so if you are a member, beds are 20 yuan. Non-members pay 25 yuan. Only three beds per room, and as there are few solo travelers in the gorge, we ended up with a room to ourselves.

While the guesthouse is fine, the restaurant is not great. Definitely do not order the vegetable noodle soup, unless you like eating noodles floating in eggy water, garnished with slices of tomato. The fried rice is passable. I recommend eating at Bridge Cafe instead.

Bridge Cafe and Guesthouse
Run by a sweet Japanese woman who also speaks English and Chinese. Her cafe, unlike the others we stopped at, serves very tasty dishes made with all fresh ingredients, like organic vegetables from her garden and local goat cheese. It comes at a slightly higher price- 15-30 yuan for a main dish, but highly recommended. Also- if this matters to you- the only Western-style toilet that I found in the gorge is here. They also have rooms.

Hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge, Day 2

Relief. We woke up feeling fine. As if yesterday had never happened. Just in case, we didn’t hurry off, but relaxed on the terrace at the guesthouse, drinking coffee and eating breakfast. Also, it was drizzling until 10:00am, so we waited for the weather to improve. So, like yesterday, we started late, but today’s walk was shorter and less strenuous.


The path was very flat and a little boring

Estimates from Tea Horse to the Middle Gorge range from three to four hours, and we found it took us closer to the longer end of the scale. The first two and a half hours were fairly flat. Like Day 1, there were some great views, but it was not quite as spectacular as yesterday. Maybe we had gotten used to the scenery?


But there was a waterfall! The stepping stones in the pool were obviously placed for tall people. I had some trouble and nearly stuck my foot in the water. It’s not deep, but it would not have been pleasant to hike with wet socks.


There are many encouraging signs painted on rocks along the way, mostly in English (did I mention that this hike is most popular among backpackers?) Homemade apple pie and a hot shower do sound pretty good….


The last hour was downhill, but there’s a lot of scoria and the path is steep, so it was slow going. While it was much easier on the lungs than yesterday, it was harder on the ankles. Luckily the rain had been too light to make the path slippery, but strong enough to dampen the sand and prevent it from filling the air when the wind blew. In wet weather, I think this part would be the toughest.


Don't twist your ankle!

The path ends when it rejoins the “low road,” the paved road we had left behind back in Qiaotou. When we got there, we found several guesthouses and cafes, whose names we recognized from the boulder-signs. We opted to stay at one called Tina’s Guesthouse, which is HI-affiliated and offered a 20% discount for members. Score! This is certainly the best view I’ve ever had for US$3.25 per night:


This area is called the Middle Gorge, which is considered the most scenic. As such, many tourists opt to just drive to this point, without doing the hike. It is a very beautiful spot… but not seeing the view from the top of the cliff would be such a shame. It would be like seeing the Grand Canyon from the middle of the gorge, and not from the top like in all the postcard pictures.

On Day 3: we hike down all the way to the river itself! We’ve seen the view from 3000 meters up, now we’ll see it from 0 (or as close as possible.)