Searching for China’s Kyoto

Featured

“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.

IMG_0260

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.

IMG_1108

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.

IMG_1230

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.

IMG_1232
Advertisements

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.

IMG_0035

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.

IMG_9990

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

IMG_0008

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.