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Capture the Colour Travel Photography – China in Five Colours

Neighbourhood firework seller, Harbin, Heilongjiang Province 
Can you capture the spirit of your travel experiences in just five colours? That’s the challenge posed by Travel Supermarket’s Capture the Colour travel photography competition, now running for its second year after the massive success of last year’s competition. 
Heather from Ferreting the Fun nudged me to participate this year (her photos, with great mini stories attached, are wonderful), but entry is open to any travel blogger. I had so much fun with last year’s entry, so here are my five for this year: China in five colours.
RED red RED red RED red RED red RED red RED red RED red

Pingyao, in Shanxi Province, is a beautifully preserved walled Ming Dynasty town and one of China’s most intense immersive tourism experiences. I highly recommend it for those who love full-frontal crowds, tour groups wearing matching novelty outfits, getting your photo taken in a velcro-attached Ming Dynasty costume, and paying three times the real value of everything. Despite this, there are moments of quiet beauty amongst the madness and souvenir spruikers, like this traditional paper cut seller hanging out her wares across a tiny alleyway. 
BLUE blue BLUE blue BLUE blue BLUE blue BLUE blue BLUE 

 A hard day’s ride on the back of a camel through the Singing Sand Dunes of Gansu Province and this was our reward – the pale orb of the full moon rising over indigo coloured dunes. The sand was cool and soft under our bare feet as I leaned on Matt’s shoulder to get the long exposure without a tripod.

YELLOW yellow YELLOW yellow YELLOW yellow YELLOW
The Nanchang Temple in Wuxi, close to Shanghai, has lovely views from its pagoda (after you have climbed thousands of stairs, that is) and is right next to a street food precinct. Effort = Reward
GREEN green GREEN green GREEN green GREEN green GREEN
Qinghai. It’s utterly magnificent. This fairytale road leads down through green fields full of tiny wildflowers to Shizang Monastery, a rarely visited holy village hidden from view by a broad red cliff deep in the valley. 
(And just to show you don’t need a fancy camera to get great travel shots, this was taken with my iPhone.)
WHITE white WHITE white WHITE white WHITE white WHITE

 I couldn’t complete this series without at least one food photo! This dumpling cook works in the Nanxiang Xiaolongbao kitchen at Yu Gardens in Shanghai, filling steamer baskets with xiaolongbao – plump little soup-filled dumplings.

And in the spirit of passing the baton, I nominate these five wonderful travel bloggers and photographers to show us their five colours!
Robyn from Oolong to Earl Grey (a photography buddy and fellow Shanghai tragic now blogging from an English village)
Chi-chi Zhang and Zachary Wang from China Nomads (extraordinary photos of China’s wildest places)
Barbara from The Dropout Diaries (who, in a bizarrely strange twist of fate turns out to be a cousin I had never met…she lives in Asia and writes a blog about travel and street food….go figure!)
Sally from Unbrave Girl (who first showed me the delights of Wuxi)
Kate from Driving Like a Maniac – she not only lives in Italy, but cooks like she was born there.

‘Cold Wontons’ Noodle Shop – One of Shanghai’s Best Noodle Joints

The sign on the door said simply: “Cold Wontons.” Hardly an appetising name.
My Chinese friend had described it to me like this: 
“Near the corner of Changhua Lu and Changping Lu there are two noodles shops on opposite sides of the street – one does hot noodles. One does cold noodles. Neither have a name. But they’re really, really good. You should go.”
“Cold Wontons” turned out to be the de facto name of this totally nameless noodle joint in Shanghai’s Jing’an District, undistinguishable – from the outside at least – from other noodle joints in the area. 
But what every customer knew is that this place cooked very authentic, very high quality Shanghainese cold noodles. The cold wontons? Just a side dish. Lord knows how it came to be spelled out in fat red Chinese characters on the door.
I walked in and tried to order at the small cashier’s desk near the door, behind which was seated a lady in her early sixties with a wide smile and very permed hair. She spoke barely a word of Chinese, and not even a skerrick of English. This was a Shanghainese noodle joint, and Shanghainese was the language spoken. I failed to understand a thing she said.
The menu, otherwise known as the jiàmùbiǎo 价目表 or price list, was pinned to the wall behind her, and detailed all the dishes or toppings available to eat with cold noodles – fried pork cutlets, spicy meat, spicy sauce, bean sprouts, white chicken. You chose a topping, a bowl of cold noodles, and as many side dishes as you liked, and paid at the counter before taking a seat.
My friend had told me what to try – the eel noodles, specialty of the house.

The only problem for me and my very Australian-accented Chinese was that the ‘eel thread cold noodles’ – shànsī lěngmiàn 鳝丝冷面 , a dish of fine eel slivers, sounded exactly the same to the cashier as the ‘three thread cold noodles’ – sānsī lěngmiàn 三丝冷面, a totally different dish of shreds of bamboo shoot, pork and green pepper.

Our confused encounter went like this:

“I’ll have the eel thread cold noodles.”

“Three thread cold noodles?”

“No, no, eel thread.”

“Yes, I understand, three thread.”

“No! No….EEL thread.”

“Huh?”

I was obviously struggling until a customer, bilingual in Chinese and Shanghainese, came to my aid. 
“What do you want to eat?” he asked.
“I want the eel noodles” I told him. He smiled.
“And how many liang of noodles do you want? Two or three?”
“Three” I said, feeling hungry (a liang 两 is a Chinese measure of weight, about 50g, often used for noodles and also dumplings – a standard serve is two to three liang).
He turned to the cashier and in rapid Shanghainese told her what I wanted. 
“Aaah!” she said, smiling even more widely. She clearly approved of my choice. Or maybe she was just pleased to get me out of the queue and into a seat.
Clearly I needed assistance with every step of my lunch, and so the cashier assigned a matronly aunty to help me. She took my ticket from me and passed it through the small window to the staff in the glassed-in kitchen, a metre away.
Then while I waited she interrogated me with the help of the bilingual customer, who, like the relaxed Shanghainese gentleman he was, had come out for lunch in his pyjamas.
“How long have you lived in Shanghai?”
“Are you married?” 
“How many children?”
At my answer – two daughters – the aunty, our translator and everyone else in the cramped space made appreciative noises.
“How come you can’t speak Shanghainese?”
A fair question. But after four years of struggling with Chinese, Shanghainese still eluded me.
Then, thank goodness, the noodles arrived.
Slivers of sweet ginger. Pieces of tasty, soft, oily eel. Shreds of bamboo shoot. Little wilted, caramelised pieces of scallion. All swimming in the most marvellous sweet, oily, gingery, soy braised sauce.
And the noodles – fine wheat noodles, a little flat rather than round, cold and firm to the bite, served in a dish with a splash of light brown vinegar in the bottom and a slick of sesame sauce on the top.
Aunty came and sat next to me, and told me I could eat the two dishes separately or mix them together. Up to me.
I tried the eels first – soft, salty, sweet and gingery all at once with the wonderful richness of the eel. Magnificent. Then I tried it mixed with the cold noodles, and the firm bite of the noodles gave each mouthful a contrast in textures. Amazing.
All around me conversations in Shanghainese were being carried out to the enjoyable slurp of really great noodles.

On my next visit I had more time to study the menu and figure out the other noodle toppings and extra dishes available.
From front to back:
dòuyár lěngmiàn 豆芽冷面 – shreds of green pepper and pork with bean sprouts 3 yuan
ròuwán 肉丸 meatballs 5 yuan
dàpái 大排 big crispy fried pork chops 7.5 yuan
sùjī 素鸡 white chicken 2 yuan
Sides:

lěng húntun 冷馄饨 cold wontons 4 yuan/liang

hébāodàn 荷包蛋 fried egg 2 yuan

sāndélì 三得利 suntory beer 3 yuan san
kělè 可乐 cola 2 yuan
I tried the three thread noodles just for fun (nice, but not as good as the eel noodles) and the cold wontons. The wontons, at least, were utterly fabulous, full of chives and pork and served firm and cold with vinegar and sesame sauce. 
Aunty even let me give my ticket to the kitchen all by myself.
Cold Wontons (um, not it’s real name)
379 Changhua Lu, near Changping Lu, Jing’an District, Shanghai
Signature dish: shànsī lěngmiàn 鳝丝冷面 eel thread cold noodles

Order as ‘shan si liang liang’ for two liang of noodles (18 yuan) or ‘shan si san liang’ for three liang of noodles (20 yuan) 

Open 7 days. No phone.
冷馄饨
上海市静安区昌化路379号, 近昌平路。

Pilgrim’s Promise: Langmusi Monastery

Could this be the most beautiful place in all of China?

Langmusi, an alpine Tibetan village surrounded by mountains and forests and filled with crimson-robed monks walking its narrow streets, was our promised reward at the end of a horror day of driving through Qinghai and Gansu on a day that tested our limits in every sense.

So it was with a sense of relief and joy when, after arriving in the dark dead of night, I woke to a sun-filled blue sky and this view from my guest house window:

Langmusi sits at an altitude of 3700m (12,000 feet), so the air is pure and clear, if a little thin, and colours are enriched and sharpened by that change seen at high altitudes.
The tiny town of just a few thousand people is divided by the White Dragon River, with the northern half of Langmusi lying in Gansu Province, and the southern part of the town sitting in Sichuan, all surrounded by natural forests and nestled in the cradle of the surrounding mountains.
The town has an embarrassment of riches: two stunningly beautiful monasteries – Sertri Gompa on the Gansu side of White Dragon River, and Kirti Gompa on the Sichuan side – a Hui Muslim mosque, and acts as a base for hill walking and Tibetan horse treks.   
But enough talking: feast your eyes.
Kirti Gompa celebrates its six-hundred-year anniversary this year, and houses a community of over seven hundred monks of the Gelupga Yellow Hat sect (the same sect as the Dalai Lama, whose picture was displayed openly in many buildings). 

The view from the top level of the largest temple was magnificent, magnified by the need to sit quietly and catch my heaving breath after climbing up the hill. All around me elderly pilgrims were walking their daily kora (pilgrim path) and spinning prayer wheels around the monastery,  unbothered by the altitude.


On the White Dragon River’s other bank is Sertri Gompa, a modest monastery with more silver and less gold, but beautiful in its simplicity nonetheless.  
The main monastery building is hung with immense and heavy curtains made from woven yak hair, appliqued in white cotton.
The monastery is surrounded by its own small village of monks and monastery workers living in simple homes with wooden shingle roofs weighed by rocks.

Pilgrims make their daily rounds with prayer beads.

Others take to the grassy hill behind the monastery to scatter handfuls of small white prayer papers – printed with important Buddhist symbols and stories – into the breeze, carrying their good wishes far and wide.

And the loveliest thing of all – at one end of the monastery, where the forest comes right down from the hills to the very edge of the monastery grounds, there is a richly decorated gate hung with hundreds of flags. The gateway leads to a moss-covered miniature forest enclosed by a wall, where two spotted deer – a buck and doe pair – live happily, protected by the monks for whom they symbolize the place where Buddha’s gave his first sermon.

 Back in the town the large population of monks go about their business – visiting friends and doing their shopping. In a lovely display of harmony the most popular store was this one, run by a family of Hui Muslims, sitting neatly between the monastery and the mosque.

Couldn’t we do with a little of this everyday harmony in a few other parts of the world?

Getting to Langmusi: Further Travels in Tibetan Qinghai and Gansu (and Why You Should Never Join Us On A Road Trip)

You know how some road-trippers know exactly where they’re going, on what highway, for how many miles, and have already planned what they’ll see along the way and where they’ll stop for the night?
I can’t stand them. Show-offs.
We like to travel freely! unplanned! vaguely! and unexpectedly!
Because this way, there are lots of travel stories for you to enjoy where things go wrong and afterwards – although definitely not at the time – it’s really quite funny.
This is one of those stories.  
Our road trip along Qinghai’s Route S101, with all its curvilinear grace and evenly laid bitumen, had led us to assume we might expect the same from other roads in this remote part of China. So when we got to the end of our stretch of the S101 and couldn’t go further south (for reasons of public security, according to the police) we sat in the sun by the side of the road looking at our maps and trying to remember, of all the dotted lines marked on it by our friend Jonas, which one marked the road he thought we definitely should take, and which one marked the road we definitely shouldn’t. They looked very similar. But he had been very adamant about one of them.
We were trying to get to Langmusi, the famously beautiful Tibetan Buddhist Monastery that spans the border between the south of Gansu Province and northern Sichuan. On our bigger, longer road trip last year I planned to write all about Langmusi and its spectacular beauty, but we arrived in darkness that night along a road pitted with construction, and left the next morning in dense fog without seeing anything at all except for the inside of our hotel, thanks to our youngest getting altitude sickness and having to consequently find lower ground. 
“It would be nice to see if it really is as beautiful as they say…” I said to Matt.
He looked unconvinced. He wanted to head in a different direction with guaranteed good roads.
“…and Lonely Planet says they have a cafe there with pancakes and Yunnan coffee.” 
“OK” said Matt. He’s really very amenable to a change in plans, especially after a week of yak butter tea and soupy noodles.
I checked Google maps just to make sure we were heading in the right direction.
Google gave me this:
The distance was no problem – we’d been known to knock that many kilometres over in a single morning, but the time Google thought it would take was longer than either of us anticipated. It worked out to be 36km/hr, just slightly faster than the average bicycle.
It seemed awfully slow, given we had recently been zipping around at a comfortable 90-100km/h on the S101. The road started well, and for the first two hours we were ahead of schedule, cruising along valleys under a clear blue sky beside rolling grasslands and wondering what on earth Google was talking about. But Google seemed to know something we didn’t, and before long we understood.
First, there was this. A fiesty Tibetan curly-horned-goat herder woman on horseback who knew full well her animals were taking up the whole road, but carried on as though we weren’t there. If a car tried to pass (and many did) the biggest billy goat head-butted the car. We just followed meekly behind, a herd of cars and trucks at goat walking pace, until they got to their farm.
Then later, a herd of really angry yaks. The car had to reverse out of the way.
And after a while, more goats with attitude blocking the road.
It was non-stop. 
I began to wonder, as morning turned to afternoon, whether we were going to make it to Langmusi at all after we were delayed yet again for another herd of livestock.
And then the real trouble began.
Fifty kilometres of pot-holes and heavy rain on a one-lane country road almost ended our marriage. 
I just want to make it clear at this point that of the two of us, my husband is the far better driver.  And yet for this stretch of road I insisted on driving, partly because it was my turn and partly because the road started out smooth, and quiet, and pretty, as we passed tiny Tibetan houses in lush green pastures. 
Then the road turned bad, along with the weather, and our moods, and I had an uncanny knack of catching the right hand edge of every single pothole I swerved to miss, causing all our teeth to chatter and the bottom of our rental car to scrape the ground with a sickening noise.
Matt, to his credit, kept quiet about my driving at first, but after I had hit the fiftieth pothole he couldn’t help himself and every time I hit another he asked if perhaps he should drive.
This infuriated me, particularly because there were now more potholes than road. I had stopped trying to miss them and instead was aiming to just hit the shallowest pothole with the fewest number of wheels. Our car lurched and scraped and bumped and shuddered. 
Then he started turning on the windscreen wipers (my windscreen wipers!) every time I hit a pothole and our windscreen was slaked with mud. Words were said. Tempers were lost. 
You know how an argument like this is going to end when someone says:
“STOP touching my windscreen wipers!!”
Badly. Very badly.
We thought the worst was over when we finally reached the town of Henan, but Henan’s burghers had decided the start of the rainy season would be an excellent time to rip up all the roads and replace them with rivers of mud, and to remove all road signs until further notice. The town was a black snarl of trucks and cars all deep to the gunnels in mud and frustration.
Things went downhill from there. Beyond Henan fifty kilometres of continuous roadworks saw alternating left and right sides of the road cordoned off and cut up without so much as a single witch’s hat or traffic controller. Sometimes the construction crew were living in tents erected in the middle of what should have been the road. Sometimes a big old load of gravel had been dumped on your side of the road just as you came round a blind bend. 
And then just as our patience was wearing very, very thin we saw it. At the village of Sai’er Long, right on the Qinghai-Gansu border, was a red sign, pointing to the highway holy grail – the G213, a four lane road taking us directly to Langmusi. We rolled through the village and onto the smooth, unbroken concrete connecting road, our spirits climbing. It was already dusk and there was still another 150km to go, but we were still naively calculating that distance at about two hours. The countryside was spectacular with deep green valleys, a sparkling deep blue river, and small birds singing. 
When I checked our maps it seemed plausible that a new road had been cut through the provincial border to link with the highway only a few miles away. Google just hadn’t yet caught up. For half an hour we sailed along happily, dreaming of coffee and pancakes and clean sheets. Kind words were said. Marriages were saved. Windscreen wipers weren’t mentioned, not even once.
The stark white tent of a nomad herder stood out against the far riverbank in the darkening indigo evening light and I decided there and then I wanted to move here permanently. With my lovely, lovely family.

And then halfway across the small river the road. Just. Stopped. 
We got out of the car. The end of the road dropped off into a deep ditch before rising on the far side to a gate and a field full of sheep. I noticed the small sign high on a pole at the end of the end-of-the-road.
“Gansu Border” was all it said. 
It seemed something might have gone terribly wrong with road construction funding on the Gansu side. 
And so back we went on the Qinghai side and took the only other road available for crossing the border. Ominously, it was marked with one of Jonas’ dotted lines.
I double checked Google, holding my phone high in the air to catch an extra bar of service. The blue line on Google Maps looked solid, if a little curvy. But it told us we were on the right road and as if to confirm, a minibus full of passengers and shopping roared past us.
What I forgot to do was to check the map without the blue line, because it proved revealing when I did it this morning from the comfort of my house. It would have helped to know, at the time, that Google was sending us along something that wasn’t actually a road at all. I’ve included red arrows to show the god-forsaken goat track that can be made to look like a road if you stick a big fat blue line over the top of it saying “Go this way! Google says go this way!” 
The road wound along the banks of the Tao river, but its initial bitumen rapidly turned to dirt at about the point where that yellow S203 above turns into a pale ghost of a line, and the dirt turned into a series of potholes that got larger and more dangerous. To make things worse it was now dark and there were no lights at all except the lights of our car, and the occasional far off glow of a farmhouse. 
When we reached the first really large pothole, full to brim with water from the afternoon rains, it became clear we couldn’t fit the car safely on either side and would have to drive through the middle of it. 
I looked at Matt. 
He looked at me. 
He got out, took off his shoes, rolled up his trousers and waded into the pothole to check its depth.
I helpfully took a photo, mistakenly thinking this pothole would be our greatest challenge in a long and difficult day of driving. We had no food left, no water, and were thinking seriously about finding a small patch of intact road and sleeping in the car until daylight.
There weren’t any photos after that. 
The problem with the potholes was that – filled with water – you couldn’t judge their depth, and their bottoms hid sunken hazards like enormous rocks and unexpected holes within holes, just the size to suck your front wheel in and get you stuck for good. And get stuck we did, wedged on top of a giant rock, our wheels spinning mud helplessly. We were rescued by a Tibetan farmer who happened to be shooting basketball hoops in the dark grassy field next to our car. Seriously.

The potholes got bigger, and deeper, and scarier, and there was less and less road. We never saw the minibus ever again, and I suspect it still lies sunk at the bottom of a giant hole, its roof covered by water and its wheels held firm in the mud, pulling in unwary cars like a giant pothole Bermuda Triangle.

At the edge of one particularly treacherous hole there was a Buddhist offering strung with prayer flags, and passing another in the dark – overcome with exhaustion and stress – I mistook the white flags draped around a corner fence post to be a representation of the Virgin Mary.

In the end that shocking 30km stretch of road took us four hours to travel, at an hourly rate of 7.5km – just faster than walking.

Bella turned to Matt and said “Dad that was amazing. You were ah-MAZ-ing. I didn’t think we would get through and we would be stuck there forever!”

“Yeah Dad” said Lily. “That was a real adventure.”

At 11.30pm, sixteen hours after setting off, we finally rolled up exhausted and covered in mud to the counter of the Langmusi Business Travel Hotel (a less fancy establishment than its name would imply) I woke the manager, who was asleep at the desk. God bless him, he recognised all of us from our last brief visit.
“You know what?” I said to Matt, as we tucked ourselves into the hard Chinese bed.
“What?” he asked.
“You’re a very good driver.”
He smiled in the dark.
“A very good driver. But,” I said, “if you turn on my windscreen wipers again you’re a dead man.”
He laughed. 
Your turn: Tell me about your worst road trip ever – was it the road? Your family? Or the crummy places you visited? I want to hear the worst of the worst!