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The Cave Dwelling Paper Makers of Guizhou

This is my last post from Guizhou, and I’m writing it from my living room back in Shanghai, which has the effect of making it seem even more surreal than it actually was. And it was really surreal. I’ve visited some pretty strange workplaces before – inside an ancient Scottish castle, high up in a lighthouse and underground in a mine – but I’ve never met anyone who worked in a cave, at least, not as a papermaker. 
I had heard along the grapevine about the village of Shiqiao (Stone Bridge), famous locally for its traditional papermaking, but it seemed too difficult to get to – a few hours outside the town of Kaili and off the path of regular buses, and I needed help to get there. After stopping in at the Kaili CITS office (the organization that passes as an office of tourism in China) and meeting the amiable, self-effacing and extremely helpful Billy Zhang, we asked if he would help arrange a village-hop to include a local market in another village and then a look at the papermaking at Shiqiao. What we didn’t know was that Billy also had contacts with papermakers who had set up in a cave south of Shiqiao, and had arranged for us to be taken there. 
Shiqiao was a quiet little place, on the banks of narrow green river cutting through steep hills, and the papermaking, from treebark and dyed with natural plant dyes, was a very small enterprise – one open-air  shed and a tiny shop. It was an atmospheric place to walk around – almost deserted, with the few villagers not out working in the fields warming themselves around a makeshift fire of corn husks burning in a tin on the road. The clouds were low and it was drizzling constantly, but we took a walk over the village’s namesake stone bridge and back before driving off again, we thought, back towards Kaili.
After twenty minutes on treacherous single lane winding roads the car stopped at the mouth of a huge limestone cave, some distance off the main road. There was a dirt track of sorts leading down to it, full of deep potholes and thick brown mud that stuck to our shoes as we walked, and I still wasn’t quite sure what we were coming to see,  perhaps a bat colony inside the cave, or a small waterfall. It was only once we got closer that I could make out the striped red white and blue awning covering some kind of workshop. 
The entrance to the cave, massive in size, was piled high with papermaking frames drying in the weak sunlight, and enormous tubs of paper pulp. Several motorbikes stood to one side along with broken tools and cast-off clothes. Inside the cave, the only light coming from the cave’s gaping entrance, eight people were silently working, making sheet after sheet of coarse hand-made paper. It was difficult to take it all in at once – the absurd strangeness of it all, and the juxtaposition between the cave’s natural beauty and the busy fledgling industry going on inside it. I was full of questions – why a cave? Why here, when there was a perfectly good village for making paper only a short drive away?
The impossibly high ceiling of the cave was hung with long sharp stalactites which dripped constantly onto the striped awning covering the work area. It would protect them from water but little else, should one of the stalactites break off and fall. From the back of the cave a natural stream flowed from a large, still pool and was then diverted to run beside a long, rectangular brick waist-high tank containing the paper slurry mixed with water. Four men methodically dipped wooden frames into the tank until an even layer of slurry lay over the mesh of each frame, then lifted it deftly out of the water and swung it onto a pile of wet paper sheets behind him, peeling off the new sheet to sit on top of the rest. The pile of papers dripped endlessly onto the floor, leaving a sea of large puddles under each table. The puddles ran together and formed their own small sream heading out of the cave. There was water everywhere.

The men, their sleeves rolled as high as possible and cigarettes hanging from the corners of their mouths, made about fifty sheets an hour each. Dip, even out, dip again, even out again, open the frame, lift, peel, repeat. Despite the lovely rough feel of the paper sheets, it seemed like boring, wet, repetitive work. I asked why they had chosen to set up in the cave – they told me they were all from Shiqiao village but wanted to set up business on their own, and the cave represented a good water source and protection from the weather. Several of the men were now living in small huts outside the cave entrance so they didn’t have to make the long journey back to Shiqiao at night.

Ever the pragmatists, they didn’t particularly like the work but it was an opportunity to make money and it beat standing in the rain ploughing a field. Because they were working for themselves in a village co-operative (common amongst the villages we saw around Kaili) they set their own working hours and quotas. It still seemed like very difficult conditions, and in winter the constant dripping wet and the cold must be unbearable, but like many who rely on the land for a living, any regular money-making work that supplements the uncertain income from farming is welcome, even if it involves eight wet hours of work in a cave. 

Really, I take my hat off to them, and I hope their ingenuity and perseverence bring them success.

Read the other posts about this incredible corner of China:

Shidong: The Miao Sisters’ Meal Festival
Shidong: Instant Banquet
Langde: The Protection of Silver

Langde: The Protection of Silver

The Miao people believe that silver can protect against ghosts and evil spirits, covering themselves with as much silver as possible in the form of jewellery, adornments, head-dresses and silver-covered clothing. When you die, the Miao believe, three spirits are created – one spirit stays with the tomb, to receive visitors, and one spirit travels to the ancestors, but the third and last spirit can be a little tricky. If the death is from natural causes, the ghost will stay in the village to help out with any problems, but if the death was accidental or unexpected, the ghost roams the village causing trouble. It’s this ghost you’ll be needing protection from, so he doesn’t meddle in your affairs and stir up strife, or turn your crops bad and your mother-in-law against you.

Not surprisingly, due to their young age and vulnerability, children need a lot of protection and many Miao children wear a silver encrusted embroidered and decorated hat for well-being. In the village of Langde, south of Kaili, there are children in silver hats running around everywhere without any apparent bother from bad spirits, so the hats must be doing some good.

Langde is south of Kaili, and the villagers don’t take part in the Sisters’ Festival, having too many of their own celebrations to attend to. We happened to visit at the time of a dance and get-together in the village’s stone-paved meeting circle. In the centre, next to a totem pole crowned with water buffalo horns and a red ribbon, stand two young men playing the lusheng, a reed instrument with a deep and lovely sound. An elder sounds a barrel drum, and the young women, in heavily embroidered dress, gather to dance in a circle. It’s a slow and gentle dance, quite restrained, and the village elders, both men and women, sit around the outside of the circle to watch.

At some previously decided point in the dance, there is an imperceptible signal and one by one, the seated villagers rise and walk slowly towards the circle of dancers. As they reach the circle they join its inner part, row by row by row, so that there is an ever increasing spiral of people walking slowly around the totem. On the outside walk the heavily ornamented young women with their tall silver horns, shoulder to shoulder with the most elderly women of the village in blue velvet jackets and indigo aprons embroidered with bright flowers. Next to them walk older women in simple black velvet coats, and on the inside of the circle walk the men, in long indigo robes and turbans, many of them smoking tobacco from stoneware pipes. Lastly, from everywhere, children run into the spiral and join their mothers and grandmothers, some walk, some are carried, all are included.

The drum beats steadily, and the dancers walk with a measured step round and round. Every villager has a part, every position in the spiral has a meaning and a connection with every ther position. And then, like watching a pebble thrown into a whirlpool of water, the spiral spins itself out and the dancers disperse in every direction. The dance is over, and it’s time for lunch – as we walk around the village afterwards smoke and wonderful cooking smells rise from every kitchen, and children run up and down the cobbled pathways between the houses waiting for their meals. 

After lunch the village returns to normal life – women wash vegetables in the river in preparation for preserving, fields are tended to, the village’s water wheel is being repaired, and the elderly women return to their embroidery. It seems a simple life, beautifully simple, and I’m sure it has its hardships and lean years – yet how complicated are lives have become, and how we all wish to live so simply again. I will try and remember this, when I’m back in Shanghai and bowling along like a hurricane….

Instant Banquet at the Miao Sisters Meal Festival

As we walked through Shidong village, early on the first morning of the Miao Sisters’ Meal Festival, a beautiful young woman and her son approached us. She wore her long hair piled high on her head in a bun decorated with a large pink silk flower, in the tradition of the Flower Miao women. We were, all five of us, foreigners, but undaunted she explained in simple Chinese that she woud like to invite us to her parents’ home for lunch,  and that it would be her family’s pleasure to host us. 
“Will it be OK with your mother?” I asked.
I had heard of the legendary hopitality of the Miao people but had never experienced it firsthand, and I couldn’t help but think of the words my mother might say if I arrived on the equivalent of Christmas morning with five hungry strangers in tow. On the whole, Chinese people are incredibly, generously hospitable, particularly when they know you love Chinese food, but we’d only just met. However, she made a quick phone call, confirmed that we were welcome, and off we all walked along the river, her small son’s legs doing double quick time to keep up. Like all Chinese children, he was well-protected against any touch of cold weather with about fifteen layers of long underwear, and as we walked and the day got warmer he shed layer after layer, looking thinner and thinner with each shedding. Unbelievably for a day of near 25C he had a pair of tracksuit pants and two layers of thermals under his jeans.
As we reached their house, across the field from where women were beginning to gather and dress, he ran ahead to greet his grandmother who came from inside the house to meet us. The house, one of the more prosperous looking in the village, was two storys of brick with white-tiled floors. The only door opened on to a common courtyard shared by four other houses and a large chicken coop, along with various bits of ploughs and wheelbarrows. Lacking a kitchen or an indoor bathroom, a pink dish of clean water was set up under the outdoor tap for washing – hands, clothes,vegetables, hair, and in another tub wallowed a very large fish, ready to be dispatched for dinner.
Inside, the large open lower floor room was sparsely furnished with a low square wooden table surrounded on four sides by simple wooden settles for seats,  a small shrine covered in offerings for the ancestors, and a battered couch. The young woman sat us down, and we waited to be introduced to first her mother, then her father, her uncle and her brother-in-law. Her mother, who we all called mama, wore a long-sleeved blue tunic over black trousers, her hair also in a high bun. They all seemed perfectly unsusrprised to be entertaining a house full of foreigners at short notice, and without any fuss or further bother mama walked over to the battered upright cupboard in the corner of the room and pulled out first one, then three, then eight steaming hot dishes. 

When, I ask you, did she whip those up? It must have been after the phone call from her daughter, but that walk had taken no more than forty minutes….and yet here was a fully prepared banquet of eight dishes.

We began with steaming rice, ladled from a huge heavy wooden vessel on the floor, and in turn tasted all of the eight dishes. There were crispy peanuts stir-fried with sugar and chili so they caramelised just a little; egg fried with fragrant green herbs; slices of cold roast pork, simple and flavourful; a dish of pickled sour green beans, snapped into tiny lengths and spiced with chili; large chunks of fish slow-cooked with a fiery chili, garlic and tomato braise; sauteed bean sprouts; stir-fried firm tofu with scallions and green peppers; and a second pork dish with peppers. Alongside the food came smaller bowls decorated with flowers and filled from a 4-litre plastic bottle with the family’s home brewed mi jiu – rice whisky. Lethal stuff. 

I love this type of Chinese food best of all – home-cooked, simple but strong flavours, seasonally fresh – each dish on its own is delicious, without a doubt, but it’s the combination of all the dishes together that makes a Chinese meal like this really satisfying. Mama has probably refined and perfected those eight combined dishes over forty years of cooking for guests and special occasions, to the point where it’s now pretty well perfect and forty minutes is all it takes to magic up a feast like this. Thanks mama – it was all delicious! 
L to R mama, her daughter and grandson, her son-in-law
Tomorrow: the beautifully quiet village of Langde: drums, dancing, and lusheng-playing

The Miao Sisters Meal Festival: Beauty and Ornamentation

I’m sitting in a very third rate hotel rooin Kaili, Guizhou province, looking at the hole in  my bathroom ceiling and the cigarette burns in the carpet, wondering if the wires poking through the hole in the ceiling will present any problem to the adjacent leaking shower head. It’s 6.30 am, and a low cloud is hanging over the town, obscuring everything over six storeys and drizzling on everything below that. There’s a gap in the wall where the window should have joined the wall but didn’t, and it feels like the grey cloud outside is creeping through the triangular space into the room and into my bones. 

Since I left Yunnan on an overnight train from Kunming to Kaili five days ago, I have passed through some mysterious geographic portal into a place where the sun is too tired to shine, to break through the dense cloud and the constant mist. Kaili is ugly. Half-finished red brick buildings loom over broken and cracked sidewalks, and pot-holed roads full of puddles of brown water. Everything, including every person from the knees down, is covered by a layer of mud, and I notice the predominant street business is shoe-shining – rows of women on low stools shake bottles of dirty water over mud covered loafers and wipe the mud off with a mud covered cloth. The muddy children of the shoe-shiners play on nearby pavements. Everyone looks suspicious and cautious.

In many ways this entire trip is culminating here. I’ve come to Kaili to see the Miao Sisters’ Meal Festival, the biggest annual celebration of the Miao people who live in and around Kaili and its surrounding villages, but looking outside it’s hard to reconjure the images of fabulous silver decorative costumes I first saw a year ago in my photography teacher’s apartment as a dirty bus trundles past, splashing more mud across the pavement. 

We set off soon after six thirty, and as we leave Kaili behind the cloud lifts just enough to uncover a unique landscape of green steep sided hills and narrow river valleys. The hills are covered in rows of sloped terraces, planted with rapeseed, potatoes, cabbages, and occasionally rice, each terrace a bare ten metres wide. It must be near impossible to eke a living from such steep land, with the constant threat of landslides from above and floods from the rivers below. As we drive along smaller and smaller roads, villages appear along the riverside – clusters of timber houses on poles, perched on the steep riverbanks and in staggered rows up the hillside. Early morning wisps of smoke can be seen, and people are already out at work preparing the rice beds for spring planting.

Two hours later we arrive in Shidong, the village central to the festival. This is all Miao country hereabouts, and for the next three days there will be music, dancing, and a gathering of people from all the surrounding villages – at least, that’s what we think will happen, because it’s been difficult to get reliable information about exactly where and when the festival takes place. Shidong looks worryingly deserted, but sitting over a bowl of noodles with pickles for breakfast at a tiny street stall, I can hear a jingling, like small bells, coming up the road and a group of women come into view, wearing silver decorated turbans and heavy silver necklaces over their everyday clothes. 

They’ve just arrived on a bus from their village, and they look sort of half-dressed, like a bride wearing a veil with jeans and sneakers, and I secretly feel a little disappointed that they haven’t worn their full costumes for the day.These are modern times after all, and the pictures I’d seen were probably of a select few women in full costume for the benefit of photographers.

But as I watch, the women gather in a group near our noodle stall and one by one, pull dark red intricately embroidered jackets from bags, covered with strips of intense blue and white decoration, and unwrap indigo pleated skirts tied at the waist with woven brocade ties. Out of other bags come heavy silver jewellery, broad silver neckpieces, wide silver bracelets, and silver barrel earpieces like giant bobbins. They stretch the huge holes in their earlobes to place the barrels snugly, and suddenly the group of women is transformed into a stunning and exotic spectacle.

A young girl wears a beaten silver head-dress, intricately beautiful and covered with birds, flowers and dragons. Different hands, her mother’s, her grandmother’s and her aunt’s, help dress her and place the heavy silver neckpieces. She stands patiently, waiting for the dressing to be complete.

The Sisters’ Meal Festival is a festival of courtship in which everyone in the village is involved. There is singing, dancing, water-buffalo fighting, and at the conclusion of the festivities, a young woman may present her suitor with a parcel of coloured sticky rice, containing a symbol of her feelings for him. 

“A pair of red chopsticks  means she has accepted his hand in marriage; one chopstick, his love may not be returned; a garlic or red chili, the boy must look elsewhere; pine needles indicate that the boy should present silks and colourful threads and that she will wait for him.”

(From “Guizhou” by Gina Corrigan. The Guidebook Company Ltd, Hong Kong, 1995)
We follow the pull of the slowly gathering crowds of women over the hill, along the river, and into the next small village, because this seems to be where everyone is heading. An enormous field has been cleared and covered with gravel, just this month we are told, and small groups of people are beginning to appear from the opposite direction, and to prepare their dress. The field is quite empty at this early hour, although the balloon seller may be an optimistic indicator of the crowds to come. 

Chinese lunchtime (11am) is approaching, and a young woman who has befriended us leads us to her house for lunch. The Miao are renowned for their hospitality and their love of a good drink (rice whisky, mijiu, being the local brew) and within five minutes we are seated in her house drinking firewater and eating a delicious meal, while all the members of her family get ready. The meal is the best type of homecooking, and I’ll write about it in the next post because it deserves its own story. It feels like we’ve gatecrashed a wedding, as we watch hair being done, belts being tied, and collars and cuffs being straightened, and the neighbours, whose houses all lead into the same courtyard, drop in to have a look at us exotic foreign creatures with our cameras and our strange shoes, and our complete and utter lack of ornamentation.
As we finish lunch and walk out of the walled courtyard and back into the field, an overwhelming transformation has taken place in just two short hours. Where there was wide empty ground, there are now five or six thousand people in costume, standing in village groups and waiting for the music to begin. I’ve never seen anything like it: an explosion of colour and silver.

All around me is a sea of shining decoration, punctuated by the strong colours of red, black and blue embroideries. Each village has quite strikingly different celebration dress – these are Shidong Miao women, recognisable by their tall silver headdresses and their black and red coats.

The older Shidong women and the men wear coats made from heavy cotton polished to a stiff bronze sheen with ox blood, which also helps waterproof the fabric. Although they wear less silver ornamentation, their dress, with its bright blue embroidery, is truly beautiful.

For the next four hours I just wander and take it all in. There is an opening ceremony of sorts, a lot of drums, and quite a lot of dancing, and although we don’t see any obvious exchanges of rice parcels we do see young couples pairing up to talk and laugh. Everyone seems to be having a fabulous time, and stalls have set up selling drinks and fairy floss to the crowds. 

The afternoon draws on, and for the first time in Guizhou I see the sun, and a patch of blue sky, and it seems like an auspicious way to end the day. The crowd has begun to disperse, and partly undress, at least all the heavier and more uncomfortable parts of their costumes, and they are walking slowly home. 

I’m surprised into laughter when I see a young woman in full silver regalia speaking on her mobile phone, the yellow sleeve of her sports top peeking out from underneath her weighty coat and I’m pulled suddenly, joltingly, into the present. Perhaps she’ll choose a suitor today or tomorrow by a symbol in a parcel of sticky rice, or perhaps she’ll just send him a text message, like everyone else in the world.

Miele Guide to Asia’s Best Restaurants: Vote for Shanghai!

While travelling, I got word that voting for Asia’s Best Restaurants in the Miele Guide was on again. For the fourth year running, you, the dining public, have an opportunity to vote for the restaurants you think are the most deserving of a best restaurant award. The Miele Guide is an authoritative and independent annual publication which evaluates and ranks restaurants across the regions, as determined by the votes of an invited jury, professional restaurant critics, a jury of respected foodies and the public. 

I’ve listed last year’s Top Twenty Asian Restaurants for your interest. Although there were no less than six Hong Kong restaurants in the top twenty, including L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon in second place, the only mainland restaurant that made the cut was last place-getter, Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant in Beijing. Disgraceful! Shanghai didn’t even make the list! There’s a not-so-friendly rivalry between Shanghai and Beijing, so if Beijing pips us again there will be blood in the streets. 

So come on all you food lovers! Whether you live here, or whether you’ve just visited, chances are that if you’re reading this you think about restaurants quite a lot, and have a favourite. I know I do. 

Voting for the 2011/2012 edition of The Miele Guide opens on 14 March 2011 and closes on 16 May 2011 Just click on the red voting tab to the right to have your vote counted. The 2011/2012 edition will be available at all major bookstore come October.

According to Miele, ‘Much of what the guide is about is really to rouse the dining public to become champions for their favorite restaurants, both across the region and in their own countries and cities, translating passion for good food by helping to bring Asia’s best into the international spotlight.’ 

Asia’s Top 20 Restaurants 2010/2011

1. Iggy’s, Singapore
2. L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, Hong Kong, China
3. Robuchon a Galera, Macau, China
4. Jaan, Singapore
5. Antonio’s, Cavite, Philippines
6. Mozaic, Bali, Indonesia
7. Zuma, Hong Kong, China
8. Cilantro Restaurant & Wine Bar, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
9. L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, Tokyo, Japan
10. Caprice, Hong Kong, China
11. Les Amis, Singapore
12. Yung Kee, Hong Kong, China
13. Gunther’s Modern French Cuisine, Singapore
14. Bukhara, New Delhi, India
15. Tippling Club, Singapore
16. Nobu, Hong Kong, China
17. Dum Pukht, Mumbai, India
18. Ku De Ta, Bali, Indonesia
19. Bo Innovation, Hong Kong, China
20. Beijing Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant, Beijing, China

Yunnan, In Pictures

Yunnan has been one long jaw-dropping moment after another. So different from the barren landscape I wrongly anticipated, Yunnan proved itself full of flowers, fields, mountains, lush pastures and pine trees, peopled with friendly and welcoming people from the smallest village of five houses, to the largest city of millions. Temples. Richly patterned ethnic dress. Unusual and exotic foods. I could write about Yunnan for the rest of the year, quite happily, without running out of material – in fact I could stay in Yunnan for the rest of the year, quite happily, under its intense blue skies with bright colours that remind me of home in Australia –  but travel is all about moving on, so before I go on to neighbouring Guizhou Province, I wanted to leave you with a pictorial kaleidoscope of Yunnan, in all its vibrant colour. 
Sani women, Lunan 
Sani headpieces for sale

Chongsheng Temple, Dali
Wild saffron and mountain ginseng seller, Qiaotou
Rock sugar, Shaping

Yunnan potatoes

Bai woman selling plums, Bo Ai Lu market, Dali
Fern fronds, in preparation for pickling

Nakhi woman at the market, Dali

Fried and  milk skin – ru shan – Dali

Loquat seller, Shaping
Shaping market, below Cang Shan

Waiting for the market-bound bus,  Shaxi

Traditional musicians, Shilin

Handmade shoes, Dali and Wase
Coloured live chicks, Lunan
Balloon seller, Lunan

Enjoy? Read more Yunnan posts!

Tiger Leaping Gorge Day 1: All in the Altitude
The Nakhi of Lijiang: Of the Cosmos and the Stars
Street Foods of Yunnan: Bugs, Bark and Dragonfly Nymphs

Crossing the Bridge Noodles

To be perfectly honest, I’ve been out-noodled. After nearly three weeks on the road with noodles for breakfast (standard Chinese hotel fare) noodles for lunch (favoured street food of Yunnan) and sometimes even noodles for dinner, I am kind of at my annual noodle limit, and it’s only April. Normally, I love noodles, but that’s when I’m eating them in addition to other foods. There’s one noodle dish though, that I had been dying to try ever since I arrived in Yunnan, probably Yunnan’s most famous dish. Once I ate Crossing the Bridge Noodles, I told my noodle-fatigued family, that will be it. Promise.
Crossing the Bridge Noodles, (Guò Qiáo Mĭxiàn  过桥米线), like so many famous Chinese dishes, has a story attached. Legend goes that an Imperial scholar, distracted while studying for an important exam, exiled himself to a pavilion on a small island. Every day, his wife would walk over the bridge to the island with his lunch, but it often got cold on the way. She discovered a simple solution to the problem – if she covered the broth with a layer of oil it retained the heat much better, and she could then add the noodles to the hot broth once she arrived. The dish is named in her honour.
Experiencing a meal of Crossing the Bridge noodles is as much theatre as it is sustenance. Having ordered and paid at the front door (13 yuan ($2) for noodles with the works), we take our seats in a giant and busy restaurant. The walls are lined with checkered pink and white tiles, and dozens of diners slurp noisily at every table. Around the outside of the dining room are assorted stations, where the white-coated waiters rush to and fro to bring the various components of the meal. There is the soup station, issuing forth bowl after bowl of hot soup through a hatch in the wall; the noodle station, where small bowls of rice noodles are stacked in precarious towers on a counter; and the meat and vegetable station, with piles of tiny platters of bok choy, shredded tofu, cooked chicken pieces, slices of pork, and scallions wait to be delivered.
The waiters, about twenty or so, rush back and forth with great speed, balancing huge trays and giant soup bowls as they weave between tables, yelling orders at one another all the while. Our waiter, a very young man in a very, very grubby white coat, brings a veritable tureen of boiling broth to begin with, one for each of us, made with chicken bones and pork and covered with a thin layer of oil. The soup is scalding hot, hot enough for the restaurant to have signs warning diners to ‘Mind The Soup’ on every wall, but no steam rises because the oil traps it within. 
Next comes an enormous tray with six separate small dishes and bowls. A tiny, freshly cracked raw quail’s egg. A platter of meats – slices of pork as thin as a petal, slivers of pink sausage, and chunks of cooked chicken. A saucer of scallions. A bowl of cold white rice noodles. A saucer of bok choy, 3 leaves. A dish of pickles. 
He theatrically demonstrates the technique needed for a perfect bowl. First, the quail egg goes in, mixed quickly. Next, the meats, to allow time for them to be properly cooked by the broth. Thirdly, the greens go in, and the finely shredded tofu, followed by the scallions. Last, very last, go the noodles, swirled around until the strands separate. The pickles stay separately, added as desired or eaten on their own. There is a dish of ground dried chili, and bottle of vinegar and one of soy on the table too, to be added to personal taste.
This giant bowl of noodles is a highly satisfying meal, hearty, tasty, and filling. I’m enjoying it as much as the little girl at the next table too, by all accounts. She can hardly see over the bowl, but deftly lifts the noodles with her chopsticks and slurps them into her mouth in one long, continuous schlluuuurrrp. Highly recommended, even if you think you couldn’t possibly enjoy one more noodle dish ever.
The Brothers Jiang 
Jiang Shi Xiong Di
Dongfeng Donglu, near Beijing Lu
Kunming, Yunnan
Read all of my Yunnan posts here:

Tiger Leaping Gorge Day 1: All in the Altitude
The Nakhi of Lijiang: Of the Cosmos and the Stars
Street Foods of Yunnan: Bugs, Bark and Dragonfly Nymphs
Yunnan: In Pictures

Dali: The Trouble With Being a Pig

It’s tough being a pig in China. You have very little chance of a long and happy life because, well, you’re just too edible, every last bit of you. It’s the sad truth. But for a western girl like myself, it’s all too easy to get sqeamish with the non…how to put it….non-pork chop aspects of eating a pig. We westerners get a pretty standard choice of say, pork chops, bacon, pork shoulder and ham, with a few odds and ends like ribs, and everything else thrown together to make sausages. I don’t recall ever going into my butcher back home and ordering up half a kilo of trotters (although they could be bought with difficulty if ordered a day ahead, in fact I often did because they were perfect for the medical students to practice suturing on. But we never, ever, actually ate them.). And I certainly never saw snouts or ears in their clean glass cabinet lined with the plastic grass.

Having travelled over a fair bit of China I can now say that pork chops are probably the least interesting edible parts of a pig. Having tried air-dried salted pig’s cheek in the villages near Huangshan, and seen preserved and deboned pigs’ heads in Shanghai, I was no longer surprised to walk into the open air market in Dali, about three hours south of Lijiang,  to find these scorched and blackened pigs’ heads for sale on a heavy trestle table.

Dali is an old walled city, sitting by the western shore of Lake Erhai below a row of sharply ridged mountains dusted with the last of the winter’s snow. It feels ancient, and cars seem out of place in the cobbled streets where near everyone walks with a wicker basket tied to their back instead of carrying groceries in plastic bags. The fresh food market runs every day, a maze of trestles and stalls set up in the alleys behind Bo’ai Lu, not far from the square turrets of the Eastern gate. You enter the market flanked by rows of berry sellers – mulberries, in season for only a week or two, strawberries, small chinese cherries, and orange loquats. Further in are the vegetables and the noodles, tofu and grain sellers, and further still the butchers.   

The pigs’ heads were being torched at very high heat, while the butcher rested his other hand nonchalantly on a snout. I’m unsure whether the scorching burnt off all the tough bristles, or served another purpose, but once the heads were thoroughly blackened they were passed across to the butcheress, to have their ears sliced off – the white fat underneath a stark contrast to the black skin. 

The ears were being sold by the piece, so all that was left were rows of earless, blackened pigs’ heads. And if you’re wondering, after the bugs and bark I’ve been eating lately, whether I tried the ears? No. I think they needed further preparation of some kind, and further cooking. But I wouldn’t be averse to trying them.

But my favourite way to eat pork by far is in the form of Yunnan ham, and cheek by jowl, so to speak, with the pigs’ heads, was the lady selling Yunnan hams by the jin (500g) or by the leg. Yunnan ham, properly called Xuanwei ham (Xuanwei huo tui), named for the town in northern Yunnan where it is produced, has a delicacy as refined as the best prosciutto, and its flavour once eaten will render all other ham completely second rate.  It can be eaten raw, sliced as finely as jamon iberico, or cooked in stir fries (recipe here), soups, or braises.

Were I not going to be travelling for another week or two, I’d have bought a whole leg, and lugged it back to Shanghai. Where I can probably buy it at the local ham guy on Wulumuqi Lu. Come to think of it, when I get back I will buy a whole leg, and feast on Yunnan ham for the next six months. For now I’ll make do with a smallish travel-sized piece, which can be sliced finely and the unlucky pigs toasted with a glass of rough-as-guts Great Wall red.

Read all of my Yunnan posts here:

Tiger Leaping Gorge Day 1: All in the Altitude
The Nakhi of Lijiang: Of the Cosmos and the Stars
Street Foods of Yunnan: Bugs, Bark and Dragonfly Nymphs
Yunnan: In Pictures

The Nakhi of Lijiang: Of The Cosmos And The Stars

Lijiang, high in the Himalayan foothills and in the shadow of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, is home to the Nakhi people, whose blue and white traditional dress can be glimpsed around the cobbled alleyways and canals of Lijiang’s old city, and in all its surrounding villages.

The Nakhi (Naxi in Chinese) are descended from Tibetan nomads, settling into the Lijiang valley to grow crops and trade tea with Tibet and beyond, and despite incursions from the Han Chinese they have managed to preserve their rich and vibrant customs, language (the only pictographic written language in current use in the world), religion, music and their matrilineal structure. 

Their ancient Dongba religion rests on the belief that Nature and Man are half-brothers from different mothers, closely related and intertwined, and that the land and the forest are sacred and must be protected for future generations. The Nakhi were the original conservationists, really, and accordingly their customs reflect this:

“One of the most widely practised Dongba rituals, Zzerq Ciul Zhuaq (literally, to repay the debts of a tree), is often seen in the village of Shuming. The ritual was conducted if somebody was stricken with illness or bad luck, when a Dongba priest would be consulted. On many occasions, the result would show that the person had carried out logging or washing of dirty things in the forest, and the family or person concerned would have to ask the Dongba priest to hold the ritual near where the activity had taken place, and apologise to the nature god Shu.” (wikipedia)

In keeping with the importance of women in Nakhi culture, the women continue to wear traditional dress, as seen here. Immediately recognisable by their cobalt blue caps, they wear a white shirt and blue or dark red sleeveless vest fastened with knotted ties at the shoulder. A skirt is worn over their dark blue or black trousers, tied at the waist with a long heavy cotton sash embroidered at both ends with an intricate black and white geometric design, with both ends hanging behind. The most eye-catching feature though, is their extraordinary cape, black above and white below, worn over the back with broad white straps crossing over the front of the body, and embroidered with seven coloured circles. 

These circles intrigued me, and I imagined they must have symbolic meaning, but it wasn’t until I read the account of Bruce Chatwin, the legendary travel writer who spent some time in Lijiang in the 1980s, that I understood their significance:

“Apart from the bonnet, the women’s costume consists of a blue bodice, a pleated white apron and a stiff, quilted cape secured with crossbands. Every Nakhi woman carries the cosmos on her back: the upper part of the cape is a band of indigo representing the night sky; the lower, a lobe of creamy silk or sheepskin that stands for the light of day. The two halves are separated by a row of seven disks that symbolize the stars – although the sun and moon, once worn on either shoulder, have now gone out of fashion.” 

(from ‘In China, Rock’s Kingdom‘ published in the New York Times, March 16, 1986). Quite poetic as a way of dressing, don’t you think?

Read all of my Yunnan posts here:

Tiger Leaping Gorge Day 1: All in the Altitude
The Nakhi of Lijiang: Of the Cosmos and the Stars
Street Foods of Yunnan: Bugs, Bark and Dragonfly Nymphs
Yunnan: In Pictures

Street Food of Lijiang: Bugs, Bark and Dragonfly Nymphs

Dragonfly nymphs. Not your average snack food.

The street foods of Yunnan have certainly been a surprise. For a start, in Yunnan they eat a whole lot of things that less adventurous foodies would consider inedible – fern fronds, tree bark, various flowers, lichens and bugs. Yes, bugs.What I can’t figure out is why, in a place that seems so fertile and prosperous, with blossoming fruit trees and fields weighed down with wheat, barley, onions and broad beans in great abundance, you would need to resort to eating bugs. Perhaps they just like them for the taste? I’ve had a taste of Yunnanese fried bees myself back in Shanghai, and given that they were surprisingly delicious (creamy, crunchy), I thought I should extend my bug repertoire and try some local favourites.
Bamboo larvae. Not delicious.

 The bamboo larvae, I don’t mind saying, were very forgettable, and bore way too close a resemblance to maggots for my liking – although to my great surprise my seven-year-old daughter found them terrifically tasty- but preferred to pull the heads off first, leaving them in a dainty pile on the edge of her plate. She won’t even eat gherkins because they ‘taste yucky’ but is quite happy to tuck into a plate of larvae, leaving me to wonder if she will be permanently scarred by living in China. The dragonfly nymphs, harvested from shallow lakes and ponds then air dried before deep-frying, were actually pretty good. The only catch, literally, was their sharp little mouthparts and tail parts which spiked the inside of your mouth as you ate, but they were not bad tasting.
Tree bark. With a bit of red pepper and spring onion for colour.

The tree bark was unusual in taste, and even more unusual in texture. It came out looking all crunchy and interesting, but that was an illusion because the texture was soft and leathery, with a roughness and chewiness that shouldn’t really have been any surprise at all. The taste was medicinal, somewhere between Friar’s Balsam and camphor. Not my favourite dish of the night, but at least I tried it.

Chicken Bean Flour Jelly
This is a Lijiang specialty, made from chicken stock and very, very gelatinous mung bean flour. The appetising grey colour comes from the mung bean flour, and is a little off-putting, but in the interests of you lovely readers and my own insatiable curiosity I ate some. Just like cold, sliced chicken stock jelly, if you’ve ever eaten a bowl of that for fun, redeemed by a whole stack of fiery chili and some peanuts. Actually, the peanuts were pretty good.
Upmarket bugs. A plate of mixed critters at a restaurant.
Lastly I introduce you to my hands-down favourite Lijiang street food. Crispy, salty, crunchy, with just a touch of spicy heat, they are exactly what they look like. Home-style potato chips, fried right there in a wok full of boiling bubbling oil in the street. These, at last, were delicious.
Read all of my Yunnan posts here:

Tiger Leaping Gorge Day 1: All in the Altitude
The Nakhi of Lijiang: Of the Cosmos and the Stars
Street Foods of Yunnan: Bugs, Bark and Dragonfly Nymphs
Yunnan: In Pictures