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The Tulou of Fujian Province: Life in the Round

Sitting incongruously amongst nearby apartment blocks in Yongding County, Fujian Province, these ancient houses sit squatly on the landscape like a cluster of recently landed earthen UFOs. There are more than 30,000 tulou土楼 or rammed earth houses in Fujian and neighbouring southern Jiangxi Province, completely unique to this corner of China, and to the Hakka and Minnan people who built them hundreds of years ago when they settled in the region.
It’s an extraordinary feat that so many still survive (the oldest dates to 1371), thanks in no small part to recent UNESCO World Heritage status and the tulou‘s increasing popularity as an architectural tourist destination.
Tulou are extraordinarily impressive inside and out, designed for communal living for up to 400 families at a time, and for defence against armed bandits who were rife in the area for several hundred years.
From the outside tulou have all the features of a fortress – walls thick enough to withstand attack from guns and even cannons, sloped slightly inwards to protect against earthquakes, the only exterior windows too high to climb and too small to enter but perfect for lookouts and for gun stockades. An imposing gateway cut from a single block of granite marks each entrance, sealed by two massive wooden doors plated with iron and barricaded from within by horizontal crossbeams once closed.
But enter the tulou and you step into the heart of an entirely different world – a busy community of several hundred people, living in circular rows of individual apartments over four or five floors facing inwards onto a central courtyard with a small shrine. Each individual family owns a column of rooms, from the ground floor storage and cooking area to the sleeping apartments above, one on top of the other, like a slice of cake. Wealthy families might own several ‘slices’ side by side.
Nowadays the tulou have far fewer residents as young people leave to seek work in bigger cities. But one old resident told me the tulou come alive for the many festivals of the year when extended families return home to celebrate together in the communal way.
Built in 1912 by the family of a wealthy tobacco merchant, Zhencheng Lou in Hongkeng village is one of the most recently constructed tulou wth two concentric rings around a central shrine for ceremonies.
One of the smallest tulou in Fujian is Rusheng Lou with only 16 rooms, still inhabited by several families.

Communal well inside one tulou
“Tourists come in to the tulou, they look up and say ‘Wow it’s big, wow it looks great’ but they don’t understand the depth of tulou culture and history” said one elderly resident who has lived in the tulou all of his 72 years. He looks forward to Chinese New Year when all of his family return to the tulou to celebrate together.
Individual kitchens side by side on the ground floor

Family shrine
Square tulou and round tulou side by side. The Dragon waits for New Year celebrations.
Fujian Tulou 福建土楼
Yongding township, the largest town in Yongding County, makes a great base for visiting the nearby tulou, and has several hotels.
From Yongding you will need to hire a driver or join a tulou tour as the  tulou clustered in multiple small groups spread over a broad area.   We visited Chenqi Lou (in the village of Gaobei 高北) and Zhencheng Lou。  There are other clusters of tulou nearby at Hekeng, Tianluokeng and many more. The tourist trails are well signed but in Chinese only – look for the brown signs.    In addition to the tourist sites it is also possible to stop and visit any tulou you see along the way. Check with the local residents first before entering and always ask before going upstairs.

Merry Christmas from Me!

Merry Christmas everyone! Wishing you holidays filled with good food, fine friends and a spirit of adventure.
The Great China Roadtrip rolled back into Shanghai two days ago after 175 days, 28,000km, 24 provinces and more bowls of noodles than I care to mention. It’s so great to be home after so months on the road, and I even had time to find my annual Christmas ball – this one from Madame Mao’s Dowry in Shanghai is just full of proletariat cheer.
There are still three more posts from the road to share with you and I look forward to bringing you those in the coming weeks. Our road trip was made all the more amazing by the constant support of all of you sending messages and keeping us in touch with the world outside our campervan. 
Thank you to each and every one of you for joining us on the road – you were awesome travelling companions! 

Ten Must Try Foods in Guizhou and Guangxi

Now in the final leg of our six month sojourn around China eating all the way, we’re fairly whizzing through provinces at a cracking pace. Guizhou and Guangxi lie next to one another, the twin jade buckles side by side on China’s belt. 

Guizhou, to the west, is hilly and green, misty and damp, the landscape filled with limestone karst hills cut through with meandering rivers. In Guizhou the karst, geologically speaking, is younger, so the hills are smaller and the river valleys less deep.

In Guangxi, home to Guilin, Yangshuo (below) and the stunning Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces, the karst have had more time to erode and develop so are steeper, taller, and the rivers wider.

The foods though, share much in common. They use chili, but not too much. They like sour and salty flavours. Both provinces have clean rivers full of fish and snails used often in cooking, both have many ethnic minorities who have contributed to the diversity of foods and flavours.

Here are ten foods we tried (and loved – even the snails – especially the snails!). Some of Guilin and Yangshuo’s foods I’ve previously written about and haven’t repeated here – the famous pijiu yu or beer fish, and the barbecued river fish served from floating bamboo restaurants in the middle of the river. 


1. Crispy Stuffed Tofu Balls   

From southern Guizhou, these street food snacks are salty, crispy and oily – a perfect foil to Guizhou’s damp and foggy climate. Tiny balls of seasoned pork mince with scallions are stuffed inside a soft coat of tofu then deep fried.

An alternate variety uses small triangular blocks of tofu, the centre carefully stuffed and then pan-fried until the outside browns and crisps. Very, very satisfying.

Where to find them: Southern Guizhou in streets and markets

2. Stuffed River Snails 
To be honest, I only ordered these snails because they’re a local Li River specialty, expecting to taste one and leave the rest, chalking the whole thing up to experience. Well, there’s a reason these are a treasured local specialty – they taste incredible.

A true labour of love, the snails are first disgorged in clean water so the meat is free of grit. After a quick steaming the snails are removed from their shells and the meat chopped finely with the freshest mint, garlic, chili and a small amount of pork, then stuffed back into the shells before being steamed again.

The combination of fresh, strong mint and chili with the rich snail meat is a knockout.  

Where to find them: Guilin and Yangshuo. The Yulong River outside Yangshuo has several riverside restaurants using the freshest, cleanest snails and these were the best we tried.

3. Rice tofu 米豆腐

Made from a steamed rice flour paste cut into cubes, rice tofu mi doufu is a Guizhou specialty that looks like tofu but tastes incredibly comforting. It needs something robust and spicy to complement the smooth, soft texture: in one restaurant we were given a small earthenware dish packed with chopped cilantro, scallions, fire-hot fresh chilies and dried chili flakes in which to coat the cubes. 
Where to find it: throughout Guizhou
4. Sour Fish Soup 酸菜鱼
Cut through with the complex sour tang of pickled cabbage and pickled chilies, the unique and addictive flavour of Guizhou’s sour fish soup, suan cai yu, is fully developed at the table on a burner while the aromas fill you with hunger and anticipation. Local fresh river fish is used with sweet, clean flesh, but full of tiny fine bones so you need to eat it very slowly and carefully.
The taste is enhanced with the use of an unusual local spice,  mu jiao hua, shown here in a street market.
Where to find it: Throughout Guizhou. Every area has its own variation depending on available ingredients and the river fish used.
5. Zhe ergen 酸辣折耳根

And speaking of unusual ingredients, it’s difficult to pass through Guizhou, and Guangxi without eating this at least once. The root of a water plant, houttuynia, zhe ergen grows along the edges of rice paddies and ponds and has a pungent, slightly medicinal taste (some would say an unpleasant strong medicinal taste, dividing those who love it from those who loathe it) and a woody crunch whether cooked or raw.
Zhe ergen is used in a multitude of ways. Chopped into short lengths it is eaten with chili, mint and soy as a fresh, strong-flavoured salad, stir-fried with thin slices of Guizhou la rou or bacon its crunchy texture and unusual taste complement the rich smoky flavour and translucent fat of the la rou perfectly, or pickled and chopped finely to make a dressing for tofu, potatoes or other foods with simple flavours.

Where to find it: Zhe ergen is ubiquitus in Guizhou, but is also found in Sichuan (where it goes by the name of zhubigong 猪鼻拱 or pig’s snout,  because the leaves resemble the shape of a pig’s snout), Guangxi, Yunnan and Hubei (where it is called yuxingcao 鱼腥草 or fish-smelling herb because the leaves have a sight fish smell). 

6. Lover’s Tofu 恋爱豆腐果 

Thank goodness for my friend Frank Kassell, who posted about this dish yesterday in his Field Guide to Chinese Street Food Street, saving me hours of work to track down the correct name for this popular Guizhou street snack! 

Lover’s tofu, or lian ai doufu guo, is originally from Guiyang, Guizhou’s capital. Frank has the full story on the unusual name if you’re interested in its origins. 
Squares of soft tofu the size of the palm of your hand are grilled on a gently heated oiled griddle until the outside becomes a little golden and crispy (but only just) and the inside melts to the consistency of soft custard. The vendor places it on a small dish, tears open the centre of the square and fills it with a big spoonful of finely chopped zhe ergen (see above) mixed with chili and often garlic. It’s smooth, spicy, soft, crunchy and one of the most satisfying ways to eat tofu I’ve tried.

Where to find it: Street food stalls all over Guizhou
7. Guilin Rice Noodles 桂林米线 
Take one bowl of freshly cooked soft white rice noodles. Add a slurp of stock (but not too much), a handful of shiny fried peanuts, a spoonful of sharp and tangy pickled beans, a scatter of scallions, and wafer thin slices of cold roast pork. Mix. Eat.
Where to find it: Although this noodle dish originated in Guilin, it can be found all over Guangxi in small noodle houses and street stalls.
8. Guizhou La Rou 贵州腊肉

The first time I visited the beatiful Miao villages around Guizhou I flew back to Shanghai with 2kg of larou or home-smoked bacon wrapped in a black garbage bag sitting on my lap, the most precious of all souvenirs.

Pink and succulent, smoky and salty, la rou is elevated to a culinary art form in Guizhou by the local Miao people whose pigs are fat and happy and roam freely, and who cure and smoke the bacon in their homes.

Where to find it: All over Guizhou, the best la rou comes form the Miao villages around Kaili.

9. Lotus Seed Pudding 莲子糕
Drawn in by the ornate steaming copper pot with two curved dragons on either side for handles, I just simply had to try this Guilin street snack. I watched, fascinated, as the vendor took a small amount of white powder (from ground lotus seeds) and added hot water from the dragon pot. 
As he stirred the clear liquid became first milky then thick and smooth, the consistency of paste. to this he added golden green sultanas, black sesame seeds, crushed peanuts, and peanut powder. 
He told me to mix it in and eat it while it was still hot. The lotus seed ‘pudding’ itself had almost no flavour but the most extroardinary smooth and pleasant texture, with each mouthful a taste of peanuts and sweet raisins. Luscious. 

Where to find it: Guilin and Yangshuo. Watch out for the copper dragon pots on the street.

10.Shattering Malt Toffee 麦芽糖 
Mai ya tang, or malt toffee, is one of the most unusual street foods I’ve ever tasted.  Sold in long rods coated with tiny white puffed grains, on the first bite the whole thing shatters into tiny crystalline malty sugary shards. 

Eat Your Way Around China!


The Miao Guzang Festival – A Marathon of Feasting, Firecrackers and Pigs 苗寨鼓藏节:一场八个阶段的马拉松

Our visit to Guizhou Province, an extraordinarily beautiful part of China with steep green hills, silvery mists and winding rivers, just so happened to coincide with a really big deal –  the Guzang Festival, an ancestor commemoration that occurs once every thirteen years for the local Miao people.

Not that we knew it was a big deal at first. We had good information from the always-helpful Billy Zhang at Gateway to Guizhou that there was a Miao New Year Festival taking place in Leishan over several days, or a week (these things always being rather fluid and flexible), but we figured if we arrived in the middle of those dates we were bound to see something good.

Trying to pin down just when and where the festival began, and in which of Leishan’s surrounding villages events would be taking place, and what the nature of those events might be was much more difficult. Even the official Chinese programme Billy emailed me was too obscure to be helpful.


The bullfight, fighting birds, bucket pig race held on November 26 to 29 at the Dan Town, West Town, Grande town, large Tangxiang, and Wang Feng, townships Miao Village folk folk activities.

But it did sound intriguing – a bucket pig race! Whatever could that be? 

Our plan was to just turn up and see what was happening. Well, not so much a plan as a loitering presence.

But then one of those lucky travelling things happened. On the way to Leishan we detoured to the pristine wilderness around Libo in southern Guizhou on the invitation of a young American blogger (Kaci and the World) living there, and spent our first night in Libo as guests of the generous hospitality and outstanding home cooking of her good friend and Chinese National Geographic photographer, Big Mountain. His real name.

Big Mountain is passionate about the many ethnic minorities in Guizhou, of which he is one, and has photographed all of them over many years. When we told him of our plans to visit the upcoming Miao New Year Festival he made enquiries and discovered it was, in fact, the very infrequent and incredibly important once-every-THIRTEEN-years Guzang Festival. Before we knew it our party of four without much idea of where we should go and what we should see had become a party of six with contacts and a plan

Big Mountain set about explaining the intricacies of the festival to us. Preparations begin three years ahead of time, involving a drum (gu) which needs to be buried (zang) and another drum needing to be woken up, the selection of an ox for sacrifice, and the use of ducks as vehicles to swim across the heavenly sea, returning with the woken spirits of the ancestors. 

It sounded terribly complicated and very, very interesting, but in the end came down to the essence of every good festival – a gathering of people, drinking, feasting, music and dancing, with a few uniquely Miao components thrown in, like the celestial ducks, some bullfighting, firecrackers and pig slaughter. It was going to be one hell of a party.

Here’s how the festival unfolded, from our perspective.

我们一开始并不知道这是一个大型活动,我们从乐于助人的比利张在Gateway to Guizhou所发文章中得知好消息,在近几天或者一周(这些事情总是不固定,比较灵活)在乐山将会有一个苗族新年节日举行,但我们要计算出是否我们可以在这些日子期间到达,我们必须看看这些有意思的事情。试着确定节日在什么时候、在哪里开始,在乐山周围的哪些村落举行,获得这些信息本身就可能更加困难。甚至是比利发给我们的正式中文节目单也太模糊以至于没帮上什么忙。


1. Pre-Festival Preparation: Ducks and Firecrackers 节日前的准备:鸭子和爆竹

One thing is certain when we arrive in Leishan – this Guzang celebration definitely involves ducks, lots of them, and unbelievable quantities of booze and firecrackers. This might be a potentially lethal combination, and doubtless will be, particularly for the ducks. 
Every single shop in Leishan has abandoned their usual wares in favour of floor-to-ceiling displays of firecrackers, ten-metre long dragons rolled into neat coils, or huge luridly coloured boxes – the kind where you light the taper at one corner and run away for ten minutes of full-throttle bedazzling. 
The liquor, mijiu or rice wine, is being sold on the footpath in plastic jerrycans, with the smallest size ten litres, and the average purchase twenty-five. At around 40% alcohol it’s clear, deadly stuff and is about as tasty as lighter fluid and just as flammable. 
Every motorbike coming out of town has two boxes of firecrackers on the back, counterbalanced with two jerry cans of strong liquor on either side, and a brace of ducks nestled at the driver’s feet. 


25 litres of liquor…check, smallish box of fireworks…check. Now to load the basket of ducks……..

2. Feast Number One 一号盛宴

We arrive in the tiny village of Paiweng on foot, leaving the van parked at a point where it can’t drive any further on the narrow dirt track. The first sign of something afoot is the distant echoing crack of firecrackers, and a cloud of smoke above the next valley. 
As we round the last corner we see the village sitting in the folds of steep hills, with rows of dark wooden houses on stilts staggered up the hillside. A barrage of fireworks goes off in front of the house immediately to our left, deafening us and lighting the narrow zigzagging pathway we’re taking to the family home of a friend of Big Mountain, high on the hillside. The paths are busy with guests arriving – Miao women in their traditional dress of a black velvet tunic embroidered with pink roses, hair in a high bun decorated with a single pink rose.
Arriving at the house, the start of the festivities is marked by the lighting of a long red snake of firecrackers right next to the woodpile outside the kitchen door. It seems unnecessarily risky but clearly it’s been safely done thirteen years before. Or…not. I guess thirteen years is long enough to rebuild a whole village razed to the ground by fire, and forgive whoever lit the firecracker that did it.
Inside the kitchen, the grandmother of the house greets us as she guts fish for the feast. She motions for us to move into the big open room at the centre of the house, a high-ceilinged space with stairs at one end leading to the upper floor for sleeping, and an open verandah at the other, pefect for watching the neighbour’s fireworks display as cinders rain down on the roof.
We’re warmly welcomed by the rest of the family as they prepare for the feast. The oldest daughter’s husband carries in precariously leaning stacks of porcelain rice bowls, painted with small blue and pink flowers, and lays them out on the floor in long rows. 
He reappears with twenty five litres of mijiu, and taking a tin teapot, decants from the drum and begins to pour a bowl of mijiu for each person, full to the brim. Out of politeness he includes both of our children, who, out of politeness and strong looks from us, decline.
The women and men come in from outside and take their seats as the food begins to arrive. The whole extended family is here – the grandmother, all of her daughters and their husbands and children, aunts and uncles, lined up on narrow wooden settles around the room’s perimeter. 
We eat – first, a steaming wok full of blood congee, a type of rice soup, rich and tasty. It seems impolite, as guests, to ask where the blood has come from. Balanced across the rim of the steaming wok a narrow wooden plank is laid, and on this rest three dishes, keeping warm – spicy duck, chopped into small pieces with a sharp cleaver, fried fish, and pickled sour bamboo shoots. 
The fish has grown in the nearby rice terraces through the summer along with the rice. Come harvest the water is drained out of the terraces and the fish can be easily caught. 
Another bowl of braised duck arrives, and suddenly the symbolic duck swimming across the celestial lake and bringing back the spirits of the ancestors is sitting in a bowl in front of me. I guess their role was not purely metaphorical after all.
No sooner have we started eating than the husband of the oldest daughter lifts his bowl of mijiu in a toast. We follow suit. 
‘He jiu!’ he commands, literally ‘Drink alcohol!’ It rhymes with Sergio when he says it.
We all take a sip of the burning liquor and resume eating.
A few minutes later one of the other daughter’s husbands raises his rice wine in a toast. ‘He jiu!’ he says. ‘He jiu!’ we all reply, and take another, bigger sip.
I reach for a piece of the sweet rice terrace fish, and just as I’m about to wrestle it free with my chopsticks I see another toast about to take place. 
‘He jiu!’ comes the call. 
‘He jiu!’ we all respond. 
This time though, the command is followed by ‘He gan!’ ‘Drink dry!’ and around me old men and young women alike down their rice wine, followed by that puckered face caused by skulling hard liquor. They tip their bowls sideways to prove they’re empty.
Everyone is rosy cheeked and happy. The teapot comes back out and refills our bowls, and another round of firecrackers go off. 
‘He jiu!’

3. Feast Number Two 二号盛宴

At some point the ‘He jiu!!’ begins to reach a crescendo, with shorter and shorter intervals between toasts. Then just as everyone’s warming up the whole room stands and moves towards the door. We’re full to bursting with food and a little drunk.

‘What’s happening now?’ I ask Big Mountain. ‘Is dinner over?’
‘That was just the first dinner!’ Big Mountain tells us. ‘Now we go to her sister’s house up the hill for the next dinner!’
The what??
We arrive to find another long wooden house, its big central room filled with people lined up on each side and braziers warming more dishes of food in the centre.
Out come the towers of rice bowls, and out comes the tin teapot, this time poured by the daughter of the house. 
We greet the new family we haven’t yet met with a toast.
‘He jiu!’
And reacquaint ourselves with the family members from the first feast.
‘He jiu!’
And then everyone toasts us, as guests.
‘He jiu!’
The food is similar, a warming soup (this time bloodless), crispy-skinned duck, and shredded fish with a sour sauce.

The toasts continue for several rounds. Everyone makes the same puckered face when they have to ‘He gan!’ and drink the bowl dry.
Funny stories are told. 

‘He jiu!’

Serious stories are told.

‘He jiu!’

And then someone spots my bowl is empty, a sure sign I need to be shown true Miao hospitality by having a daughter of the house clamp a bowl of rice wine to my lips and hold it there until I drink all of it.
After that, details get a little hazy. I take a series of really, really dreadful fireworks shots while next to me Big Mountain takes National Geographic quality images despite being just as intoxicated. The mark of a true professional.

Fireworks, possibly shot from a ‘lying in the grass’ position. Not going in Nat Geo anytime soon.

Before midnight we take our leave, our hosts pressing upon us that we absolutely must be back at 4am for the most important part of the celebrations – the sacrifice of a pig.
Looking around me at the ongoing toasts being made for our departure I can see there is unlikely to be anything but snoring happening at 4am. I ask the grandmother of the house what time we should really return. ‘Eight at the earliest. More like nine or ten’ she says, with a wink.


4. The Sacrifice 献祭
We return at eleven, fortified by a good nights’ sleep and strong coffee. Still, the ongoing firecrackers are a bit upsetting to the delicate equilibrium, as are the squeals of pigs meeting their end in every corner of the village. For some reason I had thought the village en masse might sacrifice a single pig, but apparently there is to be one pig for every family. Or in some cases, two.

While the butchering is happening, each one marked by fresh rounds of fireworks, I take the opportunity to wander around the village in daylight. It’s a beautiful place, full of life and colour.

But it’s hard to walk very far without coming across another pig. The task of killing, cleaning and butchering the pig falls to the men in the family, carried out on the path outside each home. 
I’m very proud of my two girls who take it all in their stride, proclaiming that ‘if you’re going to eat it, you have to be able to deal with it being killed’. How different from their squeamish attitudes before we came China, I think to myself.


5. Feast Number Three 三号盛宴

At midday we return to the house for what turns out to be the main feast, a meat and offal celebration of every part of the pig. Behind us haunches of meat hang from the wall, dripping small puddles of blood. 
The first course is laid out for everyone to taste – cold slices of cooked liver and marble-white pork fat with partially fermented sticky rice, sweet like apple cider. The pork fat has a clean sweet taste, and soft luscious texture I don’t expect to like as much as I do.
The room fills again with people, faces from the night before and an occasional new face. Out come the bowls and the tin teapot. I admire the fortitude of the Miao as they fill their bowls yet again with mijiu and the cry goes up once more to ‘He jiu!’, although with just a little less conviction today and noticeably smaller sips.
We huddle around the hot dishes as they arrive – a bowl of soup, flavoured with thick slices of pork and pieces of cooked blood, sliced fried intestines cooked in a rich and savoury sauce, chewy and incredibly tasty. My children eat them. And ask for more.
The room fills with steam, and more toasts, and some faces begin to sweat and look unwell with the onslaught of more rice liquor. But they soldier on, and at the appointed time we all rise and move on to….


6. Feast Number Four 四号盛宴

Unable to believe we were all going to tuck into our fourth feast in less than twenty four hours we head back up the hill to the sister’s house. The atmosphere this time is a little more subdued, with all the family elders sitting together at one end of the room.
I am asked to take their portrait, a succession of four polaroids, one for each of them. The look on their faces is delightful as they see the pictures develop and colour.

Before long though, everyone has rosy faces and and has fortified themselves for the important and health-giving feature of this final feast – fresh pig’s blood, uncooked and congealed like jelly. No matter how well prepared or how adventurous, fresh blood is one thing I cannot bring myself to try, but everyone else takes a small bowl.
This seems to signal the end of the feast, although in fact, the guests are simply leaving to start another round of visiting and feasting in the neighbouring villages. As a parting gift, each family is given a whole pig’s leg or two to take home, carried over the shoulder hanging from a pole.


7. Bullfighting 斗牛

Much of the visiting and feasting now over, the fourth day of the Guzang Festival  brings a bullfighting tournament in Leishan’s stadium, packed to capacity with spectators. 
I’m not sure what to expect. This is bull versus bull, with no human intervention unless a bull is fatally wounded. I’m expecting it to be bloody and confronting on many levels.
Intead, what we see is quite comical as two sedate and lazy water buffalo bulls are led into the arena through separate doors, ambling slowly. Suddenly they see one another and fly into an intense territorial rage, charging the other bull and locking horns. The first three battles end when the weaker of the two bulls unlocks horns and runs away, and the fourth after horns have been locked long enough to declare a draw. No blood is seen at any time. 

8. Recovery, with Singing, Dancing, and Possibly Pig Bucket Races 复活,唱歌,跳舞还有斗猪比赛

The last days of the festival are subdued by comparison. Firecrackers continue to go off sporadically and there are pigs’ legs aplenty being carted around over shouders or on the backs of motorbikes. 
The villagers of Paiweng try to entice us back on a promise of singing and dancing on the village basketball court – but we run out of time to return to see it.
It’s been an exhausting few days and I’m keen to eat nothing but vegetables for a while. 
So let’s see – I think I’ve covered everything – ducks, ancestors, firecrackers, rice liquor, bull fighting, pig sacrifices, feasting, and….oh wait! What about the pig bucket races? We never did get to see those.

Looking forward to seeing you all for Guzang 2025 then.

Reflecting the Heavens: The Rice Terraces of Yuanyang 映射天堂:元阳水稻梯田

This is a big call, but I’m going to say it – if you only see one other place in China besides the Great Wall, it should be here, the Yuanyang region of Yunnan. (My husband, reading over my shoulder as I type this, is harrumphing and disagreeing – “What about the Terracotta Warriors? The Lost Library of Dunhuang? All of Shanghai??)
He has a point – for a place that is five hours out of your way from either Kunming or the Xishuangbanna region, you need a solid commitment to go. But we wandered into the area with absolutely no plans to do more than a day trip and left five days later. It hooks you like that. 
I’m going to give you five good reasons you should consider going to all that bother.


1. The Rice Terraces 梯田
An incredible feat of agricultural engineering over 1300 years old, Yuanyang’s rice terraces are just simply spectacular. If you thought the Great Wall was an impressive man-made structure imagine these terraces, folded in and out of deep mountain valleys, in some places more than three thousand layered terraces extend upwards from the valley floor like mirrored steps leading to the sky.
In winter and early spring before the rice sprouts and turns the terraces a vivid green, the water reflects the sky, clouds and stars in an ever-changing array of pale colours.
The terraces are reached via the small town of Xinjie, from which they can be viewed at various sites along a loop road. The viewing platforms afford great views without disrupting the terraces themselves or the work of the farmers.

2. Rice 米
Not just an attraction for tourists, Yuanyang is one giant living, breathing rice farm, worked by the thousands of local villagers for whom rice is their livelihood. Rice gets planted, tended, watered, the seedlings transplanted, watered more, and finally harvested in a long cycle from early spring through to late autumn.
Given that rice has been a staple food in China for several thousand years, and China is the world’s greatest producer and greatest consumer of rice it’s fascinating to see first hand just how it’s grown, using the same centuries-old methods. 
The rice terraces will appear quite different depending on the time of year you visit – busy with farmers planting seedlings in spring, green and lush in summer, golden brown in autumn and busy again with autumn harvesting, in late autumn through winter and early spring the terraces are still ponds of reflected water.

3. The Hani People 哈尼族
One of China’s many ethnic minorities, in Yuanyang the Hani constitute just over 50% of the population and are originally of Tibetan origin. 
Smiling, open, friendly and relaxed, the Hani (and local Yi people, who constitute the second largest ethnic group in the area) are one of the best reasons to visit Yuanyang, seeing life is it is for these traditional farmers. Tourism is gradually increasing but still plays a distant second fiddle to the area’s main business – rice cultivation.
The men have mostly taken to wearing western-style clothing outside of festival occasions, but the Hani women and children of both sexes still wear traditional clothing – a heavily embroidered tunic fastened with large silver buttons made from old coins, and trousers with bands of embroidery below the knee. The women wear head dresses of various kinds depending on their area of origin (see below). 

4. A Hani Long Table Feast 哈尼长街宴
Now I don’t want to get your hopes up but if you happen to be visiting Yuanyang in October, November or December you may be lucky enough to ctach one of the dozens of Long Table Feasts during those months. Each village holds their own at different times.
On our way to the area we stopped in Honghe, where every local we met invited us to attend the nearby annual Long Table Feast in the village of Jiayinxiang, an hour away – awfully kind of them seeing as it wasn’t actually their feast they were celebrating, a little like inviting complete strangers to your next door neighbour’s wedding without asking them first. 
We went anyway, because it sounded like the sort of wedding party you could, as complete strangers, crash without offending anyone, and we were right. 

The entrance to the village was decked with bunting and the pathways laid with fir branches, so your feet stirred up a lovely pine scent as you walked. Later in the evening it would become clear what a very good idea this was.
While we were still trying to work out exactly where the feast was taking place a procession began – locals dressed in festival best, dancing, tapping sticks, banging drums, waving branches of ripened rice, and singing. We were caught up in the procession of hundreds of revellers that followed them and were carried off down the street.

Rounding a corner we suddenly saw just exactly how long the Long Table Feast was. On either side of the crowd-filled street were long rows of low wicker tables, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty end on end, and every one groaning with Hani festive foods – small crisp-fried fish, poached chicken, roast duck, boiled peanuts, rounds of corn, and lichen salads in small bowls. 
Everyone – bar very small children – was drinking white bowls of rice wine. Lots of them. The toasts started with a shout at one end of the street and spread in a Mexican wave to the other end as each table stood in rapid succession to toast the table next to them. The food had barely been touched and almost everyone was already red-cheeked and rolling drunk, telling funny stories, singing songs and toasting again and again as Mexican waves rolled up and down the street. 
It looked like terrific fun but the only problem for us was that every single seat was taken and non-local Chinese visitors to the feast all seemed to possess a pre-purchased ticket. Dang. We knew there’d be a catch and someone would figure out we weren’t invited.
We stopped two young Hani women to ask if in fact there were any remaining tickets to be had, and they promptly, in typical hospitable Hani fashion, took us back to their house and fed us there. Imagine calling your mother to say you were bringing a family of four to Christmas dinner, and you’d be there in five minutes? Christmas fireworks indeed.
But not in Hani households, where low tables were set up in the open ground floor room of their house, clustered with bowls of roast pork, pickled greens, wild herbs, roasted walnuts, fried fish, spicy duck and a fiery, intense dipping suace of fermented tofu and pickled chilies.
The toasting continued unabated, we all had a rollicking good time and eventually over the course of the evening met all the relations and neighbours and friends of relations, whose job seemed to be to go from house to house, eating a little and drinking a lot. 
Needless to say we slept that night in the campervan, parked outside the village. 

5. Did I mention the rice terraces? 元阳梯田
There’s just no denying they are extraordinarily beautiful no matter what time of day. In the early morning clouds creep up from the valleys below and at night, the perfect stillness of the water reflects the silvery moon and the tiny diamonds of the stars, sprinkled across the sky and sprinkled again across the land in their reflections. It’s magical.

Yuanyang Hani Rice Terraces元阳梯田
Near Xinjie township, Yunnan Province
Open daily
Admission RMB 100 adults, children under 1.3m free of charge
Admission ticket covers all the rice terrace areas and is valid for the length of your stay
Accommodation is available in Xinjie (where you will need take a bus or hire a minivan from the main bus station to drive to, and then around the terraces) and also at small guesthouses in Shengcun and Pugaolao villages. In Pugaolao (see below), you are right at the top of the Duoyishu Terraces, one of the largest terraced areas, which means you can view subnrise and sunset from the comfort of your guesthouse balcony.


A Beginner’s Guide to Pu’er Tea

Think of walking through a forest in late autumn, a few hours after rain. The smell of wet leaves, moss and rich earth mingle as you scuff the gently decaying leaves.
This is how a good cup of pu’er tea should taste and smell – complex and earthy. Forest and stone, woodsmoke and lichen.
Having grown up on supermarket English tea with milk and sugar, Chinese teas were a brave new world for me. Mostly, they were a revelation – fresh and vibrant grassy green teas, and delicately floral oolongs. But I remained unconvinced about pu’er tea, thinking it tasted dank and musty – less like forest and more like wet basement and mouldy attic. I didn’t like it at all.
Pu’er is considered the pinnacle of tea-drinking for the Chinese, and often the most difficult for the rest of us to appreciate. Like wine, pu’er improves with age and develops more complex flavours. 
I hoped that by travelling along parts of the ancient Tea Horse Trail in southern Yunnan – the route by which tea travelled from its origins in Yunnan overland to Tibet, Mongolia and the rest of China – it would give me a new appreciation for the China’s finest tea. 
Completely unable to convince the rest of the family that visiting a tea workshop in the middle of nowhere followed by a climb up a mountain to a grove of ancient wild tea trees would be a fun way to spend the day, I went by myself on my own little tea trail, and learned a lot. 
The owner of the guest house in which we were staying (Yourantai) happened to be good friends with Chen Ying, a quiet Chinese woman my own age who had left a career in forestry conservation to run a tea workshop in a quiet, clean, remote part of Yunnan blessed with clean air and water and robust tea trees.
Starting in Jinghong near the Myanmar border, south of the ancient town of Pu’er for which the tea is named, I headed west and up into the hills past Menghai, visiting first the tea workshop, then tea terraces in the surrounding countryside, and lastly the mountain of Nanla, home to some of the oldest tea trees in Yunnan. 
Here’s what I learned (with still a great deal more to learn), thanks to my knowledgeable teachers that day.  

下面这就是那天我了解到的一些东西 (还有很多东西要学习) 感谢知识渊博的老师们.

Chinese Tea: The Basics 中国茶: 基本要素

Chinese tea falls into three main groups based on the degree of oxidation (the effect of air on the enzymes and chemicals within the tea leaf):
1. Unoxidized: green tea, white tea

2. Partially oxidized: oolong tea, yellow tea

3. Fully oxidized: tea  pu’er tea, black tea

Southern Yunnan is where tea originated, a place of lush green hills terraced with rows of tea bushes, patches of thick green jungle, valleys filled with sugarcane and banana trees. Large leafed pu’er tea,  related to the original wild teas of the region, is grown on the sides of steeply sloped hills and harvested twice a year in spring and autumn. 
Just like the influence of terroir on wines, the altitude at which pu’er tea is grown, the age of the trees, the mineralization of the soil, the water supply, the hours of sunlight, the rate of oxidation once picked and the skill of the tea artisans controlling the oxidation process all add to the unique flavour profile of pu’er tea.
Differing from green and oolong teas, after full oxidation (drying and warming) pu’er tea is left to naturally ferment, causing it to develop complex flavour characteristics over time.

Making Pu’er Tea 制作普洱茶

After picking, the leaves are first converted to ‘rough tea’ or maocha by drying for 5-6 hours on bamboo trays, then briefly cooking in warm metal pans and ‘rolling’ by hand, curling the leaves a little. The leaves are then sorted to separate the premium larger leaves from twigs and small leaves.
The leaves spend one day in the ‘greenhouse’ drying further – a large airy room with a glass roof concentrating the warmth. 
在采摘之后,叶子首先通过在竹盘上干燥56个小时被转化成“粗糙的茶”或者说是毛茶,然后短暂的在金属平底锅里蒸煮处理一下,在用手“揉搓”,将叶子弄卷曲一些。然后将茶叶分类,将大一些的叶子和细枝和小叶子分隔开来。 用一天的时间将叶子在“温室中”进一步烘干——一个有玻璃房顶保暖又通风的大房间。

The dried tea is measured into 200g portions, placed into a cotton bag and steamed briefly before being compressed into a cake or bing. The bag’s twirled knot gives the pu’er cake its distinctive indentation.
Each cake is then placed under a heavy stone weight and the stone ‘rocked’ to further compress the tea
The tea cake is removed from the cotton bag, still steaming but now compressed flat, and placed to dry on racks for two further days. After this the tea is fully oxidized and ready to start the process of aging or fermentation.


Wrapped in locally made paper, free of chemicals that might taint the tea, the tea is stored in traditional bundles of seven cakes wrapped together in banana husk – qi zi bing cha

This is sheng cha or green pu’er tea. Over the next eight to ten years the residual moisture in the tea leaves will allow it to slowly ferment, developing more and more complex flavours with age
Brewing the Perfect Cup of Pu’er Tea 酿造完美的普洱茶

The mysteries of the perfect cup of tea seemed insurmountable to a mere tea mortal like myself with way too much fuss, bother, equipment and paraphernalia involved.  So it was entirely refreshing to have Chen Ying tell me she makes her pu’er both the traditional way, and a quick way if she’s drinking tea alone.
The necessary equipment:
1. A small teapot made from pure clay (eg Yixing ware), so as not to cause any chemical impurities to seep into the tea.
2. A glass jug into which the tea can be decanted
3. Porcelain tea cups
4. Boiling water and tea
1. Break off a small of amount of pu’er tea from the cake, add tea to pot
2. Fill the pot to overflowing wth just-boiled water, replace lid and pour water over pot to warm it
3. Allow to brew very briefly then pour the first brew of tea over the tea cups – this rinses both  the tea leaves (removing any dust or impurities) and the tea cups
4. Fill pot for a second time with boiling water
5. Allow to steep for 30 seconds
6. Decant tea into glass jug, and from there pour into individual tea cups
7. Refill teapot with water and repeat for up to 15 steepings, according to taste
If she’s in a hurry Chen Ying says she just puts some leaves into a lidded porcelain teacup and allows it to steep in the cup, adding more water as needed. She explained though, that tea drinking should always be a relaxing activity, with the proper time taken to do it well.
When to Drink Tea
There is really no better reminder of the best times to drink tea than to follow the esoteric directions in Hsu Tse Shu’s Ming Dynasty poem:

Proper Moments for Drinking Tea

When one’s heart and hands are idle.
Tired after reading poetry.
When one’s thoughts are disturbed.
Listening to songs and ditties.
When a song is completed.
Shut up at one’s home on a holiday.
Playing the ch’in and looking over paintings
Engaged in conversation deep at night.
Before a bright window and a clean desk.
With charming friends and slender concubines.
Returning from a visit with friends.
When the day is clear and the breeze is mild.
On a day of light showers.
In a painted boat near a small wooden bridge.
In a forest with tall bamboos.
In a pavilion overlooking lotus flowers on a summer day.
Having lighted incense in a small studio.
After a feast is over and the guests are gone.
When children are at school.
In a quiet, secluded temple.
Near famous springs and quaint rocks.






Pu’er Tea: The Taste  普洱茶:味道
I tried five different pu’er teas that day – a recently pressed sheng cha or fresh pu’er, which had a light herbaceous taste, then a one, three, four and five year old tea. Each different year brought a variety of new tastes – light smoke, polished wood, wet leaves and earth. None were musty or mouldy tasting, and there wasn’t a single hint of basement or attic. They were all smooth and very refreshing.
I had officially been converted. I bought two cakes of the oldest tea I could afford, which turned out to be three years old. One to drink now, and one to keep for as long as possible. Chen Ying’s oldest tea, eight years old, was entirely out of my price range at around $150 per bing. Imagine the price of a twenty, thirty or fifty year old tea!

Buying Pu’er Tea 购买普洱茶

As the exclusivity and value of pu’er tea has increased in China, so has the ingenuity and guile of those willing to risk prosecution to make money from the everyday consumer – you and me. 
Scams I heard about included (but clearly weren’t limited to) the classic bait and switch (try a tea of very high quality, then be sold a pu’er cake of inferior tea) and the sale of semi-fake cakes of pu’er with high quality outer leaves (so when you break off a little and test it, it seems the genuine article) but filled with cheap, inferior tea on the inside.
Buying aged pu’er is also problematic, as the price rises exponentially with the age of the tea. What condition has the tea been stored in for all of that ten or more years?  Has the tea changed hands during that time?
Just as it’s difficult and daunting to know which red wines to buy when you first start out (and in China the red wine market is equally full of fakery and quackery) the suggestion is to make friends with a tea lover and learn from them. Taste plenty of teas and learn which you like best, find out who their trusted tea suppliers are buy only from them.
Ultimately though, it comes down to taste – your taste – and buying what you enjoy drinking even if it’s inexpensive or younger than fully aged pu’er tea.

Storing Pu’er Tea 储存普洱茶

Pu’er needs to be stored in a clean, dark, dry, airy place, wrapped in its original paper to keep it clean. Excessive moisture will lead to mould. 

Resources for Learning More:
Seven Cups  – a US website dedicated to Chinese tea
Making Pu’er tea – a demonstration video at
Information about Pu’er tea and Chen Ying’s tea workshop can be found at her website

Post 500: How I Went To China and Became a Writer

Five hundred posts! How the hell did that happen? 

Five hundred posts couldn’t happen without all of you – a blog is nothing without readers and I’m enormously grateful to you wonderful food lovers and adventurers for dropping by, reading, sending emails, posting comments and continuing to drop by, making it all worthwhile. It’s been a great joy to get to know so many of you in person too.

So please drop in for dumplings anytime you’re in Shanghai – it would be a pleasure and an honour.

To be honest though I’ve been struggling with this post in my head for quite some time. The 500th post should be deep and meaningful, reflective and insightful, right? Needless to say it’s been sitting here half written for some weeks and now it’s down to the wire. It has to be posted, because otherwise it will be Post 501 or Post 504. Not as punchy. 
Three years ago, almost to the day, I started Life on Nanchang Lu – ostensibly as a way to document Shanghai life around me, but in reality and with the benefit of hindsight, I can see it was because China was completely overwhelming me and I subconsciously needed to make some sense of it.

While outwardly I claimed to be loving my new life in China, inwardly I was struggling with the loss of identity that comes with leaving a well-established career in medicine to relocate to a country where you know no one, can’t work and don’t speak the language. The combination of frigid wet weather and the frustration of being functionally illiterate and friendless in a society I found extraordinarily confusing (how can a country of 1.3 billion people function if nobody queues??) was tough, at least for those first months.
A blog seemed a good place to start to clear through the confusion and frustration I was feeling. Lord knows intensive Chinese classes and therapy sessions might have done the same job but there it is. A blog was born.

Who would have thought that three years, five hundred posts and a lot of late nights later, I would be a food and travel writer with more than sixty published articles under my belt? I honestly didn’t see it coming and I didn’t set out to become a writer, but I love writing and telling stories about food and places. And if I hadn’t come to China (a country which I now dearly love, even with all its faults) this would never have happened, so for that I will always be thankful.

So here goes Post 500, about how I came to China and inadvertently became a writer, dedicated to all the many talented but as yet unpublished writers out there.

I Started Small

Two years ago, just as I began to think it might be possible to write outside of my blog, I was introduced to the editor of Parents and Kids Magazine – a monthly magazine for Shanghai’s expat families. We got chatting about a recent holiday and I was asked to write a travel piece for the magazine. It would be unpaid because I was an unpublished and untested writer, but it seemed like a great place to start because if I was going to write I wanted to write about travel and food, the two topics close to my heart.

It turned out to be a good decision – Parents and Kids belonged to a group of publications under the same owner, so after that first article was published I was asked to write a series of blog posts for their main website, City Weekend Shanghai, on new things to try in Shanghai followed by a blog series called Try Everything Once.

As is common with many print magazines, online blog content is essentially unpaid, written largely by either staff writers or by bloggers like me. Part of me baulked at doing so much work for nothing week after week for several months, but I felt confident it would lead eventually, one way or another, to paid writing commissions.

Soon after, City Weekend’s family columnist resigned and I took her place writing Family Matters: a fortnightly column about family life in China, and this time a paid gig in their high-circulation print magazine. I was overjoyed! That column became my regular for well over a year until I resigned after leaving for the Great China Roadtrip.

Now you might say writing about family life wasn’t ever going to lead to writing about what I really wanted to – food and travel – but it got me a byline and an audience and gave me a valuable grounding in the way magazines work and what makes an editor happy. I considered it my magazine apprenticeship.

This regular published work led to my becoming the Food Feature writer for Shanghai Family Magazine, then travel writer for That’s Shanghai and That’s Beijing Magazines, which led to work with the Sunday Times, CNNGo, and Oryx magazine. I would never have had a chance with any of those bigger publications if I hadn’t started small and built up experience.

I Found a Mentor

Negotiating the tricky world of freelancer contracts, editorial decisions and pitching stories would have been unimaginable for someone like me without a journalism degree. I needed the help of those wiser and more experienced than myself.

Luckily blogging helped put me in touch with just the people whose advice I needed. It turns out a lot of food journalists, writers and editors come to Shanghai at one point or another for stories, and they often look to local bloggers as a source of information and referrals.

Whenever I met a writer or editor I asked questions, lots of them, and learned from their years of experience. They were all, without exception, delightful people and happy to pass on their knowledge and expertise to someone way below them. Some became firm friends and continue to be mentors to me, some became my editors. Which leads me to the next point…..


I Tried to Keep My Editors Happy

I was in terrified awe of some of the editors I met, but once I got to know them I realized they all wanted one thing from their freelancers: to make their busy and stressful lives easier, not more difficult. 
All editors want articles that are on time, come close to the specified word count, and have been edited for spelling and grammatical errors. It sounds basic, but I heard editors so often complain about freelancers who turned in 3000 words for a 750 word piece they ‘couldn’t trim’, or had to be chased for weeks past deadline and then turned in nothing publishable.

As The Grumpy Traveller (freelance travel journalist David Whitley) notes, editors will take reliability over brilliance almost every time.

I Kept My Day Job

Let’s be perfectly frank here – writing is possibly one of the most difficult ways on the planet to make a living. If you break it down to an hourly pay scale, you’d be fiscally better off working in a supermarket – so if your day job pays better than supermarket wages, keep it. At least until your fifth novel goes gangbusters and makes you super, super rich.
As a day job it’s hard to better working in Emergency Medicine – if you happen to have done six years of medical school and six years of specialist training that is. The hours are flexible, it pays pretty well and you’re often free when everyone else is at work – perfect conditions for getting a lot of writing done.

I Learnt Another Skill

I took up photography for the creative enjoyment when I arrived in Shanghai, but it gradually became a marketable skill I could offer editors.

Before print publishing was decimated by online media, magazines would rarely dream of hiring the same person to write and photograph a feature. But in these days of tight budgets and major online competition, being able to offer editors a package of writing and photography means I can command a higher fee than for the writing alone, and may mean the difference between an editor choosing my pitch over someone else’s.

Obviously I’m not talking about National Geographic, but about magazines who need good quality photography to illustrate a story. I have always provided my own images for the stories I write, which means I also have more input into which images are chosen. It must be frustrating to write something amazing only to have it illustrated with a stock photography beach shot.

I Kept Writing

Week in, week out, whether I had a deadline or not I kept writing – blog posts, ideas and pitches. I blogged because I love to share stories, and I’ll continue blogging as long as all of you wonderful people keep reading.

Blogging keeps up the habit and practice of writing until it becomes an ingrained part of life. Blogging isn’t my job and I make absolutely no money from it, but it has given me the freedom and space to develop my own writing style and voice, and at the same time has become my online business card and CV rolled into one, a place where potential employers can see what I do for themselves, and contact me easily.

The Future

I hope to be able to continue writing about China for a long time yet – there’s certainly a bottomless pit of stories from my last three years here, most of which are untold.  Life on Nanchang Lu will continue to be around whether I’m in Shanghai or back home in Australia and just dreaming about Shanghai.

And once our travels are over I’m planning to sit down in a quiet place to write a book about them – my biggest writing project yet. I’m terrified and excited by the prospect all at once, but can’t wait to get cracking. I’ll keep you updated with how it’s progressing.

Helpful Resources:

Dianne Jacob’s practical, sensible and extraordinarily helpful book Will Write For Food is like a road map for carving out a food writing career. Although written specifically for food writers her solid advice applies equally to budding writers in any field.

Pitching Errors: How Not to Pitch – from website The Open Notebook  offers valuable advice on what  not to do when pitching a magazine story. They also keep an interesting Pitching Database of successful pitches.

The Single Most Important Piece of Advice for Freelance Writers by The Grumpy Traveller is well written advice that should give all freelancers heart. He also has a useful section on Writing and Media

If you have a story to tell or a tip to share about writing, I’d love to hear it! 

Ten Must Try Foods in Yunnan 十大不容错过的云南美食

Yunnan is mountains and clouds, mists and forests, jungles and wilderness, and a richly textured and coloured human landscape of different ethnic minorities, each with their own strong food culture. Tucked into a corner of China bordering Tibet, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, Yunnan’s diverse food reflects its topography, unique climate, human population, and the food of its neighbours.
Here are a group of ten foods we enjoyed over the last few weeks as we travelled through Yunnan from the cold and mountainous north, to the subtropical jungles in the south and the exquisite rice terraces landscape of the east. We’ve eaten well, as you can see!
There are some Yunnan foods you won’t find here, either because I’ve written about them before (Crossing the Bridge Noodles, Bugs, Barks and Dragonfly Nymphs and Yunnan Ham) or because I’m writing about them in an upcoming post (like Yunnan’s famed Pu’er tea).
Feast the eyes!
1. Mi xian 米线
A warming bowl of rich stock filled with slippery smooth rice noodles, and topped with a dizzying array of bright bursting tastes: sour, salty, fiery, and bitter. This is mi xian, possibly the most popular street snack in all of Yunnan and one of the few that is eaten in every corner of the province. 
In the last four weeks I’ve tasted ten or fifteen variations of this noodle dish, each particular to a local area and/or a particular street vendor. The essentials are always the same – rice noodles, thick or fine, your choice – served in a broth made of stock, along with some leafy greens and the addition of various condiments and toppings. 
The condiments might include any or all of the following – pickled beans, chili oil, pork cooked with fermented soybeans, soy sauce, cilantro, finely diced fat pork, fermented chili, hot tomato salsa, or pickled cabbage. In the middle of Yunnan in the small town of Changning, every bowl comes topped with hearty hunks of cold cooked pork and crispy shards of pork crackling, just for something different.

2. Wild Herbs Ye Cai 野菜
When I read ‘fresh wild herbs salad’ on a menu in Lijiang I thought of mint and wild plants. It sounded fresh and delicious and very, very green – just what I was hankering after. When this plate of brown lichen arrived I sent it back to the kitchen, thinking a mistake had been made, where the chef patiently explained to me this was ‘wild herbs’ ye cai 野菜, an all encompassing term apparently meaning ‘anything growing wild in the forest’. 
I’ve since tasted many delicious versions of this salad with frail feathery lichen, mixed with cilantro and mint leaves, a little sharp chili, and a touch of sweet soy, but sadly the bark-like lichen doesn’t improve no matter what you do to it.

3. Sour fish stew 酸汤鱼

The first flavour you recognize is sourness from the fermented chili sauce used, and the sweet fish – then the full force of chili heat sears your lips. After that, you taste little but chili but the texture is sublime – the silky, soft, soothing cubes of fresh tofu and the crunch of scallions. 

4. Roast Tofu 烤豆腐
This Yi lady sits at a low table inside the restaurant with an old wok full of charcoal covered by a grill, carefully turning each of the squares of 五天豆腐 wu tian doufu, five days old and just starting to ferment and soften slightly in the centre, while dry on the outside. 
The outsides begin to brown and soon enough they’re little nutty, crispy balls with soft warm centres, ready to eat, dipped into a sauce made with soy sauce, ground sichuan green pepper, cilantro and pickled chili.
And yes, that’s what she wears to work every day, and no, it’s not for tourists. Beautiful isn’t it?


5. Dai Style Feast 傣族宴会

In southern Yunnan the local people, the Dai,  share much in common with those of northern Thailand and Laos. They love communal eating, hot and sour flavours, and the dishes feature the local fish and a combination of mint, ginger, chilies and sour pickles.
A Dai feast arives all at once, with everything meant to be sampled and shared. Bowls of steamed wild greens and uncooked herbs are served with a choice of four dipping sauces – a mild crushed peanut sauce, a sour pickled chili sauce, a fiery fermented tomato sauce, and a rich, deep, dark sauce made with fermented tofu.
At the centre of the table is a platter of roasted fish and meats, all char-grilled and smoky – sweet slices of barbecued ham, crispy-skinned chicken, fish wrapped in banana leaves, pork and mint sausage, and siced fatty pork. There is a tiny dish of a salty, peppery, spice mixture in which to dip your meat.
There are several hot dishes too – a free-range chicken (tuji 土鸡)cooked in a light broth, and pumpkin leaf shoots in a soup that magically takes away the heat of the chillies.

6. Egg Yolk Fruit 蛋黄果
Yunnan is full of the most unusual foods you won’t find anywhere else in China. I had seen these globe-sized yellow fruits in the markets – bright golden yellow and very soft on the inside, the first mouthful feels just like a bite of soft-boiled egg. 
Your mouth is confused by the texture because the taste doesn’t match – the fruit is a little sweet with a flavour somewhere between sweet roast pumpkin and ripe papaya, but mostly unlike anything else. It goes very well with a squeeze of fresh lime juice.

 7. Baba 粑粑
This popular street snack, served hot and wrapped in banana leaf, is chewy, sticky, and sweet.  Circles of purple sticky rice dough are first grilled over charcoal, where they puff up into a ball over the heat and soften, then flattened and filled with dark brown sugar which quickly melts, before being folded or rolled into a neat, sweet package.

8. Fresh Lime juice 柠檬水
In southern Yunnan, neighbouring Burma and Laos, tropical fruit grows abundantly even in winter. Papayas, pineapples, mangoes and passionfruit are served up as juice in tiny streetside juice stalls.
Everyone’s favourite refresher though is ning meng shui 柠檬水 or homemade sweet lime juice. The juice of two or three limes, some sugar syrup, ice and cold water. 

9. Paoluda 泡鲁达
Intriguing and bizarrely addictive, the individual components of paoluda 泡鲁达 don’t sound altogether appetizing: tapioca, sweet condensed milk, black sticky rice, jelly cubes, chunks of dried bread or biscuit and shaved coconut. But this hot weather desert or drink (depending on whether you have it in a bowl or a tall glass with a thick straw) served over ice is surprisingly fabulous.
The locals told me the desert is Burmese in origin, and the name is a pinyinised version of the Indian and Persian drink falooda, which it closely resembles.

10. Sticky Rice Sticks 糯米油条
Small balls of sweetened sticky rice dough are stretched into short lengths before being laid gently in bubbling oil, where they puff and lengthen into a crisp sweet stick with a chewy gooey centre. These nuomi youtiao 糯米油条 (sticky rice oil sticks) are sweeter and lighter than their street food breakfast counterparts, you tiao
I declared them Yunnan’s version of the donut, minus the cinnamon.

Travels Round China by Food:

All Smoke, No Lava: Tengchong Volcano Park 腾冲火山公园

Ever since the Brady Bunch went to Hawaii and saw volcanoes I’ve wanted to see a real volcano too, glowing with lava and occasionally letting off spurts of sulphurous steam. Like Indianna Jones faced with the Temple of Doom, the thought of a sacrificial pit filled with bubbling lava was very thrilling to my fourteen year-old self, although I wasn’t as keen on the human sacrifice component involved. 

Suffice to say I have a highly romantic and somewhat idealised mental vision of volcanoes, dented somewhat when Mount St Helens erupted, completely lava free, killing fifty seven, and rekindled after recently re-reading Mark Twain’s American travel odyssey Roughing It, with a description of a night-time walk across the three-mile wide crater of the Kilauea volcano in Hawaii:
“Under us, and stretching away before us, was a heaving sea of molten fire of seemingly limitless extent. The glare from it was so blinding that it was some time before we could bear to look upon it steadily.
It was like gazing at the sun at noon-day, except that the glare was not quite so white. At unequal distances all around the shores of the lake were nearly white-hot chimneys or hollow drums of lava, four or five feet high, and up through them were bursting gorgeous sprays of lava-gouts and gem spangles, some white, some red and some golden—a ceaseless bombardment, and one that fascinated the eye with its unapproachable splendor.”
Mark Twain, Roughing It, 1872
“在下面,我们面前是一条绵延至远方的道路,一片起伏的火海看起来没有尽头。耀眼的光芒使人目眩,带我们平稳的看清下面还需要一定的时间。就像是在正午时分直视着太阳一样,除了刺眼的光不是那么白以外。沿着湖岸边不规则的距离都是白热化的烟囱或是中空的鼓形熔岩,四五英尺高,在它们之上是一团团熔岩华丽爆炸的喷雾还有像闪烁发光的珠宝一般,一些是白的,一些是红的,还有一些是金色的一连串的爆炸,发出的无与伦比的光彩吸引着你的眼球。” 马克吐温艰难岁月1872

So after hearing that western Yunnan is home to China’s own volcano cluster, we took an almighty detour towards the Myanmar border to the centre of the action at the Tengchong Volcano Park, or more properly and Chinglish-ly named the National Geo Park Of Tengchong Volcanic And Geothermal. I guess that covers everything.
My expectations of volcanic satisfaction were high, given that in China everything is big. This was going to be major, and we could also say it was educational and therefore justify the four days’ round trip out of our way to see it.  
The whole Tengchong region is a hotbed of seismic activity with volcanoes, hot springs, geysers and reasonably frequent earthquakes. We thought it might be an exciting place to take the kids to maybe see some science in action, but just in case we saw a bit too much science in action we made a family pact not to tell anyone back home until after we were safely somewhere else. Which we now are.
I’d built up quite an exciting level of risk in my mind, imagining walking Twain-style across a just-cooled crater of lava, but my first niggling doubts that the experience might be just slightly underwhelming came when we arrived at the Volcano Park and purchased tickets.
“Would you like tickets to Big Empty Mountain, Small Empty Mountain, Black Empty Mountain or all three?” the ticket seller asked. 
Empty? I thought. Empty? Surely not. 
We opted for Big Empty Mountain, being the biggest, but first took a turn through the Volcano Museum where they displayed an out-of-work geiger counter and a battery-operated volcano replica at least as tall as a person, rivers of red cellophane lava flowing endlessly down its sides. This was going to be GOOD.
Outside beyond the impressive five flagpoles Big Empty Mountain looked decidedly small up close, so I checked the map just in case we had detoured to Small Empty Mountain by mistake. We hadn’t, because the flat tree-covered hillock off to our right was, in fact, Small Empty Mountain, and Big Empty Mountain was dead ahead.

“你想要去大空山小空山, 黑空山或者包含三种的门票吗?” 卖票人询问.
空的? 我想了一下. 空的? 当然不要了.
Big Empty Mountain. Be very afraid.

The climb up Big Empty Mountain’s 648 stairs was just the thing for building anticipation of what a real volcano crater would look like. Never mind that the volcano itself was small. The crater would be black. Crusted with ancient lava. Perhaps occasional little puffs of high-pressure steam. Maybe.

Huffing and puffing, we arrived at the top to find this:


Possibly the boring-est photo of a volcano ever taken. Ever.

At least the view from the top was lovely, and for a very brief minute we were able to convince the kids that the far off hill was smoking, until the cloud moved and destroyed that illusion.

I asked the girls how they thought it might have been better.

The older one favoured a scorched earth approach to volcano improvement:

“They should have taken away all the trees and grass so it looked more like a real volcano” (volcanoes in her mind being blackened cones of rock glowing red from within).

The younger one felt some lava inside the crater would have been better than “a bunch of trees” or failing that “at least a lake you could swim in”.

In summary, they named it a “spectacular disappointment” and didn’t even stop to look at the lava souvenirs carved into fish shapes, something they may one day regret.


The Sea of Heat 热海
Which is how we ended up later that day at the fabled Tengchong Sea of Heat, acres of boiling waters, geysers, bubbling mud and noxious gases. At least, that’s what we all thought it should have. We did know there was an outdoor swimming pool heated with therapeutic underground spring waters, and if there’s one thing that makes up for pretty much any disappointment when you’re a child, it’s the thought of splashing around in a swimming pool for a few hours.

We spent an hour searching through the campervan’s dozen or more cupboards for everyone’s swimming costumes, unworn since the beach on Lian Island, packed them into a bag along with changes of clothes and hairbrushes, and fought our way to the ticket office through a hundred tour buses and a hundred ladies selling eggs wrapped in raffia in the carpark. Why eggs? We had no idea.

The smiling ladies behind the vast ticket counter asked whether we wanted to see everything in the Sea of Heat, or just a select few things like the Boiling Cauldron and the Sea of Pearls.

“We just want to go swimming actually” we said.

“OK, so altogether that’s one thousand and seventy two yuan” she told me.

I handed her a one hundred yuan note, thinking she’d said seventy two yuan.

“No, no, a thousand and seventy two yuan. Two hundred and sixty eight yuan each person” she replied. That’s close to a hundred and eighty dollars. Two hundred and sixty eight yuan is the same price you would pay for dinner for ten in a local restaurant, or a room in a 4 star Chinese hotel.

At this point, expensive disappointing volcano behind us and promise of swimming rapidly evaporating before us, I became one of those tourists. The one who can’t believe how expensive everything is. The one who has to make her point known to the poor dummy manning the ticket desk, the same dummy with no say over the obscene prices charged by private enterprises who have bribed their way into running a business inside a national park.

“268 yuan? Why is it so expensive?”

“It’s very, very good.”

“Can you sleep there overnight?”


“Do you get breakfast, lunch and dinner for free?”

“No, of course..”

“So HOW can you justify charging 268 yuan to go swimming??”

“It’s very good. The waters are very steamy.”

My husband gently pulled my elbow. “Let’s just pay to see the hot springs, how about that?”

事实上我们只是 “来游泳的” 我们说.

我给了她一张一百的, 想她还会说还有七十二元




So we paid the relatively paltry sum of forty dollars to see the Boiling Cauldron, an impressively scalding pool of sulfur-bubbling water where suddenly eggs wrapped in raffia made perfect sense. Why just look at a pool of boiling volcanic water when you could cook stuff in it? Genius.

The cheapskates who had brought eggs in from the carpark were relegated to a simmering puddle in a far corner, away from those who could afford to pay the premium price charged by yet another private enterprise for the privilege of having their eggs (and peanuts and potatoes) cooked in the actual Boiling Cauldron.

At that point I could feel the familiar buzz of a bee in my bonnet but thankfully kept it to myself. We had all paid the same entry price, and yet we couldn’t all cook our eggs in the Boiling Cauldron, and we couldn’t all enjoy the view from the outdoor seats because those things were all extras run by private companies.

As we walked through the park VIP Beauty Spas and Very Expensive Tea Shops popped up at every turn. I don’t mind paying an entry ticket to see an attraction, far from it, but when most of my path is roped off to permit access only to people who’ve paid VIP prices? It’s just….just….JUST NOT VERY COMMUNIST now is it??


Unfortunately, the best view of this waterfall of boiling water and frog-mouthed geysers was roped off, obstructed by a large tent selling photos of tourists taken in a VIP position with the best view.


And the previously impressive boiling river had been diverted with a very attractive rock wall and pipe to feed the VIP Spa nearby.
之前印象深刻的沸腾河已经被改变了, 变成一个吸引众人的石墙和供养附近水疗的一个管道.
The pavilion and bridge were, unbelievably, Included in The Entry Price. I kept waiting for someone to spring out and charge me for walking on it.
We rounded a corner and there it was, the Unbelievably Expensive Swimming Pool in the midst of a Costly Private Resort, smack bang in the middle of a national park we had all paid to get into. The path through the valley was no longer passable because the resort had requisitioned all the land.
The girls made little conciliatory remarks to make us feel better, like “I bet they wouldn’t even let you play Marco Polo in there” and “people probably spit in the water”. 
We stood on one side of the fence and watched the only two occupants of the pool, men with white towels wrapped around their waists, walk past smoking. 
“You’ve been ripped off!” I wanted to yell at them, and at all the tourists around us. But they were too busy lining up to pay for a laminated copy of their geyser photos. Oh China.

Tengchong Volcano Park 腾冲火山地热国家地质公园
Approximately 25km north of Tengchong just outside Mazhanxiang village.
Admission 60 yuan per person

Sea of Heat 热海
Approximately 10km south of Tengchong
Admission 60 yuan per person for limited access to attractions

Yunnan’s Biggest Market: Yousuo Friday Market 云南最大的集市: 右所周五集市

Every Friday in Yousuo, north of Dali, Yunnan’s biggest, noisiest and liveliest market takes place, spilling across the main road through town and into side streets, lanes, and a vast open area at the foot of the mountains. The local Bai people arrive from nearby farms and villages, baskets on their backs and dressed in their finest to buy and sell goods – livestock, vegetables, embroideries, woven baskets, pots and pans, sweets and tea.

Markets are a peek through the keyhole into another culture and way of life – what people eat, how they do business, how they dress. And markets are full of what the Chinese call renao 热闹, translated literally as ‘heat and noise’ but meaning ‘noisy excitement’ or ‘hubbub’. 

Renao is one of my favourite Chinese words and describes that indefinable atmosphere of all-round enjoyment and festivity that makes a good restaurant great, or a party unmissable. Noise and heat. Bustle and excitement. Crowds and activity. 

I love renao, and would rather visit a local market than a hundred temples, if the truth be known. 

Impressivley well-travelled writer Thoedora Sutcliffe recently wrote about 100 Lessons Learned from 1000 Days of Travel around the world with her son. It’s a great read and a  great list, but Number 3 particularly caught my eye:

3. Big Ticket Sights Are Almost Always Worth It …..if you’re within 50 miles of one of the wonders of the world and don’t see it, you’ll be kicking yourself for decades.

I mostly agree with her, but if there’s a market within 50 miles of one of the wonders of the world and I miss it, then I really will kick myself.

So what will you find at Yunnan’s biggest, most renao-ish market? Have a look.




Piglets in baskets: one farmer tried to swap a piglet for our youngest daughter, but we resisted. Just.

Bai women shop with baskets on their backs, straps on their foreheads or over their shoulders. Cane baskets are still the most popular but coloured woven tape baskets are becoming a new trend.
The women favour a sleeveless cobalt blue or red tunic belted with a hand-embroidered sash, and a scarf or flower-embroidered head dress to cover their hair, often with a straw hat perched on top. Those who wear the flower-embroidered head-dresses often cover it with a net scarf to keep it clean in the dust of the marketplace.

Local sweets: peanut brittle, rock sugar, ground sticky rice flavoured with rose water, sesame toffee
本地甜点, 花生太妃糖, 冰糖, 玫瑰味的糯米糖, 还有芝麻太妃糖.

Tricycle truck – slightly larger than a motorbike, holds slightly more than a wheelbarrow. Maximum load seen carried: six people plus a pig and eight chickens.


If you don’t have a tricycle truck you can also carry your chicken purchases like this. Friends have suggested it would be a useful way for carrying unruly small children.

Not everyone wears traditional dress of course

Coolest dude in Yunnan, selling thermoses. Because everyone knows only cool people use thermoses.

云南最酷的人, 都卖热水壶. 因为人人都知道只有很酷的人才会用热水瓶.

Bai woman selling joss papers for burning at the temple.

Yunnan has a unique climate and topography, so you’ll find plenty of unusual foods not seen elsewhere in China
Left: mao doufu – mold fermented tofu  Right: hai cai hua 海菜花 (ottelia accuminata) – a water plant with delicate white flowers that float on the water surface of lakes, the stalks of which are used in cooking.
云南气候和地形都很独特, 所以你能发现很多中国其他地方不会生长的食物.
左: 毛豆腐发霉的一种豆腐
右: 海菜花 (海菜花属一种生长着精美白色小花的水生植物,漂浮在湖水表面,它的茎干可以用来烹饪)

The man who sells everything from his square-metre shop: kitchen scourers, rubber gloves, safety pins, sewing needles, packets of single-use shampoo, zippers, plugs, and a thousand other useful things.

And lastly the street dentist, who for 50 yuan (about $8) will fit you with a shining silver cap for one of your front teeth, on the spot. Without even taking off his sunglasses.

Yousuo Friday Market
Every Friday from early morning until mid-afternoon
Yousuo is on the  G214 about 40km north of Dali, Yunnan
GPS: Lat 26.018064  Long  100.063546