Back to blog index

Shanghai Street Food #31 DIY Spicy Soup: Mala Tang 麻辣汤

Mala. That word conjures up a whole sensory picture in my mind of Sichuan spiciness and heat. 

Mala 麻辣 means numbing spiciness, coming from Sichuan pepper. The kind of nose-watering, eye-running chili that also makes your tongue and gums numb and tingling, but add just one extra la and you have malala 麻辣辣, which means searing pain. 
Getting the picture about the kind of spiciness we’re talking about now?
Mala tang 麻辣汤 on the other hand just means spicy soup, spicy and delicious rather than spicy and potentially painful, a Sichuan import that has made its way all around China as a massively popular street food. 
Mala tang is a do-it-yourself street food, which adds enormously to the fun of eating it. Vendors provide the broth, the ingredients, and the condiments, you simply decide what you would like in your soup and they cook it for you.
I had seen these joints all over Shanghai for well over a year, usually with long lunchtime queues and busy as hell, but had no idea how it all worked. Once my Chinese improved and I finally figured it out I was so cross at myself that I hadn’t tried it sooner, so for those who’ve never tried it….
Here’s how it works:
1. Grab a basket from the stack near the front of the shop and start filling it. Your basket will likely have a small plastic tag with your number on it. Remember it!
2. Choose some dried noodles – flat, vermicelli, thin and add them to your basket

3. Choose your greens, mushrooms and tofu of choice, add them to the basket. I like a very mushroomy broth, and there are usually four or five types to choose from.

4. Choose some savoury meaty balls on a stick. These are fish balls (white) chicken balls (pinky white) beef balls (pink) sausage balls (brighter pink) or pork balls (pink). I have no idea what the bright yellow ones are, but I look forward to hearing from one of you who might know.
5. Take your completed basket to the cashier, the person who is not cooking the soup. She will add up your ingredients to give you a final cost, usually 10-15 yuan/bowl (around $1.50- $2.50)

6. Now wait until your basket, on the bottom, reaches the top of the cooking queue. While you’re waiting you could ask the cashier to add extras – bean sprouts, silken tofy cubes, blood cubes, for an extra fee. I usually skip the blood cubes. Totally up to you.

7. Watch the soup cook prepare your bowl. In her cauldron is a rich, spicy soup stock made fragrant with sichuan pepper and chilies, plus all the things that have been cooked in it over the course of the day.

Around the edge of the pot are numerous cylindrical wire baskets hooked to the edge. One of these will be your cooking basket, and this is how the cook can make eight bowls at once without mixing up the ingredients.

A master of cooking times, the cook will add items to your wire basket in the correct cooking order, noodles and meatballs first, lettuce and fragile greens last, so everything is perfectly cooked.

9. The cook will spoon your basket’s cooked contents into a bowl, add a big ladleful of the spicy soup, and call out your number so you can collect it.

10. Add condiments to taste – la jiao chili paste, dark vinegar, sesame oil, sesame paste, scallions, coriander. All up to you. These might be together on a counter at the entrance to the seated area, or in individual pots on your table.

11. Take a seat, slurp and enjoy.

Where to find mala tang in Shanghai:
Mala tang shops are literally all over town. All over China in fact, being one of winter’s favourite street foods. 
Look for the steaming soup pot out front, a cabinet full of fresh greens and things on sticks, and a long queue.
My local mala tang  is great, and very clean and friendly。
Xiu La Tang 庥辣烫
607 Nanchang Lu
Street Foods of Shanghai!

Number 1   Roast Sweet Potatoes
Number 2   Snack-on-a-stick 
Number 3   Liangpi – a spicy cold noodle dish
Number 4   Langzhou Lamian – hand-pulled noodles
Number 5   Cong You Bing – fried shallot pancakes
Number 6   Baozi – steamed buns, Shanghai style
Number 7   Jian Bing – the famous egg pancake
Number 8   Dan Gao – street cakes
Number 9   Shao mai – sticky rice treats
Number 10  Summer on a Stick – fresh fruits

Number 11  You Tiao – deep-fried breadsticks
Number 12  Dan Juan – egg rolls
Number 13  Shao Kao – street barbecue
Number 14  Bao Mi Hua – exploding rice flowers
Number 15  Chou Doufu – stinky tofu
Number 16  Bing Tang Shan Zha – crystal sugar hawthorns
Number 17  Mutton Polo
Number 18  Yumi Bang – puffed corn sticks
Number 19  Mian Hua Tang – cotton candy
Number 20  You Dunzi – fried radish cakes

Number 21  Suzhou Shi Yue Bing – homestyle mooncakes 
Number 22  Gui Hua Lian’ou – honeyed lotus root stuffed with sticky rice
Number 23  Cong You Ban Mian – scallion oil noodles
Number 24  Guotie – potsticker dumplings
Number 25  Nuomi Cai Tou – fried clover pancakes
Number 26  Da Bing, Shao Bing – sesame breakfast pastries
Number 27  Ci Fan – sticky rice breakfast balls
Number 28  Gui Hua Gao – steamed osmanthus cake
Number 29  Zongzi – bamboo leaf wrapped sticky rice
Number 30  Shengjianbao – pan-fried dumplings

Bright Lights! Big City! New Eats! Shanghai’s Da Pai Xiao Chu

Imagine, if you will, returning to a giga-mega-cosmopolis the size of Shanghai after six long months on the road – six months of questionably attractive rural backwaters, dead volcanoes and odd foods. Six long months of eating in truck stops and sleeping in rubbish dumps and suddenly – bang – you’re back in the cradle of civilization.

The question I thought would be on everyone’s lips was ‘What’s the rest of China like?’
A bit of the non-Shanghai part of China. Not bad.
But with the confidence peculiar to the Shanghainese, who already know with total certainty they’re living in the best place in China, if not the world, all my Shanghai friends assumed I was simply massively relieved to be back from the sticks and instead asked:
‘What’s the first thing you want to eat now you’re back in Shanghai?’ 
And I honestly, truly, didn’t know the answer. 
Crickets and Coke. Because everything goes better with coke. 
For six months I had eaten so much Chinese food, much of it good, some it alarming, but almost all of it  from restauarants that would make a Health Inspector delirious in anticipation of the food safety violations he was about to impose. Just imagine his list:
  • Meat on display in open air, uncovered and surrounded by flies  
  • Passing pedestrians picking up bits of food to check freshness then putting back on display
  • Refrigerator cabinets not actually switched on ‘for reasons of cost-saving’
  • Tables wiped with thick coating of bacteria from filthy dripping rag used to clean them
  • Cook smoking as he fries food, cigarette ash in most dishes
  • Waitress sleeping with head on food prep area
  • Vermin strolling through kitchen
No I never, ever got sick, not even once, and not even a little bit, despite thinking at almost every meal that this would be the time my luck ran out.

In fact I think my immune system is even more robust now than it was after working in a kids hospital through the flu-epidemic winter of 2008. Try staying well after a kid with a temperature of 40.8 sneezes into your open mouth while you’re yawning from exhaustion.

And yes, despite that hideous image I’ve now put into your head the food almost always tasted good. 
But actually, what I wanted more than anything when I got back to Shanghai was to eat somewhere….clean. I wasn’t too fussy about the type of cuisine, or its authenticity, or even its price.
I just wanted a place where my bowl didn’t come from a bucket on the floor, dripping with cold water and the faint traces of the last meal it contained. 
A place where the cook didn’t smoke while preparing my meal. 
A place where the kitchen walls and ceiling weren’t covered in a textured black fuzz formed by layers of cooking oil vapour and dust. 
A restaurant like…
Da Pai Xiao Chu 大牌小厨
Shanghai’s restaurant scene changes faster than any one person can possibly keep up and new places open and close like the shutters on a bingo barrel. I used to try and keep abreast, really I did, but it just became too exhausting from outer Gansu. 
But after returning to Shanghai I found a four month old review of Nanjing eatery Da Pai Xiao Chu in a magazine and decided to take the whole family there for lunch on Sunday. 
In a single stroke I forgot about all the other fleapit kitchens I’d eaten in around China and decided Shanghai was, actually after all, the best place to experience China’s regional cuisines in an environment that was unlikely to kill you. 
大牌小厨 or Big Name Little Kitchen, specializes in food from Nanjing, northwest of Shanghai. It’s uncomplicated food, salty and occasionally a little sweet, with a harmonious blend of textures and flavours.
L:Knotted snake beans served with preserved vegetable 翡翠干干结 Crunchy, salty, and spanking fresh, from now on I would like all my snake beans hand-knotted before cooking please.
R: Steamed pork with glutinous rice 江米扣肉 The size of a small bowler hat and served on a bamboo leaf, the sticky and chewy rice hides slices of perfectly rendered fat pork that simply melts into the rice on contact. 
L: Steamed pork and coriander dumplings 芫蒸香鲜肉蒸饺 
R:Nanjing salted duck 南京盐水鸭 Perfectly pink and tender slices of cold duck meat with little bone
L:  Scalded Indian lettuce 白灼油麦菜 Simple and softly fried with a lightly sweetened sauce of soy and sesame oil
R: Crystal shrimp dumplings 水晶虾饺 I love the firm bite of the crystal shrimp in these sweet dumplings
R: Taro seedling in osmanthus syrup 桂花 糖芋苗 The warm sticky osmanthus-scented soup was full of marble-sized balls of taro, a little floury but very soft.
The most striking thing about the restaurant, other than the great food pouring out of the open and spotlessly clean kitchen is the decor – slick, modern and welcoming with rows of stonewear pickle jars alongside fresh green tables and chairs with touches of red, and semi-industrial light fittings. The walls are lined with colourful cans, bottles and jars of local Nanjing foods and the arrangements of ‘big cards’ hanging from the ceiling are another play on the meaning of the restaurant’s name – da pai can also be a trump card or honour card in card games.

It’s a restaurant someone has actually put a lot of thought into, and I for one really appreciated every bit of it.

Not a single cigarette to be seen in the kitchen

Fully awake waitpersons and floors free of vermin. Ten out of ten.

It’s certainly nice to be back in the big city. 
Hello Shanghai, I’ve missed you!
(And if you know of a great new Shanghai eatery you’ve discovered in the last six months, be sure to let me know in the comments!)

Da Pai Xiao Chu 大牌小厨
167 Jiangning Lu, Jing’an District, Shanghai
+21 6255 5177
10.30am – 10pm daily
Lunch for four about 240 yuan ($US40) including tea.

Snow and a Sea of Clouds: Huangshan

The clouds moved slowly away to reveal a massive monolith, craggy and rutted, dusted with snow and studded with pine trees growing straight from the rock, ruggedly resisting the altitude, cold and wind. For a second I couldn’t breathe, it was so utterly and completely beautiful.

In one single moment every one of the 28,000 kilometres we had driven around China to get to this point on the map, on this particular day at this hour was worth it. Every one. 
Huangshan, China’s legendarily beautiful Yellow Mountain in Anhui Province, is named for the Yellow Emperor who attained immortality here and ascended to heaven amongst the seventy stunning peaks and granite crags.
We had been to Huangshan once before in the early spring of 2010 and weren’t planning to visit again until good friends announced their intention to fly from Australia and join us on the road to experience a little of the last days of our China Roadtrip. Huangshan seemed the perfect place to meet, a spectacular piece of China only six hours southwest of Shanghai and perhaps, if we were very lucky, touched by snow.
The weather on Huangshan can be variable to say the least, and on many days of the year the entire mountain is enveloped in impenetrable fog and cloud, obscuring all views. If fortune is smiling on you though, you might witness yunhai 云海, a soft and lustrous sea of clouds from which the craggy peaks rise like islands. This phenomenon is best appreciated in the colder months, September to May, on a clear day after rain or snow, and occurs only rarely in summer. 

We arrived late in the afternoon from our last ever campsite and spent the first night at the base of the mountain in – joy of joys – an actual hotel with human-sized beds and real showers you could actually stand upright in. The campervan, as brilliant as it had been and as much as we had loved our little house on wheels, was happily abandoned in a carpark in favour of more spacious digs.

The hotel’s main attraction was a free ticket for each of us to visit the adjacent Huangshan Hot Springs Resort, where natural spring water comes out of the mountain at a restorative 42 degrees all year round.

So after dinner, and in temperatures of minus one, we donned swimming costumes and headed outside. It was a painfully freezing walk from the change rooms to the first pool, steam rising all around us as we strode into the warm water. The outdoor springs were a fairyland of lights and pavilions set amongst trees and flowers, and the dozens of small pools gradually warmed us from the outside in, until we could eventually stride between them in bare feet and without using the heavy robes provided.

Staff in thick down coats walked the narrow paths between each pool with trays of hot, sweet ginger tea which we drank while plunged up to our necks in hot water, looking up at the stars. It was an unforgettable experience and would have been even more appreciated two days later after coming down the mountain, but as usual we were doing things in reverse order.

We woke the next morning to the most exciting sight of all – fresh snow.

At the mountain’s base it had dusted all the firs, and lay in a fine white carpet on the ground. It was an auspicious start to our ascent of the mountain and we held high hopes for more snow and a sea of clouds. Originally the plan had been to walk all 6,500 steps up the mountain, but when faced with the reality of slippery ice and four children it suddenly seemed like a very poor idea, compared with travelling by cable car.

We took ourselves, all eight of us, uphill along a mountain stream from the hot springs to the base of the Jade Screen Cableway, and within an hour we were standing on the mountain top.

We stood transfixed as the sun came out and the clouds dispersed, revealing a world of crystal ice and snow, the tree branches and pine needles outlined in a rime of white ice sparkling and shining in the soft winter light.

Huangshan’s famous peaks revealed themselves one by one amongst the pine trees along our four hour mountain top walk to beihai, the North Sea of clouds. The mountain was covered in a network of stone paths and steps, icy and dangerous in the shade, and after several falls we bought and installed on our feet the most ingenious invention ever for ice-walking – small steel plates with sharp teeth, attached to the bottom of your shoes by rubber straps, one size fits all. 
We passed the meteorological observatory near Bright Peak, and then suddenly there it was. A sea of clouds all the way to the horizon, with the peaks rising above. It was nothing short of magical.
We stopped to make snowmen and eat chocolate bars and peanuts before continuing several more hours of gruelling stair climbs up and down the icy paths to the Fish Eating Three Snails Peak and finally, leg-achingly, to the North Sea. 

Late in the afternoon, having warmed up a little in our hotel (lobby temperature minus five) I braved the sub-zero chill to see the last of the setting sun leave the mountain. As I looked out over the North Sea the last rosy gold light touched the very tip of Beginning To Believe Peak and I was suddenly filled with emotion. I thought of our immense journey and its immense distances, and the enormous will it took all of us to arrive at this point after so long, so much planning, so much moving, so much change.
The name, from another one of Huangshan’s many legends about a non-believer in the mountain’s natural beauty, seemed so significant, and to speak directly and forcefully to me. 
This whole journey to China, begun some three and a half years before, of learning the language, of trying to understand the culture and people, of traversing the country north to south and west to east, was it to arrive at this point of beginning to believe?
And what exactly was I beginning to believe? In myself? Perhaps, just perhaps it was, and certainly these travels had given me a courage and confidence I never knew I possessed. Or was it beginning to believe in China? Can you believe in a country, in its sometimes glorious and often troubled past and uncertain but momentous future the way I believed in China? I knew the China I believed in was very different to the China most people believe in, the people who have never seen its mountains and skies and its complicated, rich, wonderful human landscape. 
Yet it wasn’t exactly either of these things.
It came to me suddenly, unbidden. It was a belief in possibility. Believing in the possibility of anything occurring, no matter how improbable or how difficult, no matter how strong the oposing forces. In the evolution of an idea from conception to completion. In change. In achievement. 
As I stood there and watched the last light die from Beginning to Believe Peak I understood, finally, that this was what China had given me. 
The beginning of a belief that anything is possible.

Huangshan Nature Reserve
Admission Prices:
Low Season (Dec 1 – Feb 29) adults 150rmb, children 75rmb
High Season (Mar 1 – Nov 30) adults 230rmb, children 115rmb

Cable Car
There are three cable cars ascending and descending Huangshan.

South: Jade Screen Cableway
Closest to the Huangshan Scenic Area South Entrance and the townships of Tangkou and Tunxi
Leaves from Mercy Light Temple and arrives at the Jade Screen Station

South-east: Cloud Valley Cableway
Departs from Cloud Valley Temple and arrives at White Goose Ridge Station (from here the walk to the small cluster of hotels at Beihai is the shortest)

North: Taiping Cableway
Closest to the Huangshan Scenic Area North Entrance
Departs from Pine Valley Nunnery and arrives at Rosy Cloud Station

Low Season: Dec 1 – Feb 28 65rmb one-way (adults) 35rmb one-way (children)
High Season: March 1 – Nov 30 80rmb one-way (adults) 40rmb one-way (children)
Children under 1.2m free
Operating hours vary by season: winter 6.30am-4.30pm

Staying on the Mountain
There is no road access on the mountain top so all hotels are walk-in, walk-out. Some are close to cablecar stations, some are several hours’ walk. For a place where every single piece of building material and every bedsheet has been brought from the mountain’s base by porters (no, they don’t use the cable car) there is a surprising choice of mountain top accommodation.

There are two hotel clusters: one at Beihai (Shilin Hotel, Beihai Hotel) and one near Rosy Cloud Station (Dispelling Cloud Hotel, West Sea Hotel). In addition there is the Jade Screen Hotel at the top of Jade Screen cableway, and the White Cloud (Baiyun) Hotel near Bright Peak.

Food choices on the mountain top are limited. There are frequent snack stalls along the stone walking paths selling bottled water and other cold drinks, chocolate bars, instant noodles, steamed corn on the cob and tea eggs. Expect to pay mountain prices for everything – at least double what you would normally pay (and when you see those porters carrying two twenty kilo boxes of bottled water by bamboo pole you’ll wonder why it isn’t eight times more expensive).

There are restaurants at all the hotels where good hot food can be had, again at mountain prices.

Shilin Hotel

Located on the mountain top at Beihai. Well-heated with wall heaters and silk quilts, with down jackets available to borrow. A surprisingly high level of comfort and cleanliness with an in-house restaurant.
Expect to pay about 450rmb/double in low season, higher in summer.
Huangshan Resort and Spa Hotel
Located at the mountain base (south side) about 1.5km from the Jade Screen Cableway.
Well-heated but a little faded, the main attraction is its location adjacent to Huangshan’s Hot Springs Resort, which is not actually part of the hotel.
Doubles from 400rmb, basic price, or 560rmb including two entry tickets to the hot springs (normal hot springs and spa entry price 238 rmb pp).

The Last Chinese Campsite

Happy New Year one and all! Almost exactly a year ago today, I nervously went public with my plans to get hold of a campervan and drive around China before the end of 2012. I figured by telling you of my intentions I would be embarrassed – in moments of weakness – into following through. Thank goodness I did, because those moments of weakness were many and my willpower and tenacity were sorely tested by trying firstly to find a campervan, then by the nightmare of getting a Chinese driving licence, followed by a weekend test drive that showed us just what we were in for, before finally setting out on July 1st for the Great China Roadtrip. 
It was an epic year and an epic adventure, and today’s post and the next few will continue to chronicle the last few weeks of our trip through some of the most spectacular scenery in China as we headed home to Shanghai. 
But before I tell you about our last Chinese campsite, I also remembered in that same post I made a bunch of predictions. So let’s see just how many I managed to get right:
Fiona’s 2012 Predictions
1. I will pass my Chinese exams next week, motivated by the desire to avoid being the first student over forty to fail and the need to speak enough Chinese to cover vehicle breakdowns and other minor emergencies.
I passed! My 6 months of university Chinese ended well after getting off to a hilariously bad start, thanks to my three brilliant teachers and a lifelong habit of extreme cramming. I did wish the textbook had a chapter on ‘Replacing a Campervan Battery’ rather then ‘Applying for a Credit Card’ because it would have been way more useful, but perhaps not for the rest of the class.
2. The ratio of Chinese:Western meals my family is willing to eat will decrease from 1:3 to 1:10 by year’s end, decreasing exponentially with time spent on the road away from supermarkets full of Western food in Shanghai. I will be forced to resort to making congee for breakfast when we run out of cereal. They will hate this.

Bravo my family! After an initial unhappy month in which my two children complained non-stop about the amount of Chinese food they were having to eat, and I complained non-stop beside them about the opportunities to eat interesting new Chinese foods I was missing out on thanks to them, my very clever husband came up with a solution that suited everyone:
Lunchtime every day would be an exploration of local Chinese food. 
Dinner in the campervan would be western food, cooked by me (I got very resourceful at making western meals from Chinese village market ingredients) 
Breakfast was free choice, and would be cooked by him. Pancakes would be offered most days and occasionally french toast, pending bread availability. Congee would not be offered at any time or under any circumstances.
3. I will pass my Chinese driver’s license test without having to bribe any officials, or have a Chinese stand-in named ‘Fay-ah-na’ sit the test on my behalf, for a pre-arranged fee.
In my greatest examination triumph to date (even greater than passing my neuro-anatomy exam in 1989, a minor miracle of mnemonic memorization), I passed my Chinese Driving Test with an unbelievable 96%. I promise that no money changed hands. And I still got the first aid question wrong.
4. We will finaly get to visit Tibet, provided there are no more monk self-immolations in 2012.
My heart sinks as I re-read this. A year ago I honestly thought the worst was over on this front. Not so – since January dozens of individuals have set themselves alight in Tibetan regions of Gansu, Qinghai and Sichuan in protest against the Chinese government’s rule. These grim and violent deaths by apparently devout Buddhists including monks and nuns continue to occur. The Chinese government response has been at times laughable – installing fire fighting units inside monasteries, and tightly controlling sales of inflammables. Recently it was announced that those found to support or incite self-immolation faced prosecution.
Tibetan areas we visited in these provinces are now off-limits to foreign travellers for the time being.
5. My iphone app, the Shanghai Xiaolongbao Tour for Crimson Bamboo, despite being extremely niche, will go totally viral on release causing the entire Chinese internet to collapse and making me an overnight app millionaire.
Still not a millionaire. But wait…the Chinese internet did kind of collapse in November…..was that me?
6. The hare-brained travelling campervan scheme will take more money, wits, patience and cunning than I currently possess, but because I’m not a quitter I will make everyone’s life hell as I try to source solar-powered portable water heating and a compostible travelling toilet in a country that hasn’t yet heard of camping.

100% true prediction. By the time we left Shanghai on the afternoon of July 1, having taken delivery of the campervan literally an hour before, I was plain out of money, wits, patience and cunning, luckily replaced by caffeine and bravado.
The solar-powered idea? It came and went, unfulfilled. And the compostible travelling toilet idea showed me just how out of step I was with the rest of the country. Why would I waste our waste by composting it into a bacteria-free product? Farms need fertilizer! And we certainly fertilized a lot of corners of China. A lot.
7. Eighteen will be the number of times my husband will tell me we can just hire a car and sleep in hotels with actual beds instead of campervanning our way around the country.
Eighteen? Eighteen?? More like two hundred and fifty eight times. Two inches too long for the bed in the campervan, my very-tall husband endured night after night of sleeping with his head jammed into a corner, and day after day of showering in a cubicle meant for a hobbit. 
8. Eighteen will be the number of times I reply something along the lines of ‘bugger off’ to his very sensible suggestion. Although sometimes I will really, really want to give in.
Actually, I gave in a lot. Turns out camping seven days a week is fine for some families, but ours needed a place with bigger beds and more space, constant electricity and hot water about once a week for reasons of family harmony. Usually all four of us crammed into a twin single room and felt like kings – the single beds were way bigger than what we were sleeping in and you could stand up in the shower!
9. China will finally get high-speed internet just as I leave the country, and I’ll be really pissed off because I never got to experience the thrill of uploading a photo in under ten minutes.
Ha! If only….in actual fact, the internet turned badder than bad at the time of the 18th Communist Party Congress in October, leaving everyone pulling their hair out and forcing our VPN provider to come up with extremely creative software solutions to get over, under and around the increasingly impenetrable Great Firewall. The situation is expected to worsen in 2013 with the commencement of new internet laws in China.
10. After six months of travelling rough crammed into a home-made campervan my children will probably hate me, but when they’re forty-five they’ll tell their kids it was the best holiday they ever had. I hope. 

My children amazed me with their resilience, patience and resourcefulness over six long months of things very frequently not going to plan. And they say they don’t hate me for putting through it. I never imagined they were so capable and so flexible, but they were. It was one of the best things to come out of our whole trip.
But as to whether it was the best holiday they ever had? I think it will take them a couple more decades to get to that point. As the youngest said: “Mum, a holiday is where you lie on the beach and totally relax. This isn’t a holiday. It’s travelling, and that’s not the same thing”.
SCORE CARD: 5/10 (no better than chance, really)
The Last Chinese Campsite
In the end, actually, all the girls really wanted from our trip was not to see one more temple or climb one more mountain or visit one more village market. It was simply to be able to camp in one place for two whole days, so they could explore and play. Not much to ask, and surprisingly difficult to deliver.
Which is how we ended up in a secluded dead end road in Fujian Province the week before Christmas, overlooking a bamboo forest and a small stream, with a promise to stay for two whole days, despite our driving schedule being well behind. It was our very last chance to camp because we wouldn’t be permitted to road camp at our final two stops – Wuyi Shan and Huang Shan.  
This, finally, was how I imagined our whole trip, many many months ago. Long lazy days spent reading, writing and cooking in quiet places full of natural beauty. Beside streams, in the shadow of mountains, near bamboo forests.

Those were the camping sites of my imagination, in a time before the less lovely reality of camping in China kicked in. Of stopping beside highways, in rubbish dumps, near towns, and occasionally in carparks. Of crowds of visitors. 

Our campsites sometimes came close, but always lacked one of the magic ingredients on the tick box checklist of perfect campsite attributes – solitude, quietness, natural beauty, trees for hammocks. Or had other ingredients cruelly added – unusual bad smells, livestock passing through, biting insects that descended in swarms at dusk, tourists that descended from nearby tour bus rest stops.

Camping nirvana had only happened twice in our recollection – early on, in Inner Mongolia (foolishly we had only stayed a single night – if only we knew that would be the bar by which all other campsites were measured!) and again outside Beijing. Not often for a country the size of China.

But here we were, tucked away off the road in a place that was quiet, was unseen from the road, and looked out over a rushing rocky stream. The late autumn sunshine shone warm through the tops of the bamboo and maple trees. We were staying put for two whole days and nights.

They were wonderful slow, sunny, lazy days. I sat still for long enough to notice the feathered trail in the sky left by an unseen aircraft. We threw rocks in the stream with the girls. And I wrote, undistracted for several hours, a rare gift in our six months of non-stop movement and frequent exhaustion.

The girls waded up the creek in the warm sun. It was hard to believe snow was falling in other parts of China when here the days were still warm and pleasant. My older daughter soaked two pairs of trousers after twice falling in the creek, but they loved rock-hopping up and down the stream and were having a ball doing what kids do best – playing. 

We ate a a picnic lunch sitting on the rocks with the last of our precious supplies of cheese (from Bakery 88 in Dali) and Scottish oatcakes (tucked away in a box until now) with dried fruit from Kashgar.  

Matt and the girls walked to a nearby village after lunch to buy drinking water, and I stayed behind to make yogurt and explore. There had been a flood through here at some point in the near past – shreds of cloth hung high in the bushes, and an old zipper curled around a branch like a black snake. I found a cache of old liquor bottles buried under dirt and moss, and an old umbrella.

But mostly I enjoyed the quietness, so hard to come by in such a populous place. I soaked the quietness in and fixed it in my memory.
When the rest of the family returned we cooked dinner together, laughing, our spirits buoyed by a whole day of rest and by the feeling we would soon be home. Home. Six months is a long time to be away from your home and we missed it enormously. 
The girls decorated the van with tinsel we had bought in Yongding, near the tulou, and a tiny tree frosted with white polystyrene beads that shed white bits that stuck to our hair and our clothes and eventually had to be put outside. We pooled the last of our sweets and chocolates into a dish and declared we were having a Movie Night complete with cinema snacks, and watched a movie together sitting huddled up, all four of us, on our tiny cramped bed in the back of the van. 

It was the perfect memory for our very last day of camping in China.