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God’s First Visit to Yu Gardens, Shanghai

I love that after five years, China still has the capacity to surprise me. 
A few weeks ago we visited Yu Gardens in Shanghai to see the Chinese New Year lantern display. For my girls it has become an annual rite of passage, just like visiting the Myer department store was when I was a kid, to see their Christmas window display. Every year they would have a different spectacular theme, my child’s mind thrilled with the colours and imaginary possibilities of the little story in each window.
Chinese New Year is the same for Chinese kids – each year they visit the temple at Yu Gardens with their parents to see the exciting new lantern displays for Chinese New Year, usually followed by something good to eat. Ordinary lanterns these most definitely are not – huge and spectacular 3-D masterpieces of technicolour construction, they are as impressive in the daylight as they are lit up at night.

Year of the Tiger, 2010, Year of the Rabbit, 2011
Year of the Dragon 2012
(I missed Year of the Snake in 2013 because we were in Australia. Also, I don’t like snakes, having grown up in a country that considers itself home to seven of the world’s ten deadliest of that species.)
One of the highlights of the lantern display is the narrative tableaux floating in the waters around the Huxinting Tea House at the centre of the gardens. Past lantern epics have included the story of the Yellow Emperor’s flight into immortality from the top of Huang Shan, and the parable of Confucius’ meeting with Lao Tzu.
This year was different though. This year, the inspirational story for thousands of Chinese people at the biggest celebration of the lunar calendar and in the grounds of a Taoist temple was….Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. 
According to the very economically worded placard to one side of the scene:
Cursed forever.
And that will be the beginning and end, the Genesis to Exodus if you will, of most of the visitors’ understanding of the Story of Creation. 
A dude in a red dress, a snake, an apple tree, all the animals of the Chinese Zodiac, and a pair of very very pale and awkward humans.

 Okay then.

Thank goodness around the corner everything returned to normal – there were a lot of reassuring horse motifs, and plenty of honest to goodness regular lanterns.

Happy (belated) Year of the Horse everyone! Here’s to the joy of constant surprises. 

Spring Festival at Shidong Market – Will It All Be Gone This Time Next Year?

Two weeks ago I found myself back in Shidong, in the heart of Miao country in Guizhou Province, at the market they hold there by the river. I didn’t plan on writing about it again, because I wrote about it last September when the market was full of indigo sellers.
It’s a market with seductive colour and energy though, absolutely one of the best rural markets in China and blessed with a stunning location.
You arrive in the fraught and dusty main street of Shidong, packed with cars and motorbikes and minivans, horns blaring, and wend your way behind the street into one of many crowded, dark, cool side lanes where there will be someone selling brightly coloured plastic basins next to a man with a bamboo pen full of noisy ducks, and then suddenly the darkness gives way to sunlight and the long jade-green Qingshui river opens up before you, with its Shidong-side cobblestone banks lined with hundreds of coloured tents and thousands of people, and on the other side a tiny village climbs the hill from the water’s edge, connected by a narrow suspension bridge.
People come and go by boat, from villages up- and downstream. It’s delightful, but more importantly it is the main source of income for many local families who sell their wares at the market.

But it seems the market might be under threat, something I didn’t discover until literally a few hours ago when I was researching this blog post, and so I became convinced of the need to write about it again. More on that below.
On the surface though, the market was busier than ever, being the frantic final market day before Chinese New Year and full of everything one might need for a Spring Festival celebration.
The cobbled river bank was laid with hundreds of red paper chunlian 春联 door decorations, held down against the wind with rocks and painted with calligraphy couplets conveying one’s best wishes for the year ahead – health, happiness, and prosperity. 
Open air barbers, five in a  row, had set up nearby so men could have their hair cut before New Year, thus avoiding an unlucky haircut in the first month of the Year of the Horse.
One and all were buying chickens and ducks for the New Year’s feast, along with bunches of lucky extra-long chillies and sweet treats like honey on the comb.

Some, like this family, had all their Spring Festival needs loaded in their wooden boat – a box of firecrackers, some incense and candles to offer to the ancestors, and about twenty-five new stools for all the expected guests.

Buying new bowls was common too, both for eating and for drinking rice wine, neatly tied in stacks of ten. Always ten – I’d love to know why.
The Miao ladies of Shidong, lovers of silver adornment and jewellery, were crowding the silver sellers with New Year sales.
It was at this point, as I was photographing a dead cow being picturesquely butchered by the riverside, that I realised I was being followed. There were two men, one with a camera, photographing me photographing the butcher, and another one. They were youngish, smallish, not very threatening looking, and wearing a ubiquitous countryside uniform of soft shoes, perma-press trousers and zip-up jackets, both black, one of them made from artificial leather. 
They looked nervous and shy when I caught them spying on me, and seemed to be metaphorically poking each other in the ribs saying:
“You talk to her”
“No, you talk to her”
“No, you first”
Until I couldn’t take their discomfort any more and said hello in Chinese.
It’s my favourite moment in any conversation, when the other person suddenly realises they can communicate with me, this stranger, this foreigner.
“Hello” said Mr Artificial Leather, smiling very tentatively. “We’ve been following you.”
I smiled.
“We don’t see so many tourists here. Well, a few. Hmmm. Not that many. I’m from the local government. Can I ask you a few questions about your experience in Shidong market?”
There’s a curve ball I wasn’t expecting.
“Sure” I said, and put my camera away. This could take a while.
“So, my first question is…” He flipped out a notebook and seemed to be rifling through the pages looking for the question. The other guy held on to the camera awkwardly. 
“Oh, here it is. Okay. What is your name?”
I told him my Chinese name, and he told me what a nice name it was. I told him my English name too, but from upside-down I couldn’t tell if he wrote it down in English.
“And what are you doing here?” This question sounded innocuous, and it probably was, but he was a local government official.
“Just travelling, taking photos. It’s very colourful here!” I said, pointing to the rows of tents nearby.
“This is your first visit to Shidong?” he asked.
I considered for a moment, trying to remember. “It’s my fourth visit I think. My fifth visit to Guizhou.”
He was surprised. And pleased. He rifled a few more pages and looked for the next question. It must have been important because he asked the other guy to take a photo of us doing the interview, but the other guy struggled with the camera, and I felt bad for him.
“So…when you come to Shidong next time, which of the following would enhance your tourist experience?” He paused. “Ethnic dancing? Singing and Music? Discount vouchers? Gifts?”
Now I did feel sorry for him, because I can say in all honesty that none of those things would have made the market any more colourful or more alive and vibrant than it already was. In fact, they might do something irrevocably bad to it by trying to attract Chinese tourists to it with gimmicks.
“Actually, none of those” I said. “I just like to experience the local culture as it is, especially on Market Day.” He looked really disappointed in me.
“Not even dancing?” he asked.
“OK, maybe just a little bit of dancing. But you know in my country we have nothing at all like this market. This is very special.”
He gave me a look that said he didn’t quite believe me, either about the my country not having markets like this, or the bit about it being special. His look seemed to convey that the sooner he could clear space along the river for ethnic dancing and music displays and give away discount vouchers, the better.
The other guy took photos of us all together, then someone took photos of all three of us together, and that concluded the interview.
I thought nothing more of it for the last two weeks, until just now I googled ‘Shidong tourism’ and an article came up on the Guizhou government website explaining that Shidong is to be one of ‘One Hundred Demonstration Towns’ in Guizhou. Oh no.
According to their research, Shidong is an ideal location for this development because:
‘Miao people account for 98% of the local population. So, the town is a place where Miao people highly gather. Shidong Town not only has graceful and charming landscape scenery, but also has unique and rich national customs. In addition, it’s the most representative Miao region and is a place where national intangible cultural heritage gather.’
They’re looking for 680 million yuan joint venture investments to build:
‘special architectural complex and special leisure hotels and venues (read – KTV and spas), sell cultural crafts, develop a series of market-oriented national culture display platform, build 500 buildings with Miao nationality characteristics, and create a world-class Miao nationality art town.’
My heart broke, then fell on the floor in a hundred pieces. It will be a Chinese Disneyland with Miao characteristics. It happened in Kashgar. It happened in Beijing. It happened in Hangzhou. And Lijiang, Shanghai, Pingyao, and Qufu. Those are just the ones I remember off the top of my head.
They will destroy Shidong, and rebuild it as a fake version of itself, with homogenous ‘cultural crafts’ and concrete buildings made to look like the wooden structures they have replaced. It was all a terribly, terribly sad read. 
As sweet as Mr Artificial Leather was, I hope no one comes to his great big fake Miao Shidong party. 
So get yourself to Shidong right now before it’s all gone.

Feeding Four Hundred For Lunch In Guizhou

The first thing I noticed as we came over the rise was a crowd of people all over the road, most with bowls and chopsticks in hand, eating.
There must have been another two hundred people sitting outdoors at round tables on a terrace in front of a new-looking house. Dozens of motorbikes, the local transport of choice, lined both sides of the road. Was it a wedding? A funeral? Some other kind of celebration?
“It’s a new house party” said our driver. “Very auspicious day for it.”
It was late afternoon, just at that golden hour when the sun is slipping low into the hills and a chill is creeping back into the air from the lengthening shadows. Perfect light for photographers. 
My flight had landed in Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou Province, less than an hour before, and I was travelling to Kaili to do more work on a project involving Miao artisans, a project my husband and I have been working on together for the last half year, when the driver suggested we take the scenic road instead of the highway. Of course, I agreed immediately. Who wouldn’t? 
When we reached the house we were already deep into the countryside, in the midst of tiny villages smelling deliciously of woodsmoke and winter. 
“Can you stop?” I asked the driver. I thought I might be able to take some photos, as long as the house’s new owner approved and the light lasted.
The house, a two story building facing the road, was painted in white with grey trimming, and festooned with auspicious red ribbons and lanterns. It was built in the simple modern style common to all of rural China – two large rooms on the lower floor for storing farming equipment and produce, with a central staircase leading to the upper floor with bedrooms, a living room, and a kitchen. The flat roof meant that if the family continued to prosper a third floor could be readily added, but for now housed a brand new satellite dish.
The guests, initially a little surprised at seeing a stranger (especially a foreign stranger), soon pointed me in the direction of the home’s owner, a woman my age, who welcomed us like long lost friends, agreed without hesitation to my taking photographs, and insisted with some forcefulness that we stay to eat. When we thanked her for her kind offer but began to decline, she laughed, took me by the elbow and said:
“No, no! You must stay to eat!” and sat us on two empty stools. “Just wait!” she said. “More food is coming soon.”
Around me two hundred men, women and children were at the tail end of what looked to have been a long and tasty meal. Empty red and white enamel platters covered every table, food scraps covered the ground and the rosy flushed faces of the guests were reflected in rows of empty beer and baijiu bottles. Cigarettes were being smoked, jokes were being told, and legs were being stretched.
As we sat, the tables nearest to us began emptying out. Was the party already over?
I sat and watched as two hundred guests took leave of their lady host, two hundred plates were cleared from tables, and countless empty bottles were gathered up and taken away.
It was over. I felt a sense of disappointment – we’d arrived just a little too late.
But then our lady host rushed over and said, full of smiles: “Now the food is coming! Please enjoy yourselves!”
I looked about, confused – the tables had all been cleared and emptied, the guests all gone bar a few stalwarts – wondering if we were to have a small meal by ourselves. 
But now a small army of men and women appeared with fresh table covers, bowls, chopsticks, glasses and napkins, and began laying each of the twenty tables, again.
Within minutes more people began to arrive – by motorbike, by minivan, and on foot, a second wave of two hundred guests who now sat in every single empty place. I was astounded. This woman was about to feed four hundred people in celebration of her new house. 

We were joined at our table by an old man, his son, two granddaughters, his nephew, sister-in-law, and a couple of his friends. Out came the beer. Out came the baijiu. Cigarettes were handed around the table.

And then the food: the food was being cooked in a makeshift outdoor kitchen by a battalion of cooks, with steamers the size of hula hoops resting on wood-fired boilers, and two of the largest woks I had ever seen. The food began to arrive on great heavy trays.

There was roast crispy chicken, spicy pickled pig’s ear, translucent preserved quail eggs with fermented chili sauce, a fiery braise of pork and chitterlings in the centre of the table, and bowls of noodles and pickles. There was whole fried fish with sour chilies, mountain mushrooms, and plates of slow-cooked fat pork slices with mei gan cai, a salt-preserved green vegetable.
It was the tastiest food I’d eaten since my last trip to Guizhou. Every time I stopped chewing momentarily one of my fellow guests would urge me on.
 “Eat up! Have some more! Taste a little of this!”

While we ate I asked them about the house party. They told me in this part of the world it was considered very good luck to ‘christen’ your new house by having a celebration with all your family. And all of your friends. And your neighbours. And your neighbours’ friends. And anyone else you could think of, including a random foreigner. (Foreigners were considered to be especially lucky for the house, should one happen along at the right time, they told me. I felt incredibly auspicious for the first time in my life.)

When I asked my fellow guests how they knew our lady host they made vague mentions of living “over the hill” and “in the next village”.

“Not related?” I asked.


“So do you actually, like, know her?” I asked.

Chabuduo” came the hilarious reply. Sort of. Approximately. Kinda.

We all toasted her anyway.

“To the new house! Ganbei!”

Photo Essay: The Carnival Ice Wonderland of Beijing’s Beihai Lake

Imagine sitting on a miniature sled and gliding around a frozen lake, propelling yourself with two metal spikes, whizzing between small children on ice bicycles and tiny ice gondolas. 
For a child of the subtropics like myself, frozen lakes and rivers are a fantastic spectacle, so on this trip to Beijing there was only one place I wanted to see: the frozen wonderland of Beihai Lake, where for an hour or an afternoon you can glide around the ice on a chair on skates, Chinese style of course. 

Beijing can be a brutal place in winter – bitingly cold, densely polluted, shuttered and closed against the chill – but on the right day, it can also be stunningly beautiful. Out on the ice, surrounded by the madness and colour of hundreds of children on oversized cartoon character sleds and overshadowed by a gorgeous temple stupa, it’s as good as it gets.

Beihai – Details
Ice sledding is available every day through winter at Beihai (Wenjin Jie entrance), not far from the back of the Forbidden City. 
Ice sleds start at 40 yuan for hire, for an hour or a whole day – basically as long as you can stand in the sub-zero temperatures (about an hour for most people).

Nan Shan 南山: Skiing Chinese Style

Skiing? In China?
Is that a thing?
It’s not the reason most people visit China, for certain. 
And as for the participation of the local population, I’d heard Chinese people approach skiing much the same way they approach, say, hot air ballooning. That is, you plan to do it once in your life so you can boast about it to friends, and you take millions of pictures of yourself doing it so you can post them on Weibo and say – oh yeah, this is me hot air ballooning. 
Young Chinese woman takes a classic ski selfie: note pouted lips, absence of actual skis.
I’d heard Chinese ski resorts were struggling because nobody stuck around for long enough to actually learn to ski, rather, they took a lot of photos of themselves in ski outfits at the snow, had one or two disastrous runs on the beginner slope, had some pot noodles and went home. It being all about the experience, rather than the development of long term skill that would guarantee repeated business winter after winter for the ski resorts.
Well, turns out that’s all rubbish.
From what I can see skiing and snowboarding are hot in China, and growing hotter by the minute.
We spent all of this last week skiing at Nan Shan Ski Village, about 75km north of Beijing, where I learned a few surprising things about the Chinese ski industry:
1. It’s Cheap
I must say I did wonder what kind of ski experience I was going to get for $25 a day. I imagined dodgy rope tows, creaking rusted lifts and people skiing in jeans.
Here’s what we actually got for $25 a day: 
Airconditioned shuttle bus to and from our hotel in Beijing
Ski hire and lift pass
Thirteen runs: Seven green, five blue, one black
$25 would buy me about 45 minutes’ ski time back home, and the prohibitive cost means we ski way less than we would like. Welcome to Ski China. It’s affordable.
2. It’s Well Run
The slopes are groomed, the lifts run like clockwork, and the ski hire shop is a well-oiled machine.
There is close attention to safety, and the longest time I spent queueing for a lift was five minutes. Impressive.
3. There’s Something for Everyone
Snowboard slope: beginners
Although it’s not a resort where advanced skiers might enjoy spending an entire week, Nan Shan has enough variety and complexity for everyone for several days. There’s a long steep black run, a snowboard park, mogul fields of varying levels of difficulty, beginner slopes aplenty (separated for skiers, kids and snowboarders – brilliant idea), a kids’ playground and two toboggan runs, one of which is actually a high-speed luge that starts on the mountaintop.
Snowboard slope: advanced
Flying Saucer Toboggan Run: super icy spin.

4. The Food is Great
Spicy noodles. Bibimbap. Hamburgers. Hot chocolate. And my personal favourite: fragrant lamb kebabs yang rou chuanr cooked on the outside grill overlooking the slopes.
Canada Ski Cafe – burgers, fries, sandwiches, hot chocolate, passable coffee.

Which is not to say there aren’t some classic Chinese moments on the slopes: the guy who stopped in the middle of a narrow run to take a business call on his smartphone; the Chinese princess who lost the plot close to the top of one of the slopes dissolutely kicked her skis and beanie down the mountain, sobbing loudly and dramatically. When someone on a passing lift called gave her grief the sobbing immediately gave way to a torrent of high octane abuse.
Or the messages over the loudspeakers:
“Child Wang, Child Wang, please return immediately to the Ski Cafe where your mother is waiting for you.” 
Half an hour later: 
“Child Wang, Child Wang, please return immediately to the Ski Cafe where your mother is still waiting for you”
Later still:
“Child Wang, Child Wang. Your mother is getting very angry. Return to the Ski Cafe at once!
Child Wang wasn’t having a bar of it. He had discovered the joy of skiing.
Nan Shan Ski: Details
A daily shuttle bus service leaves the San Yuan Qiao and Wudaokou areas in Beijing
40 yuan pp return
Departs 0830 daily
Returns 1630, 1700, 1730 daily
Pre-book seats the day prior by calling or texting 010 8909 1909
Ski hire and lifts: 
Weekdays 155 yuan full day (advance booking – call or text 010 8909 1909 the day before to reserve)
Weekends 255 yuan full day
Weekdays 260 yuan full day (purchase on arrival)
Weekends 390 yuan full day
On snow accommodation is available at the Shirton Inn (580 yuan per night, standard double) or in a six-bedroom Norwegian Villa (4880 yuan per night).
Many people opt to stay in Beijing and travel to Nan Shan each day. The San Yuan Qiao area has a Novotel, an Ibis Hotel, and Oak Chateau apartments nearby.
Ski Clothing:
Ski and snowboard clothing (including goggles, helmets and gloves) can be hired at Nan Shan. There are several snow gear shops on site but be warned – they carry only expensive European and Canadian/American brands.
Decathlon sports store has several outlets in Beijing with a  wide range of ski and snow board clothing, helmets and goggles.

Chinese Soul Food: Homestyle Cooking From the Heart – Jiachang Cai 家常菜

Happy New Year to everyone! I’m feeling certain 2014 is going to be an exciting and adventurous year, and I hope it will be for you as well.

Never one to back away from a challenge, my ever-patient husband and children and I will spend much of this year restoring a decrepit, beautiful heritage house built in 1891 which will become our new home. I’m just jumping to get started, but there will be plenty of travel too – I leave for China next week to travel to Beijing, Guizhou, Yunnan and Shanghai, and April will see me attending the Miao Sister’s Meal Festival in Guizhou for the second time. A greatly anticipated trip to Sweden, Scotland and France is planned for mid-summer.

And of course, The Book. The book of our travels in China I’ve been writing for a year now, a struggle and a joy in equal measure but still a fledgling, will, I hope, find wings and take flight this coming year.

I’d love to know of your plans this year for food, travel and creative projects too – please fill me in!

I want to start the year with a post I’ve been planning to write for a long time. It’s all about Chinese home style cooking, known as jiachang cai 家常菜, a style of simple and unpretentious food made at home for those close to the cook – loved ones, friends, and guests.

Jiachang cai is bangers and mash, it’s southern fried chicken, it’s coq au vin, it’s black pudding and tatties. It’s a sticky plate of pulled pork or a fragrant bowl of herby chicken soup. It’s cheesecake and apple cake and red velvet cake, and all the kinds of cake that make you think of home.

It’s the food your mother makes when you come home for the holidays, it’s the food you cook your children every day.

It’s soul food, straight from the heart.

If you were to ask someone for their definition of jiachang cai it would probably vary enormously according to their culinary postcode and family history, but a few things are essential: the food must be simply prepared, simply presented, without fancy or hard-to-find ingredients. 

It has much in common with it’s country cousin, nongjia cai 农家菜 or peasant food, which is also simply prepared and presented, but is typically eaten on location at the farm where the food is grown, prepared and butchered by the farmer herself, right beside the table. I’ll write a more detailed post on nongjia cai in coming months.

Jiachang cai, on the other hand, can be eaten in in a simple restaurant or in someone’s home, and the ingredients bought rather than grown.
A typical jiachang cai restaurant, Qinghai Province

There are dishes ubiquitous to every jiachang cai menu – sour shredded potato with chill (suan la tudou si 酸辣土豆丝), smashed cucumber with garlic and vinegar (liang ban huang gua 凉拌黄瓜), tomato stir-fried with egg (fan qie chao ji dan 番茄炒鸡蛋), and fish-fragrant pork (yu xiang rou si 鱼香肉丝) to name just a few, yet even these very popular jiachang dishes vary enormously from place to place, reflecting local tastes, ingredient availability and cooking styles.

Take sour shredded potato, for example – suan la tudou si 酸辣土豆丝 - a dish of finely shredded potato stir-fried with dried chill, a little shredded green pepper, and a splash of vinegar until the potato slivers have just softened. 

Every Chinese cook has their own version of this dish – in Guizhou the dried chillies are kept hanging over the cooking fire so they impart a rich smokiness to the dish, and in the east a little sugar sometimes makes its way into the dish to counteract the sourness of the vinegar. In Sichuan chili becomes the dominant flavour, and in parts of Yunnan the dish has metamorphosed into a fried cake made of potato shreds studded with flecks of chill – as though the cook just dashed out of the kitchen for five minutes while cooking and came back to find the entire thing melted together into a wonderful crisp-bottomed potato cake.   

Here’s a taste of jia chang cai from all points of the compass in China – taste the diversity for yourself.


  • Sour shredded potato with chili and peppers
  • Smashed cucumber with garlic and vinegar
  • Stir-fried green peppers with pork

In Inner Mongolia the bitter cold means hotpot is a popular homestyle dish, served with (clockwise from top)
  • finely sliced mutton
  • pickled chilies
  • chive flower paste
  • red fermented tofu
  • pickled garlic
  • Boiled peanuts with soy beans 
  • Chitterlings fried with peppers and black wood ear fungus


From Shanghai and Zhejiang province homestyle dishes are cooked with a light touch:

  • Sliced wawa vegetable stems steamed then stir-fried with a dash of baijiu liquor
  • Tofu strips fried with pork and wilted greens
  • Soy cooked chicken
  • White-poached Chicken  
  • Steamed freshwater shrimp
  • Smoked dried carp
Many jia chang restaurants, like this one in southern Hunan, have no written menu but allow you to choose from what is fresh that day and have it cooked to order (any way you like, as long as it’s with a handful of sharp, searing fresh red chili) :
  • sliced pig’s ear
  • fat pork
  • pork ribs
  • squid
  • shrimp
  • fresh pork intestines
  • chicken gizzards

Guizhou jiachang cai, clockwise from top:
  •  egg fried with chives (also at bottom)
  • fish-fragrant eggplant, Guizhou style
  • plain fried potato
  • sour shredded potato with smoked chili
  • fried greens
  • home-smoked bacon slices – la rou

In the far south of Yunnan the dishes begin to look very different – inspired by local Dai culture and the hot, tropical climate.
  • fried pork intestine with local herbs and chill
  • fermented chill sauce
  • wild herb and peanut sauce
  • cold vegetables
  • wilted greens
  • crunchy fried pig skin
  • fermented chill with local herbs
  • assorted meats – chicken, fish, pork, pig’s ear

Sichuan food has a deserved reputation for heat, but homestyle Sichuan food is often a different story:
  • pork bone broth
  • baked yam
  • pickled green chilies
  • fat pork slices
  • poached chicken
  • pickled vegetables
  • rice steamed with jujubes
  • steamed squash

The arid lands of Xinjiang produce few vegetables, and so mutton with bread is a staple. Served here with clear broth and tea scented with cinnamon and saffron.


In the sparsely populated north-west homestyle means one thing – noodles. Served here with cold sliced beef, la jiao chili paste, cilantro and shallots. A dish of clear soup is usually served alongside.

That’s all on our culinary tour of jiachang cai – I don’t know about you but now I’m really, really hungry. Let’s eat!

24 Hours in Xiamen

“Dear Doctor Teacher Fiona, 

If you have time , Please come to Xiamen China to help me. I want to set a triage system in my hospital. I apply a project, invite specialist like you to help us. The deadline of this project is NOVEMBER 10.”
So began my unusual invitation to Xiamen, from a doctor I had once taught in Shanghai. 
Now he was Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the Xiamen Number One Hospital, and was attempting something no-one else in China had ever done before. He wanted to establish triage, a system of sorting the sickest patients from the rest so they get medical help sooner, in his chaotic emergency room where 800 sick children arrived every day and were cared for by just five doctors.  
For China it was nothing short of a radical idea, and he needed outside support. Of course I would come, I told him. 
Xiamen is an island city I had long wished to visit – I heard it was beautifully tropical and lush, with warm weather, wonderful seafood and clean beaches, and old colonial architecture from its days as a treaty port. Like Hong Kong, Xiamen (then called Amoy) was ceded to the British in 1842 following the disastrous Opium Wars.
If you have just 24 hours to pack in the best Xiamen has to offer, here’s some suggestions. I spaced out my sightseeing over a week between helping out in the Emergency Room, giving lectures, writing reports and…er…visiting restaurants. 
There was lots of eating – of course! – and I’ll be covering Xiamen’s top foods in the next post. 

Morning: Gulang Yu Island 鼓浪屿
Gulang Yu is the essence of Xiamen, a small jewel of an island off a bigger island. Rimmed with gold sandy beaches and crowded with the stately mansions and consulates of Xiamen’s colonial past, it’s just a few minutes by ferry from western Xiamen.
The island has no cars, and its winding small streets are perfect for strolling. Just head in any direction form the ferry and see what you find amongst the palms and fig trees.
The five main attractions – the Sunlight Rock (from where they say you can see Taiwan on a clear day), beachside Shuzuang Garden and the Piano Museum, Bright Moon Park, and the Organ Museum all require ticket entry. Several of China’s most famous pianists have come from Gulang Yu and the island is also known to locals as ‘Piano Island’. This might explain why all the tourist signposts are in the shape of a grand piano!
Sunlight Rock – a heady climb to the island’s highest point, from where you have spectacular 360-degree views
Bright Moon Park, with a massive stone statue of hero Zheng Chenggong
I think Gulang Yu’s best attractions are actually its old houses. Consulates of foreign governments, churches, schools and an old hospital, they speak of a wealthy and decadent past on the island. Many are now abandoned and are overgrown with vines and tree roots, but are being gradually restored and preserved by the government. 
Before you head back to Xiamen from Gulang Yu grab some lunch in one of the island’s many, many seafood restaurants. Most famous are the oyster omelettes (hail jian 海蛎煎)at 189 Longtou Lu.
Gulangyu Island: Details
The island is reached by a ten-minute ferry from the main pier near the western end of Zhongshan Lu.
Ferries run every ten minutes from early until midnight.
You can buy boat-only tickets (8 yuan) or a combination ticket that includes ferry, and entry to all five major sites for 108 yuan.
You can purchase tickets to individual attractions on the island itself, but you will save about 35 yuan by buying the combination ticket.
Allow at least three hours to see Gulangyu, although if you plan to climb Sunlight Rock and have a swim, make it 4-5 hours. Swimming is permitted off the main beaches, and the water is very clean.

Afternoon: Fan Tian Temple 梵天寺
After a good lunch, head north off Xiamen island itself to the stunning Fan Tian Temple. It’s a good ninety minute drive from downtown, but the temple is beautiful and well worth visiting, situated high on a hill in the middle of a nature reserve full of walking tracks.  
The original temple site is over 1500 years old, but the temple itself has been rebuilt several times.
If you walk up and over the hill behind the temple you will find yourself walking back downhill through a beautiful sculpture-filled park to the tiny but wonderful East Mountain Ancient Temple (Dong Shan Gu Miao 东山古庙), more than 600 years old and creaking with age. It’s roof is crowded with glazed ceramic wonders – dragons, fish, warriors on horseback, gods riding tigers and more. 
‘Heavenly official bestows good fortune’
Fantian Temple: Details
Lunshan Lu, Tong’an District, north of Xiamen Island
Admission free, open seven days

Night: Zhongshan Lu Pedestrian Street 中山路
Night time is the best time to meander along neon-lit Zhongshan Lu, a pedestrian-only street in downtown Xiamen. The street has a great laid back vibe and starts in the east, running westwards towards the waterfront. 
It’s lined with shops selling local delicacies like pineapple cake, dried shrimp, pastries and sweets, and the middle of the street has been given over to outdoor cafes selling tropical fruit juices and desserts, a perfect antidote to the warm weather (even in November!).
There is a terrific street food market running along Ding’an Lu, between Zhongshan Lu and Zhenhai Lu. Find a stall you like the look of, choose from the heaving tables filled with seafood and have it cooked to order. 
Zhongshan Lu Pedestrian Street: Details
Open 24 hours
Most shops close at 9pm, restaurants open later.

Next post: Ten Must-Try Foods in Xiamen

The Embroidery and Antique Textiles Market, Kaili

“In ancient times…there was a smart Miao girl named Bang Xiang. The beautiful girl was very skilful at embroidering flowers – they were so vivid they could even compare with real flowers.
After Bang Xiang was married she had nine sons and seven daughters. Her seven daughters were as smart as her. In no time, Bang Xiang’s daughters themselves reached the age of marriage. Bang Xiang made wedding gowns in seven different colours for her daughters and told them to pass down the colours of the wedding gowns to their own children.
Later, only by taking a look at what colour girls wore, could Bang Xiang recognise whose children they were.”
                                                                                                                    Traditional Miao Story

Central Guizhou is a living museum of opulent textile arts with more than one hundred varieties of ethnic dress worn by local women, all typified by colours, styles and patterns of embroidery particular to one local area or village – as the story goes, each village descended from one of Bang Xiang’s colourful daughters. 
Having no written language, Miao women have long told their legends and history stitch by stitch, on their clothing. – the terrifying migration across the deep waters of the Yellow River, the battles and victories, the mythical beasts and birds that saved their ancestors, and the Butterfly Mother from whom all Miao people are descended.
Even today, every Miao girl learns to embroider and in her teenage years will produce two masterpieces – a full set of embroidered panels to be attached to the sleeves and bodice of her wedding jacket, and a richly decorative baby carrier. Later, she will embroider another set of panels for festival dress, hats and clothes for her children, and in her later years a set of funeral clothes. 
This rich textile heritage is beginning to be appreciated by museums and textile collectors all over the world, and there is a growing market for the buying and selling of new and antique textiles. Now every Friday and Saturday in Kaili you can find pieces from all over Guizhou gathered together in a single marketplace. It’s a dream for textile lovers and collectors – wall to wall embroidery, colour, pattern, weaving, pleating, applique, knot work, batik, and metal threadwork. Stunning.
Baby’s hat, and Miao woman making appliqued shoes
Detail of baby carrier
Miao woman selling knot work baby carriers, and an embroidered baby carrier in use
Scraps of old embroideries re-made into bracelets

Embroidery patterns for sale – the designs for the panels are drawn by hand then paper cut, and then tacked to the back of the fabric.
Typical completed design (detail) with birds and animals
Paper cut design set depicting the Butterfly Mother and a dancing woman. Every idle moment is spent embroidering.
Antique panel used to decorate the top of an everyday apron. 
The market stretches the length of the street and into the building on the left. Miao woman from Shidong village.
Dress aprons for festival wear
Gejia Miao woman with distinctive head dress and highly decorative wax resist indigo textiles. Metal thread embroidery on back of jacket. 
Antique woven head scarf, fragment.
Miao woman selling indigo and plant dyed stiff cotton fabric, used for festival jackets. Embroidered panels are then sewn on top of the finished jacket. 
Occasionally textiles from further afield find their way to the market – like these Yi minority embroidered belts
Kaili Embroidery and Antique Textiles Market – Details
Jinquan Lu Textile Market
Jinquan Lu, Kaili, near the Kaili National Stadium
Every Friday and Saturday, 9.30am – 3pm

Some Like it Hot! Food Adventures in Central Guizhou

‘Do you eat chili Fiona?’ asked our local Miao guide Billy, as we watched a young woman trimming four enormous baskets of chilies outside a restaurant. It was the restaurant’s daily chili delivery.
He looked slightly defeated in advance, as though he already knew the answer was likely to be no. He often took small groups of foreigners around central Guizhou, but they all found the hot, sour local food intolerable and Billy was thwarted, yet again, from showing them the delights of Guizhou’s cuisine, also known as qián cài 黔菜。
We had been driving since early morning on bumpy back roads, the car expertly handled through mud bogs, deep ruts and climbing mountain switchbacks by our driver, who appeared to be fourteen years old. A Miao himself, and therefore small of build, I’m sure he was actually about twenty-two but with a soft baby face. He was carefully cultivating two things – a long whisker on his chin that stubbornly resisted being joined by any others in the way of a beard, and a nonchalant attitude whilst smoking. Both looked oddly out of place on one so young.
‘Of course I eat chili’ I replied. ‘I enjoy it very much.’
‘Really?’ asked Billy and the driver together.
‘Really.’  A love of all things spicy had served me well on past travels through India and Thailand, and I loved all of China’s spicy cuisines – from Sichuan, Hunan, Yunnan and Guangxi, and now Guizhou. 
Billy and the driver smiled. And so began four days of Guizhou food adventures, guided by Billy, and fitted in around finding weavers, silversmiths and traditional indigo dye artisans. 
I can’t claim to be any kind of expert on Guizhou’s foods (you can read about Ten Must Try Foods in Guizhou and Guangxi), but after four trips to the same area in central Guizhou I am beginning to understand the Miao-influenced local cuisine better. 
Guizhou’s cuisine is characterised as suānlà 酸辣 – hot and sour. It feels rustic, but is far from simple  and dishes are rich in a complexity of both taste, colour and texture. Wild ingredients are commonly used – wild peppers, wild herbs, water roots, and fruits – which lend the food an exotic and unusual edge.
We began with the area’s most famous dish, synonymous with the Miao people:
Sour Fish Soup Hotpot 酸汤鱼火锅 Suan Tang Yu Huo Guo
The saying goes that, due to the cool damp weather in Guizhou, the Miao people are unable to go more than three days without sour soup or their legs become unsteady.
You must try this dish, if you ever get the chance – it is unbelievably rich, flavourful, nourishing and addictive. 
The soup is a complex blend of sour tastes – the lemony sourness of a clear base of lightly pickled bean sprouts, tomato slices and cucumbers, the clean acidity of fresh tomatoes, the sweet sourness of fermented sticky rice and the kicking hot sourness of fermented fresh mashed chilies – mixed together with wild herbs and spices – Guizhou ‘mint’ resting on top, mu jiang zi or tree ginger seeds (a kind of tart peppercorn), and finely chopped and spiced water root zhe ergen 折耳根 (known as yuxingcao 鱼腥草 in other parts of China), ginger and fermented soybeans.
Added to all of this are six or so uncooked freshwater carp. The best versions of the dish are found in smaller villages where the carp are grown in the water of the rice paddies, small but sweet of flesh. 
The whole pot then bubbles away at the table, cooking the fish and the fresh tomatoes and filling the room with steam and wonderful smells.
In front of each diner is a small dish of diced garlic, chopped fresh chillies, chopped cilantro and dried chili flakes. Once the soup is cooking you add a small ladle of liquid to this dry mixture and use it as a dipping sauce for your fish.
Once the fish have been eaten, heads and all, the real ‘hotpot’ begins – fresh cabbage leaves, fresh spindly bean sprouts, and white enoki mushrooms are added to the remaining soup to cook.
(If you read Chinese there’s a clear and concise recipe here)

Bracken Root Starch Fried with Smoked Bacon 腊肉炒蕨粑 larou chao jueba

Billy told me during China’s three years of Great Famine (1958-1961) the local Miao people survived on wits and instinct by eating wild plants like this. 
Bracken fern roots are pounded to release the starch, which is then steamed into a heavy ‘cake’ that can be cut into pieces and cooked. The bracken root cake (jueba 蕨粑) is fried, rendering the outside crispy and the inside dense and chewy, with a texture like bacon rind, mixed together with smoked chilies and slices of la rou smoked bacon. 
Guizhou Beef Hotpot 贵州牛肉火锅 guizhou niurou huo guo

A slightly different style of sour hotpot, this one functioned more like regular hot pot from other parts of China – we started with a fairly clear, sour, hot-as-hades soup base, and then added all the other ingredients ourselves – pieces of beef, lengths of chive stalk, slices of firm tofu, mushrooms, bean sprouts and cabbage.
The heat from the soup base was amplified by then dipping each piece of meat into a mixture of dried and fresh chill mixed with salt, until none of us could speak and sweat literally dripped from our brows. But still we kept eating.

 We finished the meal with a bowl of the clear, slightly sour pickled vegetable ‘starter soup’ that is the hotpot base, which restored some much-needed coolness to our mouths.

Filled Rice Rolls 卷粉 juanfen
Minutes after I tried juan fen for the first time I jotted down a page of frantic notes, determined to capture the essence of its amazing taste. (Doesn’t everyone write notes about what they eat?) 
‘A completely textural dish. Soft pillows of rice sheet rolled with sliced fresh green beans, tiny cubes of tofu and slivers of mushroom. The beans give a squeaky crunch. Topped with guizhou water root zhe ergen, scallions, lajiao chill paste, peanuts, fresh tomato sauce, Guizhou pickled greens, whole garlic cloves and chopped green chili.’
It was a revelation – the soft smoothness and relative blandness of the rice sheets gave way to more than ten different flavours and textures on the tongue. 
It’s often eaten as a breakfast food or mid-morning snack.
Rice noodles 米线 mi xian and Rice tofu 米豆腐mi doufu
All over central Guizhou are small food stalls like this, typified by a row of enamel bowls and plates filled with condiments. 
To one side are the starches: large platters of cold rice noodle sheets cut into broad or narrow strips, deep bowls filled with cubes of soft rice-starch known as rice tofu, or cubes of mung bean jelly or sweet potato starch jelly.
The diner chooses a cold starchy base – noodles or cubes – and to this is added a mixture of textures and tastes from the many bowls. These include dried chill, fried peanuts, diced garlic with coriander stalk, hot spiced water root, finely chopped shallots, pickled spiced beans, pickled green vegetables, fresh chopped chilies (red and green), fermented chili sauce, pork mince, soy sauce, mild vinegar, or oil.
The result is fresh, tasty, cold and spicy all at the same time, the intense chili heat balanced by the soft coolness of the starch.
I suspect you could go an entire year without eating the same combination twice!

Traditional Village Life in China: The Miao Village of Qingman

I was looking for weavers in the villages of central Guizhou – artisans who still knew the old ways and methods to weave cloth, without machines, without electricity – and they were proving very hard to find. The local Miao women had largely abandoned the making of handwoven cloth because modern factories and machines could produce quality cotton at a fraction of the price, and so weaving had become nothing more than a lost tradition for most Miao women, an indulgent waste of time that could be better spent growing crops or tending to business.
Miao women don’t often take short cuts – they spend two years embroidering the colourful panels they place on their wedding garments, and another year embroidering and appliquéing a baby carrier for their first child. They still dye all their own cloth – with indigo they have grown themselves – and sew all their own clothes from the dyed cloth.
But weaving is different. Weaving consumes so many hours it’s difficult to fit anything else in. Setting up a loom takes five women one whole day, and once the loom is set the weaving proceeds at a snail’s pace – about a yard a day. The time for weaving has to be found between rice planting and harvest, and unlike embroidery, which you can carry with you anywhere to work on when you have a spare moment, weaving ties you to a loom, completely immovable. 
So weaving is a dying art in Guizhou. 
We needed handwoven cloth for a large artwork, for which every component was to be handmade by the local Miao people. We had already found expert dyers who used traditional indigo and plant dyes to render the cloth a deep, rich aubergine, and silver smiths who made ornaments to sew to the cloth, but our stumbling block was the cloth itself, and the weavers to make it – it seemed wrong to start the process with factory-made fabric.
We had chased many leads only to find dead ends – elderly women who occasionally wove brocade strips for special orders, villagers that used to weave, but no longer did. Our guide thought he had heard of some weavers in Qingman village, southwest of Kaili in central Guizhou Province, and so we set off to find out, prepared for more disappointment.
Qingman village is typical of a Miao village, of which there are hundreds in central Guizhou, microcosms of a traditional way of life preserved well into the modern day. The geographic remoteness of many of the villages, combined with the strong ethnic identity of the Miao people means that modern life has been a long time coming, and its encroachments are ponderously slow – an electricity wire here and there, an occasional television set.
The houses are made of wood, raised on stilts to climb the steep hillside and tightly packed together to maximise workable farmland. Between the houses hung with newly-harvested corn run narrow stone lanes leading up and down. A woman passed us, hoe in hand and baby on her back held tight by a patterned and embroidered baby carrier. Another woman passed, with a bamboo pole over her shoulder balancing two enormous panniers full of pig manure being carried from the sty to the fields. Miao men and women both work the fields, but women have the added task of running the home and rearing children.  

The village square, usually reserved for festivals, markets and celebrations, was being put to good use as a flat place for drying harvested rice, raked carefully. Elsewhere bright red chilies and bunches of millet, tied together with grass, were spread out to dry in the early autumn sun.
It was clear that village life fell into a natural cadence determined by the ebb and flow of the seasons and the crops, with intense activity during planting and harvest interwoven with quiet periods reserved for other activities – weddings, festivals, preserving of foods, sewing, repairing and even occasional afternoons spent sitting in the sun drinking mi jiu, a sweet rice liquor.
As I watched an elderly couple outside their house – he smoking tobacco, she repairing a woven grass mat used for drying rice – it seemed village life had remained as it was for a very long time. Certainly, most of the villagers carried mobile phones now, and they didn’t all wear indigo cloth, but they still farmed, and their year was governed more by the passing seasons than what they read in the newspapers or heard on their radios.
The unseasonably warm autumn weather – known in Chinese as an autumn tiger (qiu laohu 秋老虎) – was proving perfect for dyeing indigo, with every house hung with a length of the deep purple-black cloth, and nearly every woman’s fingers stained dark blue from the dye.

After enquiries at a number of houses we came across the first positive sign that weaving was still being carried out in Qingmen – five women preparing a loom for weaving silk. At last!

Now I could understand why it took an entire day – the threads were carefully measured, cut, combed and separated, and wound onto a giant spindle attached by a harness to one woman’s waist. Bamboo slats were placed under the threads at intervals to prevent tangling and intermingling of the threads. 
When we asked about weavers the women directed us to the house of Pan Yanlian, the young woman whose loom they were preparing.
We found Pan Yanlian at home, in the cool area under her house set up with a loom. She was weaving, not for tourists or for fun, but for a Beijing fashion designer who was using the village’s traditional checked silks in a small range of clothing. Of all things. How very wonderful.
She had learnt weaving from her mother and mother-in-law and had found it both relaxing and enjoyable, a welcome break from outdoor work. 
We sat and talked with her for hours, hearing about village life and her two children (China’s ethnic minorities are permitted two children, as are rural families), and learned that there were at least eight functioning looms in the village, and more than eight women who knew how to use them. Even more wonderful! 
It was a delight to know that thanks to the value placed on handmade things by visitors from Japan and some Chinese designers, she was able to make a living from weaving and in her village, it was no longer a dying art. 
So tell me – do you have a fascination with textiles? I believe there are more of you than I ever suspected after posting about this on Facebook recently! 

How far have you travelled to find unusual textiles, and what treasures have you brought home with you?

Qingman Village 青曼 – Details
Qingman village is a beautiful example of an intact traditional Miao village and visitors are welcome. The village is about two hours’ drive from Kaili in central Guizhou and is best reached by private car. Kaili is two and a half hours’ drive from the provincial capital Guiyang.
Few local villagers speak Chinese and none speak English, so travelling with a Miao-speaking guide is very helpful – try Gateway to Guizhou for help.
There are no restaurants or guesthouses in the village, but there are two small stores where water and snacks can be bought.
The local Miao families sell their silk and old textiles on market days. 

A trip to Qingman can be combined with a visit to the beautiful paper-making village of Shiqiao (Stone Bridge) nearby.