Dazhai & Dragon’s Backbone travel notes

We only spent three nights in the small corner of China that is Dazhai and I’ve already done more than that number of posts on the place. Clearly it’s got a special place in my heart – but it’s definitely time to move on!

Before we arrive at our next stop (a new province, no less!) here are just a couple of notes for anyone who might want to visit the Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces.

Accommodation notes

Staying at the lovely Wisdom Inn was one of the factors that made Dazhai so magical for me and this hotel has joined the ranks of my short list of most-favorite-places we stayed during our entire trip so far.

The place is run by Sandy and her mother, both of whom are soft-spoken, gracious and welcoming. The inn is simple, with a big open room downstairs where you can eat a meal or have a cup of coffee or join Sandy’s mom playing video games. 🙂

Rustic charm

Upstairs are the bedrooms – simple and rustic but pristine and covering all the basics you could need. The beds with their fluffy duvets were the most comfortable I experienced in China (which is known for its rock-hard mattresses). The water in the newly-furnished bathroom was wonderfully piping hot – a very nice thing during those crisp autumn mornings and nights.

Simple but pristine bathrooms

 

 

I’ve shared a few more details about the place in an earlier post. Suffice to say, while it’s not the fanciest place we’ve stayed, there is something about it – some magic combination of the setting, the peace, the simplicity and the thoughtfulness of Sandy – that made me feel instantly and completely at home there.

One other plus – the Inn is just a short walk from the village gate, which is where all cars have to stop. So if you’re arriving with heavy bags, you won’t have to lug them all that far. 😉

Hiking in and around Dazhai

The hiking in this area is very accessible. For sure you need to have a bit of a sense of direction and at least a mild degree of fitness, but there are plenty of shorter trails that you can enjoy at a leisurely pace. An hour’s hike or a day’s are equally possible and enjoyable here.

The trails are quite well signposted, and some stops along the way even have handy maps and placards explaining local myths. I couldn’t find print versions of maps anywhere, but this photo is high resolution so you can click if you want to study the paths a bit more close-up. Don’t ask me what’s at the Mercedes symbol; we didn’t make it that far. 😉

We loved seeing the rice paddies in the fall, but there should be interesting and beautiful things to see no matter what time of the year it is. Although if you are planning to visit in the winter, do plan ahead a bit as that’s the low season and not all hotels will be open, etc.

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Dazhai – a feast for the senses! (part 1)

Life on the ground here in Connecticut has been keeping me away from the laptop and this blog has been awfully neglected as a result lately. Tomorrow we’re actually doing the first bit of mini travel – local – since we’ve arrived. We’re going for an overnight trip to celebrate Roman’s birthday :-D! The laptop is going to be left behind but I want to try to get in a post or two before we head off…

So without further ado, here are some more thoughts and notes on our days in Dazhai.

Sense of sound

There are so many sensuous details that stand out in my memory from Dazhai, so many little things I totally savored while we were there.

I mentioned before how refreshingly quiet Dazhai was.

The village is so small. There’s no night life to speak of, there were not too many tourists while we were there, the villagers are mostly farmers who seem to live pretty simple lives, in terms of technology at least. There are only a few motors in town – a handful of scooters and the occasional piece of mechanized farm equipment.

All this makes for unexpected but glorious quiet. Without all the background noise of urban life, the smaller-scale sounds start to gently come to the fore.

Here’s one recording taken on our first day there.

Dazhai 1

The scene is on one of the hills surrounding the village. We stopped at the end of our hike to enjoy the trickle of a small mountain brook and listen to the symphony of insects warm up as the sun headed towards the horizon. You can hear farmers threshing rice by hand – that’s the thumping sound. Of course when I hit record, a jet had to fly overhead, so you’ll hear that too – but that’s not typical of Dazhai! 🙂

This is from another location, but here is a picture of a man and woman manually threshing some recently harvested rice, just to give a visual to the sound clip.



Of course this lack of motors means that goods coming into and out of the village are somewhat limited. Dazhai isn’t too cut off – there is a road that leads pretty close to its entrance. But much of the food we ate while there was locally produced (like the local tofu we had fried up at our hotel one night – seriously yum!!!).

It also means that larger things that have to make it up to villages up the hills that are accessible only by footpath are getting carried up one of two ways: by horse power (literally) or man (or woman) power. We saw a lot of heavy things making their way up and down hill during our hikes along the various trails and it never failed to impress.



 

Snow and then

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I’m so excited! After a month back home in New England, we’re finally getting visited by a proper snowfall! 🙂 It’s the perfect excuse to have a peaceful day inside, feeling warm and snuggly as the white flakes swirl outside the window. I love winter in general but especially for days like these.

It also gives me a chance to remember and write about a place in China that made me feel equally at peace, safe and content.

There’s something about Dazhai

There were many highlights during our months in China and the rest of Asia, but Dazhai stands out for me as the one place during our trip where I felt instantly at home in a very quiet but very deep way.

When we were first researching China, deciding where we might visit, I was wandering around the Lonely Planet site, and this is the one image that captured my imagination completely. I remember shooting Roman the link right away and telling him, I want to go there.

Once we were actually on the road in China though, I forgot completely about that photo. It turned out though that we ended up having time to burn while still in Guangxi – we had to extend our visa and until the paperwork got settled, we couldn’t travel too far afield.

(Chinese visa side-note. Although it wasn’t too painful a process, it took longer than we would have liked and it could have been smoother if we’d received more detailed information ahead of applying. For example, if you do need to extend your visa within China, make sure that you fill your paperwork out in black ink only!)

The Longsheng Rice Terraces, or the Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces in English – someone with a romantic poet’s heart saw the scale-like layers of the terraces and the undulating lines of the hills’ ridges roaming into the distance and came up with this beautiful name – seemed like a perfect place to spend a few days while waiting for our paperwork to be processed. Not too far from both Yangshuo and Guilin (the province’s capital, where our passports were being interred in official procedures) and the hotel we’d found was happy to take us without our papers (usually you have to register with your passport and visa in hotels in China).

We’d opted to stay in Dazhai, which was meant to be less touristy than the biggest village in the area, Ping’an. There was an over-the-top tourist check-point/rest stop to mark our entrance into Longsheng, but after that, the tranquil and gorgeous woods and fields spread out before us in all directions.

As soon as our car began the ascent into dramatic landscape, my heart began to quicken. Lots of twists and turns along the road eventually brought us to Dazhai’s gate. We left the car behind and a short walk brought us to our hotel where we received a warm welcome from Sandy, the owner.

DSC 0003The view from just outside our guesthouse, with the stream in the foreground

The day was beautiful – an afternoon full of warm sunlight – and my heart thrilled to be in this place. Elegant wooden farmhouses connected by cobblestone paths made up the village, which was surrounded by the terraced hills at the end of the rice-growing season, glowing in the sun. The lack of cars meant that the village was refreshingly quiet – there was room enough to hear the sounds of children playing, farmers at their work, the babble of the stream just outside our hotel. I breathed in the air and felt at once excited and at peace… What ever instinct had perked up at the sight of that picture online, months earlier, was rewarded. Arriving in Dazhai, I settled into the moment, knowing that right there, right then, was exactly right where I wanted to be.

More to come in the next post but in the mean time here are just some photos from our first day in Dazhai.

DSC 0011As soon as we’d settled in and rested up at the guest house, I dragged poor Roman out for what ended up being a proper hike up into the terraces – I just couldn’t wait to “get out into it”. It was the end of the farming season; this is cut rice waiting to be gathered.

DSC 0037One thing I found fascinating about the area was the wild mix of plant life. Palms and banana trees, thick bamboo, rugged, spicy smelling pines, delicate flowers and of course rice, rice, rice. An interesting mix! Here’s a view of just some of those plants in front of a farmhouse up in the hills.

Chillies drying in front of a farmhouse


Harvest


Working at the edge of the sky – if you click the panorama you can see a farmer threshing rice on the foremost terrace.

Food, funerals and fireworks

It’s really time to leave Yangshuo for our next stop in China, but before I finish up with this place I wanted to share our food and accommodation notes plus a little something extra.

Accommodation and food notes

After leaving Omeida, we decided to treat ourselves and went upscale at a hotel called the River View Hotel. It was expensive for our budget (around RMB 250 per night, or USD 40) but it was also the first nice place we stayed since arriving in mainland China.

A big, clean, comfortable bed, Western style toilets in a perfectly clean bathroom, our own private balcony. All of these made a nice change after the hotels we experienced in Xinjiang and the squat-style toilet and spartan room at Omeida. Also great was the location: the river view was nice enough but having our favorite coffee shop just a few doors down was the real treat. 🙂

MingYuan Café is listed in Lonely Planet. It’s a cute little café with eclectic decoration and probably the best espresso/espresso drinks we had in all of mainland China. …Thinking about it… Yes, THE best espresso we had on the mainland for sure. Unconventional but awesome tiramisu and cheesecake too! We practically lived at this place and it’s a super spot for studying Chinese.

Other favorites included Kelly’s which I wrote about earlier, and Pure Lotus Vegetarian Restaurant, where we ordered a whole mess of different things from the huge menu, and each and every one of them were delicious.
Traveler’s note: There are tons of restaurants in Yangshuo. We tried a fair amount of them and most of them were fairly average – catering to tourists who probably won’t stay long enough to be picky. There are probably other gems out there though that we didn’t get to!

A word of warning

Another random note to travelers – like most hot spots in China, visit Yangshuo during the national holiday week at your own peril!!

We were still in class when the holiday and its thousands upon thousands of giddy Chinese tourists descended upon the place. Suddenly the streets around Omeida were filled to the brim with wobbly tandem bikes (parents with a small child strapped precariously to a seat strapped precariously to the bike bar, couples in matching outfits, young men with flower garlands resting on their brows) heading out to the countryside, while the hawkers around the tourist center redoubled their efforts and the alleyways swelled with tour groups in matching neon hats obediently bobbing along after flags on sticks fluttering above the crowds…

Consider yourselves warned. 😉

The unconventional alarm clock

While we were students at the Omeida Academy in Yangshuo, we lived in a dorm room in the residential part of town. We were on the 2nd floor (1st floor if you’re European – one above the ground floor) of an apartment building filled with a mix of locals and students, with our window facing out on to the sidewalk and broad street below.

One morning early we nearly tumbled out of bed when we were awoken by the tremendous cacophony of hundreds upon hundreds of small but potently loud fire crackers being set up directly below our open window. Blearily peeking out, we could see a crowd gathering in front of the building below.
We asked our teacher about it at class that morning and it turned out an elderly man from the building next door had just died, and what we had witnessed was the start of his funeral ceremony.

By the time our morning class was over, more mourners plus a band had gathered. People were wearing white tissue paper over their clothes and playing cards at tables set up under a tent on the sidewalk. The band would start up every once in a while and someone took it upon themselves to light another round of fire crackers every once in a while.

It was all very interesting and we felt lucky to have a glimpse into this cultural tradition. That is, until the sun started to set and we realized that we were in for a late evening of lurchy-sounding music and fireworks that all sounded close enough to have been taking place on the edge of our bed.

The next day we found out – first hand – that traditional Chinese funerals are a multi-day affair. The noise – I mean celebrations – kicked off around 6:30 in the morning and tended to carry on until close to midnight. The final night there was a crescendo, with no fewer than three bands and one performance troupe participating, and lots of drunk, theatrical, karaoke-style singing.

I don’t mean to be disrespectful of local traditions, but we sure didn’t sleep enough that week and it was with equal parts fascination and relief when early the next morning we watched from our window as there was a last hurrah and the colorful casket was carried down the street, followed by dancing dragons, musicians, mourners and plenty of fireworks.

So, in case you ever wondered what a Chinese funeral might sound like, here are some sound bites. (I especially get a kick out of the car alarms at the end of the second one… 😉 )

Chinese funeral 1

Percussion!

Back to China – and to cooking

I’m going to ease back into where I left off in our travels with a post about food. For anyone who has (understandably!) lost track, that takes us back to Yangshuo, the town in Guangxi Province, China, where we took our survival Chinese course.

I had my sights set on taking at least one cooking class in China, but we somehow we were always moving around so much or too busy and sadly it never worked out.

But while we were in Yangshuo – the longest by far that we stayed in any one place in China – we ended up becoming regulars at a few spots in town and I did get the chance to snoop around the kitchen of our favorite restaurant on afternoon.

Trying new and exciting food is part and parcel of the travel experience and there’s seemingly always an excuse to indulge on something special, fancy, exotic, or rich. As wonderful as that is though, when you travel as long as we have, sometimes all you crave is something simple and down to earth.

We were really happy to find straightforward, down-to-earth food on the menu at Kelly’s Cafe. Lots of different veggies on offer made me a very happy girl, and the simple stir-fry techniques she cooked with let the fresh ingredients shine.

I enjoyed the cooking so much that I asked the restaurant’s owner if she’d show me how things were prepared. She was totally sweet and welcoming and let me squeeze into their miniscule little kitchen (seriously, this thing was about the size of my closet here in the States) to watch over the chef’s shoulder as they prepared some of my and Roman’s favorites.

It wasn’t a cooking class per se, but I did learn just how easy good stir fried vegetables can be to make. She explained that often times the difference between what people make at home and what you get at the restaurant comes down to the cooking temperature. What made her food so tasty was that it was cooked very quickly over the highest flame; home cooks tend to shy away from high heat. Also key is the type of soy sauce used.

Since I’ve arrived back in the States I’ve been gorging myself on my mom’s fantastic cooking and since it’s also been the holidays she’s been pulling out all the stops. I’ve eaten a ton more meat and other heavier foods than I usually do, and I’m definitely feeling ready for some lighter fare. I’ve been craving veggies and have started playing around with the cooking techniques Kelly demonstrated for me in Yangshuo. I still need to go shopping to find some proper soy sauce but so far I’ve been really happy with my creations.

The following aren’t full recipes but rather provide an overview of how Kelly’s put together our favorite dishes. Preparation of each dish doesn’t vary that much. If the prep work (chopping and cooking of noodles/rice) is done beforehand, which of course was the case at the restaurant, and the wok is hot enough, then each dish takes next to no time to cook.

As I said, I was just watching over the cook’s shoulder – measurements are approximate only; I would definitely recommend adjusting things to taste!

Pumpkin (nán guā)

Start with a hot wok.

Add vegetable oil – probably about 1.5 tablespoons.

Add sliced garlic, maybe one clove worth.

Cook briefly, then add (2 cups?) of cubed pumpkin (squash would do as well).

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Add salt (1/2 – 1 tsp to taste) and a small dash of sugar.

Add water to the wok (1/4 – ½ cup – enough to keep the pumpkin from getting burnt) and cover; let cook for five minutes or until the pumpkin is soft.

Remove from heat and garnish with freshly cut chives.

Lotus root (ǒu)

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Start with a hot wok.

Add vegetable oil – probably about 1.5 tablespoons.

Add sliced garlic, maybe one clove worth.

Add the slices of lotus root (somewhat similar in taste and texture to water chestnut).

Add a bit of chopped chili pepper (seeds removed) – vary the amount depending on how hot you like it.

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Add water to the wok (1/4 – ½) and cover; let cook for 3 – 5. The lotus roots should still remain crunchy.

Remove lid, mix in soy sauce to taste.

Remove from heat and garnish with scallion cut into 2-inch-long thin strips.

Friend noodles (chǎo miàn)

Noodles should be pre-cooked along with thinly cut strips of carrot.

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Have prepared finely chopped onions and greens – i.e., chard, bok choy, etc. and a handful of bean sprouts

Start with a hot wok.

Add vegetable oil – probably about 1.5 tablespoons.

Add sliced garlic, maybe one clove worth.

Add the onions, greens and sprouts.

Add the noodles (with carrot) and soy sauce.

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Cook for a few minutes, stirring as necessary.

Serve hot.

Fried rice

Rice should be pre-cooked.

Have prepared finely chopped red onions and greens – i.e., chard, bok choy, etc. and carrot

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Start with a hot wok.

Add vegetable oil – probably about 1 tablespoon.

Add sliced garlic, maybe one clove worth.

Add the onions, greens and carrots.

DSC 0615

Add the rice and soy sauce.

Cook for a few minutes, stirring as necessary.

Serve hot.

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Our feast!

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Friendly Kelly and the delicious pumpkin (nán guā) I love so much

Back to Yangshuo

Ok, getting back to China. I really need to get these posts out because our time in Guangxi already feels like a lifetime ago! To get my brain into the reminiscing frame of mind, here are some photos to give you (and me) a taste of Yangshuo town.

I’ve already written a bit about Yangshuo here. It has a very touristy side and a very down to earth side. Tchotchke shops and tourist-targeting restaurants come thick and fast in the pedestrian-streets radiating out from the river side. At its most commercial, Yangshuo can get more than a bit gaudy.

The tourist area lit up at night

Useless crap for sale

But it’s easy to get beyond this thin layer of neon and plastic and discover the town’s charms. For a start, the striking karst hills pop up all over the place, even in the middle of town, and steal the scene.

The view on a misty morning from our hotel balcony – hills rising up in the background

The Li River has its touristy spots, but they are easy to avoid and its lovely to walk along the river side at any time of the day.

The opposite bank of the river lit up at night with a nearly full moon overhead. It looks more X-files in the photo than it did in real life due to the way my camera picked up the light. I love that you can see the karsts in the background though – they were also not so bright in real life.

And once you got away from the most touristy spots, Yangshuo is just a normal town.

Girls on their way home from school

 

A lotus pond in town

 

Simple restaurant

 

Lunch break

Out and about around Yangshuo

I’m still feeling pretty struck down by this “tropical flu” that I managed to pick up two days ago. Among other things, it seems to have a rather limiting effect on my mental capacities. Sorting pictures is about the extent of what I’m up for, aside from naps, surfing the web, watching Simpsons re-runs and more naps. For a bit of diversion, I’m doing a blog post but by necessity it’s going to be picture-heavy, text-light. 🙂

Intro

The town of Yangshuo is nice enough, but what really draws the tourists is the landscape around the area. Peaceful rivers, tranquil farmlands and simple villages, and startling karst mountains that rise dramatically above it all.

The thing to do here is rent a bike in town and then go exploring for yourself. Roman and I did a bit of this after our classes were over and (thankfully) the weather transformed from cold and wet to hot and sunny. Here are some photos from our little expeditions.


The alternate mode of transportation is to hire a bamboo raft to take you down river. These we spotted in a picturesque spot about a half hour outside of town (by bicycle). 


Roof tiles stacked outside a village home

A village classroom

Threshing beans by hand

Inside a village temple

 

 

I wonder what the writing on the wall says. Can anyone translate for me? 🙂

Bamboo leaves with Moon Hill in the background

Moon hill up close. It’s not a great picture, but I wanted to show how big the arch is. Click for the enlarged version. You can see people at the bottom of the photo.

View from Moon Hill

Buffalo bridge crossing

Rice harvest drying in front of a rural home (Can you spot the white cat?)

Village home

Walking home

Thoughts on Chinese and communication in China

Finally, getting back to our days as students of Chinese in lovely Yangshuo… 🙂

We’d heard China was more challenging to visit than other parts of Asia due to language. After so many months wandering through Southeast Asia, we did find that it was different, but I definitely would not describe it as difficult or even challenging.

Rather, I’d put out two points that might contribute to this perception.

Tourism in Southeast Asia

The impact of the language barrier in China isn’t difficult, it’s that it’s so non-existent/easy in Southeast Asia.

Most places we visited – Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and even Laos (Myanmar less so, but even there it was no problem to get around) – are completely geared towards Western tourists.

These countries have, for the most part, well-established service industries, which often form a valuable part of the nations’ economies, and there is a lot of incentive for people to learn English. Not just people working in hotels and restaurants, but cab drivers, store vendors, immigration officers, etc. in these countries would all have good reason to know at least some English.

Tourism in China

China, however, is a different story.

I have to imagine the experience for a Westerner traveling to China must be a lot like any non-English-speaking tourist coming to visit America (at least on the language front).

And it’s not that no Chinese know or speak English. It’s that they don’t feel the need to.

In Southeast Asia, people automatically spoke English to us. They got a kick out of it when we could say a few poorly pronounced words in their own language but anything beyond those few basic words was communicated in English.

In China, we found plenty of people who could and were willing to speak English.

But we also encountered loads of folks – and this was an experience unique to China – who would ramble on to us in Chinese regardless of the confused and bemused expressions on our faces. Especially if we did try out our few phrases and vocab words – then we were in trouble! Answers to our recently memorized questions would come back 100 times faster and harder to understand than the practice conversations we’d had with Becky in class. It was fun and funny, and usually we could figure out a way to communicate at least a bit through body language.

Getting back to my point though… My theory is that China’s economy is larger and more diverse than to be reliant on foreign tourism. What’s more, it has a markedly thriving and increasing domestic tourism industry that was much more significant than in any other country we’ve visited so far on our journey. So there is less need or incentive to cater to foreign tourists to the same extent countries like Thailand or Cambodia do.

That being said, a good portion of the people we encountered DID speak English, and on that front I imagine the similarities to visiting the United States come to an end. I have to imagine the chances of tourists receiving directions, finding out the price of a souvenir or buying bus tickets in their native language – whether it be Chinese, Russian, German, etc. – in America are slim to none. The chance that their questions, posed in hesitant, accented English, will be answered in a flurry of loud, rapidly spoken English however, is more likely. 🙂

The bottom line

It was a lot easier to get around China – at least the places we visited – using English than we had anticipated. Nonetheless, I’m still really glad we learned at least some of the basics. Many people speak at least a bit of English, and in most cases you can make yourself understood with gestures if need be. Many stores and vendors have calculators at the ready, so they can point to a price and not a word need be exchanged between the two of you.

But the interactions were so much nicer for me when I could at least say “thank you” in Chinese, if not a bit more. And not everyone will have a calculator – the simple thing that I found most useful of everything we learned at Omeida was the numbers.

So my next post will be a small collection of just some of what we learned at Omeida for anyone who wants a bit of survival Chinese. 🙂

Chinese appetizer: part two

A little bit more about Omeida before I start in on Yangshuo itself.

The number of students at the school to study Chinese was pretty small. While we were there, there was just a handful of us compared to the large number of English students. The beginner’s course was only Roman and I and a lovely young woman from the Ukraine named Anna. So Becky could give us lots of individual attention during our lesson (much to Roman’s chagrin I think. 😉 )

The number of English students was much higher however. If we’d been staying for a longer, more comprehensive course, we would have taken advantage of the school’s offer of a study buddy – where we could practice our Chinese with a native speaker in exchange for helping them with their English.

We had the opportunity to run into most of the students every day at lunch, which was served cafeteria style (to complete the full back-to-school experience for me 😉 and was awesome. Simple but simply wonderful Chinese dishes – always with plenty of delicious vegetable options that I was of course thrilled about – and white mountains of steaming self-serve rice.

Another thing that the school is good at is field trips and activities. Yangshuo and the surrounding area have plenty of lovely natural and cultural sights to see and they’ll regularly organize group outings at the weekend. The school also hosts activities; while we were there we got to try our hand at a bit of traditional Chinese calligraphy. Our teacher made it look a lot easier in her demonstrations than it actually is, but I loved it, even if I wasn’t that good at it. 😉

Charming Yangshuo 

We’d been a bit jaded by our experiences at tourist towns in Vietnam, and we were worried that we’d find parts of China to be similar – with interactions tending towards transactional, pushy, cold or downright unfriendly or dishonest. I was so relieved to find myself feeling genuinely welcome in Yangshuo.

Yangshuo is a very small city by Asian standards and we found it easy to navigate and a comfortable, accommodating place to spend a few weeks (although the course lasted two weeks, we stayed on for longer in order to extend our visas and see a bit of the countryside in good weather, since things were wet and cold while we were learning Chinese).

With a population of about 300,000, it’s got more small town charm than big city bustle. It’s a major tourist destination, so there are plenty of decent restaurants to choose from, not to mention useless, kitschy souvenirs to buy. But once you get away from the touristy strip it is just a normal town and quite a nice one at that.

Within days of our arrival, we’d get waves and smiles from the shopkeepers on the street round the corner which we would walk every day after class to head into town for a coffee or dinner. We became regulars at a few places – a fantastic corner fruit stand, a little general store and, my favorite, the stationery shop – where the vendors were wonderfully friendly and willing to speak slow, well-enunciated Chinese with us as we fumbled along trying to practice the day’s lessons.

I’ll write more about the touristy things to do in Yangshuo in another post, but suffice to say, as a place to spend a few weeks to get an introduction to Chinese and China, it was a great choice.