The Rice, Rivers, and Rocks of Guilin


The Rice Terraces near Guilin are one of China’s most famous landmarks.

And for good reason: they’re stunning. Picture miles and miles of rolling hills terraced in green and gold. If you visit during the right season, you’ll find the curved basins filled with water, shimmering in the sunset and reflecting the thousands upon thousands of rice plants jutting up from the muddy deep.

Guilin, in the northeast of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, is very much a travel hipster’s mecca. Hostels cost $5 a night on average, there are copious rock formations, hikes, and rivers, as well as seedy karaoke clubs and meals that involve horse meat

But that’s not why you came.

It was the rice terraces. You left the Nanjing Earthen Buildings too soon for this — left the tobacco-growing hills of Fujian and the flash-flood, tea-leafed, guest-accommodating 土楼 to come here.

And you’ve never seen anything like it. It’s as if you’re hiking across giant dragon’s scales made of clayey soil and silver irrigation water.

You’ll need to take at least three buses to get there. Head to Guilin’s all-traveler bus station (桂林汽车客运总店), book your tickets to the 龙胜梯田//long2sheng4ti2tian2, also known as the 龙脊梯田//long2ji2ti2tian2.

Guilin City itself is the seat of the prefecture of the same name. It administers 17 smaller political divisions, two of which are termed “autonomous counties” and are home to the 瑶族/yao2zu2 (Yao ethnic minority) and 苗族/miao2zu2 (Miao/Hmong ethnic minority).

The majority of the Yao people, also known as the Mien people, live in the hills of southeast China (Hunan, Guizhou, Guangdong, Guangxi, Yunnan), Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. They are famous in China for their bright headscarves, intricate needlework in dress, and, of course, their ingenuous terraced agriculture.

The Miao (Hmong) people have a storied history, beginning in the southern Chinese area, but marked by cultural and linguistic division, relocation, and refusal to be subjugated by the majority-Han Ming and Qing empires. The term “Miao” itself is not a name used by the Miao (Hmong) population in Southeast Asia, but is used by Miao Chinese peoples in China.

Be awed. This place is awesome: hillsides costumed in rice terraces while foals nibble on grass and flower and just revel, satisfied.

The next day you’ll wade through the large puddle/small pond outside your hostel on the way to the long-distance bus station.

You’ll want to grab a ticket to either Yangdi (yang2di1//杨堤) or Yangshuo (yang2shuo4//阳朔) via Yangdi. This is where you’ll get on a bamboo raft and speed down the 美丽漓江//mei3li4li2jiang1.

And incredibly 美丽 is the 漓江. With its karst stonescapes and hazy backdrop, the Li River is like a scene out of a Chinese watercolor painting. That’s no exaggeration — tap in “Li River watercolor” to any search engine for proof.

Get your guide to let you disembark somewhere before Xingping Village (兴坪村//xing1ping2cun1) so you can trek the rest of the way.

Take a detour through the citrus orchards. Stop for a lunch of cold rice noodles with cha shao, chili, onion, chives, and pickled beans in broth.

Go slow: the famous “back of the 20 yuan note” scene will still be there when you arrive.

Spend the entire next day eating mangoes, loquats, and rambutans in the city. Guilin City proper is home to some incredible scenes of the Li River and craggy granite towers sprouting up between urbanite.

The Seven Star Park (七星公园//qi1xing1gong1yuan2) is pricey (75 kuai) but worth it for the views, and if you visit while it’s raining, you’ll have the place to yourself. Artists, believers, historians, and tourists all have something for them: caves with historical inscriptions and Buddhist statuettes with incense at their feet, residence studios, vistas that let hikers peek out through the misty green at the city and mountains…

Look back before you leave. Take a picture of where you were at the top of the mountain from where you are now at the bottom of the mountain.

Turn around, hail a taxi to the train station, head home to Shanghai.

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Being Above Ground in Fujian: A Travelogue


Very unique. Not like being above ground in other places.

DAY ONE: took the metro to the far corner of Shanghai to fly SHA>>XMN. Just the journey to the airport itself took nearly two hours. Shangers is ridiculously large. Man sitting opposite me clipped his fingernails directly onto the floor. As one does on the subway.

Flight was comfortable, minimal amounts of stares directed at the tall white person sitting 24C.

Continue reading “Being Above Ground in Fujian: A Travelogue”

Two from Jiangsu: Suzhou


Suzhou is silk, gardens, and Green Snail Spring.

That is: Biluochun (碧螺春//bi4luo2chun1), which is yet another of China’s most famous teas. It’s so named because it’s a green tea, rolled into a spiral resembling snail meat, and harvested in early spring. This tea has a very light, sweet flavor with a delicate floral aftertaste. Many experts rank this tea just as highly as Hangzhou’s Longjing.¹

Biluochun

Suzhou is also renowned for fine silks and embroidery. The Suzhou-style (苏绣//Su1xiu4) has a history of over 2000 years and is noted for its pastel coloration and masterful depiction of environment scenes like flowers, birds, animals, and gardens.² The tiles were taken at a small gallery showcasing the silk embroidery.

The classical gardens of Suzhou are a UNESCO World Heritage site and flooded with tourists at all times. These gardens, built during the Northern Song Dynasty until the late Qing Dynasty (11th-19th century), have nearly a thousand years’ history. Mostly built by wealthy scholars, they mimic in microcosm natural scenes of mountains, hills, rivers, and forests.

Arguably the best and most prominent of the city’s classical gardens is the Humble Administrator’s Garden, which seamlessly melds natural scenes (eg. plots of flowers or trees) with human architecture (pagodas and stained glass windows). Once you’ve been here, all other gardens pale in comparison, really.

However, you won’t be able to enjoy the crafted beauty in peace or solitude — consider yourself extremely lucky if you can manage to take a photo of the scenery without masses of tourists in the shot. (They’ll also make sure to promptly point out in Chinese that you are, in fact, a laowai). The photos below I took while finding respite in the behind-the-scenes bonsai potting area.

Two from Jiangsu: Nanjing


An ancient Chinese capital marked (but not marred) by recent history.

Before I came to China, I knew about Nanjing.

I knew about the war crimes committed there. I knew about the looting, arson, and destruction committed by the Japanese army during the Second Sino-Japanese War. I knew about the monstrosity of rape and murder that occurred there. The horrifying details (which I’ll not name, but can be accessed here) I had mostly put out of mind. Physical and mental distance from the massacre coupled with a human desire to not dwell in past atrocity let me forget how terribly gruesome and inhuman we humans can be. The Rape of Nanjing is an apt name for this massacre of human life and morality.

I went to Nanjing to see the Nanjing Massacre Memorial. I saw the mass grave where corpses — infant, child, teen, young adult, adult, middle-aged, and elderly alike — were buried hastily and indiscriminately. I saw signs bearing the unholy number 300,000 and the monuments erected in memoriam.

But Nanjing, due to and despite its history, is much more than historicity.

The city is authentic, the people and places genuine. Events big and small happened here, and will continue to do so for a long, very long time. The actions we take in Nanjing are a real part of what Nanjing is. You’re part of the scenery, as is everyone else. That means tourists will take your picture with gusto, without a second thought, and certainly without asking.

It should be noted that Nanjing is home to the BEST potstickers in China. Ground meat (usually pork) with green onions or spinach wrapped with thin pieces of dough into half-moon-shaped pockets then pan-fried in a large, shallow wok — what could possibly go wrong there? Somewhere near the eastern entrance to the city’s Purple Mountain scenic park you can find the best of the best.

Nanjing Potstickers

The beautiful Purple Mountain scenic area [Tiles 1-4] is much bigger than you think. You could wander around the park’s trails, temples, Ming Dynasty palace and tombs for days, but you’re here to see Dr. Sun Yat-Sen’s Mausoleum [Tiles 5-8]. The 中山陵 (zhong1shan1 ling2) commemorates the life and accomplishments of one of greater China’s most formative leaders.

Interestingly, Sun is well-respected in both China and Taiwan despite lingering ideological (and subsequently, separatist) disputes from the Chinese Civil War, in which Sun’s Kuomintang, under the leadership of Chiang Kaishek, played a central part. He is seen as the “Father of the Nation” (国父 孫中山先生) in Taiwan or the “forerunner of democratic revolution” (革命先行者) in the PRC because of his role in ending Qing dynastic rule and establishing the Republic of China.¹

Nanjing’s most famous Confucius temple is also noteworthy. The Fuzimiao has 11th century roots as a temple and university, though the standing building dates from the 19th century Qing Dynasty.² The temple and nearby complex were restored in 1985 after it was used as army barracks during the Kuomintang regime of the late 1920s and early ’30s.²

The city’s downtown food scene is incredible. Surrounding the Fuzimiao and all along the nearby Qinhuai River are countless made-to-order buffets. The food is cheap and unbelievably tasty, and, in classic Chinese style, the restaurants are an absolute melee. Speak Chinese or no, you will get lured, smooth-talked, and/or generally berated into buying far too many dishes. As with most things in China, just go with it. Personal recommendations are the tangbao//汤包 (like a giant xiaolongbao eaten with a straw and chopsticks) and whatever the sweet, jelly, fruity soup is below.

Once you’ve had a nice, over-sized lunch, take a walk along the ancient city wall to digest — you’ll need to make room for dinner.

Seven Treasures of Qibao, Shanghai


Where do I even start with this one?

The aptly named 七宝镇//Qi1bao3 Zhen4 (lit. Seven Treasures Town) is an absolute must-see. Shanghai’s closest water town isn’t just that. It’s a snack food paradise and a barbecue lover’s fantasy, a photographer’s dream, an architectural wonder, a relic of ancient China.

Qibao is by far Shanghai’s coolest water town. Wandering through the Old Street will take you the day if you plan it right, but I strongly suggest throwing out those plans. Most likely, you’ll be enticed by every other storefront selling Chinese-style sweets. Don’t stress about it too much. The sooner you accept the fact that you’ll have to make multiple trips to Qibao to truly be “done,” the sooner you get try that curious-looking meat on a stick.

Speaking of which…

Continue reading “Seven Treasures of Qibao, Shanghai”

Xi’an, Shaanxi Province


Xi’an: ancient capital, bustling city of industry and education, and voted Central China’s most liveable city by the Erik Fruth Opinion Council.

I fully admit that I was swayed in Xi’an’s favor by the incredible food. The most incredible bing on the planet, saozi mian//臊子面 [cool video link!], endless street food stalls selling cakes and warm plum juice, ubiquitous and unfailingly delicious roujiamo//肉夹馍, enormous mantou//馒头, heavy use of cumin, chive, and garlic… the list goes on.

It goes without saying that I was well-fed in this city. I would like to point out, however, that I was well-fed out of the necessity to try every street vendor’s culinary offerings (describing their edible creations as anything less than cuisine is plainly insulting to their craft).

All this is not to say that Xi’an is dull in other aspects.

The largely Hui Muslim community in Xi’an is distinct in their dress and diet, and the beautifully eclectic mosques in which they worship. The three tiles below were all taken inside two mosques in Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter. The latter two were taken inside the spectacular Great Mosque, the largest and best preserved of China’s early mosques,¹ built in Chinese architectural style and thus lacking traditional domes or minarets. The mosque hearkens all the way back to 742 CE, though the building that stands now was constructed in the early Ming Dynasty.² More information about the mosque’s history and some incredible photos of its grounds can be found at the links above.

The Bell and Drum Towers [below, respectively] were constructed during the Ming Dynasty and are now symbols of the city of Xi’an.

In June, 2014, the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda became a UNESCO World Heritage Site as part of the Silk Road Routes Network of Chang’an-Tianshan Corridor.

Lastly, the city is home to the world-famous Terracotta Warriors. Three pits dug as part of Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum contain thousands of clay soldiers — complete in rank and file — as well as hundreds of chariots, horses, and court officials. For the man who united the warring states of China in 221 BCE to become ruler of the dynasty that would later bear his name,³ this mind-bogglingly grand burial was a matter of course.

Fly South to Nanxiang


Shanghai’s even got a TIME MACHINE.

It’s located specifically in one of Shanghai’s copious satellite towns: Nanxiang (南翔). Here, in this otherwise sleepy suburb, you’ll travel through time and space to the birthplace of xiaolongbao (also known as God’s gift to man). Here, where they celebrate the myriad genius of our ancestors by cooking dumplings in a bamboo steamer, you’ll be transported to the China of story.

Continue reading “Fly South to Nanxiang”