Category Archives for "Travel"

Apr 09

In 1967, China was “distasteful–though intriguing” and off limits to American tourists

By Mitchell Blatt | China , History , Travel

Used book stores are treasure troves of interesting books full of insights into the past. When I see a bunch of magazines, books, and dusty records piled up outside a cluttered secondhand book store, I can never help myself to look.
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So on Saturday, I discovered a 50 year old guidebook that claimed to tell about the whole world: the Encyclopedia of World Travel: Volume 2, published by Doubleday in 1967. (Volume 2 covers Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and the Pacific. Volume 1 covers the Americas.)

1967 was one year after Mao Zedong began the violent class struggle that was the “Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution” and 18 years after the Communists had founded the People’s Republic of China. As you might imagine, there wasn’t much foreign travel to China. In fact, most citizens of the United States and many other countries were generally not allowed to enter China until China was opened in the 1970’s.

So the description of China begins by stating, “Travel is discouraged in the Communist People’s Republic of China…

In fact, many of the adventurous who have tried to enter China in recent years have been jailed. Some Westerners who had lived in the country for decades before the Communists seized control are still in prison, including doctors, businessmen, and even missionary priests and nuns. The former Government, an arch foe of the Communists, retains its hold on nearby Formosa [Taiwan, in modern reference] and other offshore islands.

Though travel in China is impossible for the present, it is interesting to know in broad outline the high points of the travels of others who journeyed across this vast land not too many years ago.

travel discouraged

What were those high points of travel? The book gives a general outline of the well-known facts about China’s geography and ancient history that you will find in other guidebooks. Society developed along the Yellow River and the Yangtze. East and South China are the main population centers. The populations even then were large by American standards of 2017:

The population of Shanghai is over ten million. Peking has well over six million.

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Now Shanghai’s population is over 20 million–24.1 million, according to China’s measure–and Beijing is 21 million. At the time, China’s population was majority rural. In 2012, China became majority urban.

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hanghai was described as a place of “squalor” and distastefulness.

Only in old Shanghai, which is walled no longer, did travelers see a Chinese city as it was centuries ago. Much of it was and is distasteful–though intriguing–to all but the sophisticated traveler who has long since learned Chinese cities are not what motion pictures would have you believe. In China’s cities, squalor is common, poverty almost a way of life.

China was a poor country back then–with a GDP per capita of US$95–and some of the scenes in the street still today unnerve recently arrived tourists. But the description carries with it a whiff of the old Yellow Peril imagery of Chinese as dirty hordes indulging in opium and depravity.

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n the realm of traditional culture, the book asserts that mainland China under the Maoist Communists had lost its traditions. If you want to see holidays like Spring Festival (New Year) and Dragon Boat Festival celebrated in “the grand old style,” you should visit Hong Kong and Formosa, “who carry on the traditions of their forefathers.”

chinese festivals not celebrated here

Indeed, the Communists attacked traditions during Mao’s rule. During the Cultural Revolution, “Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas” were labeled and denounced as the “Four Olds.” Besides restricting the celebration of traditional festivals, under the Maoist leadership and incitement, the Red Guards stormed libraries, burned books and artwork, and smashed temples.

Since tourism has returned and brought with it a bounty, the Chinese government, however, has emphasized its ancient sites and culture, rebuilding ancient sites, some that had been lost for hundreds of years, and putting government money behind elaborate cultural events. In 2008, China added Dragon Boat Festival, Qingming Festival (Tomb-sweeping Festival), and Mid-Autumn Festival to its official schedule of national public holidays.

Aug 10

12 random thoughts on Korea – Day 12

By Mitchell Blatt | Korea Trip 2016 , Travel

After more than a week in Korea, here are a few notes about a random array of topics:
1.) The mass market beer is pretty good compared to Chinese beers. Cass has a sweet corn malt to it and a crisp drinkability. Of course, I am comparing it to Chinese beers, so anything is good when you use such standards.

2.) There are Kpop shows on TV every day and on some channels all day.
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3.) Baseball is full of singing, stick-banging and cheerleaders.
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4.) The subway in Seoul uses a strange system of taking making you return your cards to a machine to get your 500 won deposit back.

5.) Some restaurants really do give you 5, or 6, or 7, or 8 banchan (side dishes) before your meal.
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6.) Continue reading

Aug 09

Transportation in Seoul: Don’t lose 500 won on each subway ticket – Day 11

By Mitchell Blatt | Travel

The first time I used the Seoul subway, I lost 500 won (US$0.46) because of its stupid ticketing method.

When you get a ticket issued from the machine, you pay a standard fare–about 1,350 won, or more depending on length–but there’s also an additional 500 won highlighted on the screen. If you, like me, want to try to take out the subway machine in its local language, then you will click around on the buttons until you eventually order a ticket, but you won’t comprehend what the extra 500 won is for.

It’s not until the next time that you use the subway machine and you reach into your pocket and find that you still have the old subway card in your pocket and then you try to reload your subway card and find that you can’t, then you click the buttons to buy a ticket, and the 500 won is still on the screen, and the machine issues you a new card, that you finally realize, WTF.

In fact, the 500 won is a deposit on your card, and you have to put the card back in a card return box at the end of your trip to get the refund back. (Since I still had my card in my pocket, I might have ultimately got the refund back. However, who cares?) For someone who has never used a subway, this might seem like a perfectly reasonable system to guarantee that the cards are returned.

But if you have used a subway, you might notice that many systems issue you a token (Nanjing) or a card (Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong) and then the turn stalls have a built-in system for you to deposit the card upon exiting.

So, first point: Remember to deposit your card in the refund box at the end of your trip on the Seoul metro.

Overall, however, I have high praise for the Seoul metro. It has very many cars connected and is not crowded like Beijing or Shanghai or Nanjing often are. Its heated seats are highly praised in the winter.

Intercity Travel

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Aug 02

Asian women prefer traveling to Korea – Day 4

By Mitchell Blatt | Korea Trip 2016 , Travel

While researching tourism to South Korea, I discovered that tourism from Asian countries is dominated by female travelers. 62 percent of tourists to South Korea from East Asia and The Pacific are women, according to the Korea Tourism Organization’s figures for June 2016.

Looking at the numbers on a country-by-country basis, as I did, the countries or territories with the most disproportionate rate of females-to-males visiting Korea were Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, China, Malaysia, Singapore, and Japan, in that order, before the first European country, Portugal, came.

Many Countries Chart

My initial assumption,Continue reading

Jul 27

Beautiful charming cafes and teahouses in the French Concession

By Mitchell Blatt | China , China Travel Tips , Cool Restaurants/Bars , Travel

In 1931, The China Weekly Review published an article by a local claiming that “such vices as gambling, opium dealing and houses of ill-fame are allowed to exist openly in China … wherever the French flag flies in China, social conditions are worse than under other foreign flags.”

Ah, the legendary French hedonism… The French had their own section of Shanghai, governed on their own terms, from 1849-1943, but the good times continue today, 73 years after they waved the white flag and signed the territory over to the Japanese who had conquered Shanghai. Remaining sections of the former French Concession, such as those around Shaanxi South Road, Huaihai Road, and Fuxing Road in Xuhui District have beautiful bars where you can have the old French-style experience, which includes quiet afternoons, too, I think.

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Maison de Thé Song Fang was my intended stop. Housed inside a Republic of China-era lane house from 1930, it is renowned for its charming old-time teahouse style. Wooden tables on a wooden floor. Woven chairs, lamps. In one room, lights housed inside birdcages hung from bamboo poles, and tables were lined up along a flowery red couch that you could just imagine high-class Shanghai women sitting on and playing mah jong. The tea menu listed Chinese and French teas divided by style, with detailed descriptions, most of which were priced between ¥60 yuan and ¥96 yuan (~US$10-15). It also included a selection of fresh homemade pastries.

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Jul 18

In my upcoming travelogue on Korea, I’m going to revisit the place commoners fought martial law with guns

By Mitchell Blatt | History , Promotions , Travel

The citizens were lined up in the park, holding machine guns and M-1 rifles. They had forced the authorities out after the police had brutalized and arrested peaceful protesters, and scared the military off after 700 soldiers who had been called to suppress the protests began firing on and killing citizens.

UPDATE: My trip to Korea is over, and my Kickstarter campaign unfortunately did not succeed. However, I am still going to be writing exclusive articles about my travels in Korea. These exclusive articles will only be available to email subscribers. Click here to visit the subscribe page, or sign up below:

The scene was Gwangju, the year 1980. Ever since the end of the Korean War, there had been sporadic protests for democracy against an ever-changing lineup of authoritarian regimes in South Korea. Elections would be rigged, opposition leaders arrested, the parliament dissolved, or the president would take some “crisis” as an excuse to declare martial law. Eventually the dictator would be disposed of by assassination or coup, and a new dictator would take his spoils. It went on like this through five republics and one period of military rule, but in 1979, the people would stand for it no longer. Demonstrations swept the nation in May 1980. On May 17, Chun Doo-hwan, who had used the assassination of strongman president Park Chung-hee to seize control of the military and domestic security security apparatus (and later the presidency) declared martial law over the whole country on the pretext of maintaining stability. The demonstrations in most cities were put down without bloodshed. But the people of Gwangju city in South Jeolla province, long known for its independent nature and history of rebellions, stood their ground.

For almost a week, the people of Gwangju held control of the city. They formed self-government committees, they printed a newspaper, and they raided police stations and automobile factories for arms and vehicles. On the early morning of May 27, their uprising came to an end. A line of tanks rolled in. The people had gathered on the outskirts of city the day before to try, with little success, to slow the advance of the military. Then civil militias faced down the tanks with weapons they had gathered. Their final stand lasted just one-and-a-half hours before the Korean military had regained control of the city. All told, at least 144 protesters and militants died, as did 22 troops and 4 police officers. Those are the numbers released by the government, but the Bereaved Family Association says at least 165 Gwangju citizens died, and some government critics argue the death toll is as much as 2,000*.
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Jun 24

Backstage at a Cantonese opera performance

By Mitchell Blatt | China , Culture , Travel

As a child growing up on the outskirts of Guangzhou, Li Chixiang would listen to Hong Xiannv broadcast revolutionary operas on the radio and act them out. One moment she was the White Haired Girl, a peasant oppressed into concubinage by tyrant landlords, the next she was Wu Qinghua, a brave female soldier in the Red Detachment of Women. With her imagination, Li would conjure beautiful robes, flowered headdresses, and martial props. Her family was too poor to afford those things.

One day her father brought home a large blue vase from a business trip. As the family was admiring it, young Li, then 10 years old, picked up the vase and began using it as a microphone. She immediately transformed into Li Yuhe, the revolutionary railroad worker in The Legend of the Red Lantern, but as she swayed and sang, the vase slipped from her hand and smashed on the ground.

With mother and father enraged, Li ran off towards the bus station and headed for downtown Guangzhou to find Hong Xiannv and Zheng Peiying, another actor she had recently seen perform live. When she got off the bus, none of the adults she asked knew where either of the two actors were, and she headed back to her home in Panyu suburb awaiting her punishment. But when she arrived there, her mom said, “You scared me to death! As long as you are all right, everything is fine.” News in the village had spread that a 10-year-old’s corpse had been found in a creek.

Li Chixiang recounted the story in her book Cantonese Opera Royalty in the Eyes of A Xiang, published in 2012, in traditional Chinese characters, by the Macau Publishing House. The book includes essays on 72 heroes of the Cantonese opera stage, Hong Xiannv and Zheng Peiying among them, and 25 famous songs, as well as some stories about herself.

With a career acting and hosting TV shows spanning over thirty years, which included an appearance on CCTV’s Spring Festival Eve Gala, Li Chixiang was a good guide to me for Cantonese opera culture when I visited Guangzhou last year.

Li Chixiang performing

Li Chixiang performing

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Apr 05

Dangshan Pear Blossom Festival

By Mitchell Blatt | China , Travel

I celebrated Spring Festival in Dangshan, Anhui province, and last week a friend I met there texted me and asked if I wanted to go back to take in Pear Blossom Festival.

Dangshan pears are a famous local produce. In 2010, Dangshan held its first officially promoted “pear blossom festival” to promote its local produce. While the flowers bloom in spectacular beauty every year, Dangshan also hosts performances, photography competition and events tied to the festival. Still, the main highlight is walking between the trees in the park. While I couldn’t attend this year, Lu Han sent me some photos:
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Mar 25

Hong Kong travel: After Riot, Mongkok is still bustling

By Mitchell Blatt | Local Politics , Travel

One week after Mongkok was ablaze with fires on the street and police firing warning shots towards rioters, the streets were crowded as usual with MK boys and girls, in their unique style, shopping, eating, and looking around. Although Hong Kong’s Finance Secretary John Tsang Chun warned tourists could be scared away from Hong Kong due to the riots, locals don’t seem phased one bit.

Maybe they’re used to it. In 2014, protesters here fought with triad members during the early days of the pro-democracy Occupy Central movement, and later in early 2015, they went “shopping” at night, filling the sidewalks in defiance of Chief Executive CY Leung.

Leung said in 2014, “Mongkok is not exactly the most genteel part of Hong Kong,” but if it’s known for being gritty and tough, residents take it as a badge of honor. In fact, Mongkok’s reputation as a former industrial area and a center of gang activity and prostitution, as portrayed in films like One Nite in Mongkok, is really an attraction force for youths who want to see a different kind of culture—free-spirited, thrill-seeking, cheap and accessible, in contrast to what one might consider stilted and unaffordable in Central district of Hong Kong island.
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In recent years, Mongkok has also started to develop some “high culture” to complement its cheap markets, KTV parlors and fishball vendors. Modern and higher-end pubs, coffee shops, and restaurants are opening where mechanic shops used to be. Hak Po Street (Hei Bu, in Mandarin) now has an award-winning ramen restaurant, a dedicated coffee bar, a craft brew pub, and a dessert place side-by-side-by-side.

I discovered Hak Po Street for the first time after searching for Hong Kong’s best cafes. Number 1 on a list produced by A Foodie World.com is Knockbox, located at 21 Hak Po Street. It also rated mentions in lists by HK Magazine, Lady Iron Chef.com and Spurge.com. And for good reason. It has premium coffees available in different varieties and different presses for selection to satisfy your tastes, with recommendations available by baristas who know their stuff. The narrow shop has room for just one bar platform and a line of tables, giving it an intimate feel, and it has classic music playing. Every Friday night, Knockbox hosts coffee sampling starting at 6:30 pm for HK$80 (67 yuan).

If beer is your drug of choice, you will find it in close proximity—down the street from Knockbox is TAP (The Ale Project), a cozy and delicious craft brew pub. TAP, which was opened in 2014 by Chris Wong, who has also opened HK Brewcraft and Beer & Fish, offers an extensive list of beers from local companies like Young Master Ales and HK Beer Co., along with some Australian and European brews. I enjoyed Young Master’s seasonal Celebration Ale, which had a sweet hazelnut and vanilla kick to it. Besides beers, TAP also serves delicious Hong Kong-style fusion sandwiches, like a version of the Cubano with roasted pork and Chinese pickles, made with bread by famous baker Gregorie Michaud, who operates Bread Elements.

Many dessert places like Next Station Dessert and Joyful Dessert line Hak Po Street further along, and Ramen Kureha, with an interior covered with retro Japanese posters, is next to Knockbox on the other side. Next Station has a 97.5% satisfaction rating on Open Rice.com.

MK hipsters have already known about Hak Po Street for half a decade. Knockbox opened in 2011, Next Station in 2012, and TAP in 2014. But Hak Po Street is a little bit off the radar of tourists, since it is in the southeast side of the Mongkok streets, a small street that is intersected by a soccer field. In particular, the section with these trendy restaurants is just south of Shantung Street (Shandong Street), where much of the rioting took place.

While some people across the harbor seem to be scared of Mongkok, the district continues to bustle just like it did before. Throngs of people walk on the streets, bumping into and trying to get around each other. Performers do tricks and shows on the pedestrian street, West Yangcai South Street. Mongkok actually is one of the most popular places for independent travelers to stay, with cheap guesthouses inside the Sincere House on Argyle Street and elsewhere. So, too, in Tsim Sha Tsui, the Chungking Mansions, made famous by the film Chungking Express, have a reputation for being gritty and exciting while also serving tourists with cheap guesthouses. These are the kinds of places that add color to the bright international city of Hong Kong.

Mar 07

A guide to Taiwanese snacks

By Mitchell Blatt | Food and Leisure , Travel

I couldn’t help myself while walking around the basement level of the Shilin Market in Taipei. Everywhere I looked there were delicious-looking snacks. Fried salty chicken, crispy crab, dumplings, meats of all kinds ready to be fried… I ate something here and something there, and by the time I got to the end of the line, where I saw an iron griddle restaurant that proudly displayed a set of award trophies, I was full.

A good piece of advice for visiting a Taiwanese night market is to always walk through once to see all the fare before you make your choice. With so many treats, you don’t want to miss something. However, that’s hard to do on an empty stomach, so you should read this summary of Taiwanese snack food instead.

Taiwanese night markets are widely praised in tourist literature. Before even stepping foot in Taiwan, an image of Taiwanese pancake rolls filled with beef showed up on my Facebook feed. “I must eat this when I go to Taiwan,” I thought. So I did.

Lao Dong Beef Noodles (老董牛肉面) is a successful noodle restaurant Taipei that was featured at the Taiwanese Cuisine Exhibit of the 2010 Shanghai Expo as a representative example of Taiwanese fare. Besides beef noodles, it also has other typical snacks like shrimp rolls and beef stuffed pancakes. All three satisfied my taste buds. Though Lao Dong may not be the best in Taipei, it had a lot of variety of snacks for reasonable prices. My favorite was the beef (or pork) wrapped in scallion pancakes. The beef was succulent, and the pancake was cooked crispy on the outside. Visitors in a hurry can purchase them on the go at a window on the outside of the restaurant, which is located at 35 Minsheng W Road, Zhongshan District (民生西路35號,中山區), just outside the exit of Shuanglian Station.

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Beef noodles are also a widespread dish in mainland China, so what is so special about Taiwanese beef noodles? That is also the first thing I thought when Taipei locals told me to try beef noodles there. Beef noodles are so famous in Taiwan that it is considered a national dish. It turns out that Taiwanese beef noodles are indeed different from the Chinese variety, which were popularized by the Hui ethnicity. Taiwanese beef noodles usually have a richer soup flavor, derived from the addition of soy sauce and other ingredients, including sometimes five spice powder. The beef was also thicker—in chunks at Lao Dong—than the thin pieces of meat at Lanzhou Beef Noodle restaurants.

    Night Markets

The most exciting place to try snacks in Taiwan is without a doubt a bustling night market. As you walk through throngs of people, you can see all kinds of food in every direction and breath in tantalizing smells. One of the largest of Taipei’s night markets is Shilin Night Market. Spread of over multiple blocks inside and outside, the area includes both souvenir shops and snack stalls. Arriving by subway one night (Shilin station or Jiantan station, line 2), I could see brightly lit signs hanging from the sides of buildings and a long line of people walking down the pedestrian street.

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The main food area, however, is located inside a building at 101 Jihe Road (基河路101號, 士林區). On the first floor vendors sell packaged snacks that one can take home for friends. Such famous souvenir snacks include pineapple cakes and mochi. Pineapple cakes, with the fruit encrusted in buttery crust, vary in price from machine-manufactured and cheap to the handmade varieties. Bargaining is possible and recommended there. Mooncakes with pineapple or other tropical flavors are also popular in Taiwan.

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The cooked food restaurants are on the basement level of the Shilin Market. It is there that I looked around, unable to decide what to eat. I had a list of famous Taiwanese snacks drafted from research and recommendations:

Oil noodles (担仔面)
Duck soup pot
Eel noodles (鳝鱼炒意面)
Shrimp rolls
Taiwanese meatballs (肉圓 – ba wan)
Braised pork rice (沾肉飯)
Pan fried buns (生煎包)
Taiwanese-style hamburger (割包)
Pepper pork cakes (胡椒餅)
Three-cup chicken (三杯雞)

Some of those are hard to find in Taipei because they are regional foods. Eel noodles, for example, are from Tainan in the south. Others, like braised pork rice, which has fatty pieces of pork braised in a soy sauce-based sauce and put over rice to soak the rice, can be found anywhere. As I walked through the night market, other dishes I hadn’t thought of came to my attention. Pepper chicken (deep fried chicken drenched in black pepper with fried mint leaves) looked and tasted irrestible.

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Others like pan fried buns were simple and nothing special.

To summarize a few highlights:
Taiwanese Meatballs
Like a round dumpling, when you bite into it, your mouth fills with happiness. Steamed rice and sweet potato flour balls filled pork with vegetables like bamboo, usually in soup. While it is called rou yuan (肉圓) in Mandarin, Taiwanese call it ba wan.

Three cup chicken
With chicken cooked to absorb flavor in a mix of rice wine, soy sauce, and sesame oil, this chicken is very moist and flavorful. Garlic, ginger, and basil added afterwards add to make it bursting with savory kick.

Danzai noodles
This noodle dish from Tainan includes pork, shrimp, egg, and spices in soup. In Taiwanese dialect, danzai (擔仔) is pronounced as ta-a.

    Other Night Markets

Night markets are found in abundance in Taiwan. The Taiwanese tourism bureau has a page listing 12 famous night markets throughout. In Taipei in particular, Linjiang Street Night Market and Ningxia Night Market are also listed. I visited Ningxia Night Market as well on my trip. It is near Shuanglian station, along Ningxia Road (at the corner of Ningxia Rd and Mingsheng W Rd). It is completely outdoors, a pedestrian street lined with stalls.

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Mitchell Blatt is an intrepid travel writer, and an author of two top China guidebooks, who brings his readers deep into the cultures of the places he explores. Subscribe now to get real stories of real people in real places around the world delivered right to your inbox.