Category Archives for "Travel"

Apr 18

Shaxi, Yunnan: Let me tell you about the first time I ate bugs

By Mitchell Blatt | China , China Travel Tips , Living in China , Travel

It was during my final week in Yunnan, the far southwestern province bordering Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. I had just been hired to write a guidebook about Hong Kong and only had a short time to explore before moving there for good.

I had been living in Dali Ancient City and spent most of my time those three months around Er Hai Lake in Dali County. But Dali County is just one of twelve counties in Dali Prefecture, which covers 11,370 square miles (29,450 sq km). I wanted to see some more far flung places. So I got on a small bus and rode over mountains and around steep curves until I arrived in Shaxi.

Halfway between Dali and Lijiang, Shaxi is one of the towns on the ancient Tea Horse Road to Bengal that is still in relatively good condition. The scenery is amazing. The architecture is beautiful. The town has a laid back vibe. I walked through the fields and saw local people wearing their traditional clothing. Children who had just gotten out of school celebrated summer break by tearing their papers up and flinging them in the air. A local music group was practicing, and they let me watch. Then at night my fellow hostel stayers and I sat outside on the square and drank beer.

Compared to Dali, it was less crowded and more relaxed but just as worthy of visiting. I would have stayed longer, had I time, but I had just a few days there, and in that time I had to try its local food. 

Shaxi, like Dali, is a town with a population that is majority Bai ethnicity. Shaxi is about 90 percent Bai; Dali 60 percent. The Bai are one of the 56 recognized ethnic groups in China. Eighty percent of them live in Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture, which was the base of the Nanzhao and Dali kingdoms. At its peak, Nanzhao had conquered northern Burma and defeated the Tang Dynasty in battles, expanding all the way to Chengdu. Only the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty could eventually conquer the Dali Kingdom and integrate Yunnan into China. 

So they are the same ethnic group, from the same prefecture, sharing much of the same history and culture. Do the Shaxi Bai eat the same foods as the Dali Bai?

“Do you eat huangmen chicken here in Shaxi?” I asked. No, one of the Bai people working the desk at the hostel said. That’s Dali people’s food.

I went to a small family-owned restaurant out down the road away from the square to see.

“I want your most authentic, most te se (‘characteristic’) local food,” I said.

I went to take a look at what they were cooking, and I was clueless. There were some colorless, thin round things in their wok. They didn’t look like anything I’d ever seen cooked before.

“What is this?” I asked.

The chief said a word I didn’t know.

“Is it a vegetable?”

“It’s not a vegetable.”

“What kind of meat is it?”

“It’s not meat.”

What could it be if it wasn’t meat or vegetable?

When they delivered it to my table, I admit my first instinct was disgust–disgusted intrigue. Fried, oily, segmented things whose bodies plump at one end. It was served with fried crunchy strips of rice cake.

Looking at it, I thought, why would you go to a small town in rural China and order the most te se dish on the menu? Not even on the menu. You didn’t even look at the menu! They gave me just what I ordered. Not like a restaurant that doesn’t trust the foreigner can eat their food and makes something tame, Americanizes it for them. I did want to experience something authentic, didn’t I?

I took one between my chopsticks and lifted it towards my mouth. It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t good, but it wasn’t bad. It really didn’t taste like anything. It was just crunchy and had a little bit of a texture.

The dish was bamboo worms—the things that grow up to be moths. Cut open a stick of bamboo, and you can find a feast of these. Omphisa fuscindentalis is the name of one of the most popular of the bamboo worms served in Yunnan and Thailand.

A year or so later, I was back in Shanghai visiting a Chinese friend, and I took her to a Yunnan restaurant. I ordered her bamboo worm larvae, as well as other things. She did not end up eating any, but I enjoyed it. The bamboo worms there were cooked with mint leaves and spices. It seems the restaurant in Shanghai did a more elaborate recipe than the one in a local person’s home cooking restaurant. 

The fried worms were minty and fragrant; they take on the taste of whatever they are cooked with. The restaurant is called Yunshang—Beyond the Clouds—and it’s located at the end of the Nanjing East Road pedestrian road and Henan Middle Road. I would recommend it. (I say, eating larvae at a local restaurant when you aren’t expecting it is more exciting than going to a restaurant with the plan already in your mind and time to mentally prepare.)

Bamboo worms were not my favorite dish in China. Not even close. But larvae and dragon flies and scorpions are the best dish to have with your friend who is visiting China for the first time.

Mar 17

What to do in China, Korea, and Malaysia this spring and summer, according to national travel promoters – Day 1 of Travel & Adventure Show

By Mitchell Blatt | Travel

The 15th Annual Washington DC Travel & Adventure Show opened today at DC’s Walter E. Washington Convention Center.

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Approximately 260 vendors, including the China National Tourist Office, the Korea Tourism Organization, Tourism Malaysia, the East Japan Railway Company, Turkish Airlines, Visit Philadelphia, and many travel agencies, tour providers, and national and local tourism promotional offices, operated promotional tables. The expo also included national dance routines and cultural programs and presentations by authors, photographers, and travel specialists.

China-maps

The China National Tourist Office’s representatives enthusiastically offered me travel maps and espoused the benefits of visiting Gansu province in summer, where you can see the breathtaking rainbow mountains of Zhangye National Geopark. Gansu, of course, is also the home of Lanzhou beef noodles (兰州拉面 – lanzhou lamian).

The rainbow mountains in Zhangye National Geopark. Trains depart to Zhangye city from Beijing West Station and Chengdu. Photo from Wikimedia.

The rainbow mountains in Zhangye National Geopark. Trains depart to Zhangye city from Beijing West Station and Chengdu. Photo from Wikimedia.

One of China’s biggest summer festivals, Dragon Boat Festival, falls on June 7 on this year’s Chinese lunar calendar.

The Korea Tourism Organization promoted some vibrant festivals, including the lantern festival coming up in May to celebrate Buddha’s birthday. The festival is celebrated in Seoul from May 3 to May 5 this year. On May 4, the procession of lotus lanterns will march from Dongdaemun Gate to Jogyesa Temple starting at 7 pm. Dances and cultural performances follow later that evening and the next day in the surrounding area.

Photo from Korea tourism agency.

Photo from Korea tourism agency.

Malaysia emphasized its natural beauty and rich traditional and ethnic culture. Sabah state on the north part of Borneo Island is home to 32 ethnic communities, including the Murut, who live in the hills of southern Sabah. During the final week of March, they will celebrate Pesta Kalimaran Festival, which includes the Miss Kalimaran Beauty Pageant and a wedding ceremony with consumption of tapai rice wine and dancing.

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Malaysia also celebrates Buddha’s birthday, Wesak, in May.

Wesak observance at Buddhist temple. Photo by Kamal Sellehuddin, Wikimedia/CC license.

Wesak observance at Buddhist temple. Photo by Kamal Sellehuddin, Wikimedia/CC license.

The DC Travel & Adventure Show continues on Sunday, and shows will be held in San Francisco on March 23-24 and Dallas on March 30-31.

Carpathia Folk Dance Ensemble performs on the Global Beats stage. Photo by Mitch Blatt.

Carpathia Folk Dance Ensemble performs on the Global Beats stage. Photo by Mitch Blatt.

Mar 13

An interview with travel writer Alec Le Sueur, marketing manager of the first international hotel in Tibet

By Mitchell Blatt | Book Reviews , China , Culture , Travel

Alec Le Sueur spent five years as the marketing and sales manager of the Holiday Inn Lhasa, the first international hotel to be opened in Tibet after China reformed and opened to the world.

Barkhor Street in 1993, by John Hill. Wikimedia, CC.

Barkhor Street in 1993, by John Hill. Wikimedia, CC.

The Holiday Inn was known as “the hardest hardship post.” Nicholas Kristof once wrote an article about it titled “A Tibetan Horror Story.” It was two flights away from Hong Kong on the chaotic state-run Civil Aviation Administration of China Airlines, and for long periods of the year, the only meal to be had was spam. But the sights on mountains, Buddhist temples, traditional markets, and streets with yaks wandering freely were another thing.

Le Sueur chronicled the beauty of Tibet and the absurdities of running a hotel, where management duties were duplicated between a Chinese party and a foreign party that rarely saw eye-to-eye, where staff didn’t know how to use the new, technologically-advanced washing machines, where teaspoons went missing and a guard was hired to protect the toilet paper, in his book The Hotel on the Roof of the World.

Boeing 707 with Civil Aviation Administration of China Airlines, from Wikimedia. CAAC Airlines was not separated into private airline operators until 1988.

Boeing 707 with Civil Aviation Administration of China Airlines, from Wikimedia. CAAC Airlines was not separated into private airline operators until 1988.

Le Sueur’s witty and conversational style brings the place to life. Some of the scenes will look familiar to people who have spent time in China recently (Chengdu taxi drivers racing to the airport, rice wine banquets), but much else is lost into the past. Tibet has changed much. China’s airports are still chaotic masses of people, but they have changed, for the better, with modern airplanes and functioning logistical processes. The Holiday Inn has been taken over by the Chinese government’s managers, and new international hotels have opened up in Lhasa.

Le Sueur was also in Tibet at a time when pro-autonomy protests and riots broke out between 1987-89, and Tibet was under martial law for about a year, with no tourism. He mentions the political situation in so much as it impacted daily life and hotel operations, but he did not dwell on politics as a main subject.

Nicholas Kristof's 1990 column on the hotel and photo by Kristof.

Nicholas Kristof’s 1990 column on the hotel and photo by Kristof.

After five years, he left Tibet with his wife, whom he met while both worked at the hotel, and went with her to Belgium, which was the subject of his next book, Bottoms Up in Belgium: Seeking the High Points of the Low Land. He also left the hotel business and got an MBA in law firm management. He continues to contribute to travel magazines, including Food & Wine.

Following is my interview with the author:Continue reading

Jan 23

New York City in black and white: A webzine of my travels

By Mitchell Blatt | Photos , Travel

I visited one of the world’s great cities outside of Asia this past weekend. That would be New York City. One need not be told that New York City is a hub of culture. I sought out dive bars of Brooklyn, art galleries and zine shops of Chelsea, underground sake bars, Chinatown dumpling restaurants, pork bone soup in Koreatown, crowded Cuban restaurants with tiny tables crammed closely together.

I’m going to list some of the highlights, some of which are included in the photos, below the toggle.

See highlights

Sake Bar Decibel at 240 E 9th St; Café Habana at 17 Prince St; PanYa, which serves Japanese breakfasts with fish and miso at 8 Stuyvesant St; Totto Ramen at 366 W 52nd St; Famous Xian Foods, a chain serving real tasty Xian noodles that started out in Flushing’s Chinatown and now has locations around the city; and Printed Matter, Inc., where the zine stockpile I photographed is located.

I thought the best way to present such a city is in black and white scanned photography.

New York in Black and White by on Scribd

May 22

Jinshan: The fishing village at the very south edge of Shanghai

By Mitchell Blatt | China , Travel

Shanghai is home to tree farms, streets lined with fishwives, and children searching for crawfish at low tide.

Jinshan, at the very southwestern corner of the administrative area of Shanghai, is a mildly interesting diversion, a fishing town that has been touristified over the past five years. There you can find fish being sold on the street, museums about Jinshan fishing culture, and an “ancient-style” street full of charming shops and cafes. Here I will tell you how to get there and share some of what to see.

The fishing village is called Jinshan Zui Fishing Village (金山嘴渔村 – Jinshan zui yu cun). The Zui character means “lips.” The restaurants along the road should have you licking your lips. Shanghai was once just a fishing village. Now this is one of the few fishing villages in Shanghai; Shanghai city is not known for fishing markets like Busan, Hong Kong, or even Seoul.

fish

The fish sellers are lined up on the street that runs along the coast. Behind the fish vendors is a wall and a long stone promenade overlooking the water. (Travelers were climbing over the wall and down a wobbly ladder.) The water, when I visited, was very low, and kids were playing in the sand. They were looking for crayfish in the rocks and concrete buffers.

boardwalk

crayfish

On the other side of the road, going away from the ocean, is the typical “ancient-style” shopping street with cafes, bars, souvenir shops, and snack vendors. It was scenic, with flowers, canals (although the water didn’t look terribly clean), and cafes with porches. The “ancient-style” street isn’t close to as scenic as the ancient streets of Suzhou—and Suzhou is just 30-40 minutes away by train, too—but Jinshan is cheaper and more of a daytrip within Shanghai.

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Food
The road by the shore is lined with seafood restaurants. They have live fish in tanks for selection. Independent travelers on budget might choose to have seafood fried rice (海鲜炒饭 – haixian chaofan) for ¥20-40 yuan. I asked for it, and the manager said it wasn’t on his menu, but he said he would make some up for ¥35 yuan, and selected some shrimp, clam, and other seafood, and had it fried with eggs and vegetables.

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How to get to Jinshan

Go to Shanghai South Railway Station (上海南站), located at the so-named subway station on Line 1 (red) and Line 3 (yellow). At Shanghai South Station, there is a station called Jinshan Station (金山站). Tickets are sold at a machine, which doesn’t require identification. Click through the buttons—or have a Chinese traveler in line help you, most of them are going to Jinshan, and they will assume you are, too—and select the final station—金山卫 (Jinshan wei).

Trains leave from Shanghai South about 2-3 times an hour, starting at 5 am and ending at 9:20 pm or so. Trains from Jinshan to the city start at 6 am and run until 9:55 pm. The journey for most trains takes 32 minutes. All tickets for the full trip cost ¥10 yuan (US$1.63) one way and have no assigned seats.

You can get from Jinshan Wei Station to Zui Fishing Village by taking a tax for ¥12 yuan or walking or waiting for the bus, which might come once an hour.

This restroom won awards as a "Model Toilet" and one of Shanghai's "Most Beautiful Tourism Toilets" of 2016.

This restroom won awards as a “Model Toilet” and one of Shanghai’s “Most Beautiful Tourism Toilets” of 2016.

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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

Continue reading

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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Continue reading

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