China Part 4: The Good Parts

In retrospect the best things in China this time were food, tea and hiking in Tiger Leaping Gorge. Indeed Chinese food is amazing and I am talking about the real Chinese food and not a poor substitute you get in the West. It is beyond me why it is near impossible to get an authentic Chinese food experience outside China. It cannot be because of unique ingredients or complexity of recipes, as most dishes are extremely simple. For example, take cucumber and peanuts. Add soy sauce and a splash of sesame oil and you get an amazing side dish. Simple as that, but I have never seen it served anywhere outside of China. Anyhow, it seems that the Chinese have mastered everything food related, including desserts and bread (something that Asian cuisine often falls short on). My own favourites include deep fried bread and tea eggs, a typical breakfast affair. Normally I am not a big fan of dumplings, unless we are talking about the Chinese kind. I don’t know whether it is the sauce or some other mysterious ingredients, but it is simple, effective and yummy. China felt unbearable at times, but a good meal always lifted the spirits.

China made me realise how poor tea cultures of other countries are (with an exception of Japan). What you normally get in other countries is black tea and no name green tea if you are lucky. In China sky is the limit when it comes to tea. White, green, black, puerh, oolong, lapsang and so on. Each comes in hundreds of varieties and prices fluctuate from dirt cheap to crazily expensive. A new finding was buckwheat tea, a special kind of buckwheat infused in hot water. Tasty and reputed to help to lose weight or at least what they told us in a tea shop. Buying tea proved to be hard though, due to the language barrier and the general ignorance about tea quality. Unless you really know what you are doing, the best way to buy tea is in a supermarket, instead of a specialised tea shop with no prices on display. After an hour of searching, quarrelling and frustration we managed to find a tea shop in Chengdu with an English speaking girl. Another hour was spent tasting teas and getting confused about prices, which fluctuated every time we asked. Haggling was out of question as the girl assured us that teas were high quality and unlike other shops they did not rip tourists off. Finally prices were agreed on and a bunch of teas were we bought. The experience left me with a feeling that we overpaid, but it was compensated by a free puerh tea cake that the clerk put in a shopping bag apparently by accident. Whether it was a honest mistake or intentional, I will never know. No complaints on my part, though.

Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of the best known hiking trails in China. Located between Lijiang and Shangri La, it is a natural stop in Yunnan’s tourist trail. It is amazingly beautiful and can be easily walked in two days (or three if you choose for a longer route). There is no other option than walking, which filters out hordes of Chinese tourists. I had a vision that in five years there would be a cable car going through the entire gorge, but for now it is refreshingly undeveloped. Just natural trails, small mountain villages providing lodging and food, plus occasional shop stands selling refreshments and charging money for taking pictures from “their” viewpoints. Not that many visitors too, a rare treat in China! The undeveloped nature of the gorge did not prevent the government from charging an entrance fee. In fact the fee is even applicable if you ride a car on the public road in the bottom of the gorge. Because China.

Indonesian cuisine


I did not have any prior notions about Indonesian food before coming to Indonesia, so I was genuinely surprised to find it bland, tasteless and outright bad on several occasions. Too much carbs and not that many vegetables. Overly sweet and not enough spices to balance out sugar and salt. Indonesian salads are non-existent and the closest thing to a salad, gado-gado is ruined with peanut sauce. Local curries lack in flavour and taste like a poor version of more traditional curries. Another example is coffee. In the country, which is known for its good (export?) coffee, I have not had a single cup of good Joe. On top of all I got my first ever food allergy reaction in Bali. Swollen lips and all that jazz.

I have always tended to diss people sticking to the Western food in Asia, but I found myself eating French fries more than anytime in my life. Interestingly enough in Indonesia they have no problems preparing good fries or a decent meal from a foreign cuisine. The best meal we had in Jakarta was Japanese, Mexican (!) on Air, Indian on Trawangan, Vietnamese in Kuta and so on. Well, you get the picture.

It is not all doom and gloom, though. Sate (grilled meat sticks in peanut sauce) served on the streets was excellent. However in restaurants they tend to overdo with sugar in the peanut sauce (once to the point of being inedible). Seafood barbecue was usually good, if you ignore the tendency to overcook the fish and the overall dryness of the meal. However, the best experiences with the local cuisine was with low-profile street warungs, where all the dishes are on display and you assemble your meal by yourself. Versatile and tasty, plus easy on your wallet too. The hygiene in some of these places could be a lot better, but on the other hand we succeeded to dodge any stomach problems. The advice here is the usual one, avoid tourist traps and stick to the places, where locals eat.

Pancakes and freedom

20120721-113154.jpgMy energy consumption has been enormously high. I am constantly hungry and I would not mind having something even after a large meal. I prefer a diet of vegetables and fruits normally, but now I feel like hardly eating those. Kebab meat, something I avoid back at home, has been noted to provide energy for a long time. Grease, salt and tons of calorie, mmmm..

If it has fat and sugar, then it is right up my valley. Ein Kaffe mit Kuchen, bitte. Sugar makes a huge difference providing an almost instant energy boost. Eating a chocolate bar or something similar after a big breakfast makes pedalling much more enjoyable. Sugar boost requires a proper meal beforehand. Sugar on its own makes me feel empty and unsatisfied. A beer and an energy drink has been noted to be a good combination too. Beer is treacherous though, as at times it seems to have an opposite effect. Not to mention that in countries like Poland there is zero tolerance for alcohol on the road that concerns also cyclists. Living on the edge, man.

I became fond of making pancakes at pitstops. The idea of me making pancakes for my hosts always met with enthusiasm. Everybody likes pancakes after all. High fat and high sugar is something I need to continue my journey. Win-win for the both parties. It took me several false starts to master the technique of pancakes considering different pans and spatulas, but eventually I got hang of it. In Berlin at Juha and Maija’s place, there was no spatula, so after a quick brainstorming session we made one using a piece of plastic, a butter knife, tinfoil and some duct tape. DIY at its best and excellent pancakes too. Yes.

Notes about Vietnam (Part 2)

My first reaction after crossing the border with Laos was – oh my god, it is so green. Laos is abundant with nature, but there is something about Vietnam that makes its different. Blue skies and extreme greenery as far as an eye can see. It all is really beautiful. Rapid industrialization takes its toll though. As everywhere in Asia (minus Singapore) non-biodegradable garbage is all over the place and deforestation is rampant. Deforestation is not evident though, as in Laos, where you see scars left by the slash & burn practice everywhere. In fact I would not know anything about deforestation, unless I was told about it. Hills in Da Lat are covered with fields and plantations, while only several years ago they used to host forests. It even looks pretty with green tidy fields, unless I was not aware of the past. Ignorance is truly bliss sometimes. On the other hand all those strawberries have to come from somewhere.

I entered the country in the central Vietnam right in the hear of DMZ, where most of the fighting took place. Today the area is abundant with graveyards. I saw quite a few on my way to Hue, which made me think about the futility of war. Ten years of fighting, millions dead, devastated industry and infrastructure and all for nothing. United States and other aggressors never paid any war reparations or made any formal apologies. Agent Orange victims have tried to sue manufacturers of Agent Orange for years, but all in vain. How the hell you can attack a country like this and then just pretend the whole thing never happened? Simply mind-blowing. What is even more mind-boggling is that the history is repeating itself today in Afghanistan and Iraq. And it is business as usual: both wars are still going on with no attention is being paid to any of them any more, people are getting killed and the war economic machine is going full speed ahead. Anyhow, back to Vietnam. A good thing is that American and other wars are things of the past, even though the aftermath still rears its ugly head, like all the Agent Orange victims. Vietnamese in general and especially younger generation do not seem to hold the grudge against USA or France. US dollars are widely accepted as a currency and you see US branded clothing and accessories everywhere. It works in the other direction too. I have talked with several old American war veterans, who fell in love with the modern in Vietnam and made it their home. It is all water under the bridge. Indeed why cling to the past, when you can live in the present moment?

One of Vietnam’s highlights for me was food, which is just yummy and totally different to anything I have tasted before. Fresh spring rolls, friend wontons, pha, fried frogs, all kind of seafood and myriad of other things I have no name for. The cuisine can be best described as some sort of a fusion of Chinese and Thai cuisine, but in reality is totally unique and just awesome. Herbs as mint, basil and local varieties I have knowledge about are a big part of the cuisine. A nice touch is a complimentary bowl of herbs you get along with your food. Either you chew them as a healthy snack or add to your meal is your choice. My best food experiences were when I was out eating with locals, who knew magic words that brought all those secret delicacies to the table. English menu was often limited to rice and noodles with a couple of add-ons. It was especially frustrating, when I saw locals over a next table having a proper feast on the things I did not see on the menu. Food is very cheap too, even by South East Asian standards. I would love to visit Vietnam anytime just for the food experience.

In a nutshell, Vietnam is awesome. With a rapid economic growth and extremely determined people, I think they are destined for a great future. Next Asian Tiger or even the next mini-China maybe? Time will tell for sure. For now it is a lovely country with rich culture, delicious food, friendly people and low prices. Love it.


I used to despise McDonalds, but had to change my opinion in the last few months. Their food is still crap, but I learnt to appreciate free toilets and free wi-fi. I am currently at Johar Bahru bus terminal having a couple of hours to kill before the bus and McDonalds makes my wait much more pleasant. Gotta love the international conglomerate sometimes.
While I am on the subject of McDonalds, I have to add that I’ve met backpackers (from Finland too), whose diet is made up of McMeals only, no matter what country they are in. Local food is such a big part of the overall experience and depriving yourself of it is just plain stupid. I just had some nasi lemak wrapped in a banana leaf. It was nothing special, but the overall experience (a banana leaf, dirty surroundings and everything) is invaluable.