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.