Archives for category: Travel

In September of 2011, I set foot in China for the first time. It was terrifying. I had grown up in Vermont and attended college just 45 minutes from home. I had never spent more than a couple of days in a major city before.

Then I landed in Hangzhou, a “small” city of about eight million. My study abroad university, Zhejiang University of Technology (ZUT), was located far away from the landscaped, gentrified lakefront areas most tourists associate with Hangzhou. Instead I found myself surrounded on all sides by narrow alleys, massive highways, and run-down shops full of locals speaking incomprehensible dialects.

By the end of the semester, of course, my nerves had calmed down. My language skills had improved, I had made local friends, and I had even forced myself to explore parts of the city by myself. But when I think back to my semester at ZUT, I still feel like I never truly mastered the city of Hangzhou. I never really knew my way around, I never quite understood the bus system, and I never felt truly comfortable walking around by myself.

Last month, I returned to Hangzhou for a reunion event at ZUT. It was my first time back in Hangzhou since I finished my program in 2011. Since then, I have graduated from college and lived in China for almost two years, navigating new cities, exploring rural areas, and traveling solo all around the country (and around other countries as well).

I hoped that when I returned to Hangzhou, I would feel distinctly older and wiser, like when you visit your old elementary school and realize how small everything looks.

I was surprised, however, to find Hangzhou almost exactly the way I’d left it. Sure, there’s a new metro system now and most of the construction around ZUT has finished. And yes, I felt immeasurably calmer and more confident this time around, knowing that my Chinese skills would be sufficient to get me out of almost any situation—lost luggage? Missed train? Police searches? Been there done that.

But while my old stress had vanished without a trace, some part of my brain retreated back to 2011 as I spent the day wandering around the city before the reunion dinner that evening.

I arrived in the train station, which was just as dark, drab, and crowded with migrant beggars as I remembered it. Although my anxiety had evaporated this time, I remembered exactly what it felt like back in 2011 to find myself alone in that crowded train station, heads everywhere whipping around to take in my foreignness, unsure of where to go next or how to get there.

As I made my way towards the ZUT campus in the afternoon, I remembered just how far away it took me from the city center. In 2015 I was able to take the metro, but back when I was studying abroad, I had to rely on the confusing public bus system. It took over 30 minutes to get to West Lake by bus, so I only ever went there on weekends.

When I arrived at the ZUT campus, it was unchanged. I recognized the road that led to my gym, and I passed the little music store where I took extracurricular flute lessons. I found myself automatically tracing my old routes from the dorm to the dining hall, the dining hall to the school store, and the school store to the back gate. I remembered the feeling of disorientation I used to get from trying to navigate the dense and confusing campus. Back then, just being on campus made me lose my sense of direction almost instantly. Now, I remembered my old routes as if I had never left, but I also did not trust myself to stray from those habit-formed paths without getting lost.

The highlight of my trip back to Hangzhou last month was reuniting with my old Chinese roommate, Nancy. Back when I was studying abroad, Nancy acted as a buffer shielding me from the outside world, translating the chaotic chatter into slower, simpler language that I could understand. She helped me buy my cell phone, set up my meal plan, and obtain daily necessities.

Today, of course, I would be able to accomplish these tasks on my own. But meeting her nearly four years later, I still felt impressed by Nancy’s poise and maturity. She had gotten married since I last saw her, and she and her husband have stable and lucrative careers. They own two cars and recently purchased a house. I smiled to myself when she told me this, thinking, here I am, working as a volunteer in the middle of nowhere, with no income, and no plans to settle down. But we chatted and lounged on the grass like old friends, and the more we talked, the more confident I felt that while my current path might be convoluted, it’s the right path for me. I love traveling, I am in no hurry to get married, and I would be happy if I never have to buy a car.

As we strolled around West Lake sipping coffee, I marveled at how relaxed I felt. Back in 2011, I might have felt worried about becoming separated from Nancy and getting lost, anxious about all the people looking at me, and exhausted from spending a whole afternoon speaking Chinese. This time around, none of those things mattered. They simply weren’t important enough to worry about.

While I have certainly matured since 2011, I believe that Hangzhou was an objectively difficult city in which to spend my semester abroad. It was confusing to navigate, chaotic with construction and traffic, and our campus was located far away from the beauty and amenities most people associate with one of China’s top tourist destinations.

Nevertheless, I am so glad I chose to spend my semester abroad at ZUT. The China I came to love during those four months was a real slice of urban China, and it gave me the confidence I needed to survive and thrive in China ever since.

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Then…

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…And now

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I haven’t written about food in a long time, mostly because our meals in the Laohegou nature reserve get pretty monotonous after a while. I know I shouldn’t complain, since our food is actually quite good (not to mention free, plus I don’t have to cook it myself)…but I still find myself craving some variety now and then.

Luckily, last week I went to Seoul for my visa run (aka mandatory vacation)! Here are a few of the more noteworthy things I gorged on in South Korea:

1. Churros

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I am ashamed to admit that I knew next to nothing about South Korea when I bought my tickets to Seoul and set off on a visa run. So what was my first impression of the country when I poked my head out of the metro for the first time? Man, these people like churros. This wasn’t quite what I expected, but seriously—they sell churros everywhere! Street Churros, Mr. Churro, Churro 101…the streets are dotted with little shops selling long sticks of Mexican-style fried dough, coated in cinnamon sugar and accompanied by your choice of dipping sauces and toppings. Most of the churros were made to order, pulled hot from the fryer and handed to you in a paper cone. It took a lot of restraint for me not to order sixteen churros a day and never eat anything else. But I’m glad I saved room for some of Seoul’s other offerings, such as…

2. The Thunder Bomb

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Just look at this beauty! Sweet milk ice cream underneath a fluffy beard of interesting-colored cotton candy, topped with a little white chocolate lightening bolt. How could I resist? Served up by the science lab-themed ice cream shop Remicone, the Thunder Bomb is apparently super trendy right now. Do a quick Google search and you’ll see what I mean. Although it didn’t taste quite as good as it looked—the cotton candy had a weird minty flavor that wasn’t my favorite—the contrast of textures between the warm, fuzzy “thunder” and the smooth, cold ice cream was very satisfying.

3. Bingsu

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Continuing in the “cold sweet” category, this traditional Korean dessert consists of a massive pile of fluffy shaved ice served with sweet toppings such as red bean paste (patbingsu), mango, or other delectable things. These desserts are tasty and extremely photogenic—but often quite expensive, as I found out only after ordering the mango bingsu pictured above. It cost 10,800 won, or about $10.80! Oh well. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from traveling, it’s that experiencing new places is much more fun and relaxing when you don’t worry too much about money. Although this goes against my frugal nature, sometimes it’s better to just shrug your shoulders and fork over a few extra dollars for an experience you’ll remember forever. Since I spend very little money in my day-to-day life in Laohegou, I figure this bingsu was worth it!

4. Coffee

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Okay, this isn’t really food, but since I consumed more coffee than anything else during my time in Seoul, I’m going to count it anyway. Besides churros, one of my first impressions of South Korean culture was that people really like their coffee. They sell coffee everywhere! You can find it in subway stations, themed cafes, dessert shops, and even at the more traditional Korean restaurants. They’ve got American chains like Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts, Korean chains like Caffé Bene and Tom N Tom’s Coffee, plus adorable little independent coffee shops on every corner. Over my 3+ days in Seoul, I had coffee in several of the aforementioned chains, as well as in a traditional dessert shop, a cat café, a nature-themed café with live sheep outside, and a subway vending machine (it only cost forty cents!) Similar to China, I found that many of Seoul’s coffee shops did not open until 11am or even later; in both countries, it seems that coffee is seen more as an afternoon luxury than an early morning necessity. But I also noticed that some of the subway coffee shops were open during morning rush hour, and they seemed to be doing very steady business, so maybe this is changing in Korea.

5. Kimchi

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You didn’t think I’d forget about kimchi, did you? This pickly side dish is emblematic of Korean culture, and a great source of local pride. Seoul even has an entire museum dedicated to the many varieties and preparations of kimchi. While I did not make it to the museum, I did eat a fair amount of kimchi in the form of kimchi fried rice (bokumbap). It was so delicious I ate it two days in a row (from two different restaurants). Both times, the bokumbap came with several little side dishes containing…more kimchi! Woohoo!

Unfortunately, my time in Seoul was far too short for me to really explore the full range of Korean cuisine. I also sabotaged my chances by eating too many desserts (see: almost every item on this list), thus leaving little room for anything else. Maybe I was feeling sugar-deprived from spending so long in rural China! In any case, it’s back to spicy stir-fries and rice for me—at least until my next visa run.

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Look at that beautiful, empty boardwalk. Stretching past the river and enticing you around the corner and into the unknown—don’t you want to follow it?

Unfortunately, my travel companions at Jiuzhaigou National Park did not. They were anxious to take their selfie-stick selfies and get back to the crowded main road where buses whisked tourists from one poetically named Scenic Spot to the next.

I had sky-high expectations about Jiuzhaigou before I set out. I had heard of its reputation as one of the most beautiful natural places in China. I’d seen photographs of its stunning turquoise lakes and majestic waterfalls, set against a background of brilliant red foliage. The park has been heralded as a model of sustainable nature-based tourism in China. It’s been celebrated for the rich culture of the local Tibetan inhabitants, who still practice a form of the pre-Buddhist Bön religion.

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Naturally, I was not the only one aware of Jiuzhaigou’s mythical beauty. Since it first opened to visitors in 1984, the park has received thousands of tourists from across China and the world (but mostly China), and their numbers continue to increase. In 2001, measures were taken to limit tourists to 12,000 per day.

To their credit, the park authorities have done everything they can to preserve the delicate ecosystems within the park, while still allowing visitors to enjoy the sights. Tourists are kept on elevated boardwalks away from the vegetation, and they are not allowed to stray from the trails or touch the water. They are shuttled to and fro on “green buses,” (powered by low-polluting liquefied petroleum gas), and ordinary vehicles are prohibited. Visitors are required to leave the park every night. The local Tibetan villagers are allowed to live inside the park in their ancestral homes, but they cannot farm or hunt; instead, they earn money through tourism-related activities and receive portions of the park’s ticket revenue. Studies have suggested that several wildlife species, such as Amur hedgehogs, wild boars, and the endangered takin, have increased in population since the area was protected.

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Nevertheless, an influx of millions of tourists per year will inevitably create rippling impacts across the region. Just outside the park gates lies an epic sprawl of hotels, restaurants, and other tourist facilities. Driving towards our hotel (a very nice Holiday Inn) we passed by blocks of newly constructed apartment buildings, a colorful “Bar Street” à la Lijiang, and a resplendent 5-star Sheraton. One could argue that any conservation happening inside Jiuzhaigou National Park is being negated by the rampant development just outside.

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The very concept of nature-based tourism is a paradox. The truth is that Jiuzhaigou is absolutely beautiful. It’s the kind of striking natural beauty that of course every person wants to see. I am an environmentalist for very selfish reasons, if I’m honest: I love nature, and I want to be able to enjoy nature in a so-called pristine state. I also want other people to be able to enjoy nature, and I believe that people are much more willing to care about and protect nature when they have experienced it themselves. But I am a human, and my very presence in a rural setting will have an influence on that place. To visit a place like Jiuzhaigou, I need a road to get there. I need a vehicle and a place to refuel. I need somewhere to spend the night, and somewhere to buy food.

That said, I think there are measures that can be taken to limit tourism development to a reasonable and sustainable level. They didn’t have to build quite so many luxury hotels. They didn’t have to build an airport for god’s sake, allowing urban tour groups to whisk into Jiuzhaigou without ever stepping off a man-made surface. Sometimes a little inaccessibility can be a good thing—I loved my trip last September to Yubeng, a Tibetan village accessible only by foot or horseback, in part because the other tourists were limited to the type who do not mind getting their shoes dirty. I didn’t see a single selfie stick during that trip.

Even as I write this though, I realize how pretentious I sound. I deserve access to these places because I can actually appreciate nature, unlike all those other shallow, uneducated, selfie-taking tourists.

Maybe I’m just a little bitter because I feel like I missed out on what might have been a nicer Jiuzhaigou experience. I’ve heard, via English-language tourism websites, that there are ways to avoid the crowds. You can take the buses all the way to the top and then hike down, in the opposite direction from everyone else. You can eschew the buses altogether and just hike around at your own pace. You can follow those little boardwalks that lead you away from the Scenic Spots with poetic names, and also away from the crowds.

All of these options require you to be willing to miss out on seeing some of the famous, but farther-away lakes and waterfalls. I was willing to skip these, but my travel companions were not, and I can’t really blame them. Jiuzhaigou is extremely famous in China, to the extent that they read about the Five Color Pond (五彩池) in their grade-school textbooks. It would be like an American visiting Washington D.C. for the first time, and deciding to spend all day in the National Postal Museum instead of visiting the Lincoln Memorial, just because it was quieter.

In the end, my trip to Jiuzhaigou was still absolutely worth it. We made the most of our one day in the park, and the landscapes we saw were truly spectacular, unlike anything I had ever seen before.

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I’m even glad we had a selfie stick with us, because you know what? Some of those pictures turned out pretty darn good.

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(I’m the second creepy panda from the right)

I am writing this blog post from the window of New Moon Café in Burlington, sipping tea and watching the afternoon shoppers stroll by. That’s right, I’m home. After a train ride, a plane ride, an evening in Bangkok, then another three flights of varying lengths, I have arrived in Vermont safe and sound. My contract with The Nature Conservancy finished. My visa expired. I left.

I’m still going over everything that’s happened to me over the course of my time in Lijiang—the people I met, the places I saw, the decisions I made about my future (grad school!), and the lessons I learned about myself and the world. Cultural differences. Falling in and out of love in another language. At some point I’ll write about all those things, I swear. But for now, I’d like to back up to my last week in Yunnan and tell the story of how I took a traditional Tibetan art class in Shangri-la.

First of all, yes, there is an actual place called Shangri-la. It was thusly named in 2001 in an effort to boost tourism in the area, replacing the former name Zhongdian (which was a Han renaming of the original Tibetan name Gyalthang). The place that is currently called Shangri-la is a predominantly Tibetan county in northwest Yunnan Province, and it is home to the Thangka Center, run by the Shangri-la Association of Cultural Preservation. Thangka is a traditional style of Buddhist art. Painted in bright colors on silk or cotton, these highly symbolic works are common among Vajrayana Buddhist cultures across the Himalayan region. I have always admired the intricate details and vivid colors of thangka paintings, and I was excited to see that the Thangka Center in Shangri-la offered art classes to tourists.

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I emailed the director of the Association, Dakpa Kelden, and he replied in English saying I was welcome to stop by at any time. The Thangka Center has several full-time students from local villages, and I was welcome to join them for a few days of classes. I could even eat and sleep at the center for a very reasonable price.

A few days later I showed up…alone. I had been traveling with another girl, but she elected not to join me on this part of the adventure. I met Dakpa Kelden briefly, a well-dressed businessman with a posh Indian accent. Born to Tibetan exiles in India, he returned to his ancestral hometown in Yunnan as an adult to develop the community and preserve cultural practices such as thangka painting.

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The art teacher himself was Master Palden, a small, soft-spoken man who showed me the cavernous twelve-bed dormitory where I would be sleeping (alone) and got me started in the art studio. Six other students were already at work: five Tibetan teenaged boys, and one Han girl—a tourist like me. I was very grateful for her presence.

I could immediately see that thangka painting was not a skill that one could acquire in an afternoon. The students at work on large, colorful cloth paintings had been studying for years. A couple of the boys were still sketching in pencil on scrap paper. It takes several months of sketching before one is ready to begin painting in color.

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My first task was to sketch the head of the Shakyamuni Buddha. This involved copying an intricate framework of lines and angles onto the page, upon which the Buddha’s features must be carefully and exactly replicated. One of the more advanced students was assigned to keep an eye on me and give me pointers. Although he couldn’t have been older than eighteen, this boy struck me as extremely mature and trustworthy. All of the boys seemed a little bit different—less cocky and more disciplined—compared to teenagers in the United States.

After finishing the Buddha’s head, the boy came over to investigate my work. I was pretty proud of myself for getting the grid and the proportions right, and I thought I’d done a very nice job on the facial features thank you very much. But what did I know? The mouth was all wrong—too big and too downturned. The eyes were too wide. The ears were crooked and short. The chin was too pointed. Even the round thing at the top of the head was the wrong shape—it was supposed to be a jewel, I learned, although I couldn’t tell so from the scanned line drawing I was trying to copy.

I could see that thangka painting was very different from art classes I had taken in high school, where experimentation is celebrated and creativity is expected. Thangka painting is a highly exact and rigidly stylized process. Each building block—the eyes, the chin, the jewel—must be replicated perfectly and mastered before the student can move on. A finished thangka painting, no matter how complex it may appear, is simply a composite of these various building blocks, all of which are rich in symbolic meaning. I began to see why thangka artists never sign their work. Unlike art in the west, a completed painting is not seen as the accomplishment of a talented individual. Rather, it is seen as a new manifestation of a centuries-old spiritual tradition. A tiny drop added into the great ocean of Buddhist symbolism.

The boy handed me a blank sheet of paper and told me to try again. Once again I copied the intricate grid, then overlaid that with the features of the Shakyamuni Buddha. This time my efforts were rewarded—the nose was quite nice, and the shape of the face was almost right, although there was still something wrong with the ears. For homework, the boy told me to practice drawing the most difficult features over and over again: eyes, lips, and ears. I filled half a page with upturned mouths, spirally ears and wavy, heavy-lidded eyes, before it was time for lunch.

I am embarrassed to admit this next part of the story. Lunch was served with the other students in the little outbuilding by the studio, and it was very tasty—marinated cucumbers with Tibetan barley bread—but there just wasn’t enough to satisfy my American appetite. Since we had our afternoons free, I sauntered over to the nearest Western-style café (there are an astonishing number of these in Shangri-la) for some coffee and fried bananas. I felt like a pig.

That afternoon the other tourist girl left, leaving me alone with the boys. I had progressed by this point to Shakyamuni’s full body, which introduced the new challenges of hands and feet. Like all of the Buddha’s body parts, the hands and feet are highly stylized and must be precisely replicated in each of their various positions. After my first attempt at the right hand, one of the students peered over my shoulder and actually laughed. I couldn’t really blame him. My effort to recreate those fleshy, gracefully curved fingers looked more like a deformed tangle of spiders than anything else. The feet, meanwhile, proved even more difficult than the hands. I always made them too large, and the angle of the toes was never quite right. At some point my student teacher gave up trying to correct each spot where I had gone wrong, and started simply erasing my feet and drawing new ones.

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Dinner that night was much more satisfying than lunch (thank god), and my sleep in the cavernous dorm room was disturbed only when the middle-aged male caretaker decided his bed was too cold, and came in to sleep in the bunk two over from mine. Awkward, but whatever.

I was awoken bright and early the next morning by the sound of chanting coming from the art studio, which was located directly over my bed. The students, teachers, and caretakers had gathered for their daily recitation of Buddhist scripture. Their voices rose and fell together in a rolling cascade of syllables in 5/4 time.

After they had finished, I went outside and joined them for breakfast—tsampa and butter tea. I chatted a bit with one of the students, who I learned came from a Tibetan area of Sichuan Province and had been studying at the Thangka Center for three years. All of the students come from relatively poor backgrounds where they might not have had access to traditional education. Their studies at the Thangka Center are funded entirely by the Shangri-la Association of Cultural Preservation. This knowledge only deepened my admiration of their discipline and modesty.

The second day, after more or less approving my full-body Buddha (the ears were still wrong, and the feet were actually the work of my student teacher), Master Palden instructed me to add clothing. Again, I worked with a grid and a scanned line drawing. Despite the relative softness of the folds of fabric, the process of drawing clothing was no less rigorous than replicating the delicate facial features. I had lots of trouble with the left sleeve, and the lotus petals upon which the Buddha was sitting were too pointy. During my last class session, I attempted a new drawing of Tara, the female aspect of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. This one was difficult because her head was tilted at an angle to her body, but I’m proud to say that my attempts at her hands and feet passed inspection. Something was still wrong with the earlobes though. I still can’t quite say what.

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After two full days of lessons, I returned to Lijiang with a backpack full of imperfectly-eared Buddhas. I promised Master Palden never to throw my drawings away, out of respect for the image of the Buddha. If I ever choose to dispose of them in the future, I must burn them.

When I got back to Lijiang a couple of people asked me: what was the point? After all, I couldn’t really learn very much in just two days. Was it really worth the trouble? Although I’m no closer to being a thangka master now than when I started, to me the experience was absolutely worthwhile. My purpose in traveling isn’t to acquire tangible new skills; it is simply to expand my horizons as much as possible. Through my experience at the Thangka Center, I was able to glimpse the everyday life of a Tibetan art student and gain a deeper understanding of the cultural foundations of a beautiful art form. To me, such new experiences are always worth the trouble.

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I love new food. I love trying things I’d never heard of before and experiencing flavors I’d never known existed. I named this blog Malatang after my first experience eating Sichuanese cuisine and tasting the tingly, mouth-numbing pepper called huajiao. It was completely new to me, and I loved it.

I’ve just had another Malatang Moment.

After a week traveling in the Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in northwest Yunnan, I was introduced to a brand new culinary tradition. Sometimes it even challenged my notions of what “food” and “drink” even mean.

The staples of a Tibetan diet are barley and yak milk. Tibetans live in some of the harshest climates in the world, which means that fresh produce is scarce, variety is limited, and a high caloric intake is necessary for survival.

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The most common beverage is yak butter tea, which I think I drank almost every day while traveling in this region. It’s a hot beverage made from black brick tea steeped in water and churned with yak butter and salt. The tea is usually served in a beautiful metal pot and drunk from bowls. Tibetan people drink dozens and dozens of bowls of this stuff every day, similar to the way many Americans drink coffee, or to the way my family inhales Earl Grey tea morning and night. I can see the appeal of yak butter tea in such a cold climate—it’s hot, rich, and filling—but first I had to get over the psychological barrier of drinking something salty. It also tastes rather stinky. You know how goat cheese tastes goaty? Well, yak butter definitely tastes yaky. I almost spit out my first sip.

And yet, I hated the fact that I didn’t like a flavor that was beloved by an entire ethnic group. Since I hadn’t grown up on it, I simply wasn’t used to it. I therefore decided to drink yak butter tea at every opportunity I could, in the hope that I could teach myself to like it. I have done this successfully in the past with mushrooms and blue cheese (I’m still working on dill), so why couldn’t I now? One week later, I am proud to say that I don’t hate yak butter tea. It helped that the first one I tried was by far the stinkiest. Every other cup I drank afterwards was much milder. I still don’t want to drink it at every meal, but I can appreciate a little bit on a cold morning. Success!

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Moving on, the most common staple food for Tibetans is called tsampa/zanba, which consists of roasted barley flour mixed (with your fingers) with a hunk of yak butter and some yak butter tea to make a kind of dough. This is then eaten with your hands. I’d say it’s most analogous to eating raw pie dough, or maybe biscuit dough, something that consists of flour and butter and not much else. I only tried it once. It didn’t taste bad, per se…but again, I think I’d need to eat it a few more dozen times before I could start to really enjoy it. Although it isn’t technically raw, since the barley is roasted, there’s something about eating dough as an entire meal that just seems wrong to a western girl who always had to sneak licks from the cookie bowl.

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Besides tsampa and yak butter tea, the other Tibetan dishes I tried were much easier for my western palate to accept. We ate a delicious yak cheese that tasted similar to feta, which we dipped in sugar before eating. We had several different kinds of barley flatbread, meat dumplings called momos, yak meat hotpot, and many rice and vegetable dishes that were probably Han-influenced.

All-in-all, we only encountered one tiny corner of the Tibetan world, and I hope someday to explore more of their unique culture and cuisine. It was interesting to experience a diet so severely restricted by the limits of the natural environment. But then, when you’re surrounded by such breathtaking scenery, who has time to think about food?

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The village of Yubeng, located in the Meli Snow Mountain range, is accessible only by foot or horseback.

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Before I went to Cambodia for my tri-monthly visa run (read: obligatory vacation), I asked a couple of experienced friends what to expect from the food. Their reply was a resounding “meh.” It’s not as good as Vietnamese. It’s not as exciting as Thai. They have good western food, but that’s about it.

With such low expectations, I set out to prove them wrong.

1. Lok Lak

Unfortunately, it took me a little while to discredit my friends’ conclusions about Khmer cuisine. My first meal in Cambodia, a very common dish called lok lak, was nothing to write home about. I am only including it here because it so thoroughly matched my friends’ descriptions. Lok lak consists of chewy little chunks of beef with a nothing-special black pepper sauce, served over bland lettuce with a side salad, plus your choice of French baguette or rice. I was disappointed, but refused to believe that lok lak was representative of all the food in Cambodia. I just had to keep searching.

2. Sour Soup

I finally found what I was looking for under a tent next to Preah Khan, one of the larger temples north of Angkor Wat. I had been riding around the temples on a rented bike, sweating out every drop of water that I drank, when the stifling heat finally burst in a downpour of midday rain. Soaked to the skin but refreshed, I stopped at the nearest temple—Preah Khan—to take refuge among the leaky stone ruins. After I’d explored every nook and cranny of the temple and the rain still hadn’t stopped, I decided to check out the row of tarp-covered restaurants lining the road. Scanning the English menu, I picked something at random—sour soup with chicken. It was among the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten. Chunks of pineapple, tomato, potato, and perfectly tender chicken floating in a sweet and sour broth flavored with tamarind, lemongrass, and coconut, served alongside a healthy helping of rice. By the time I’d finished, the rain had stopped and I continued on my way.

3. Amok

Cambodia’s national dish is a soft, curry-like stew baked and served in a banana leaf. Amok is traditionally made with fish (due to the massive floodplains of the Tonle Sap Lake, freshwater fish is a Cambodian staple), but it’s usually available with chicken or other meat as well. I tried two versions, fish and chicken, and both were fantastic. Milder and sweeter than Thai curry, the mixture has a fluffy, almost mousse-like texture punctuated with chunks of meat and vegetables. The preparation is apparently quite complicated and intensive. With its beautiful leaf-wrapped presentation, amok really feels like a treat.

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4. Veggie enchilada

Okay, so my friends weren’t totally wrong—Cambodia does have really good western food. After suffering through some highly disappointing “Mexican” meals in Nanjing, I was very excited to join some kids from the hostel and check out Viva, a Mexican restaurant in Siem Reap. As a Vermonter, I’m hardly an expert in authentic Mexican cuisine. All I can say is that my veggie enchilada had plenty of sharp cheese, delicious beans, and came topped with both green and red salsas. The restaurant itself was modern and beautifully furnished, and the waiters were attentive and spoke perfect English. It served to highlight Cambodia’s incredible transformation from a war-torn famine-stricken wasteland to a friendly, cosmopolitan tourist destination, all in the space of just 35 years.

5. Pumpkin juice

For as long as I can remember, I’ve dreamed of sipping pumpkin juice and snacking on cauldron cakes while riding the Hogwarts Express. Although I was disappointed that my Cambodian pumpkin juice did not include an invitation to join the Wizarding World, it was nevertheless extremely delicious in a rich, unusual way. Sweetened with coconut milk and served on ice, it was the perfect way to beat the scorching heat of Phnom Penh.

6. Khmer Congee

As a tourist visiting Cambodia for the first time, I never strayed too far off the beaten path. I stayed in foreigner-friendly Siem Reap while visiting the Angkor temples, stayed with an American family in Phnom Penh, ate in restaurants with English menus, and rarely found myself the only westerner in the room. One of the few times I came close to experiencing Khmer authenticity was when a friend from the hostel and I were wandering around Siem Reap looking for breakfast, and stumbled upon a little restaurant packed with locals. Most of them were over the age of forty, and all of them were enjoying rice porridge or noodles with fried dough sticks and coffee—very similar to breakfasts in China, actually, minus the coffee. We sat down across from a middle-aged Cambodian man sipping beef noodles, and ordered the congee (the menu had English, so I suppose even here they were used to tourists). It was far more flavorful than congee in China, packed with ginger and lemongrass. I meant to go back the next day, but I overslept and settled for toast at the place next door to the hostel instead.

7. Tarantula

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I’m saving the best for last, clearly. Yes, they really do eat tarantulas in Cambodia. I first saw them for sale on the streets of Siem Reap, noted the hairiness of their little fried legs, and kept on walking. But on my very last night in Cambodia, the temptation to eat something truly horrifying was just too strong. I was staying with some American family friends who have lived for years in Phnom Penh, and they sensibly suggested that if I wanted to eat a tarantula, I should do so in a respected restaurant establishment rather than on the street. For my last Cambodian dinner, they took me to Romdeng, a training restaurant that helps former street children and marginalized youth build careers in the restaurant industry. It was by far the best service I’ve experienced anywhere in Asia. For appetizers we ordered one plate of spring rolls, and one plate of fried tarantulas. The waiter took our order without a hint of surprise, disgust, or humor. Business as usual. Tarantulas are believed to be a relatively recent addition to Khmer cuisine, introduced perhaps when food was scarce under the Khmer Rouge. Today, the spiders remain a common snack, as well as a highly popular tourist attraction.

The plate arrived with four fried spiders artfully arranged with sliced cucumbers around a centerpiece of black pepper dipping sauce. Despite being deep-fried and covered with spices, they were nevertheless distinctly spider-like. My host Greg, a spider-eating pro, went first, stuffing the whole thing in at once. There’s no use in prolonging the process by biting off one leg at a time, saving the soft, round abdomen for last. I picked up the spider with my fingers, took a deep breath, and popped it in my mouth. The flavor was great—there wasn’t much beyond deep-fried oil and spices—but after the initial crispiness, the texture was a little too chewy for my taste. I was relieved after I swallowed the thing and moved on to a nice, safe spring roll. Now I’ve officially eaten a spider, and I never have to do it again.

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This past weekend I traveled to Lugu Lake, a high-altitude alpine lake located on the border between Yunnan and Sichuan. With some Chinese friends from the office, we spent two days cycling around the lake on red rented mountain bikes, admiring the deep turquoise water and avoiding the sudden and violent thunderstorms that materialized at random intervals throughout the weekend. It wasn’t an easy trip; besides sickness and a minor bike accident, we also had to deal with ten-hour bus rides and a bathroomless guesthouse—the outhouse was literally out back with the pigs. Nevertheless, the beautiful and fascinating scenery made the trip absolutely worthwhile.

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The mountains surrounding Lugu Lake are home to the Mosuo people (摩梭人), who number approximately 40,000. The Mosuo are famous for their woven textiles, their preserved pork, and—most of all—their unique marital customs. Mosuo heritage is traced matrilineally, and couples engage in so-called “walking marriages,” where the man visits the woman by night and returns to his own home during the day. Any children born from these meetings are raised in the mother’s home. Today, this cultural quirk is one of Lugu Lake’s biggest tourist draws. The entire area is advertised as the “Land of Daughters,” and I’m told that the perceived promiscuity of Mosuo women attracts desperate men from all over China and has created a booming red light district in the area.

In our peaceful circumnavigation of the lake, my friends and I saw no signs of prostitution. We did, however, see the effects of tourism apparent in many areas of southwest China. Entire villages seemed converted into tourist havens, where every wooden house has an inn and a restaurant, and every lakefront shop sells the same scarves, jewelry, and other “authentic” “ethnic” souvenirs (identical to those for sale in Lijiang, Dali, Yangshuo, etc.).

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After hearing so much about their perceived exoticness, I was surprised to learn that the Mosuo people are not considered their own ethnicity by the Chinese government. In Yunnan, they are officially classified as a sub-group of the Naxi. In Sichuan, they are officially Mongolian. The government ID cards of Mosuo people say “摩梭人” not “摩梭族” using the 人 (person) suffix instead of the usual 族 (nationality/ethnicity) suffix. What’s going on here?

“Ethnicity” can be a very fluid concept. Juxtaposed against the rigidity of Chinese government policy, the concept becomes dizzyingly complex. The population of the People’s Republic of China is officially classified into 56 ethnic groups. One of these groups, the Han, comprises 92% of China’s total population; they are the largest ethnic group in the world. The remaining 55 minority groups are known as 少数民族, translated alternatively as “minority nationalities” or “minority ethnicities.” (The word “nationality” was based on a Marxist definition of “nation.” Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the word “ethnicity” is generally preferred to avoid confusion between political and cultural entities within China).

Some of China’s minority groups, such as the Hui (回族) are spread throughout every province in China, while others, such as the Naxi (纳西族) of northwest Yunnan, are found only in one particular area. Some ethnicities are associated with neighboring independent countries, such as ethnic Mongolians (蒙古族), Koreans (朝鲜族), and Kazakhs (哈萨克族). Others, like the Bai or the Hani, are found only in China.

The ethnic groups most frequently in the Western news are those in conflict with Han people and the Chinese government, namely the Tibetans and the Uighurs. Both groups have a history of cohesive political autonomy, and the centers of these historic civilizations are currently located within the borders of the PRC. Tibetans and Uighurs are known throughout the world, but many people do not know that the second largest ethnic group in China (after the Han) is the Zhuang, whose 18 million people live in the rural mountains of Guangxi and neighboring provinces. Many people also do not know that Russians (俄罗斯族) are considered one of the 56 official groups, or that the Manchus (满族), despite ruling all of China not so long ago, have all but completely assimilated into Han culture.

Ever since the government began officially cataloging ethnicities in the 1950’s, there has been plenty of confusion. The Hakka (客家人) of southeastern China were originally labeled as a unique ethnic minority because their customs and language differed from their Cantonese neighbors. Today, Hakka people are classified as Han (supported by genetic evidence), and their language is considered to be a dialect branch of Chinese.

The Hui (回族), meanwhile, seem to be classified more according to religion than cultural identification. Often known as “Chinese Muslims,” the Hui are thought to be descended from early Arab traders in China. Modern Hui people are spread across every province of China, and except for their religion, they are linguistically and culturally indistinguishable from their (mostly Han) neighbors. Interestingly, Bai-speaking Muslims in Yunnan and some Tibetan-speaking Muslims in Tibet are also classified as Hui, confirming the label as a religious rather than a truly ethnic designation.

So what’s the deal with the Mosuo? According to one of the friends I was traveling with, a Naxi girl, the Mosuo and Naxi languages are very similar. The two groups also inhabit the same region, so it makes sense that they would be related. My friend acknowledged that the Mosuo people consider themselves to be an independent group, but explained that their population is too small to qualify for official status. I’m not sure if this is true, since the Oroqen in northeastern China have less than 9000 people, and the officially registered Tatars in Xinjiang number only 3500.

Historically, both the Mosuo and the Naxi (as well as the Lisu, Yi, and other local groups) are believed to have descended from the ancient Qiang people. After this their histories diverge. In Yunnan, linguistic and geographic similarities were enough to classify the Mosuo as Naxi. In Sichuan, a group of Mosuo claiming direct descent from Mongol officials during the Yuan dynasty successfully petitioned to be classified as Mongols. This discrepancy highlights the complexity of provincial politics in China, where the same group of people can be classified in two different ways on either side of the border.

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The real question is, what does it matter? My Naxi friend did not express any strong opinions on whether or not the Mosuo are truly Naxi. All ethnic minorities in China are awarded certain privileges, such as exemption from the one-child policy and affirmative action admission to universities. These privileges apply to the Mosuo regardless of how they are characterized. To me, this is an issue of personal identity, rather than practical benefits. If the Mosuo people consider themselves to be a separate ethnic group, and the Naxi people (and certainly the Mongolians as well) do not disagree, how can anybody else say otherwise?

Unfortunately in China, the government can indeed say otherwise. A new classification might bring solidarity and pride to the Mosuo people, but to the Chinese bureaucracy it would only bring paperwork and confusion, adding another layer to China’s massively complicated ethnic landscape.

For now, the Mosuo people seem to be struggling with the same problems as ethnic minorities all over China—commercialization and fetishization. No matter what the government says, it’s important to understand the complexity of Mosuo culture and to avoid romanticizing and cheapening their social and marital customs. Although I had a fantastic time in Lugu Lake—bathroomless guesthouse aside—I regret that I did not take the opportunity to speak first-hand with more Mosuo people. I hope to return again to the lake, this time to more fully understand the complex issue of ethnic identity. And maybe next time, I’ll splurge for a room with an indoor toilet.

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