Posted by: Tommy | November 6, 2011

I should have waited…

We found this this weekend at a department store in Tokyo. I wish I’d waited a few more days on the toilet post.

Toilet hat.

Posted by: Anna | November 4, 2011

Hiroshima and the Bomb

Today, Hiroshima is a charming, incredibly modern city in Japan. Looking at the tidy apartment buildings, pachinko halls, omonomiyaki (local specialty – a giant pancake, vegetable thing) restaurants, and bars, I would have never guessed this was the location of the first ever nuclear weapon used in history, causing total destruction less than 70 years ago. Masked by the orderly Japanese city is one of the most horrible events in the history of war.

We decided to stay at the World Friendship Center, a small bed and breakfast a little outside the main area of Hiroshima, mainly because the hostels we would normally book at were full. I’m so glad. The World Friendship Center is a non-profit started by an American woman who was moved by the impact of the bomb to start something for world peace and nuclear disarmament in the 1960s. The WFC offers a free tour given by an English-speaking, trained Japanese volunteer followed by a (free) hibakusha story, told by a survivor of the A-bomb and translated by a volunteer translator.

This was an opportunity to gain insight into the Japanese experience in a personal way that I never imagined I would have when we planned to visit Hiroshima. I expected to wander around the monuments in the Peace Park, visit the museum, and see the A-bomb Dome. All three of these are located only a few steps from the hypocenter (the bomb actually exploded in the air, so the epicenter is feet above the city) within easy strolling distance from each other. We welcomed this deeper and richer experience, although in the back of my mind I hesitated — would it be as anti-American as the Vietnam War (or American War, as the Vietnamese call it) Cu Chi Tunnels tour was?

When we arrived the evening before our tour to check into the B&B, warmly welcomed by JoAnn and Larry, the two American volunteer hosts who live at the B&B and run the day to day operations. We chatted comfortably with them for a while, enjoying the comfort of the traditional Japanese home in which the WFC is located. They gave us a synopsis of the history of the center, from its inception to its modern day operation. The center always has an English speaking couple living at the center and hosting the guests to ensure a comfortable stay for tourists. We got settled in our room and headed out for some omonomiyaki for dinner.

Larry and JoAnn shared the history of omonomiyaki, a famous dish of Hiroshima, with us. After the bomb, food was scarce. People, in an effort to feel full with limited resources, created this dish. A pancake as a foundation, covered with a giant pile of cabbage and bean sprouts, topped with a scrambled or fried egg and sauce. It remains a popular option today, and food tourist that I am, I had to try it. Turned out it was okay, but not a highlight of Japanese cuisine. Still, I loved hearing the history for a famous dish here.

The next morning we met our tour guide Michiko, a petite, funny, energetic Japanese woman. Our tour group was just us and one other British traveler. She immediately started out getting to know us and declared, “I love Americans!” My fears alleviated, I was ready to explore the park. Our first stop was at the Chinese Parasol tree which had survived the blast. Only about 80-something trees survived within the blast zone (2 kilometers from the hypocenter). This one was transplanted to the Peace Park and carefully nurtured. It still stands as a symbol of hope in Hiroshima, since after the bomb it was said that nothing would grow in Hiroshima for 75 years. I can testify that is completely untrue, as Hiroshima has lovely trees, including many within the Peace Park. Each tree in the Peace Park was donated from regions all over Japan to create the beautiful green space that stands there today. Before leaving the Chinese Parasol, Michiko gave us seeds from the tree with instructions (that she translated herself) on how to plant them as a gift – a symbol of hope for us to take home.

Parasol tree, still beatiful today.

Moving on, we next stopped at a stone monument with a poem carved in Japanese on one side and English on the other. It evoked the sorrow of the individuals who lost family to the bomb, plaintively calling them back. No matter the politics, war is full of individual tragedies and loves lost, embodied in this poem.

Only a few steps away was the monument to those hibaksha (survivors of the bomb) who have died, updated regularly. There are still over 200,000 survivors living today, although of course more are added to the registers every year. Behind that monument was the everlasting flame, or to those advocating nuclear weapon disarmament, the flame that will go out when all nuclear weapons have been abolished. The city of Hiroshima set a goal of 2020, although that looks highly unlikely today.

Strolling under the green trees, just starting to change to gold, we approached the children’s monument. In elementary school, I remember reading Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, the story of Sadako Sasaki, who got leukemia due to exposure to radiation. She tried to stave off her death by folding a thousand paper cranes. The children’s monument shows a girl holding up an origami crane surmounting a bell, which visitors can ring. Glass cases filled with senbazuru (strings of paper cranes) surround the children’s monument, sent from all over the world. Her story has made paper cranes a symbol for world peace.

We saw the hypocenter, which was then and is again today a hospital. The target was a nearby bridge, but a slight miss hit a hospital instead. A small monument stands to mark the spot. Somehow, it felt that no tribute could appropriately mark the spot, so after a quick look we moved on to the A-bomb dome. This dome is one of the only buildings to sort-of survive the explosion. Constructed in 1910, it was a tourist attraction in its day for its modern European design and attractive facade. The dome was copper, and it melted away in the heat, reaching 5,000 degrees Celsius at its max. Standing as one of the last ruins of the city, controversy raged during reconstruction about what to do. Some wanted to leave it standing as a reminder. Others wanted it torn down as an eyesore and because it was a painful reminder.

A young girl finally decided it. She realized that she had leukemia due to exposure, but she did not tell her parents so as not to worry them, since little could be done to help her. She did however keep a journal that was found after her death, describing her symptoms and experience during her illness. She also expressed that she wanted the dome to stand as a reminder to others; her journal was taken to the city council. The dome stands today, as a ruin, her lasting mark.

This building actually survived as well as it did because it was so close to the epicenter that the blast hit mostly vertically, rather than horizontally.

We crossed over the bridge that the bomber had aimed for. As we walked, Michiko explained that after the bombing the river bursted with corpses. Some survivors prefer to avoid seeing the river today as it recalls such a powerful image. The burns sustained caused those still alive to leap into the river to cool the burns, but the river is strongly tidal (Hiroshima is close to the ocean) and the tide swept away and killed many injured who were too weak to swim.

In Japan, it’s easy to forget that there are any people living here except Japanese. During the war, however, there were two million Koreans living in Japan. Michiko told us that approximately 20,000 Koreans forcibly imported by the Japanese to labor were killed by the bomb. The Korean government erected a monument of a tortoise, symbolizing the Korean belief that people travel to heaven on the back of a tortoise after death.

I have left out many details from Michiko, including many of the more gruesome. All the horrible details you could ever want are available in books. After walking through the park with Michiko, I was left with a sense of compassionate dignity on the behalf of the Japanese and a heartfelt expression of the desire for world peace through the park. Michiko referred briefly and appropriately to Japanese atrocities committed during the war, and I never felt that there was any impetus to erect the park or the monuments therein to convey anything other than to honor those who suffered, survived, and died as well as a desire for peace in the future.

The second part of our experience was hearing the story of a survivor.  Kiyomi Kohno told her story using her own artwork from a book she created. When the blast happened, she was 14. Although out of the city the day of impact, she headed in less than a day later to look for family. Her art expressed that day in a way that words could not, and although the translation was very well-done, my heart understood the pictures more deeply than my ears could ever do.

This image shows her at the moment of impact. She described the sound and her emotions at the moment. She was helping her younger cousin eat breakfast. I was reminded that tragedy hit a moment no one was expecting, while people went about their daily lives.

Although the bomb is certainly an indescribable horror, and the idea of a world free of nuclear weapons sounds wonderful, I remain unconvinced that it is possible. As long as we know they CAN exist, I believe some madman (Kim Jong-il or his brethren) will always seek them. Responsible powers must keep nuclear weapons in order to act as a deterrent to their use. Mutual destruction is simple but logical. I don’t see a way around it. The other major question that arises during my experience in Hiroshima is whether America should have ever used the bomb in the first place. On this question, I remain undecided, as I do not feel that I know enough to have an educated opinion. Since that is the case, I abstain from forming an opinion on this complex issue here. However, being in a position to learn more about the bomb in Hiroshima and its aftereffects has been a blessed educational experience, largely fair and moving. Regardless, the desire for world peace, however I may believe it is best achieved, was affirmed by my experience in Hiroshima, and for that, I am grateful.

Posted by: Tommy | November 2, 2011

The Long-Awaited Toilet Post

A few months ago, in Malaysia, we polled the readers about potential compilation posts of pictures from various countries that are strange or funny – Weird Advertisements, Toilets and Things that are the wrong size.  In an upset, the readers voted for Weird Advertisements by 1 vote over Toilets.  And secretly, I was glad.  Not because I didn’t want to write about toilets – I did!  But I was hoping to save the Toilets post for Japan because the fancy electronic Japanese toilets are the stuff of legend.

Fast forward a few months and we’ve arrived in Japan.  And on the first day, I knew what the fuss was all about.  I’ve seen the holy grail of toilet lore and now feel like this post can truly be written.

This is the toilet that started it all. This is the back of the toilet at Godzillas Hostel in Moscow. I now know that this setup is incredibly common around the world, but at the time I'd never seen the separate flushing options for lots of water/ little water.


After Russia, there wasn't much to be inspired by in the toilet realm. In Israel, Egypt and Southern Africa, many of the toilets are functional but not particularly artistic.

Lacking artistry, with a few exceptions. Here, I caught Anna coming out of the outdoor bathroom at the Bridge Backpackers in Botswana. See how happy she looks? It's the outdoor-ness of this toilet that's (probably) making her smile.

Another outdoor job in Botswana, this time at our campsite in the Kalahari. I hadn't thought about it before just now, but we went 2 full weeks in Botswana without using an indoor toilet.

I probably should have closed the lid before taking this picture. Sorry about that. I loved the "green" design of this toilet, found in Capetown, South Africa. You wash your hands in the sink attached to the back of the tank, which fills up the tank and saves water. Why don't we have these in America?

From South Africa, we moved on to India, where most of the toilets aren't fit to be photographed. You might be wondering with this picture has to do with toilets...

...but those cubbyholes on the side of the street, just open for all the world to see, are actually open bathrooms..for all the world to see. 2 interesting things about these: 1) We frequently saw men walk up, look at the conveniently located street toilet, then unzip his pants and start peeing on a building 3 feet away. 2) 95% of the time, the people we saw using these were men peeing. The other 5%... well, that's just India.

Most toilets in India/Nepal are of the squatter variety. But in hotels and some restaurants, you'll find a Western toilet. Or in our hotel in Neshik, India you can find the rare combo squatter/Western.

As a side note, I tried to visit the Sulabh International Museum of Toilets in Delhi but ran out of time.  You can find their website here.

After 2 months in India and Nepal, I thought this sign, in the Singapore airport, was a very good sign for the toilets we would encounter in Asia. And I was right.

In Vietnam, we encountered this towable bathroom trailer. It seems much easier to transport than Port-O-Johns and it must smell better (though I didn't venture inside).

This isn't an actual toilet, but it is a picture of the umbrella that we carried for 6 months (and are still carrying). We got it in Thailand and honestly had no idea that it had a picture on it until after we'd bought it. If you're curious, the words are "Hoo Hoo Comfortable tummy."

We saw this (or some version of this) sign on lots of trains in Asia. Don't squat on the Western tioilet, don't spray your feet, don't ...bathe your child? Despite the sign, I did walk in on one guy using the bidet hose to give himself a shower on an overnight trainride in Thailand.

Australia is like America in almost every way, so there wasn't much to be amazed by. Until Sally (Anna's mom) found this sign in a women's bathroom and contributed it.

In New Zealand, we visited Hobbiton and found Hobbit-sized bathrooms.

In Fiji, on Caqalai Island, this was everyone's favorite bathroom. 25 feet from the beach, and what a view when you exit.

Among the most recognizable relics of the SS President Coolidge, the sunken ship we dove in Vanuatu, were the row of toilets. The ship sits on its side, so these toilets jut out from the wall in 120 feet of water.

Our next stop was China. And with a return to Asia came a return to interesting toilets. At our private room in Yanshuo, we got to look at this comical grunting pig every day. Don't hurt yourself, big guy.

It's not China without some hilariously mistranslated English. I honestly don't know what they are trying to prohibit with this one.

At a mall in Beijing, we encountered this tiny toilet. It's enclosed in its own brightly-colored stall with cartoons all over it, plus the friendly bear at the bottom. And it comes about halfway up my shin. Just an odd sight. Though the Chinese guy who walked in and saw me photographing the tiny toilet might have thought that was an even odder sight.

And then there's the Japanese toilet. The pinnacle of toilet design, as far as I'm concerned. Not only does it have the water-saving sink feature, but it has a heated seat (it doesn't sound as great as it is), a button that plays music to cover "embarassing noises" and a control panel.

The control panel, close-up. From left to right - Stop, Backside wash, Bidet - and then a bunch of buttons in Japanese that control temperature, aim and strength of flow.

The Japanese even make a better squatter toilet than the rest of the world.

When I saw this, I knew that the post could be completed. Toilet nirvana had been achieved. On trains in Japan, you don't need to touch the seat. Hold your hand over the sensor and the seat goes up. Unlock the door, the seat goes down. No need to touch it, no leaving the seat up for the next person. Can a society achieve more?

Posted by: Anna | October 31, 2011

Ten Things I Hate About You (China)

“When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.” – Clifton Fadiman

When I read this quote, I can’t help but think of China.  We were hardly ever comfortable in China.  In fact, China was one of the worst countries of our trip. I cannot recommend China to anyone for a vacation, unless the following are what you look for:

1. A complete disregard for others. Chinese people are rude. They shove unnecessarily. They cut in lines, all the time, acting as if they hadn’t noticed you there. The attitude seems to be “look out for No. 1”, making them oblivious jerks.

Fighting the crowds at the Forbidden City

2. Hard beds. Chinese mattresses are actually just boards. They look like mattresses, but it’s all an illusion. I have no idea how the rest of the world has discovered mattresses that are soft while China has not. We stayed in a dorm with a very loud snoring man. One of the Chinese girls sharing the dorm ended up sleeping on the floor of the hostel common area. When we asked her why she didn’t sleep on the couch, she gave us a look of shock and told us that she would be so sore from sleeping on something so soft! I do not understand.

3. Snoring Chinese men.

4. Very little English. I know it’s their country…but this is my list, and that’s one thing I  hated. If someone approaches you who does speak English, flee. It’s a scam.

Sometimes they try to speak (or write) English, with occasionally hilarious results. They wouldn't let us order Face Movie, so we don't know what that is.

5. Lost all the time. No/confusing street signs, terrible maps. It took us three hours (from 5:30 AM to 8:30 AM) to find a hostel that was less than a kilometer from the train station, where we started. Two taxis and 2.5 hours of walking with our backpacks – we arrived!

6. Greasy food. The puddle of liquid fat left behind after every meal is gross. Soup, noodles, stir fry….always a puddle.

7. Nothing fun to buy – only cheap, cheesy souvenirs or expensive Chinese art-y stuff. I don’t need a giant calligraphy of my name in my house, or my name on a grain of rice, or a Chairman Mao mousepad. Thanks anyway.

8. Travel agents buy all the good train tickets, leaving only a handful for those of us foolish enough to try to buy tickets from the train station instead of paying their fees.

9. Beijing taxi drivers refusing to use the meter, or take us at all. I know the taxi should be 20 yuan. The driver will take me for no less than 300, even though he’s legally required to use the meter.

10. Censorship. A month of no facebook, blog, CNN, internet videos, ESPN, etc….frustrating. The largest nation on earth without unfettered access to these things…shocking and disturbing.

Bonus – did I mention how rude the people were?

Ten Things I Don’t Hate About You (from Tommy)

1. Strangers, whether they be waiting in your line or walking near you on the stairs, are admittedly jerks in China. But when you ask for help or just engage someone in conversation, they were as friendly as any other people that we’ve met. Except Fiji.

2. Pandas.

And even better - baby pandas.

3. Cheap, good haircuts. I got my head shaved on our first and last days of China. Neither cost even $4 and one came with a shampoo.  Anna even got a good haircut for less than $6.

4. The hard Chinese beds make the Japan beds seem fabulous, though they’re probably mediocre.

5. A plethora of public toilets.

6. We saved some money by not buying anything, since there was absolutely nothing of quality to buy.

Here's some junk for sale by an "antiques" dealer in Xi'an.

7. Delicious hot pot and the best enchiladas since Russia.

8. McDonald’s soft serve cone – 2 for less than $1. Add to that dried kiwi and grapes dipped in sugar. Plus, they had Dairy Queen. Probably the best dessert location of the trip.

Our best discovery - fruit dipped in sugar and sold for almost nothing. Grapes covered in sugar? Delicious!

9. Excellent hostels. Great for meeting people. Lots of board games, free wifi, towels and reasonable tours. Great, except for the snoring Chinese men.

10. Hmmm….I tried to come up with 10. Did we mention how rude the people are?


Tommy’s Haiku (Anna declined)

Pushing and shoving;

Don’t make me retaliate;

I’m bigger than you.

The Great Wall of China. It is probably one of the 5 most famous man-made structures in the world. It’s certainly the most famous thing in China. And rightfully so – I thought the Great Wall was incredible. But there’s not a whole lot to it. You go, it’s stunning – surrounded by beautiful scenery, improbably long and built over impossible terrain, but then you just walk around for hours admiring the view. It was a memorable experience, but not necessarily a captivating story for the blog.

Anna had been before and loved it (18 years ago, with her parents), but didn’t feel the need to go again. So I joined up with a French girl, Emelie, from our hostel and together we explored the Wall. She’ll be in some of these pictures, with captions to tell of the interesting bits from the day.

After 2.5 hours on a bus, Emelie and I started our Great Wall adventure by taking the cable car up the mountain. We'd climb plenty later, so we decided to cable car instead of climb the mountain.

This is as much of the Wall as we could see at any one time. We took the bus to the less-touristed Mutianyu section of the Wall. There were still plenty of people, but apparently less than at other sections.

Like I said earlier, we did plenty of climbing. The distance between watchtowers wasn't too far, but getting from one to the next frequently involved massive elevation changes. This is looking down after climbing a steep section.

Not all of the Wall has been restored. After it proved to be so useless as a defense strategy, the Chinese government let the Wall fall apart. Until 1986, when someone realized that tourists would pay to come see it. Since then, sections have been painstakingly restored. Police officers are known to give steep fines to tourists and guides caught in the unrestored sections of the Wall. This is because restaurants, souvenir shops and other tourist traps have sprung up around the "authorized" Wall-viewing spots. Here we're slightly off the allowed path, checking out a deserted, unrepaired stretch. Notice the trees growing down the center of the Wall.

It's hard to tell in this black & white photo, but the landscape and views around the Wall were stunning. You could see, all along the ridge of mountains, watchtowers and crumbling pieces of the Wall.

I liked the mountain view in this photo.

The view from inside one of the watchtowers.

There is a myth that the Great Wall of China is the only man-made object visible from space. That's false. While it's long enough, the Great Wall is way too thin to be viewed from that far away. A sign there compares seeing the Great Wall from the moon to trying to spot a piece of thread on the ground, while sitting on a 10 story building.

This had to be among the most random, unexpected collaborations that I've come across this year. In addition to taking a cable car up the mountain, you can ride down the same mountain in a small, plastic sled with wheels. Since we'd been climbing up and down the steep, irregularly-sized stairs for over 4 hours (we ran out of time about 10 minutes from completing the entire Mutianyu section) and were exhausted, we opted to ride rather than walk down. Good call - it was fun. And a great ending to a phenomnal day.

Posted by: Anna | October 26, 2011

Terracotta Warriors

We have seen a lot of the “stuff left over” from meglomaniacs, like the Pyramids in Egypt, the Taj Mahal, and now – the Terra Cotta Warriors in Xian, China. These warriors, along with terra cotta horses, and originally, chariots, were crafted to make Qin Shi Huang (first emperor of China) a powerful emperor in the afterlife as well. I cannot speak to how effective that strategy was; however, the insane lengths he went to on earth during the construction period blow my mind.

Over 700,000 workers labored to build the pits and warriors. Eighty thousand were killed and placed in mass graves, so that they could never complete such a task again. Emperor Qin Shi Huang was also buried with 3,000 concubines. The warriors have been found in four pits, so far, and archaeologists believe more pits still remain.

We started our tour in the least restored pit, looking out over the collapsed roof and fragments of warriors and horses waiting for attention from archeologists. Our guide, the hilarious Chinese Jie Jie, explained to us what we were seeing. We then had several minutes to wander on our own. We had figured out that another couple on our tour were from Nacogdoches, Texas, so we had the slightly disconcerting sensation of looking at the Terra Cotta warriors while hearing that East Texas twang in conversation. It’s a small world.

View of the first pit, overlooking the collapsed roof before the warriors are unearthed and restored.

During our time to walk around, we saw the only warrior that was found intact, a kneeling archer. He still has a small bit of red paint on his back, making him the only one whose color lasted. All warriors were originally incredibly brightly colored, including one who had a blue face (one, out of thousands) – for reasons unknown. Other warriors, after unearthed, show faded and chipped color, but it fades within thirty minutes of being exposed to air due to oxidation. This warrior, whom Jie Jie called “magic”, was found intact and has (a little) lasting color.

Back view of the magical kneeling archer - you can just see the traces of red on his lower back.

In the second pit, the command center, we saw the generals and guards for the generals. It was much smaller and yet still much more restored than the first. Some of the guards remain headless because they were unfinished when the emperor died, and so they were just closed into the pit sans head. It makes a somewhat amusing image to imagine this afterworld army defending the leaders, although without heads.

Too bad about the heads.

The final pit is the largest, filled with thousands of infantry warriors, still in various states of disrepair. One area has around one hundred that the archeologists are currently working to restore, while the pits are filled with the ones already completed. Each warrior has a different face, build, and uniform (only slightly, with details to reveal his ranking). Small details, like the design of his shoes, reveal whether he is married and his rank.

Notice the upturned toes on some of the shoes - those guys were high ranking, for a clay soldier.

Standing over the final pit, gazing out over hundreds of warrior standing at attention, gives me the sense of power and of conceit undertaking a project like this requires. Even today, with years of restoration completed, at least another fifty years at the same rate remain to restore all the warriors found in the first pit. I’m reminded that all the dedicated effort to leave a monument to greatness fade away and are forgotten in time – the pyramids have been raided, the Taj is filled with irreverent tourists snapping photos…and the warriors were crushed and robbed by the ravages of time.

I'm pretty sure the emperor never imagined us taking our picture like cheesy tourists in front of his army.

Not long after the emperor’s death, another militia broke into the pits, stole most of the weapons, and burned the wooden rafters. After the rafters collapsed, the roof caved in, crushing almost all the warriors. The warriors were forgotten for hundreds of years; a farmer digging a well rediscovered them in 1976. When they were found, the farmers were afraid to unearth them because they feared it was pieces from a Buddhist shrine and might bring bad luck to disturb. We met this farmer; he now signs his book at the bookstore for about $4 per day. The Chinese government paid him very little for his discovery.

The Terracotta Army is definitely one of the most impressive sights in China, with thousands of individually crafted statues waiting to protect the first emperor of China. Like many impressive historical sights, it was created by a madman – the emperor intentionally took mercury every day, knowing it was a poison. He believed that constant exposure to it would protect him from poisoning; unfortunately, he died of mercury poisoning built up in his system, going slowly crazy before his death. It takes a crazy man to build the Terracotta Army.

Posted by: Anna | October 24, 2011

On Dreamy Dinners

Prior to leaving, I studied Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations episodes of places we were headed (and a few we weren’t). The China episode was one of the first I saw, and one of the reasons I kept watching. Anthony devoured a Sichuan hot pot in Chengdu, sweating and grinning, and I dreamed of doing the same.

I wasn’t the only one dreaming of dinner; Tommy had a dream dinner of his own. Not necessarily location specific, he had visions of enchiladas haunting his nights. Twelve months without any decent Mexican food does take its toll on native Texans. After searching and endlessly questioning confused locals, an answer finally appeared – Peter’s Tex Mex in Chengdu. When he saw the first review on Trip Advisor is from a Texan, who gives it five stars, he knew his hope would be realized.

We made the walk to Peter’s on our first night in Chengdu. Walking in was like being teleported to another continent — North America, and more specifically Texas. Perhaps a bit overdone with cheesy Americana / Texana decor, including one very large Texas flag, it felt like a little like a cross between a small town craft store (cute slogan signs – such as “If you’re smoking in here, you better be on fire” – this one is a highlight since no-smoking isn’t really a concept that has arrived in foreign restaurants) – and the home of a collector of beaten down cowboy hats. The menu featured well-known favorites like quesadillas, chili, chicken-fried steak, steak finger baskets, and….enchiladas!

I think you can guess what Tommy ordered. I had quesadillas, which were pretty good. To wash down his enchiladas, Tommy did not go for the margarita, but a more Tommy-like choice of a large chocolate milkshake. Also delicious. The food came out quickly, fresh, and smothered in cheese. The enchiladas sat next to a pile of Mexican rice and refried beans. It was great.

Me, eating quesadillas in front of a Texas flag - not a sight Tommy sees too often on this trip.

My dream finally came to be on our last (of two) nights in Chengdu. After spending our first one on Mexican food (which is definitely still better in Texas, even if this is the most passable example we’ve found), we spent our second night on hot pot. I remember hot pot from the fairly authentic Chinese restaurant in Garland, near my parents house when I was in elementary school. They would not sell hot pot to non-Chinese. It achieved its mystique for me at age eight.

Hot pot is one of China’s most famous cuisines, with entire cavernous restaurants devoted to it in Chengdu (its birthplace). Some are “themed” – duck hot pot, crab hot pot, etc. As newbies, we opted for regular hot pot. It was late when we arrived, and the restaurant was winding down, with only a few messy tables of people left, shouting slurred “gambei” (sort of like the Chinese version of “cheers”) and slurping up the last bits of beer and food. Normally I hate to be the last customer, but this was my only chance to eat hotpot.

We were seated through our normal procedure in China: we hold up two fingers, the hostess holds up two fingers, and then points at a table. She speaks no English; we speak no Chinese. She brings us a long list of ingredients (thankfully in English, with Chinese translations on the side). In ordering hot pot, we can choose three options – “hot” (red, peppercorn – chile based broth), “not spicy” (chicken and mushroom based broth), or “yin and yang”, sometimes called “half and half” (which is actually half spicy and half not spicy). We have had some amazingly spicy food in China, so to save Tommy’s tongue from certain destruction and to appease my desire to try the spicy, we opted for half and half. That was the easy part.

Then we were back to ordering ingredients. The list was long, and weird. I mean really, really weird. We later tried to name all the normal foods on the list, and we could only come up with cabbage, potato, tomato, mushrooms and corn. In the next category of things we eat on the trip but don’t normally eat at home might be bamboo shoots, sliced lotus root, and kelp. And then it really took off – quail eggs, duck tongue, goose intestine, bacteria (not sure how that comes) and bezoar stone. I didn’t even know that was a real thing; I’d only seen in Harry Potter as a potion ingredient. Shows how little I know about food after all.

We tried to make a selection that was somewhat adventurous yet still would be something that wouldn’t totally freak us out to eat. We are pretty adventurous eaters, but China really knocks us down a notch in ego on that account. We have learned that there are a good many things we do not like to eat, and even if we order them because they are interesting, we end up grossed out and hungry. Baby steps are key.

Our broth arrived almost immediately, and started to boil. Actually the more I think about it, this does seem more and more like making a potion instead of eating a meal. We watched with trepidation and curiosity. I stuck my finger in the hot to taste it; it was searing. The waitress also plopped down two small bowls of clear, brownish sauce and a fairly sizeable bowl of cilantro and another of chopped garlic. We debated if the cilantro was to go in the dipping sauce or the broth. Finally, Tommy gestured to the waitress to ask for help. She immediately started mixing up our sauce – adding a handful of cilantro and an even bigger one of garlic. She reached under our table (who knew, a wonderland of additional flavorings for our sauces resided under there?) and started to add salt and sugar. She produced oyster sauce and soy / fish (not sure which one) sauce and gave us a questioning look. We responded with our own questioning look. She decided no, and put the sauces away.

I'm excited to try the hot pot, now that I can smell the broth and we've figured out the whole dipping sauce thing.

With this, our pot started to simmer. It smelled fantastic. Still apprehensive, we turned to our tray of ingredients. We had ordered bamboo, kelp, mushrooms, potatoes, duck tongue, and dumplings. The duck tongues were beautifully presented, and odd. For the rest, we had stuck it pretty safe, and felt good about our choices. The waitress sensed our hesitation and started plopping ingredients into our broth. We watched them simmer away, wondering how long a duck tongue needs to cook in a hot pot.

Our ingredients to cook in the hot pot. Notice the top right corner - duck tongues.

We had two big ladles to stir the simmering bits around and scoop them out, and we experimented with that just to get the feel of the thing. Finally, we could wait no longer, and we scooped out a mushroom each from the not spicy broth. Delicious! I tried the bamboo from the spicy broth – delicious! It didn’t get as spicy as I had feared, but had a pleasant burn from the peppercorns. We looked each other in the eye, steeled ourselves, and each reached for a duck tongue. I ate first; it was chewy, savory, spicy, and really good. Tommy ate his next while I looked on — he also smiled. Our weirdest choice was not inedible – it was good, if tiny.

Getting ready to try the first bite of duck tongue...

We continued to fish out bits and eat them dipped in sauce, which was less garlicky than I expected. The restaurant cleared out, and we finished our meal to the sounds of the staff cleaning up. To their credit, they never rushed us or acted at all put out that we had come so late and been the last. Our whole meal was less than $20, and it was more than a meal. It was a dream from 21 years ago come true.

Posted by: Tommy | October 21, 2011

The Sichuan Opera – Opera for Guys

I know. When you saw the word Opera in the title of the post, you probably assumed it was written by Anna. And truth be told, she was quite surprised when I agreed to go with her to this opera at all, much les write about it. Operas, along with ballets, symphonies and musicals, are the kinds of “cultural” performances that I generally try to avoid.

But in this case, I had a secret. I’d read someone else’s blog post about the Sichuan Opera in Chengdu and I knew it wasn’t the sort of opera that the word “opera” generally describes. The Sichuan opera, according to this random blogger, features knife-throwing, fire-spitting and an amazing shadow puppet artist! So when she mentioned the opera as a possible attraction during our brief visit to Chengdu, I put up a fight and then “grudgingly” agreed to accompany her.

After a day at the panda center, we signed up for the hostel’s trip to the opera. Surprisingly, the hostel’s tickets were cheaper than the box office price and we were, not surprisingly, sitting in the back section. There were 7 people from our hostel in the van – Luke and Lou, a Welsh couple who were in the last 2 weeks of a 15 month trip, and 3 Thai people that we barely talked to. The bus arrived an hour early for the opera, so we spent the time talking to the Welsh folks.

Anyway, we were seated (at least it was the first row of the cheap seats, about 5 rows from the back) and the lights dimmed. A pretty, young Chinese woman came out to welcome us. She would intro each act for the evening in both English and Chinese, though all other dialogue would be in Chinese. The first act was a drumline.

The drumline.

The drummers played for about 5 minutes, then a troupe of dancing people came out. First with flags, then in elaborate costumes. A fight scene was played out, well, danced out – but we speak no Chinese, so we just admired the costumes and didn’t worry about the ‘story’.

The emcee came out again and told us the next act would be a famous Chinese romance story. It starred one of the guys from the fight, still in the same costume, and a chick with really long sleeves. She had 6 hand maidens, (I think, again, it’s all in Chinese) and they did some interesting choreography twirling their sleeves. The guy had a cool hat with 2 long, flexible feathers sticking out if it. But this opera was not going where I had expected – so far, 20 minutes and just a bunch of dancing. Anna looked happy, though.

And then – shadow puppets! It was hard to get a decent picture of this because she moved all the time and it was dark, but the detail in the shadow puppets was impressive. A screen was set up in the middle of the stage with a light positioned to look like a full moon. The artist sat behind the screen so we could only see the shadows. She proceeded to make all sorts of animals, set to a soundtrack featuring music and animal noises. She’d make a cat or dog or all types of birds, then have them singing or squawking to the soundtrack. After the show, we discussed with Lou and Luke and decided our favorite was the owl, which she used 2 hands and her head to create.

A shadow camel.

The next act was more dancing, but this was done by a puppeteer holding her puppet above her head. Somehow, the puppets hands were extremely flexible and the puppeteer made it spin a handkerchief, pick flowers out of a hat and do other dextrous activities. Pretty cool, but not as interesting as the next act. The emcee came out and called it “Happy Clown Firehead”. That promised to be awesome!

After she finished, the spotlight panned over to a guy standing behind us in the back of the theater. A pudgy, bald Chinese man wearing what can only be described as either a pink, silk short apron or a long bib and pink silk pants. There was some dialogue with his “wife” in Chinese, but it seemed like he was in trouble. And for his punishment, he’d have to keep a flaming oil lamp on his head. She got him doing more and more ridiculous things, always expecting him to drop the lamp (and presumably get punished or something). But, as you would expect, this guy was fantastic at keeping the lamp on his head. He climbed on top of a table. He jumped up and down. Eventually, he crawled head first under two benches, all the while keeping the lamp steady. Then he was made to flip to his back, still balancing the lamp, and crawl backward under the benches again. When he made it, the crowd went wild. Rereading it here, it sounds kind of stupid, but in person – pretty impressive.

Funny clown show.

The next act almost put me to sleep (we’d had a full day at the panda center and little sleep the night before) so I won’t dwell on that. It was a guy who plays a lame Chinese instrument on top of terrible background music.

But the final act made the whole show – it was even better than the firehead and the shadow puppets (though I was disappointed by the lack of a knife thrower – I’d read they use audience volunteers and like to choose the foreigners). Anyway, the final act was called Changing Faces and it’s what makes the Sichuan Opera famous. 4 people, some of them dressed in the same costumes as the first act, come out, dance around and tell some sort of story through their actions. And while they do it, they, as you might have guessed from the name, change faces. They are all wearing full-face masks, painted Chinese-style in bright colors. As they dance or turn, they wave a yellow fan in front of their face and all of a sudden, a new face appears. They’ll go from yellow/green to red/blue. From a creepy green dragon face to a joker-esque face. The puppeteer was back, carrying the puppet. The puppet wore a mask and changed faces along with everyone else. At some point, the puppet started breathing fire – we had no idea why.

Over the course of 6 or 7 minutes, each dancer had changed faces at least 12 times, probably even more than that. I spent most of the performance watching through my camera screen, trying to get a slow-mo video that would show me how it was done. The dancers all finished on their normal face – and then one guy somehow went back from his normal face to a mask. Even with the slow-mo, I haven’t been able to figure that one out. With that done, the lights came up, the performers came out to take their bows and we departed.

Anna was happy – I’d gone with her to the opera. And I was happy – credit for the opera, but actually seeing a clown, some shadow puppets and Changing Faces which doesn’t fit into any category I can think of – maybe magic show. On to the Hot Pot restaurant, to continue an incredibly busy, touristy day in Chengdu.

Posted by: Tommy | October 19, 2011


Sorry for the lapse in posting.  The Chinese government decided to block mid-visit, so we haven’t had blog access in over a week.  But we did have our busiest day to date – 235 visitors on Monday – and now have a backlog of China stories to share.  We’ll keep those coming while enjoying Japan.  And I’m happy to report that we are in better spirits after leaving all the rain in Yangshuo behind.  So, without further delay, a post about pandas…


Q: What’s black and white and red all over?

A: A giant panda eating an apple.

Did you know that apples rank highly among the favorite foods of the black and white bears?  Neither did we.  But, during a day as volunteers at the Chengdu Panda Breeding Center, we learned that and many other things about the world’s cuddliest bear.

One of Anna’s funniest comments on China’s approach to foreign affairs is her assertion that, when other governments accuse them of violating human rights, China just lends a panda to that country.  The other foreign leaders take one look into the eyes of the panda and they forget all about the atrocities.  Awww, that panda is so cute.

And justifiably so.

We took the 25 hour trip from Yangshuo to Chengdu specifically to see the pandas.  Of the world’s 2000 remaining pandas, 85% live in the Sichuan province of China.  1600 of them are wild, living in the mountains around Chengdu, while the two research centers (Chengdu Panda Breeding Center and Bifengxia) hold about 100 each.   There are about 40 pandas in zoos outside of China worldwide and the rest live wild in neighboring provinces of Sichuan.

Because of our extended stay in Yangshuo, we had only 36 hours in Chengdu.  Upon arriving at our hostel, we researched their panda-visiting options and opted for the panda volunteer experience.  The price to visit the pandas with the hostel is 100 Yuan ($15).  Included in that is a ride to and from the Center and admission.  You can walk around, gawking at pandas for 3 hours before being taken back.  But for 600 Yuan ($100), you can get a ride there, then spend the entire day (8am to 3:30) with an English-speaking guide.  You go in the Staff Only areas, assisting the keepers in cleaning out the over-night pens, clearing out old bamboo and bringing in fresh food.  And, the best part, feeding the pandas their daily apple treats and panda cakes.  We opted to spend the extra money and get a once-in-a-lifetime experience with a very rare animal.

Upon arrival, Bao (our guide) introduced himself to us.  We’d read that they generally take 5-6 volunteers per day.  But on this particular day, only Anna and I have signed up.  So Bao would be with us for the duration, answering any panda-related questions that we’d come up with.  He spoke great English, was incredibly knowledgeable and extremely friendly.  The first thing we did was load into a car and drive (skipping a 40 minute walk) to the top of the hill, where the main panda house sits.

There are 9 pandas in the panda house.  The most famous of these, and probably the most famous panda in the world, is Mei Lin.  Mei Lin was the first panda born in the U.S., the product of artificial insemination at the Atlanta Zoo in 2006.  She’s also the spokes-panda for the WWF (wildlife, not wrestling).  My favorite Mei Lin tidbit – when she first arrived back from the States last year, the Breeding Center had to hire an English-speaking trainer because Mei Lin couldn’t understand any of the Chinese commands.  She would only respond to the English commands.  She’s now fully bilingual – which means she can come, sit and ignore you fluently in Chinese and English.

Mei Lin - World's Most Famous Panda (apparently)

Later, Anna and I would clean up Mei Lin’s poop and bring her fresh bamboo.  Ko Be, her neighbor, would be better suited for a wrestling endorsement.  He’s the largest panda in the Center, standing 1.8 meters (about 6 ft.) and weighing 270 lbs.  The other adult panda in that panda house is a 27 year old female that Bao just called “the old lady”.  Pandas typically live 20-25 years in captivity, so she’s an exceptionally old panda (though a panda in a Japanese zoo died a few years ago over the age of 30, the oldest on record).

The 6 other pandas in this panda house were “teenagers” in panda years, which means 3 actual years.  All 6 of these pandas are housed together in one large enclosure.  Pandas are solitary creatures, meeting in the wild only occasionally to mate.  The teenagers will live together until they are 5, at which time they will be separated and each given their own space.  Space is the largest problem for the panda breeding center, as wild pandas have a territory of roughly 6 sq. kilometers.  Captive pandas don’t get anywhere near that, but keeping 40 adult pandas with each getting a large enclosure has the Center needing more room.

In the panda house, the first thing Anna and I did (after we signed our “if you die, that’s not our fault” forms) was give the pandas their morning treat – apples.  Mei Lin was sleeping and the Old Lady doesn’t get any apples (she’s on a special diet of eggs, baby formula and panda cake).  We skipped Ko Be and went straight to the teenagers.  We were instructed to give each of them 5 pieces of apple.  Easier said than done!  We were under strict “No Touching the Pandas” orders, so we were given a short bamboo stick.  The quartered apples go on the end and then to the pandas. Since you just have to hold the stick out and wait for the panda to take the apple, we started a hilarious melee amongst the 6 teenagers.  2 of them were very docile, rarely moving at all to take their piece of apple.  2 others, however, were apple fiends and would stop at nothing to steal the apple pieces of their fellow pandas.  Watching these cute, hilarious bears climb all over one another, reaching for our apple pieces had Anna and I in tears.

Not the traditional kind of food fight.

After feeding Ko Be his apples, we donned aprons and headed outside to tend to Mei Lin’s yard.  Ever the diva, Mei Lin was still sleeping the day away in her inside, air-conditioned cage while we entered her outdoor enclosure and removed yesterday’s bamboo.  After 2 huge loads, we brought in a bunch of fresh bamboo and placed it in concealed PVC-lined holes in the ground.  “So it looks natural,” proclaimed Bao.  I was put to work with the rake, getting up the last of the discarded bamboo leaves while Anna was assigned the unenviable task of gathering Mei Lin’s poo.  But hey, not many people can say they’ve gathered famous panda poo, can they?

We took a break after the sweaty work and waited on the delivery of panda cake.  Panda cake is a panda’s favorite treat.  It is also an important dietary supplement for pandas in captivity – they fill it with vitamins, in addition to loads of fiber.  We tried some…and we don’t really understand the allure.  It tastes like very grainy bread.  We cut the pandas cakes in two and counted out each pandas portion.  Mei Lin, possibly being partial to American panda cakes, doesn’t like the ones served here and doesn’t get one.  Ko Be gets two, the Old Lady gets one, as do 5 of the teenagers.  One teenager doesn’t like panda cake either.

Feeding the panda cake was much like feeding them apples, though we drew a much larger crowd this time.  The teenagers were especially excited (well, 5 of them), standing up on their hind legs, trying to steal each others cakes.  The Old Lady tried to stand (we were encouraged to keep the cakes up high – reaching is good exercise for pandas), but couldn’t so we just put it directly in her face, again using the stick.

Feeding the pandas with panda cake.

After panda cakes, it was time for lunch.  Anna and I ate alone at the Center’s restaurant, before meeting Bao again for our afternoon session.  We were done with the Restricted Access portion of our program – but we’d still have Bao to guide us and answer questions for the rest of the day.  Mostly, we spent our time watching the cubs (1 years old) playing on a log.  Then on to the nursery, where we saw the newborns (pandas are born from late July to mid-September) including one tiny panda being bottle-fed.

World's most adorable crib.

Then on to the red pandas.  Red pandas aren’t as closely related to pandas as they are to raccoons, but they are native to the same area and sort of look like pandas, so that’s where they got the name.  DNA-wise, they are about 20% related.  Bao didn’t have nearly as much to say about the red pandas.  They aren’t solitary, instead living in groups.  They are very smart, live in trees and are good climbers (as are, incidentally, giant pandas – despite their size and appearance).  The center has about 40 red pandas, living in 3 enclosures.

The Red Panda

We closed our program with a video about panda breeding and a walk through the small Giant Panda museum, which features a photo of Teddy Roosevelt shooting a panda.  Here are some of our favorite panda pictures and some panda facts we learned during our visit.

The gestation period of a panda is 2-3 months.  The babies are born at 1/1000th the size of an adult, then grow incredibly fast.

A mama panda can generally only rear one cub at a time.  But pandas have twins 45% of the time.  So 45% of the time, a baby panda dies.  There are a few (like, 4) known pandas capable of rearing 2 cubs at the same time.  According to Bao, these are very, very famous pandas, though I’ve never heard of them.  But then, he probably hasn’t heard of Tom Brady, so…

The normal lifespan of a species is 5 million years.  Pandas have been around for 8 million years, though no one knows why they’ve survived for so long.

Pandas have the digestive system of a carnivore.  But they eat almost exclusively bamboo (in the wild, adding panda cake and apples in captivity).  This system is highly inefficient – they only absorb 20% of the nutrients in the bamboo.  So they eat for 16 hours per day in the wild and 8-10 hours per day in captivity.  They also spend much of their time sleeping and resting, because any extraneous movement burns calories that it takes a lot of work to replace.  The young pandas are very active until about 1 year old, when they settle down and start sleeping at Anna-like levels.  Adults only expend a lot of energy for mating, which they seldom do.

This is the panda's preferred sitting position. Hilarious. All they need is a beer and a tv remote.


Pandas are great climbers.


Panda bear stare


One of the teenagers, playing in the grass.

Posted by: Anna | October 14, 2011

Weirdness at the Chinese Market

There’s really nothing else to call this. The market in China is full of some crazy weird stuff for a Westerner. Only about half the stuff for sale is even identifiable. It’s greatness, if you like that sort of thing.

These live bugs are available to take home for snacking. Mmmm...crunchy!

But maybe you aren't in the mood for roaches. Perhaps a small bag of live frogs is more your fancy. (Sorry for the terrible quality of these pics - it was dark and they were moving)

These tiny peppers are not hot, according to my cooking instructor. They are beautiful.

This is my favorite picture from the trip to the market - chive flowers.

Absurdly huge winter squash - although in China they are always this size. Looks like an enormous cucumber. Seems like a pain to lug home from the market.

Here's something I have no idea what to do with, or even where to start. What do you use dried bat for? In the background you can also spot dried frog.

China is way ahead of the trend to eat "nose to tail". Here you can see noses and tails available for your delight.

From the cages, a shopper can select which live chicken or rabbit is for dinner. There is a station where they will butcher it, or it can be taken home live for those DIYers. Part of what is so foreign to me is that all protein is sold live or dried - there is almost no fresh meat available. Part of this is probably storage issues (traditionally no power in the market, so no refrigeration).

And yes, I did see the infamous dog meat for sale, and it was creepy. The dog carcasses hang whole in a stand for selection, but they are dead. There was also chopped up dog meat for those who didn’t want to select a cut from the whole dog.

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