Wrong Way Eddie in Nanchang

Nanchang traffic

I forced myself to keep my eyes closed. If I looked, it would be too scary, kind of like riding in the front car of the roller coaster at Magic Mountain. Better to keep my eyes screwed shut, experience the ride with my other senses, and then open them only when I knew I was stationary again. However, I wasn’t at an amusement park. I was in the front seat, passenger side, of a taxi in Nanchang, China.

Nanchang traffic
Traffic in Nanchang, China

Most drivers in China are fairly new drivers. The car culture has taken off there only in the past ten years. Some new drivers buy taxis and go into business for themselves. I didn’t know how long this taxi driver had been driving, but he drove like it was a contact sport.

He would pass on the right. He would go between two lanes of traffic, squeezing his car in the slot, so close that I could stick my arm out the window and shake hands with the neighboring driver. He constantly tailgated the car in front of him, slamming his brakes as necessary. Traffic lights and signs were merely suggestions.

We were staying near the city center of Nanchang at the Galactic Peace International Hotel. It was the newest hotel in the city of 5 million people. But the reason I chose that hotel was because of the name. Galactic Peace! Yes, I am for it. I want peace in the galaxies. The Emperor hatching the crazy plot with the Trade Federation to wipe out the Naboo, the clone army, figuring out who is the Padwan learner to whom, I am just tired of it. Let’s all have Galactic Peace.

The Galactic Peace International Hotel was on north side of a divided three lane highway about two miles east of the main square of Nanchang. To go the main square to shop (we just had to see the giant new Walmart!), we’d catch a taxi at the hotel entrance and take a right. No problem. When we were done shopping, eating, and sight-seeing, we would catch another taxi and come back. We had a business card with the name of the hotel, address, and a map to the hotel. Because we didn’t speak Mandarin, we would give this to the driver so he would know where to take us.

I knew we were getting close to the hotel. We had been in the taxi a few minutes already. I sneaked a peak with one eye. I could see it up ahead, since it was the tallest building on the left side of the road.

At that moment the taxi suddenly lurched to the left in a tire skidding 90 degree turn. My body was flung to the door panel on my right. Immediately the driver spun the wheel the other way and we flipped 90 degrees to the right. My eyes were wide open now. We had crossed through a gap in the median of the highway and were now going the wrong way down the highway!

I could see the hotel entrance about 200 yards ahead on the left. I could also see a line of traffic coming straight at us about 300 yards ahead.

The driver punched the accelerator and veered from right to left as he crossed the three lanes going 60 mph. The oncoming traffic was rapidly approaching, with horns blaring from every car. Just as the lead oncoming car got within 30 yards of us, we reached the hotel entrance. The driver braked hard and cranked the wheel. We skidded left into the hotel parking lot as the traffic rushed past.

The driver was as calm as a cucumber. His face revealed nothing. I paid him and we got out of the taxi.

The hotel concierge happened to be standing outside having a smoke. He spoke a little English. I asked him if he had seen what had just happened. He smiled and explained that the legal and safe way to get to the hotel from the city center was to go past the hotel for several miles on the highway and make several turns in order to get back on the highway going the right direction in front of the hotel. That takes too long, so taxi drivers take the short cut.

We made that drive five times during our short stay in Nanchang. We had different taxi drivers every time. There wasn’t always approaching traffic. But every time I closed my eyes.

Smog and traffic in China
Scooters are the way to beat the traffic
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Adventures in Chinese Dining – Tip #2

I cannot eat that green stuff

I think the measure of a Chinese host’s hospitality is how much food he or she can get their guest to eat. Whether it is at one meal or several meals throughout a single day, force feeding the guest with all manner of strange foods is as important as successfully hosting the Olympics.

We were visiting Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province in west-central China. Our hosts were Mr. and Mrs. He. They were the parents of a boy who had stayed in our home for three weeks during a student exchange. Mr. He didn’t say much, but Mrs. He was a dominant chatterbox who was determined to win the Hostess of the Year Award. After visiting their apartment in Chengdu and touring the Dujiangyan Irrigation System, it was time for lunch.

I cannot eat that green stuff
Only one third of the food has arrived

We stopped at a nice restaurant in the countryside on the way back to Chengdu. We were led to a private banquet room on the second floor overlooking a tranquil pond. We sat at the typical round table with a “Lazy Susan” serving platter in the middle. There were five of us – our hosts, their son, and my wife Lisa and I. Yichen, the boy, was our interpreter, to the best of his fairly limited English skills.

Mrs. He launched into a lengthy dissertation on the culinary merits of the restaurant and the specialties of the Sichuan region. Or at least that’s what I think she said.

“My mother wants to know what you like to eat,” said Yichen.

I didn’t think they had what I like to eat in this provincial diner in Western China. No steak and new potatoes, no beef enchiladas with fresh taco chips and salsa, no pepperoni pizza.

“Whatever you would like to order is fine with us,” I politely replied.

First the waiter brought us some tea and soup. The waiter then brought a variety of appetizers. Some were delicious, some were not. Next the waiter delivered the main courses. There was enough food on the table to feed 15 people. All of these items were shared around the table by spinning the platter. It seemed that whatever landed in front of you was expected to be consumed. By luck or fate, I’m not sure which, a large bowl with a strange green substance arrived directly in front of me. I had no idea what it was. Vegetable? Meat dish? Dessert served early? Who knows.

Mr. He, who hadn’t said a word all day, started talking excitedly and waving his hands around.

“My father says that it is his favorite and you should eat,” said Yichen.

OK, I will do that. Should I check my life insurance policy first? I gingerly got a very small portion on my personally provided plastic fork. I put the fork into my mouth, faked a smile, and started chewing.

The taste exploded into my mouth. It burned hot and unbelievably caustic. I started to choke, my eyes flowed like the Yangtze River, and my body convulsed like I was spastic. A jet fuel fume burst through my sinus cavities into my brain. The taste reminded me of a mixture of turpentine and horse radish, although I don’t think I have ever drunk turpentine and horse radish, have I? I think I must have looked like Tom the Cat in those old Tom and Jerry cartoons when Jerry gets Tom to eat a load of hot peppers. My eyes bugged out, my hair stood on end, my extremities flailed and twitched. I knew that Sichuan was known for spicy food, but this was beyond belief.

I grabbed for my Coke and hurled it down my throat. I needed something to stop the pain and sensation of burning all the way down my gastrointestinal tract from my mouth to the other end. No fire extinguishers were within sight. I think I needed some of the water from the Dujiangyan Irrigation System.

My fellow diners looked at my distress. I calmed down and weakly spun the platter.

“Well…” I said. “Not my favorite so far. Let me try something else.”

The platter came to a stop. The strange green substance was in front of Mr. He.

He smiled at me and quickly devoured the entire contents of the bowl. He kept smiling the whole time.

Tip #2. Take a small portion of an unfamiliar food

This story was one of the winners of the First Travel Blogging Competition for Travellerspoint.com at 8 Blogs to Inspire Your Next Trip.

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Adventures in Chinese Dining – Tip #1

Store in Beijing, China

I was in Shanghai to deliver some training to engineers of my company. Every morning the secretary in the office would ask me what I wanted for lunch. Due to my packed schedule, I didn’t have time to go out for lunch, so she would order lunch for me and have it delivered. The first day she listed a large number of local restaurants, along with KFC and Pizza Hut. Since I am not an adventurous eater, the mention of Western fast food caught my attention. Yes, a pepperoni pizza from Pizza Hut will do nicely. The mini-pizza was delivered piping hot and on time. It tasted delicious.

Shanghai View
A view of the Pudong area from the Bund in Shanghai

The second morning I preempted her recital of all of the restaurants I could order from by telling her right away I wanted another pizza. Today, however, I would be a little different and have a sausage pizza. Again, it was delivered piping hot and was delicious.

On the third morning, I had thoughts of really living on the edge and ordering KFC, but even in the US I rarely go to KFC. So Pizza Hut it was again, this time a combination of pepperoni and sausage. I think the secretary thought I was insane. A variety of excellent international restaurants were within walking distance of the office in downtown Shanghai, and I was only eating American fast food.

On the fourth day, my meetings were over and I had more time for lunch. After seeing me eat pizza three days in a row, the local manager named Jun suggested we go to a nice restaurant for authentic Shanghainese food. Since I was the guest in the office, he wanted to take me out and show his hospitality. It was my last day in Shanghai, so I thought I should be polite and sample the local fare. I agreed that it was time for a change of pace, so off we went.

Store in Beijing, China
Local signage in China

Jun, another local colleague named Simon, and I sat at the best table in one of the finest restaurants in the city. The waiter brought the menus and passed them out. I stared at the menu. Of course it was in Mandarin, and maybe even in the Shanghainese dialect for all I know. It made no sense to me.

“What would you like to eat today, Steve?” asked Jun. “Surely you eat food other than pizza?”

“I don’t know. I have no idea. Maybe you should order for me,” I said.

Jun and Simon put their heads together and came up with an assortment of dishes to try. Fish dishes, noodle dishes, vegetable dishes, who-knows-what dishes. The waiter delivered them all in sequence, a steady flow of courses. I bravely tried to sample them. One dish in particular had a nice aroma to it. I could tell it was some kind of meat. After faking eating some of the vegetable dishes, I needed to get my teeth into some beef or something.

“I’ll try that one,” I said, pointing to the dish pulling my nose in its direction. “What is it?”

“That is wind-blown duck,” said Simon. “The duck is plucked and hung to dry in the wind.”

I had never had duck before, but I figured it must taste at least a little bit like chicken. I dug into the duck dish, and it tasted pretty good. It tasted kind of like chicken, but wilder and heavier tasting (or so they would say on the Food Channel, since I actually don’t know how to describe comparative food tastes…). I skipped the rest of the other dishes and focused on the duck. The duck meat was chopped into small pieces and smothered in a spicy sauce.

After a few minutes only one piece was left. It was about three inches long, tubular, and as big in diameter as my thumb. It didn’t look like the other pieces I had eaten. Not wanting to be rude, I stabbed it with my fork and tried to cut it into smaller pieces. It was tough and didn’t cut easily. I sawed away back and forth like an Oregon lumberjack. My knife wasn’t sharp enough. I gave up and stuffed it whole into my mouth and started chewing.

It was like tough beef jerky. I chewed and chewed. It didn’t break down. I had to stop my conversation with Jun and Simon as I attempted to hack my way through the last of the duck. They kept eating and talking. After a couple of minutes I realized I was in trouble. There was no way I was going to chew this thing up and swallow it without gagging and perhaps heaving my lunch onto the table. I kept chewing while I looked for a way out.

The waiter approached the table and asked if we needed anything else. This was my chance. As Jun and Simon turned to address the waiter, I turned my head away from them and regurgitated the semi-chewed pile into my napkin. As the waiter left and my colleagues turned their attention back to me, their respected visitor from the US, I took a sip of water and collected myself.

“Did you like the wind-blown duck?” asked Jun. “It is a specialty of this restaurant.”

“I did, except for the last bite. It was about this long and about this wide, and tubular,” I said as I motioned with my fingers.

“Oh!” said Jun. “That’s the neck! That’s the best part!”

#1. Get a local to order for you

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Great Wall or Bust! – Episode 2

Great Wall

“Now we are going to visit the doctor,” Lily announced as the group waddled away from the table. She led us through the restaurant to an adjoining building. We sat down at a bunch of school desks in a large room that resembled a lecture hall. Lisa and I sat in the back. A man in a white lab coat came through a door at the front of the hall. He was very distinguished looking. Maybe he was the director of the local medical school. A woman dressed as a nurse came in with him. She had a clipboard in one hand and a pen in the other. She was the man’s assistant and interpreter.

Whoa, wait a minute. I thought I signed up for a tour of the Great Wall. So far I’ve seen heavy traffic, wrong way driving, closed tombs, jade grinders, and a food free-for-all. A visit to the doctor is not on my agenda. I avoid the doctor when I’m at home, there’s no need to see one here.

The man started to lecture us about ancient Chinese medicine. The woman translated his speech, but I tuned out almost immediately. It was time for my post non-lunch nap. He was talking about acupuncture, magic herbs, and mysterious oils. I didn’t really understand. He droned on an on for half an hour. At the end, the assistant announced that the doctor was now free for consultations. The doctor (and I use that term loosely, based mainly on his appearance) sat down on a chair at the front of the room.

The first patient was Chairman Mao. He shuffled towards the front of the room and sat down in front of the doctor. He described his aches and pains to the doctor, and the nurse translated for our benefit. The doctor prescribed some herbs for the man and the nurse got jars of some unknown substance from behind a counter. Money changed hands and Mao went back to his original seat.

“Who is next?” said the nurse.

The Brazilian father went forward. He told the doctor he had a backache. The doctor held the patient’s hands and lightly massaged his wrists for a few moments.

“Yes, I see,” said the doctor through his interpreter. “You have liver trouble. You need to take these three different herbs according to these instructions. Your back ache will go away and your liver will be healed.”

The nurse brought the Brazilian a large bagful of jars. He paid and sat down.
By this time I was really annoyed. What a scam and a waste of time. I caught Lily’s eye and rolled my eyes. Can we go yet?

No, because the Mongolians and the Chinese peasants had not had their turn with the doctor yet. An hour later we finally made it back to the bus. Lily approached us.

“I am sorry,” she said. “They make us come here every day. It is not my decision.”

“It’s OK. I understand. But I am really looking forward to seeing the Great Wall before dark! Is Mao a ringer?” She didn’t understand me.

After another hour of driving we made it to the Great Wall. We climbed the steps, walked along its ramparts, and gazed out into the distance. We expected the Mongol horde of Genghis Khan to attack, but nothing happened. The Great Wall is a peaceful place today.

Great Wall
The Great Wall of China

Back at the hotel we talked about the day. Our tour wasn’t what we expected it was going to be, but it was certainly an adventure. My back was a little sore from sitting on the tour bus most of the day. If I had only bought some of those Chinese herbs…

vendors at the Great Wall
Anybody have a fork for sale?

Great Wall or Bust! – Episode 1

lunch on a tour to the Great Wall

You can’t really see the Great Wall of China from space. That is just a myth. You can, however, take a bus tour there from Beijing. I found the brochure in the hotel lobby. It advertised an exciting day visiting the Ming Tombs and the Great Wall. Visiting a tomb didn’t sound very exciting to me (dead emperors!), but if you go to Beijing it is obligatory to visit the Great Wall. Otherwise when you get home your friends and family will ask you.

“What was the Great Wall like?” asks Grandma.

“I don’t know. I was too busy fighting with soggy noodles in my hot pot,” I would reply.

So we signed up for the tour. The bus picked us up promptly at 8am. It was a modern, comfortable touring bus. We were the first people on the bus. Our tour guide was a polite young Chinese girl named Lily.

“Welcome to our tour to the Ming Tombs and the Great Wall,” she said in her halting English. I think she had memorized her opening lines. Lily was an international business major at a local university, who worked on her English while leading tour groups.

The bus slowly wound around Beijing, pushing its way through the heavy traffic. At one point the driver even drove the wrong way up an elevated, curved freeway exit ramp so we could skip the line waiting to get on the freeway. I guess when you are driving one of the biggest vehicles on the road you can do what you want. Until another car comes the other way exiting the freeway at 70 mph.

We picked up an assortment of tourists, about twelve of us in all. There was a French guy, a Brazilian father and son, a family of Mongolians, and Chinese peasants from the countryside visiting the big city for the first time. Our last pickup was an elderly Chinese gentleman dressed head to toe like Chairman Mao. He was clothed in a dark blue tunic, dark blue pants, shined black dress shoes, and a cap. He looked just like the picture of Mao on the outer wall of the Forbidden City.

Our first stop was the site of the Ming Tombs. The Ming Tombs are underground (they’re tombs!), but it turned out that they were closed for renovation. Going into a cave to see a tomb of a long dead emperor is not my idea of a good time, so I didn’t really care. Lily gave us a summary of the place, most of which I couldn’t hear or understand. We all piled back into the bus.

Ming Tombs
The Ming Tombs

“Now, we are going to stop at the jade factory,” said Lily. “We will show you how jade is carved.”

Shopping is one of my least favorite activities. It doesn’t matter if I am at home or on vacation, I don’t want to go shopping. It didn’t say anything about a jade factory on the tour brochure. It occurred to me right away that this stop was pre-arranged to part tourists from their yuan.

The factory sales manager led our group along a walkway which circled the factory floor. We could look through windows at the workers hunched over their grinders, furiously turning the jade pieces back and forth to turn them into dragons and butterflies. We ended up at the showroom. I admit that some of the larger items were very impressive. They also were very expensive and hard to carry home in your suitcase too. The sales job wasn’t too obnoxious and soon we were back on the bus.

Jade Carving Factory outside of Beijing
And here is Vanna to tell you the prizes you have won

“It is now time for lunch. We will have a traditional Chinese meal and a rest,” said Lily.

That’s good, I thought. I am hungry from all of this non-touring and non-shopping.
The restaurant was a very old building surrounding a courtyard. The group was led into a large room filled with round tables. We appeared to be the only customers. Lily ordered the food for the group from the waiter who magically appeared with tea cups. There were no menus. The circular table had a large round tray in the middle of it. We were each given a small bowl and chopsticks. Even though we had talked about it twenty times, I had forgotten to bring my plastic fork. I am completely inept at using chopsticks. If I have to use chopsticks at every meal, I will starve to death in no time at all.

The Chinese peasants at the table started chattering in their local dialect, no doubt discussing which dead emperor was their favorite. We tried to talk with the French guy, but his English was even less than my French, so we didn’t get very far. The Brazilians were on the far side of the table from us, and we don’t speak Portuguese anyway. Chairman Mao stared at me intently like I was from another planet.

The food arrived in a dozen large bowls. The food servers put the bowls on the tray. There was no dinner bell, but the diners from our group instantly attacked the food in the bowls like it was the start of the Indy 500. A race to see who would get full first and get the food they wanted the most. It was a little like a church potluck picnic, with some people edging their way towards the front of the line to get the deli drumsticks and gourmet chocolate chip cookies instead of Aunt Madge’s Spam hot dish and leftover jello salad.

The tray was spinning back and forth. The hungry tourists would grab the tray and spin it towards them to make a stab at dumping some of the contents of a large serving bowl into their personal small bowl. I tried to get in the game and grab the tray. I spied some fried rice on the far side. I didn’t want the unidentified brown mush in the bowl on my side of the tray. It was probably mashed fungi. I got a grip on the tray and heaved. The tray started to spin my way. I could see the rice coming along clockwise, here it comes.

It got to Chairman Mao. He grabbed the rice bowl and dumped some into his bowl. I’m a polite and patient American traveler; I know how to wait my turn. As I reached for the bowl someone on the other side of the table flung the tray again, back their way. Away went my rice, counter clockwise to oblivion. The mashed fungi came back into view. I am hungry, but there is no way I am eating that.

The tray kept rotating all the way around the circle. It looked like some spicy chicken was coming my way. Yes, keep spinning oh mighty tray! Just then one of the Mongolians stopped the tray, dumped the last of the spicy chicken into his bowl, and let the tray go.

What stopped in front of me was a green vegetable looking substance. I had no idea what that was, and even if I did, it did not look edible by humans. I’ll pass.

lunch on a tour to the Great Wall
Chariman Mao has left the building.

The tray kept spinning. The tourists devoured the contents of the bowls like a plague of locusts. I did manage to finally get some noodles into my bowl. However, getting the noodles into my mouth with chopsticks was a struggle. Abandoning all attempts at proper etiquette, I grabbed the bowl and slurped them down. Nobody noticed my dining faux pas, they were too busy using their own chopsticks as serving utensils into the common bowls. Which didn’t bother me, but was a major rules violation according to Lisa.

When the tray stopped spinning, the food was all gone, the tourists were full, and I was still hungry.

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