Sunday, September 09, 2012

Writing from Korea again, where the smallest things are shocking. The fact that people line up, in actual lines, rather than filling every available inch of space in front of (the cashier/the egg custard lady/the subway door/the ticket booth) with pushing and shoving and craning necks. There's toilet paper in the bathrooms. There ARE bathrooms, and these bathrooms don't have cranky old women sitting outside demanding a toilet fee for what always turns out to be a dirt-covered hole in the ground. Traffic lights mean something, and sidewalks are for walking, rather than for storing motorbikes, electrical wires, extra restaurant stools, and piles of steel beams.

We booked the cheap, slow, old train from Busan to Seoul (which takes 5.5 hours instead of the bullet train's 2), and people on the internet had nothing but complaints about how shitty and last-resort-esque it was. As such, we were expecting it to be cramped, dirty, and spartan, but no: it had leg room galore, reclining seats, internet stations, karaoke rooms, and an arcade. This would have been extra super first VIP class in both Vietnam and China!

My sole purpose in flying through Busan was to go to the Jagalchi Fish Market, which I promptly did the very hour we arrived. The guidebook billed it as 'the smelliest place on Earth', which was untrue: it smelled like an uncommonly clean and well-kept fish market. The first floor's floor was perpetually awash in sloshing seawater, and periodically the flick of a fish's tail would sent spurts of water onto my shirt. Crabs bigger than volleyballs climbed the sides of their tanks; fish species prone to fighting would choose one comrade to gang up on and nibble; eels writhed, molluscs never seen before or since lined the edges of tanks, and vendors did this strange thing where they'd roll their smaller crabs around in sawdust on the sidewalk to demonstrate... something... to potential customers. Look how well my crabs' shells absorb sawdust? See how what you're about to feed your family is actually touching the dirt, old fish juice, and likely urine of the sidewalk right now?

I had a set meal 'for one' (Korean restaurants are no different than Korean-American ones in that meals 'for one' usually can feed at least four) that consisted of a pile of halibut sashimi, four sea urchins, assorted banchan, a whole grilled fish, stacks of shiso and lettuce leaves, and soup made with the fish head and tail that had been encircling my sashimi like a watchman as I ate it. Julian had a traumatic moment when I began eating my sashimi a few seconds after the plate had been placed down and suddenly the fish head twitched, tossing a lemon slice. Even though its spinal column had been cut, it was so freshly killed that its nerves were still in throes.

We have four full days here in Seoul before we board a plane that arrives, five hours before it leaves, in San Francisco.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

I'd been waiting to go to Hue ever since I first tasted the mi quang at Ngu Binh in Westminster, CA. This may seem like a silly reason to want to take a trip across the Pacific, but as it turned out, Hue was waiting for me right back with much, much more than mi quang.

It had that too, of course, but it made me work for it. A handwritten sign on an already out-of-the-way street pointed down a narrow alley that skirted a lotus pond. The sign said 'My Quang'. No mi quang in sight after 100 meters or so, only frogs and old motorcycle parts, I was about ready to turn around when I saw the sign again, posted outside someone's house. Only previous experience eating in Asia allowed me to semi-confidently walk into what appeared to be a family's living room while they were shucking cassava and demand that they feed me noodles at 2:00 in the afternoon. And yes, it was worth it.

The best food Hue had waiting for me, though, was something called 'com hen' – rice with tiny clams, pork skins, sour starfruit, banana blossoms, and assorted greens. I had heard tell of such a thing, but had to cross two rivers to find it. Passing deserted rice restaurant after deserted rice restaurant was discouraging, but it happened that it was just because all of Hue was eating lunch at the one we eventually found. The ladies serving it also got a good laugh out of Julian's attempts to explain vegetarianism. The word 'chay' that works everywhere else was lost on them. What do you MEAN you don't eat tiny clams?? Who doesn't eat tiny clams??

Appetizer-size banh khoai, like mini banh xeo, awaited us at every turn. Banh beo showed up on every menu, casually, like, yeah, this is something you just get to eat every day. There were nem lui, these spam lookalike pork sticks whose association with spam disappeared the instant the spices and sour mango accompaniment hit your tongue.

It was extraordinarily hot while we were there, too hot even for me, way too hot to even consider walking in the sun – hot enough for me to drink, in one day, three bottles of water, two sugarcane juices, a passionfruit smoothie, and two lemon sodas without even looking at a bathroom. The next city, Quy Nhon, was just as hot, but was also, mercifully, a beach town, and had the same Indonesian custom of just stumbling into the ocean at the nearest port of entry wearing all one's clothes.

Not being a big tourist center, everyone in the whole city was just shocked to see us. On the beach, we were preparing to go in the water and watching a flock of teenagers splashing each other when a Vietnamese guy approached and in strangely formal English demanded to know, in turn, about California's population, economy, landscapes, healthcare system, water conservation policy, and educational system. This burst the floodgates for the teenagers, who had apparently been wanting to approach us but hadn't the nerve to do it until someone else did it first. They ran over and squatted, giggling, in a circle around us, understanding nothing of the conversation on Californian medical insurance and not caring a bit.

2-9 didn't derail us too much beyond most restaurants being closed for lunch and our being forced to eat crappy rice at a stall. Oh, and having to spend the night train ride to Saigon in a soft-seat Vietnamese train with Alvin and the Chipmunks movies playing at top volume. But by '3-9' everything was normal again, with the Ben Thanh market starting my Saigon adventure off right by feeding me incredibly delicious fried snails in garlic oil, accompanied by the old trusty standby, passionfruit juice.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Nanning-Hanoi border-crossing train was full of Germans, Chinese, and one German-speaking Chinese, plus one sole Japanese tourist with the aim of visiting seven countries in two months. (He was on Country #3.) The whole lot of them, and us too, were unceremoniously dumped off at 5:00AM (instead of 10AM like the schedule said) at Gia Lam station (instead of Hanoi main station, like the schedule said). Walking bleary-eyed off the train while it was still dark out into a firestorm of taxi touts with maps that made stark the terrible, untraversable distance between Gia Lam and the Old Quarter was disorienting to say the least, but then, probably for the last time, Julian saved the day by being able to speak Chinese. One of our fellow passengers was a Chinese professor teaching in Vietnam, and after insisting that we sit down with him and drink beer and eat pho (not caring at all that it is perhaps not customary to drink beer at 5AM) he got us on a public bus to the city center, saving us probably $20 and a huge headache. We left the rest of the tourists helplessly cabbing in circles (as the cabs tended to only take them to the bus station: surprise!) but they waved away our beckoning, so we reached the city center alone.

Hanoi looked like I thought China would look but didn't: choked with motorbikes, shabbily clean, and tightly packed. There isn't as much street food as in China, and there aren't as many restaurants. The old people exercising around the lake were doing aerobics, not tai chi. Nobody cared that there were white people walking around with rolling suitcases at 6AM, whereas in most places we went in China, that alone would have guaranteed onslaughts of hellos.

I hit Hanoi running with the intention of eating everything in sight, but at first, and I can't believe these words are about to fall from my fingertips, the food didn't turn out to be that earth-shattering. (I'm writing this from Hue, where the food actually IS wonderful, but that's a story for another entry.) We had bun cha Ha Noi for our first lunch, and it was blandly pleasant. Bun rieu cua for breakfast the second day and while the broth was complex and delicious, the rest was just filler. Banh cuon for dinner the second night, and it was mostly rice noodle. There was one dish that just killed us with flavor and crunch and that was a dish of deep-fried eel vermicelli. The eel was like bacon, and coupled with eel porridge and grilled eel salad, it made my average-food-dampened spirits lift. We promptly put in another order, and almost (but didn't, but should have) got a bag of the deep fried eel to go.

The one touristy thing we said we'd do, we did: go see Halong Bay. Time constraints left us with no choice but to do a day trip. The interminable bus ride and obligatory 'bathroom' stops at tourist-geared souvenir shops didn't do a thing to make the boat trip not worth it. The day was hazy and it was even threatening us with typhoons, but they missed us and we got to cruise around the mountains in ships and kayaks. My dad's kayak had a leak and he had to book it back to the dock, and then Julian and I got stuck behind a houseboat, which was guarded by an angry dog, but these things, similarly, did nothing to make the kayak trip not worth it. The water was tropically warm and smooth as glass, and the cove we entered was blocked on all sides by massive island-mountains so that we couldn't hear any ship noise.

Ladies selling delicious rambutan and mangosteen on the side of the road have brightened each and every day, especially at the (probably technically rip-off) price of 75 cents a pound for rambutan and a dollar a pound for mangosteen. How many rambutan shells and mangosteen rinds have Vietnamese gutters gained because of me? Probably somewhere in the thousands. I can't even wait to get home and wash my hands before I start shoving it in. Incidentally, there is absolutely no reason I have not yet contracted typhoid. I've eaten fruit out of the dirty-nailed hands of vendors, drank nuoc mia and passion fruit juice out of pitchers with visible dirt streaks and the buildup of years of mold, retrieved durian I dropped on the ground, failed to wash any thin-skinned fruit I've bought, and then of course there are the meals upon meals of street food cooked in pots on the curb that I've had. My travel clinic nurses would be very angry.

So everywhere in Vietnam there are these giant red patriotic looking flag-signs that say 2-9. They became a running mystery, as they contained no other explanation yet were everywhere. We only found out when we were having lots of trouble booking train tickets from Quy Nhon to Ho Chi Minh City on the 2nd of September that we realized 2-9 meant September 2nd and September 2nd was Vietnam's national holiday: basically the Vietnamese 4th of July (that is, if we had signs up all over our country that said '4-7' in huge red and blue type). It is definitely possible that we will be stuck in a lazy beach town while the locals are too busy setting off fireworks and visiting family to feed and house some stupid tourists. Stay tuned, I guess. The next entry will probably be me fawning about Hue's food, but the entry after that MIGHT contain details on whether we starved and slept on a beach in Quy Nhon.

Monday, August 20, 2012

No blog entries for poor Kunming, mostly because it was replete with laziness. Well, not it so much as me, but the reason stands, and there's only so much writing one can do about frantically trying to learn Vietnamese with an iPhone app and a Lonely Planet phrasebook before plunging headlong into Hanoi, or about playing even more pool, or about stumbling across a Chinese conference on homosexuality taking place in our hostel but unfortunately getting there in time only for the scintillating lectures on how to write professional emails.

We did hike at XiShan, a misty mountain a few miles west, but Chinese hiking mostly entails walking on the shoulder of the road getting honked at by tour buses. There was one side path with a woman selling pineapple on it, but aside from her it was mostly murderous stairs. Luckily, the climate here is completely unlike everywhere else in China. At an elevation of about 6500 feet, its air has trouble holding the pollution it forms (or something - it's clean, anyway) and its temperature is best described as 'room'.

On the way back from the mountain, we stumbled upon another frog-torture-esque night market (but perhaps less graphic due to high fish content and low everything else content) the difference being that this one had a lady standing off to the side spit-grilling whole fish wrapped in banana leaves and stuffed with herbs for RMB 12. I wasn't going to let the frankly hygienically appalling conditions stop me from getting a piece of that (really, when have I?) and it was delicious, especially eaten squatting on a stool next to Julian and some others eating makeshift market hotpot. The only reason he acquiesced to this hotpot was to get me a pair of chopsticks as quickly as possible before my fish got cold. (The fish griller didn't have chopsticks, but she offered me a glove to hold it with while I gnawed. I was afraid the herbs would fall out if I did that.)

Tomorrow we train it to Nanning, where we can catch a direct train to Hanoi instead of fooling around with the sketchy overnight buses and land border around Hekou/Lao Cai . This was the original plan, but one too many Internet horror stories about bag-slitting thieves, extortionate border taxis, unreliable customs procedures and bathroom-less eight hour bus trips had us searching for an alternative.

Assuming Vietnamese firewalls are as easily fooled by the addition of the Korean suffix to Blogger's website address as Chinese ones are, you will hear from me there.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Video of a year-younger Julian cringing and trying not to cry as a brusque Chinese doctor scraped the first layer of skin off his back somehow made me curious rather than terrified, and a couple days ago, in Chengdu, I tried the same traditional medicine treatment - guasha and huogua coupled with massage. (Guasha=scraping, huogua=cupping. They scrape your skin to get the toxins to rise to the surface, then massage the area, then heat the inside of a glass cup and use it to kind of suction your skin. Normally you can tell on the street who has recently been cupped because they have a checkerboard pattern of purple circles down their backs.)

Julian maintains they went easy on me, but then, he would maintain that. I actually didn't find it painful; I found it really therapeutic and relaxing, as it felt like a backscratch and a massage at the same time. I kept waiting for the pain that the video depicted and it never came. When I looked at the pictures of my purple and red back skin afterwards, I was very surprised. I was even more surprised when my back muscles actually, lastingly, felt relieved.

The doctor also told me the second he saw me lie down ("you don't lay down flat enough!") that I had a strange curve in my upper spine ("your back is like a child's!") that I couldn't treat or fix by simply correcting my posture (so THERE, well-meaning strangers everywhere who think it's appropriate to tell me I should 'stand up straight').

Sunday, August 12, 2012

On the interviewing front (officially the reason for this whole trip) things took a turn for the fortunate on the Changsha to Chongqing train, when Sichuanese garrulousness and the novelty of our Scrabble-playing finally resulted in throngs of curious Chinese conversationalists. While it also resulted in Julian being tricked into eating spicy cow intestine jerky and a girl dumping a whole bag of fiery pickled dry hot peppers into my instant noodles, as well as my trying the spiciest peppercorn duck necks in all the land, some interviewing was actually completed. I'm not complaining about the peppercorn duck necks, though. Those were really good and they made my face numb, like I had been given a shot of Novocaine even. We are deep in the heart of hotness now, both temperature-wise (with Chongqing hitting 99 degrees by 9:30 in the morning when we stepped off the train) and food-wise (what with the spicy duck necks, the Sichuanese rabbit and chicken dry pot we had today in Chengdu, and, well, absolutely everything in Hunan).

Chengdu is stubbornly smoggy, like all the other cities were supposed to be but weren't, and we're staying in the kind of hostel we have mercifully avoided until now: full of Europeans drinking beer and eating grilled cheese sandwiches in the cutesy English-adorned lobby. It's funny, because there is bathroom graffiti urging resident tourists to avoid being insular, advising them to try hotpot, ride local buses, and go to the markets, but there everyone sits anyway, watching the Olympics and Facebooking on the VPNed public computer. Yes, I am aware that I am being too judgmental.

Anyway, today we explored Sichuan Normal University and learned to play what they call 'snooker' in the basement of the gymnasium. We've actually been playing a lot of pool, despite the impression this journal has given that we just eat exotica, get massages, and sweat.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

The main street in Changsha, Hunan, right before it cuts a bridged swath across the Xiang River, divides town drastically. To the south, where we went yesterday, is the touristy area, insofar as it can be called such, with nonsensical English names for stores (Mychoice Cafe, dadstaff, and Sushi Milk Tea are three examples), Beijing-style cloth slipper stores (sizes inevitably topping out at a petite 39 cm instead of my required 44), and attractive cobblestone sidewalks (although insufficient to keep split-pants-wearing toddlers from crapping in the gutters). At the time we went, there was actually a TV crew filming two lacquered girls giggling and gesturing into shop windows as their heels wobbled precariously on the cobblestones.

To the north, where we wandered today, is the street market, where the locals shop for groceries. At first it looked like the average packed alley, with laundry hanging everywhere, doorways full of old tires, omnipresent baozi and noodle stands, old men sleeping in lounge chairs, and ice cream coolers steaming mist into the air. Then, we came to a crossroads. Julian asked me, “Left, right, or straight?” Neither of us were anticipating the impact my 'straight' would have, mostly on him, as we continued walking and found ourselves in the center of piles of cows' and pigs' hooves, plucked chickens split down the middle showing their glistening organs, mesh bags of futilely leaping green frogs, people picking up these frogs by the legs and killing them by bashing their heads on wooden blocks before sectioning them for dinner, live fish flopping off their mats onto the sidewalk, people peeling the shells off still struggling turtles, snakes coiled in boxes, cages packed full of ruffled chickens and ducks, boxes of claw-waving crayfish, oysters lined up on cardboard, and, perhaps the least shocking on paper but the most unavoidable to our senses, sheets and sheets of drying hot peppers, hot peppers hanging from clothes hangers even, lending the air a thick, oily, spicy snap that caught in our throats.

Julian, the vegetarian, was properly traumatized by this whole scene, muttering 'Hooves! Feathers! Frog torture! Get me out of here!' and I kept expecting to feel something gutturally, but never did. In fact, I stopped to buy an ice cream bar right across the road from a table piled high with intestines and when I asked Julian what he wanted he sort of looked at me in disbelief before saying, like it should have been obvious, that his appetite had been kind, sorta culled. I have an intellectual aversion to the mistreatment of animals and I certainly wish that nobody was, in particular, peeling shells from live turtles, allowing fish to suffocate on the sidewalk, keeping way too many ducks in one cage, or cracking crayfish exoskeletons without boiling them first. But it didn't make me... not hungry. I am probably (certainly) a terrible person, but in my defense (as though there could possibly be one), my viscera's apathy is not unusual.

Changing the topic entirely... here are some less disturbing snapshots of Changsha:

Playing pool in a three-table ground-floor hall that doubled as a couple's kitchen, so as we lined up shots, a lady stir-fried sheep offal behind us, sending out that chili-choked aroma and causing me to cough at the most inopportune times, shot-accuracy-wise.

Buying water from a couple of 80 year old shop owners, being invited to sit down while we drank it, talking about their parents, the Japanese war, how huge our feet were, and how Changsha has changed and sprouted skyscrapers.

Walking by a fruit stand, expecting boring old soft apples and hard peaches and mushy old stupid grapes, seeing rambutan instead, getting a discount for how excited I got.

Getting a recommendation at a restaurant for stir-fried fish from the waitress' hometown, receiving a plateful of tiny whole fish and bitter melon, it being one of the best and strangest things I have yet tasted and yet still quite reminiscent of whitefish on bagels.