What could you promise an emperor of China that he doesn’t already have? From the Han Tomb Treasures exhibit at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, we learned the answer — immortality.
We didn’t find notable regional food or restaurants on our two-week China tour. Instead, we found ourselves trying to stay healthy and enjoy the food we ate. Here’s some background, our experience, and some tips.
Our tour included meals and was arranged by a Chinatown travel agency. We started the trip in a group of 16 while visiting Beijing and Xian; then we left the group for a private tour (for two) of Lhasa, Chengdu, and Guilin. Preparing for the trip, we read traveler reviews complaining about food on tours arranged by Chinatown travel agencies. We considered excluding dinners for our private tour. The agency said that the dinners cost so little that we’d be better off with the tour dinners and occasionally buying our own food. We did this, and it worked pretty well, after we learned some unwritten rules and managed the relationship with our tour guides.
To understand how tour food works, here’s a little about the travel agency, regional tour operators, and tour guides. Before the tour we worked with a Chinatown travel agency to plan and customize our trip. The travel agency coordinated with four regional tour operators in China to contract for our trip. The tour operator provides the tour services (guide, driver, car, hotels, flights, admissions, etc.). Depending on the regional tour operator, the tour guide can determine the food served on the tour.
Our meals in China can be grouped into these categories:
- Hotel breakfasts. Breakfast is the first meal of the day, and usually the high point. Most hotels had a buffet breakfast, and all buffet breakfasts were all very good to excellent, with a wide assortment of Chinese and Western dishes. We liked soup noodles, sauteed Chinese vegetables, omelet, croissants, juice, coffee, and whatever else looked good. The Guilin Shangri-La served custom-made crepes! When we left for an early flights before the buffet opened, we got disappointing bag breakfasts of yogurt, stale pastry, and fruit. In Yangshuo we stayed in the small inn with only a cook-to-order breakfast that was pretty good.
- Restaurant and dishes selected by the tour operator. For lunches and dinners in Beijing and Xian and dinners in Guilin, the tour operator arranged set meals in restaurants catering to tours. In Xian we had a buffet lunch and dinner that were okay. Buffets are good because you can eat as much of the dishes you like. You can’t do this for the served tour meals, which have 7-9 courses of food that the Chinese thought that Chinese Americans would like: fried fish, sweet and sour pork, watery soup, vegetables, etc. There were a few dishes we liked, but it’s not polite to take more than your share before everyone at the 8-person table serves themselves. The dishes were monotonous, the same for lunch and dinner. A Beijing duck dinner was at a well-known restaurant, but at a branch catering to tour groups. The duck was so-so — the skin was soft instead of crispy. We saw other branches with a crowd of Chinese waiting outside, so the food has to be much better at those branches. Our first dinner in Guilin was at a hotel serving only tours, with a preset menu. It was just like the tour meals in Beijing and Xian. 😦
- Leave the tour and eat on your own. We joined cousin Bob in Beijing for the Great Wall, a hutong walk, and two delicious lunches. We ate at a fish farm near the Great Wall and at a restaurant specializing in Mongolian dumplings — delicious, cheap ($4 pp), and much more food than we could eat. That evening we skipped the tour dinner and found something light, Ajisen ramen. It wasn’t as good as in California (much leaner broth and less meat), but it was cheaper, about $7 a bowl. This was in an expensive mall on the Wangfujing. If you leave the group away from your hotel, you’re responsible for getting back to your hotel. When the hotel is located near lots of shops and stores, walking is great. Hailing a taxi in Beijing was very difficult.
- Guide chooses the restaurant. In Lhasa and Chengdu, the tour operator provided the guide with a small food budget, and the guide is responsible for feeding us and staying within the budget. Our tour food was much better than in Beijing and Xian! In Lhasa, the tour guide chose the restaurant, and we picked a soup, entree, and drink from the menu. Suffering from altitude sickness, we chose Nepalese food (biryani and naan), skipping local delicacies like yak and yak butter. In Chengdu, the guide chose the restaurants to keep within the budget, and he ordered the meal for himself, the driver, and us. We really enjoyed the shared food.
- Tour operator chooses restaurant and guide chooses food. In Guilin and Yangshuo, the restaurants were chosen by the tour operator, but after the first dinner we got the guide to select dishes for us instead of the preset menu. When our guide chose the dishes, we had lots of food, mostly vegetables and not much meat (expensive). We were happy. Our last meal was in a restaurant at the Guilin airport. Other travelers said they had a bad meal there (probably the preset meal), but our guide ordered a meal that was delicious and more than we could finish. Here’s a picture of our lunch near Guilin. We paid extra for the sticky rice cooked in bamboo (behind the rice).
- Airline food in China. We rode a least three different Chinese airlines. All served hot meals. I didn’t know always what I was eating, but the food was warm, and I finished several meals. The airline food was better than expected, and sure beats the drinks served on US domestic flights.
- Enjoy your buffet breakfast. It’s very good and dependable. A bird in hand is worth two in the bush.
- China tour operators can select restaurants based on business relationships. The tour operators in Beijing, Xian, and Guilin chose restaurants based on business relationships. Watch out for places that serve only tours.
- Engage the guide and be clear. For our first dinner in Guilin, they drove us a half hour to a hotel serving only tour groups, where we were served the usual cheap dishes that the Chinese think that Chinese Americans eat (tasteless soup, fried fish, sweet and sour, etc.). We complained to the guide right after the meal, asking for dishes like kung pao chicken that she and the driver ate. After that, the guide ordered delicious, homestyle dishes for us, except for the Li River cruise, where the kitchen is limited and all passengers have the same lunch.
- Go off on your own as opportunities arise. The tour group travels by bus, and the bus often goes directly to the restaurant without stopping at the hotel. We only left the group for a meal with cousin Bob or when the group left for a dinner from the hotel. Restaurants in China are much less expensive than restaurants in California.
- In China, you get what you pay for. We haven’t heard complaints about the food on tours from mainstream companies such as Tauck and Geo Expeditions. Those tours cost more than ours.
- Serving utensils. Food is served family style. Restaurants don’t bring out serving utensils. Rather than have everyone serve themselves with their chopsticks, we asked for serving utensils. We didn’t get colds on our China trip, just some altitude sickness in Tibet. Much better than our previous trip to China, where almost everyone caught a cold.
We enjoyed our China trip and stayed pretty healthy. These are our lessons learned.
Yesterday the NY Times reported Chinese protests about land inequities. The interests of the Chinese government are not aligned with the interests of the people, so inequality and protests will continue and grow until changes are made.
In the Guangdong town of Wukan, “villagers chased away government leaders, set up roadblocks and began arming themselves with homemade weapons” “after residents learned that one of the representatives they had selected to negotiate with the local Communist Party had died in police custody. The authorities say a heart attack killed the 42-year-old man, but relatives say his body bore signs of torture”.
“A major source of unrest, including in Wukan, is the seizure of land by well-connected private developers or government officials, which involves forced evictions for meager compensation. More than just unalloyed greed, these seizures are supported by local governments that have come to rely on proceeds of land sales and development to pay for day-to-day operations.”
“The discontent in Wukan has been simmering for more than a decade. Residents say land seizures began in the late 1990s, when officials began selling off farmland for industrial parks and apartment complexes. Villagers say more than 1,000 acres have been seized and resold to developers in the past decade or so. The residents’ ire exploded in September, when thousands of people took to the streets to protest the sale of a village-owned pig farm for luxury housing that netted the government $156 million.”
There are construction cranes all over China. These development require land, and the government owns all land. A Wall Street Journal article from September explains that “under the 1982 constitution, all urban land is automatically state-owned, while rural land is under “collective ownership. So the most that farmers in the countryside get is a 30-year lease on the land, which leaves them defenseless against the expropriations of corrupt local officials.”
Development is driven by continued demand for housing and development as people flock to the cities. Another factor is new families. China has more young men than young women, so the young women can be and are choosy about whom they marry. Many want a car and housing in order to marry. One of our China guides agreed with this assessment and added that he was fortunate that his wife chose to marry him.
Until meaningful changes are mode, development will continue, the local government will make millions from development, people will be moved off the land, and protests will continue. In the meanwhile, people will try to get by and perhaps get ahead a little.
We went to Chengdu to see pandas, and we were not disappointed. We went crazy taking panda pictures. The pandas were one of the highlights of our China trip.
The Chengdu Panda Base has excellent outdoor displays of pandas grouped by age. Each age group has its own behaviors.
The first group was adult pandas. Pandas eat only one kind of bamboo that provides little nutrition, so the adults eat and sleep alot.
A panda walking from one spot to the next.
Next were the babies, born in the spring. They can barely nudge themselves along. But some babies eventually move off the platform and are returned to the pile. You can see the size of a baby panda compared to a person.
Here’s a panda mother and child. The mother stays on the platform. The child climbs the platform and gets on the mother. The mother gently nudges the child off the platform, and the child climbs up again. We watched this cycle at least a half dozen times.
The teenagers are the most active group. Volunteers feed the pandas apples on a stick.
The pandas are adorable and extremely popular. Our guide has an repeat customer who returns from America every year to see the pandas with our guide. Visitors who pay $150 can hold a baby panda; another tour group had a member who did that. China leases pandas to foreign zoos for $1M a year. The zoos probably make money by advertising the pandas and drawing more visitors. The leased pandas and any offspring are returned to China when the lease expires, maintaining the Chinese monopoly and brand.
The Chengdu Panda Base is an excellent, large facility. Visitors are spread across several displays of pandas grouped by age, with lots of railings for people to watch. We visited in the morning, when the pandas are eating. The crowds were manageable — we were always able to get a spot on the railing without waiting too long.
We’ve been asked whether a tourist who wants to see pandas should go to Chengdu or see pandas in a zoo in another city. Ask about the pandas in the zoos. If zoos have only adult pandas, you’d miss out on the other age groups and their behaviors. Chengdu and Lhasa were our two favorite places on our China trip, so we’re happy we went to Chengdu.
You’ll take lots of pictures so be sure to have disk space and battery power for your camera. Bring a telephoto lens if you have one.
Potala Palace, the winter residence of the Dalai Lama, is located in Lhasa, at an altitude of 3,700 m (12,100 feet). Lhasa is cold in the winter — the average high in January is 45 F, and the low is 16 F.
Perhaps Potala Palace is more than a breathtakingly beautiful building that was the residence of many Dalai Lamas. Staying warm during the Tibetan winter is important. Let’s explore passive solar design in Potala Palace, a building completed more than 400 years ago, based on design elements from the Wikipedia article.
- Placement of room-types, internal doors & walls, & equipment in the house. Multiple levels are connected by staircases. The Dalai Lama lived in an upper level, so that warm air would rise to the Dalai Lama’s residence.
- Orienting the building to face the equator (or a few degrees to the East to capture the morning sun). Potala Palace faces the equator, angled 5 to 10 degrees east, per google map in satellite mode.
- Extending the building dimension along the east/west axis. The building is several times longer than it is wide. The above photo shows the south exposure of Potala Palace. Note how the Palace is long on the east/west axis. In the White Palace photo, we see the east side of the upper part of the Palace. It’s much narrower than the south side. Note that many more windows face south than east.
- Adequately sizing windows to face the midday sun in the winter, and be shaded in the summer. In the White Palace photo, note the ledges and curtains above the windows.
- Minimising windows on other sides, especially western windows. Didn’t see the western side. The north side of the Palace has relatively few windows, based on google map in the earth view.
- Erecting correctly sized, latitude-specific roof overhangs. See the shades and curtains for the windows.
- Using the appropriate amount and type of insulation including radiant barriers and bulk insulation to minimise seasonal excessive heat gain or loss. The Red Palace is red because the walls have a thick layer of red rush over stone walls. The red rush is dark and absorbs solar energy as heat. Potala Palace has thick stone walls.
- Using thermal mass to store excess solar energy during the winter day. Potala Palace is constructed of stone, providing lots of thermal mass.
I doubt that the Tibetans consulted a list of passive solar design elements when they built Potala Palace 400 years ago. Nonetheless, it seems they got passive solar heating right.
Disclaimer: We aren’t solar energy professionals, so this post is more speculation than science. We did read about passive solar energy design and and incorporate some elements into our home. Potala Palace as a passive solar building seemed to fit. In any event, this post lists passive solar design elements and applies them to a specific building, illustrating how to apply design elements.
We were finishing a meal in Chengdu with our guide and driver. Selected by our guide, the food was delicious, and there was so much food that we couldn’t finish it. We asked the guide if he wanted to take the leftovers home, but he declined. People in China don’t take leftovers home, he said, since people who do this would look poor. Instead, leftovers are fed to the pigs. Oh-h-h.
In contrast, part of the ritual of a Chinese meal in the States is to box up the leftovers/plannedovers and decide who takes home which dishes. It’s an informal, cooperative process that always works out. There’s no stigma attached with taking leftovers home.
For some reason, pork in China is more tasty than the pork in the States.
We shared a meal with our guide in Yangshuo. The meal was also delicious and plentiful, and several pieces of meat were left at the end of the meal. We served the meat to the guide. She ate it, saying quietly that at home she holds back until her children have finished eating.
In China we ran into something we knew nothing about, informally known as the Great Firewall of China. We tried to access this blog from our laptop, but we couldn’t connect. Internet searches were slow. Wikipedia has a good article at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Firewall_of_China. With help, we were able to post to the blog from China using email, but we couldn’t view or edit what was posted. Blog access from Hong Kong worked.
Bloggers visiting China should prepare by setting up email posting in advance. We had read articles about companies cooperating with the Chinese government to limit information, but running into the Firewall made these limits more real.