GreenAroundTheGlobe - Part 20

This post is part of a series on our experiences while traveling independently in China. Click here to read Part One: Language.

The food is terrible. That is, if you can even figure out what it is you’re eating.

Let’s be clear about one thing here.  The food in China is not New York take-out.  It is not unusual to meet your meal before you eat it, and the concept of careful trimming or deboning meat does not exist outside of a few tourist restaurants.  Many menus are only in Chinese, if there is a menu at all.  And let’s be honest – even if you stumble upon a picture menu, it’s far from easy to determine what you are about to order based on a small blurry photograph. On occasion, you may even find yourself in a food desert where your best option is Western fast food.   But that didn’t stop us from eating some of the most enjoyable meals we’ve had on our trip.

Steaming soup dumplings.  Cold noodles slick with spicy peanut sauce.  Braised eggplant in a slightly sweet brown sauce. Tender, succulent bullfrog.  Seriously, people, it’s good stuff.

So how did we uncover these culinary treasures?  Mostly, it was by accident and observation.  We’d hang back and watch how other people ordered.  If we were lucky and the food was on display, pointing and pantomime worked fairly well, and even misinterpretations resulted in deliciousness.  We discovered our favorite pork dumplings sold by a street vendor by ordering just one, tasting it, and going back for seconds.  And then thirds. They were that good. And by the way, dumplings in China are served with a dark vinegar, not soy sauce, and all the better for it.


The peanut noodles were a fortuitous accident.  In a crowded Shanghai metro station eatery, we pushed our way through the masses to the display case.  Filled with freshly prepared dumplings waiting for the steamer, thick white rice noodles piled high and various sauces and vegetables, we decided on two different types of dumplings for lunch.  After getting the attention of the man behind the counter, Keith pointed to the dumplings we wanted to order for lunch.  Within seconds, noodles, peanuts, tofu and vegetables were being heaped into a plastic container and passed to us over the case.  It looked and smelled delicious, so we just shrugged our shoulders and figured we’d have noodles for lunch. Turned out to be the best peanut noodles either of us had ever had.

Bullfrog was part of a fantastic meal with had with Ed and Joshua, some locals we met through my dad.  They took us out to dinner at Szechuan Citizen, and we let them do the ordering for us.  Out comes steaming bowl of spicy broth filled with vegetables and unidentifiable pieces of meat.  Do you want to know what you’re eating, or just try it first? We decided to be brave.  Bullfrog. It takes like chicken. I let Keith try it first, and upon his approval tried my first taste of this amphibious creature. It tasted like no chicken I’ve ever had – it was incredibly moist and tender with a mild flavor. I wish chicken tasted this good!

So while looking your dinner in the eye before eating it might make you a bit uncomfortable, and you might not be sure of what you are ordering when it’s a point and hope for the best situation, it’s worth persevering for the incredibly fresh and new flavors you’ll experience.  Trust me.  I was born and raised on New York Chinese take out, and if you keep an open mind when eating in China you will not be disappointed.

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A Couple of Updates

by Amy on May 8, 2010 · 1 comment

So having your hostel write out a note for you in Chinese isn’t totally foolproof. We found this out the hard way, when boarding our train the other night from Shanghai to Xi’an.  We thought we had booked a soft sleeper. We had asked the girl at our hostel to write out the note asking for a soft sleeper. What we really purchased were two top bunk hard sleepers. Now, this isn’t the end of the world, but it was far from the comfortable experience we were expecting.  Soft sleepers are in berths of 4 beds with doors that shut out the noise and smoke from the hallways of the train.  Hard sleepers are berths of 6, sans door.  The top beds have about 2 feet of clearance from the ceiling, making sitting upright impossible.  To add insult to injury, Keith’s been fighting a bad stomach bug, making for a less than pleasant ride.  On the upside, we did save a bit of money, which will help pay for a very, very small percentage of the very expensive JR Rail Passes we purchased for our two weeks in Japan.  There’s always a silver lining.

Also, we finally found the Japan guidebook we had been looking for all those hours in Shanghai.  While sitting in the common area of our hostel on our very last day in the city, Keith noticed a DK Eyewitness Japan Guide, in English, sitting on a bookshelf.  We’re not sure if it had been there all along, and I’d like to think it wasn’t, but the good news is that we were able to trade a book we had already read for the elusive guidebook.  Sometimes the travel gods work in mysterious ways.

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China’s really difficult for Western travelers.
No one speaks any English.
The menus, trains and street signs are all in Chinese.
The food is terrible.
The people are pushy and rude.
Good luck with that one.

– Advice we heard on the road before we arrived in China

It was almost enough to make us pay for a package tour.  Everywhere we went it seemed someone had something scary to say about traveling in China.  Anytime we mentioned our future plans for a month in China, faces would turn serious and travel terror tales would abound, filling my head with doubts.  Were we really hardcore enough to backpack through China?  Will it really be so hard to get around?  How much is that Intrepid Travel tour?

We have now been in the People’s Republic of China for two weeks, and it is time to separate the facts from the fiction about independent travel in China.

Yes, it is true. Many Chinese, and most taxi drivers, do not speak a word of English. Tourist sites often cater to Chinese tourists, with signage and tours only in Chinese.  Announcements in bus stations and metro stops are not always translated into English, and can be confusing even when they are. And unless you have been studying the language for some time, the characters are completely indecipherable.

So communication in China is not as simple as it was in many other parts of Asia.  But with a little forethought and a sense of adventure, it’s really not so tough.

First of all, street and directional signs are increasingly being translated into English.  In Shanghai, for example, all of the street and metro signs are translated.  Even the bus route signs in Guilin were occasionally written in English. This might be a recent phenomena rooted in the Olympics and the World Expo, but as more and more Westerns travel to China, I think it is a trend that will continue.

But of course not all signs are in English, so for us, the key has been to ask someone, either the staff at our hostel or someone in a tourist office, to write out our destination or request in Chinese.  This is how we got from the train station to our hotel in Shenzhen, mastered the bus system in Guilin and purchased train tickets in Shanghai. It’s kind of like being back in kindergarten, when your mom would write a note and leave it in your backpack – you know, the one that said, “If I am lost, please call my mom at…” – only in Chinese.  Carrying the business card of our hostels has also been invaluable, and we highly recommend it no matter what country you are traveling in.

It has also been the case that we have been sought out by English-speaking locals anxious to practice their skills and share their culture more times in the past two weeks than in the six months prior.  In Guilin, we met John, an English tutor who spent a few hours with us walking around the beautiful lakes and chatting about what it is like to be a young entrepreneur starting a business in China.  In the hostels we’ve stayed in, we’ve often been asked by staff to correct vocabulary and grammar errors.  We’ve also been the recipients of cheerful “hellos!” and smiles as strangers on the street practice their greetings.

We have found that most communication is nonverbal, and the Chinese have been extremely friendly and helpful even when they don’t speak any English. While biking around the Yangshuo countryside on our way to the Dragon Bridge, we stopped to consult our highly inadequate map.  The rocky dirt paths crisscrossed through the rice paddies in all directions; the map showed one straight line directly to the bridge.  Within a minute, a man on a motorbike approached to help.  He spoke no English, but through a series of hand gestures and head shaking he let us know that he was going to the bridge and offered to lead us there.  He’d ride along ahead of us, waiting at each intersection for us to catch up.  We never would have found the bridge without him. A little charades can go a long way.  My sister-in-law Jenn, a charades master, would have no trouble getting around here.

And there is Chinglish, perhaps the best and definitely the most entertaining aspect of the language barrier.  Our first encounter with Chinglish was at the Shenzhen railway station, listening to the translated train announcements:  This train will be leaving in…no time at all.  Please, all passengers get on board. While the word “immediately” is what was meant, it just cannot compete with the current translation when it comes to the amusement factor.  It has been nearly impossible to travel around China without finding some funny sign or announcement that brings huge smiles to our faces.  Thailand might be the land of a thousand smiles, but for English speakers, China is the land of a thousand giggles.

Stay tuned for The Truth About Travel in China – Part Two: Food

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