Shanghai food-stravaganza – Saturday, December 1, 2018

I had a luxuriously lazy morning after a late night arrival, and with no agenda for the day in Shanghai but to walk, eat, and find a massage (foot and/or body), I wasn’t in any big hurry to get out the door.

By the time I did, it was closer to lunch than breakfast time, and wow, what a difference between a Tuesday and a weekend day on Nanjing street (and surrounding areas). Tons of people out and about, and amazing street food options. And I ate as much of it as would fit in my expanding belly. Some sort of savory crepe with egg, scallions, cilantro, some mysterious sauces, seaweed, bean sprouts, and other veggies. Amazing. Some scallion pancakes (I even found the place I’d frequented on my visit 5 years ago – it was indeed where I’d remembered, but apparently only had the pancakes on weekends). Various steamed buns and baked goods. Some kind of handheld pastry that tasted a lot like scallion pancakes…but somehow even better? Some noodles with braised beef. Some milk tea.

While I was enjoying some of my street food and milk tea on Nanjing street around noon, I saw a couple of guys making their own choices for lunch: fresh strawberries and cans of Budweiser. This city has something for everyone!

My hotel WiFi is really poor, but I found that a cheap foot massage place had great WiFi (that’s where I was when I uploaded my last post & pictures). I later found a nice/clean and conveniently located massage place on the 4th floor for a full body massage. I also walked a lot. And when I got tired of the crowds, I’d head up to my city view oasis for some quiet. My kind of perfect day in Shanghai.

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Zhangjiajie hiking day 3 – Friday, November 30, 2018

So much for the forecast of sunny days throughout my visit in Zhangjiajie! I woke up to see hazy skies. Packed up my things and left the heavy stuff at the hotel and headed out for another day in the mountains.

But first: Back to the awesome breakfast place (this time I tried more kinds of steamed buns, and also got some hot soy milk, like what I’d had for breakfast in Taiwan).

On the bus, I chatted a bit with a guy from Chile & another from South Korea. They’d gotten on the wrong bus (they were trying to go to the forest park base) but after looking at options, I suggested they walk along the stream path as it’d probably be faster than taking multiple buses, at that point. And the path would be scenic (and there were lots of monkeys)! I walked with them for a little while, until we got to where I turned off to climb up the mountain, and they continued along the valley. The Chinese tourists had the good sense to keep their distance from the monkeys (and if one grabbed their bag from their hand to go digging for food, they just let the monkeys have it without any fight).

More stairs today! And I got to see how they construct the very nice railings along the trail. Custom built with wire and cement and then sculpted and painted to look like wood.

More amazing views, too. Made perhaps even more dramatic by the mist in the air. I saw very few people on the hike up, but towards the top, I met some other hikers – one guy from the UK and one from Australia. We wound up hiking for the rest of the day together. The Avatar filming/inspiration point and the natural bridge were indeed impressive. We did our best to avoid the larger tour groups and enjoyed the vistas in relative quiet, mode of the time.

We all were ready to call it a day by mid afternoon, so we took a circuitous bus to the top of the elevator, took that down, and got some coffee (or, in my case, an orchid latte because: adventure!)

Then, I went back to my hotel to collect my things, and off to catch the bus back into Zhangjiajie City. Best dinner yet at a random place near the bus & train station (note to self: when using the “can you recommend?” card withOUT the pretending to be a vegetarian card…it’s not ALL tricky to eat chicken parts and fish with tons of bones to avoid. You can also wind up getting super tasty pork belly type dishes. Yum!

I had hoped to find a good foot massage around there, but no luck. I went into one spa place on the 3rd floor of a big building, but their lobby stank horribly of cigarette smoke AND their prices were high. No thank you!

On my flight back to Shanghai, I got an exit row seat. Woohoo, legroom! My special instructions were NOT anything about reviewing a card in the seatback pocket and being willing and able to assist the crew in the event of an emergency. Instead, my instructions from the flight attendant (before takeoff and repeated again before landing) were simply, “please do not touch the red handle.” Now where’s the adventure in that?? But okay, FINE.

Since I got back to Shanghai after the Maglev & subway had stopped for the night, I had to take a taxi to my swanky hotel. I’d splurged for a king bed in an upscale chain for my last 2 nights, but when I checked in, they told me they didn’t have any king rooms available. When I was not amenable to a twin room (or a twin room for one night and then moving to a different room), they eventually…upgraded me to a suite with a view of the bund! Woohoo!

Night shots of the skyline didn’t turn out, so here’s a view from the morning:

Zhangjiajie hiking day 2 – November 29

The day started off with my best breakfast yet – a steamed bun and a bowl of noodles from a place just down the street, which seemed to be full of locals darting in to slurp a quick bowl of noodles or soy milk, or picking up some buns to go.

Belly full and warm, I dozed off on the crowded bus from the WulongZhai station, while enroute to the base of the elevator (see red line on the map from my previous post). I woke up when we stopped and a bunch of people were getting off. Glanced out the window and saw the bus stop sign mentioning the elevator, so I scrambled to get off, past the people crowding to get on. Once off, I realized I had gotten off too early. The sign was for where to wait for the bus going TO the elevator. Oops. Well, there was another trail that I could take, from where I’d gotten off. So, I decided to do that! I walked along beside a little sightseeing monorail, and then started walking up up up many flights of steps to get to the top of mount Tianzi. More killer views. Fewer trail friends this day. Did chat briefly with a Swiss couple who were also hiking up. They had a drone that I imagine got some truly incredible photos, soaring around among the karsts. Those viewpoints really made me wish I could fly, too.

Sometimes it seemed like I was the only person on a trail. And then I’d turn a corner and encounter a guy sweeping leaves off the steps, in the middle of nowhere. The whole park was remarkably well-kept.

At one point, I walked through a particularly quiet section of forest, when I thought I heard…purring? Nope. The flittering of many wings of some kind of small birds in the area. They chirped a little, but mostly just flew around in the bushes.

I took hundreds of photos.

When I got tired, I took some shuttle buses back to a gondola down to the base, followed by another bus back into town.

After some snacks, cleaning up (shower, laundry), and blog photo uploading (slow going on the hotel WiFi), I walked into a different part of town for a late dinner in a random restaurant where they spoke no English. I pulled out my “can you recommend…?” card. There weren’t many pictures on their menu. I played charades to indicate that I just wanted something small. The waitress pointed at a menu item with a relatively low price, and then made her hands into ears on her head with and said “okay?” A guy who had come over to help made horns and a bull charging motion. We all giggled. I looked up “beef” in my dictionary and confirmed that that would be okay. Also used the “normal spicy” text I’d gotten from my hotel host (since some of my first meals in town were bland, and since Hunan is known for spice, I wanted to try it the “right” way!) Anyway, wound up with a plate of something like a spicy Mongolian beef.

I wanted a foot massage, but by that point wanted sleep, even more. Zzz!

Zhangjiajie hiking – Wednesday, November 28

I got a later start than I’d intended to, but after a tasty breakfast of bus station adjacent mystery meat steamed buns, I set off on the “lower” (black marker) route that my hotel host had suggested. As I was waiting on the bus, 2 other westerners got on – they’re from Barcelona (but met while both were living in Sydney) and are now traveling for 6 months on their way home. We wound up hiking much of the day together.

Lots and lots of steps. Lots and lots of breathtaking views. I opted to take a gondola down and save my knees from the descent. Navigation was made more interesting by the varying English translations (the same place might be called one thing on the map, another on one sign, and yet another on the next sign).

At the bottom, I walked along a nice flat trail beside a stream. It was surprisingly slippery, but I was still able to walk a pretty brisk pace. I caught up with a group of school kids who took up the whole trail. A little while after I’d manage to pick my way through and pass them, they’d decide to race one another and run up ahead of me, and then walk slowly again. Kids!

But mostly it was a really peaceful hiking day. Late November seems like a perfect time to be here. Cool but not cold, and (almost) no crowds.

I had dinner at the same place as the night before, and a lady from another part of Hunan, who was in town on business, joined me. She helped me order taster-sized cups of the 2 kinds of infused rice wine they had. And after dinner, one of the people working there brought me a bit of some weird plant that they were snacking on. It tasted like dates. At the foot massage I had after dinner, a lady shared some chestnuts with me.

Changsha to Zhangjiajie – Tuesday, November 28, 2018

Pretty much just a travel day. My train left Changsha station (not the Changshanan station I’d come into) at 7:16am, but the metro doesn’t start running until 6:30am. I wanted to give myself plenty of time, and fortunately my hotel was between the two stations, and just a 30min (fairly dark) walk to Changsha station. As I left my hotel neighborhood, I saw people setting out steamer trays but my guess was that the tasty morsels inside wouldn’t be ready just yet. Found the station right where Apple maps said it’d be, and a helpful security guard got me pointed in the right direction to a totally different part of the station where my train would be (it was several minutes extra walk, but I was happy to find a few kiosks open selling foodstuffs in that section, unlike the super quiet side I’d started in).

5hr train ride to Zhangjiajie, and then a bus to Wujiau. It was super helpful to have the Booking.com app “show address in local language” thing so I could show that to various people and get pointed toward the right bus.

At one point, I saw a lady waving and running towards the bus. The driver was kind enough to stop and wait for her. But it turned out she wasn’t just an ordinary passenger – she was the money-taker for the bus fares. She collected everyone’s fares, gave some money to the guy riding shotgun, and got off a little ways down the road (presumably to repeat the process with another bus). Interesting system. Most of the other buses I’ve been on, someone either collects the money just before or after the bus pulls away, or at some random point midway through the journey. But this was the first time someone joined us midway to perform that task.

In town, I checked into my lovely little hotel and appreciated that the guy running it spoke great English. After I grabbed some real food, I came back and got the rundown of places to see in the area, and then just wandered around town.

The ladies in one square were really pushy, trying to give people massages on the spot. I declined.

Yangshuo to Changsha – Monday, November 26

The DiDi was early, but we were all ready to go. The hour+ long drive from Yangshuo to Guilin went quickly, with people to talk with.

In Guilin, I found that the train station itself didn’t have much in the way of food, so I wandered around nearby. Extremely slippery rice noodles at one place, seafood wontons at another, and a bag full of mystery goodies from a bakery for the train ride (savory or sweet? Roll the dice!)

My train was right on time, and actually departed 1 minute early. It was pretty full, and the family across the aisle from me had a little girl who spent the whole trip with eyes glued to a phone or (later) an iPad. No headphones, so I could hear that one of the cartoons she was watching was in English with Chinese subtitles.

A tour group that was on the same train car provided lunch for their people: they dragged 2 giant cardboard boxes along the aisle floor and handed out to-go meals from KFC. Apparently the meal kit included a plastic glove and I watched a guy with double jointed fingers struggle to put the glove on, with his thumb in the pinky hole and pinky in the thumb hole.

When I got to Changsha, it was pretty easy to transfer to the subway line and navigate to my hotel (with the help of Apple maps). I’m glad I arrived during the day, as the sign for my hotel was just a tiny printed one mounted on the side of a building. In a door, up a small and creaky elevator to the 4th floor and – yes! A lobby (and/or living room – lots of kids toys there). The lady didn’t speak a word of English but she looked up my reservation and I handed her my passport and paid for the room. She gave me a key card and I walked up another 3-4 flights of stairs to my room. Not bad for $20!

There was already a room key in the card slot to enable power, but the lights wouldn’t work. So, back down the stairs, I pointed at a light fixture in the lobby and shook my head (while saying something I assumed she didn’t understand). She came up to the room and showed me the card slot and she flipped on the light switches. Yes, I nodded, but…pointed at the lights…they’re not actually on (there was a lot of light from the windows so I don’t blame her for not noticing – I just wanted to make sure I had it sorted out before dark). Hmm. Thinking. Then she gestured for my room key and put it in the slot and on came the lights. Apparently yesterday’s key didn’t work? Okay!

Later, when I came back in for the night, I was trying to figure out which options on the Chinese language remote would activate the heat (and not the air conditioning!) so I went downstairs again. This time I made a “brr” arm rubbing motion, and she came up with an extra comforter AND then helped me get the heat working (helpful for drying laundry overnight!). Anyway, sometimes sign language works pretty well.

Other times, the language barrier has been trickier. It doesn’t help that the interface for whatever translation app most folks here use is different from google translate. They think they have to press and hold the microphone button while speaking into my phone, when in fact by doing so, they’ve stopped it from listening (because I’d put it in conversation mode, already).

After I had wandered around Changsha for awhile, and had navigated back to my neighborhood, I spotted a foot massage place. No English menu, but pointing at feet, and pulling up my calculator app (as it turns out, this has been the best shorthand for “how much?” since it’s common for them to punch in a price into a calculator). They gestured for me to have a seat, then they brought over a bucket of water as usual, to soak my feet in. Then they have me turn around to sit on the ottoman while the guy gives me a neck/shoulder massage. Pretty normal so far. Then some high pressure fingers pushing into my scalp. Then they have me cross my arms and they put their knees in my back and pulled me backwards to crack my back a few times. Okay! Eventually they had me turn around and sit back in the chair, and the foot massage began. Now, when I first went in there, I was the only customer, but since then the place has filled up. A guy at the far end who fell asleep and was snoring in his chair. A girl next to me with the tiniest dog, wearing some silly outfit (the dog, not the girl). But none of them appear to speak any English. At all. The guy massaging my feet is carrying on quite the conversation with everyone else in the shop. Clearly he loves to talk. This does not come in handy when he needs to ask me a question. Instead of a short/simple phrase to have our phones translate, he goes on for many sentences. While pressing the microphone button (see previous comment). And nothing the phones are actually translating makes any sort of sense to me. Given the context, I’d think he’d be asking about pressure, or whether I wanted oil or lotion, or things like that. Then, before I know what’s happening, there’s a wooden cup and a lighter and the cup is suctioned to my foot. And then a second one. I’ve heard of cupping before, but had never experienced it. It was kind of painful. No idea if it was effective or not. He left the cups on my left foot for many minutes, and on the right foot for much less time. I can’t say that I noticed a difference between them, the next day.

Finally he gets his translation app to say: cupping 20yuan, scraping 20yuan. I answered back something to the effect of “no thank you. Just standard foot massage” (which I’d been told was 50yuan, at the beginning). Okay.

I’m not sure if foot cupping was normally included and the extra charge would be for other areas, but everyone else in there also had their feet cupped. And one girl had it on her legs, too.

The vibe of the place was pretty great – I’m sure some of the conversation and laughter was about me or perhaps even at my expense, but not all. And even without understanding a word, I felt like I got a little glimpse into this community. In any case, the experience was way more interesting than the vegetable dumplings I subsequently had for dinner.

Around Yangshuo – Sunday, November 25

Rather than shell out for the hotel breakfast (which didn’t have many interesting Chinese options), I opted to just set out by bicycle and look for food along my way. With a not-to-scale paper map and some directions from the hotel receptionist, I was on my way. On the silly pink bicycle he insisted would be best for me.

I rode thru countryside, and by the occasional restaurant, but all were totally empty. No customers eating hot bowls of anything, or steam trays with hidden treasures to be investigated. I’m not sure whether I was on the right “bike route” or not – it was a narrow country road, paved, and at times it was nice and peaceful. Other times, tour buses, trucks hauling bamboo rafts back up river, and other vehicles made it less pleasant. My bicycle had just one speed – leisurely. Maybe the receptionist was onto something after all.

I rode past the first couple of bamboo raft places, and at the farthest one up, tried to understand the options for dealing with my bike. Lonely Planet said you could bring bikes ON the rafts, but apparently that is no longer the case. Could I park my bike here somewhere and get a ride back? Unclear. Another girl in line was helpful with translating but it didn’t seem like the raft operators really cared to make it easy for the likes of me. So, I decided to forego the raft ride (it was relatively expensive, time consuming, and went through the same areas I’d just ridden through).

I was also getting a bit “hangry” and was hopeful that, as it was getting to be lunchtime, I’d be able to spot a popular place to eat. No such luck along the country roads, but at one point, I wound up at an intersection with good signage. To the left, Yangshuo. To the right, back to my hotel. Well, why not go back into town? I hung a left and rode some more, and eventually wound up in Yangshuo, but on a less-touristy street. I saw a couple of restaurants filled with people eating. Parked my bike and checked it out. I pointed at several things that looked vegetable-heavy. 10yuan for a plate of food and fill your own bowl of rice. Not bad!

After lunch, I parked my bike closer to the center of town, found some tasty baked goods, and walked around a bit. Eventually decided that I wanted to get “home” well before dark, so rode back to the hotel (only taking a couple of wrong turns along the way).

The hotel’s lovely rooftop bar/restaurant is apparently now only open for breakfast, but the receptionist said that I could have a drink up there, they just didn’t have any food. So, I brought some snacks of my own and enjoyed a quiet sunset on the rooftop.

Although I wasn’t very hungry, I thought I should really try the “beer fish” that is so popular in the area. I walked a few minutes to a nearby restaurant that had it, and ate on their massive (but nearly empty) patio along the river. It was tricky to eat, but quite delicious!

As I was eating, some fellow guests from my hotel stopped in and ate, too. As they were heading out, we chatted a bit – they’re from the US and living in another city in China (she’s a science teacher) and have been exploring other areas when they can. When I asked if they were also heading to the train station in the morning, we arranged to share a car. Win!