I suppose there isn’t one of us who at some point this year hasn’t looked back at what they were doing one year ago and muttered What a difference a year makes! One year ago today, I was touring around Mexico City still suffering the after-effects of a stomach virus that had plagued the majority of a two-week business trip. Why I bring this up is because in between the unmentionable bodily functions, I managed to make all my travel arrangements for a holiday to Asia that would be coming up in November. This trip would lead to several of my favorite travel experiences and blog posts. Still to this day, I feel a universe-sized part of me left behind bouncing along in a Cambodian tuk-tuk being mesmerized by ancient Khmer temples or anxiously waiting to sink my teeth into one of Jay Fai’s crab omelets in Bangkok.
There have been many travels in my life which don’t quite fit into the mold of the theme of my blog, and I have held off putting those experiences to words for just that reason. I have always lived by the travel motto that I will be back. And many of these places fall in the I will be back category. Every year I get older, I contemplate that the chances of that being true for all of these places gets smaller and smaller. Now when I look at the state of the world, while I know travel will open up again in the future, one thing is for sure and that is you never know. I wonder if I will ever again experience moments like last November which both haunt me and fill my heart with immeasurable joy.
Last November wasn’t my first trip to Asia. I have been there on many occasions. Occasions which seem like a lifetime ago. As I look thru the photos of my trips, each one feels not like a window to a place, but a window to a state of mind, of joys I was feeling, of life’s encounters yet to come, of the age of my daughter, of what I knew and didn’t know about myself in that moment.
I don’t have many brewtiful moments from those trips, but countless beautiful ones. Just coming up with the idea to write about them instantly brought the flutter of blue butterfly wings, and I know those are never to be ignored. If the reader chooses to continue on, I thank you with humbleness. I write this for me. This is my way of going back, in a time where going back feels impossible. I can’t think of a better place to start that journey than the country that has probably given me the richest of cultural experiences combined with stereotype shattering enlightenment.
April 2013. Shanghai
If there is one thing which defines my journeys in China, it is my relationship with food. The first meal I ever had in China should say a lot about where I stood in the beginning.
Shanghai is the one city in China where an average American dude such as myself might not feel the culture shock so dramatically. It is a big glitzy city like Philly or New York only with turned up corners on the buildings.
In the pool of memories into which I am currently reaching my mental hand, Shanghai’s leak thru my fingers like sand. That is not to say I did not have fun. The first evening’s stroll around the city introduced me to the phenomenon of large groups of older women doing dance routines in public places. The city was a colorful array of lights and the skyline across the Huangpu River was impressive. But it was all rather artificial.
The most memorable encounter was making faces at a young girl at the table next to mine during dinner only to have her clam up during a photo. I really felt out of my element for the first time. In China. But to really experience real China, I needed to get out of Shanghai.
Beer in China usually comes in a tall bottle but is drank from little glasses. In many places, you have to specifically ask for refrigerated bottles; otherwise, you will get one at room temperature.
April 2013. Beijing
The Chinese are extremely proud of their high speed train systems. In 2013, the Beijing-Shanghai railway topped out around 300 km/h making the trip from Shanghai to Beijing in under 5 hours. Today it is even faster. Like the velocity of the high speed train, my China experience took off once reaching Beijing. Gone was the indifferent, sparkly glitter of Shanghai. Beijing, despite being a major city and tourist destination, had far fewer westerners than I expected. It is grand, gritty, and monumentally historic. And I discovered pretty quickly that a bit of facial hair is qualification for instant celebrity.
Of all the amazing places to see in Beijing, The Forbidden City was the genuine pinch me moment. That was followed later on by the flag ceremony on Tiananmen Square. The entire day, my colleague and I were the only foriegners I saw. That day was a string of double takes, shy giggling, and curious elders. If there was one day in my life that I enjoyed the attention, it was that day. I felt alive. Not only in the footsteps of history but in the glow of a friendly and hospitable people. That’s not including the suspicious security guards that were monitoring Tiananmen Square that evening.
If the Forbidden City was a pinch me moment then the day before was the brute grip of an alligator’s jaw by comparison.
The section of the Great Wall that I visited is the one most frequented by the tour busses. Despite the over-tourism, I still felt an overwhelming feeling of appreciation. I could have been the only person standing on that wall. A haze blanketed the rugged mountains sapping color from scenery which already seemed deprived of it. That haze was a constant presence everywhere I went in China, often making it a place better seen at night. And one night in Beijing my early struggles with the food took a sharp left turn.
In case you are curious, scorpions are so crispy, over-seasoned, and have no guts, that they just taste like a potato chip which failed quality control. To wash down the fried scorpions, we managed to find one cozy beer bar called By the Tree. It is known for its selection of Belgian beers, such as Kwak, which will be of interest to anyone in the world but a Belgian (or Belgian resident). I didn’t go to Beijing to drink Belgian beer so the Tree Beer it was.
Shanghai and Beijing were a grand tour of some of the most iconic places in China. It was one of the most memorable, if not THE most memorable business trip mixed with pleasure of my career. The final stop on the trip was purely business, but it has a special place in my personal appreciation museum.
April 2013. Putian
Compared to Shanghai and Beijing, Putian, with a population of 2 million people, feels like small-town China. In the daytime, Putian is a rather dreary mass of uninteresting buildings covered with the same consistent haze. At night, it is like your grandmother with too much makeup on. But my couple days there for business came with a surreal appreciation of experiencing real China… the China that a Westerner tries to create in their imagination when they look at a shop full of cheap souvenirs. Looking out my hotel window at not a single enticing touristic thing, I couldn’t have been happier.
Oddly enough, my visit to Putian is still the only time in my career that I have worked in a brewery. Even though beer is one of the most marketable products on earth, when I asked for a bottle opener, coaster, tee shirt, beer glass, hat, magnet, anything… to take home as a souvenir, the plant manager couldn’t have been more baffled.
By this time of my trip, I had realized that eating lunch and dinner was not a matter of looking at a menu and picking a meal for yourself. Oh no. It was about letting your hosts over-order a table’s worth of food which spins around in front of you while everyone at the table picks at the different dishes with their dirty chopsticks. I was still trying to get used to this communal way of eating and battling the constant cramping of my right hand as I developed my chopstick muscles. But it was in Putian that I broke down and begged my hosts to just take me to a steakhouse. They, of course, obliged with May shuh (No problem) repeated with machine gun rapidity. However, one look at the boiled, rubbery steak made me regret my insistence on a Western-style meal. But I learned on this segment of the trip that the quickest way to a Chinese person’s friendship is to take an interest in their language. May Shuh (spelling it like it sounds) was just one of many phrases I took home with me. With a copious amount of inspired memories and some new phrases in my suboptimal language arsenal, my 2013 trip came to an end. The bad impression I had of the food lingered long after the euphoria of my visits to the Great Wall and the Forbidden City faded. I was scarred by the constant parade of boiled chicken with bones, skin, fat, and gristle, all dark meat and no chicken breast, chicken feet, pungent fish, slimy vegetables, and unappetizing pork bits which look prepared by a mad one-eyed butcher chopping randomly. My colleague and I would jokingly battle each other for the bowl of unskinned peanuts. It was a tough introduction to Chinese food. But this was nothing compared to what was in store for me two years later.
And the next time, I took pictures.