January 7 – 10
January 10 – 13
Kyra: 1) On the train pulling in to Guangzhou, I was listening to an episode on Planet Money about these hover boards being produced in Shenzen, China, just over an hour away. Later, we were wandering around an electronics market and I saw the boards being sold everywhere. It was so cool being in a place you just read (listened to a podcast) on!
Kyra: 2) Americans’ love of white breast meat on chickens has never been so apparent to me as it was in China. More on that in the Food section, but I listened to this Freakonomics podcast episode on Chinese consumption of chicken paws some time ago and was reminded of it pretty much every time we stepped into a restaurant.
How we got there
Kyra: We took an overnight train from Hanoi to Nanning. I lost a bet to Ben that we wouldn’t have to wake up in the middle of the night to go through customs out of Vietnam and into China – we most certainly did. Highlight: we had our own berth and I got to watch Ben “yell” at the train conductors, insisting that they were putting us in the wrong beds. The letter that came with our tickets issued a few warnings, one of which was to not trust anyone who tells you to go to a different bed. Ben definitely has the Minnesota-nice, don’t rock the boat genes so seeing him get riled up was a treat for me.
Ben: When we got our tickets, we were told that many times foreigners will be kicked out of their original seats and demoted (this usually entails a top bunk rather than a bottom bunk). Being armed with instructions to insist we get our seats, I was ready for action. Of course, they demoted us and I instantly began arguing with the ticket officer. We ended up getting seats that weren’t our original ticketed spots, but we had lower bunks and were the only people in the 4 bunk cabin, so I’d say it worked out in the end. The train had to pass a country border so this means we got to wake up at 1am to go through passport control leaving Vietnam and then again and 3am to enter China.
Kyra: From Nanning to Guangzhou we took a high speed train four hours that averaged 110 miles/hour.
Where we stayed
Hanting Express Hotel, Nanning
Ben: Our friend Li recommended Hanting Express as a good budget option for China and as usual, he was right. We had a basic room with a hot shower and nice bed. Apart from the noise of karaoke in the evening and kindergartners in the morning, the place suited us just fine and I’m quite sure we were the only Americans in the building. Talking with the front desk staff was always fun as they spoke very little English, but we were able to communicate nonetheless.
Royal Tulip, Guangzhou
Our second stay was at a nicer hotel in Guangzhou. This was one of the first places we stayed that had a pool and a workout room. Although both looked like they were out of a Bond movie (complete with the constant fear of someone lurking in darker corners), it was the first time in quite awhile I’d been able to exercise. My body let me know just how long it has been the next day, but it was still fun to enjoy some luxury amenities.
Kyra: Food in China has induced such a wide range of emotions for me. We had arguably the worst meal of our trip followed by one of the best. When food is bad, it’s mostly because no one speaks English (and we don’t speak Chinese) and the Chinese eat almost every part of an animal. The latter is something I truly admire as my eating a steak means that other parts of a cow might normally be discarded, however I don’t have the stomach to enjoy entrails quite yet. That said, when it’s good, it is so good.
Ben: Once again, Kyra’s studious research paid off and led us to Rong Yue, a restaurant in a mall (typical China), that had Sichuan food (our favorite) and great reviews. After a lousy attempt at dinner the night before (including unknown meats and chicken legs), we were ready for a good meal. Wow did we get what we wanted. We ordered Sichuan green beans, Thai eggplant, and Sichuan pork ribs.
The first item delivered to our table was the Thai eggplant, but we thought it was the ribs (they were fried). I was startled after biting into such a soft piece of food without any bones. They then delivered the ribs, which confused us, but we finally realized the fried stuff was eggplant and probably some of the best eggplant we’ve ever eaten. It came still sizzling in a sweet and sour sauce and tasted like heaven. The pork ribs were a close second, the Sichuan flavor coming through with a strong cumin taste. And of course, Sichuan green beans, which are a staple of every western restaurant serving Chinese food, hit the taste buds just right. We’re only hoping we can continue to find meals like this one and also now realize why our Chinese friends love eating at Mall of America: malls in China do food very, very well.
Ben: Kyra and I – somewhat out of character – decided to try the top rated restaurant in Guangzhou from TripAdvisor. This place looked like a swanky bar, with really no clues that it was an Indian restaurant until we opened the menu. We ordered some chicken and chana masala with garlic naan. It was decidedly non-Chinese as we weren’t given chopsticks and there were no bones, skin, or tendons present in the meat, but it was also a journey back to some of the better Indian places we’ve been – would recommend.
Local View and Lessons Learned
Kyra: Guangzhou is the third largest city in China and was formerly called Canton. It is the birthplace of Cantonese food, which includes Dim Sum. Most “Chinese Food” consumed in the US is modeled after the food found in this province, although we have yet to spot cream cheese wontons.
Ben: During our time in Nanning, at city of 6,661,600 people, Kyra and I kept a count of how many foreigners like ourselves that we saw. The final number for Nanning was 7, this includes our visits to the two most recommended tourist places. We know there are some expats in Nanning, but this number must be incredibly small. It was good for both of us to be in a place where we were the outsiders who didn’t speak the language, enjoy the same foods, or look like anyone else. It enables new perspectives to be formed and empathy in a variety of situations.
Kyra: Peeing in public for men and infants seemed to be the norm. In really public places, people pulled down babies pants or their own to relieve themselves.
Ben: Many bodily functions that we try so hard to hide in the US are celebrated in China. Coughing, clearing your throat, spitting (even throwing up?), were not hidden at all in China. In fact, it seems the louder you can hawk a loogey, the better. This is one thing I’m not going to miss upon reentering the US.
Kyra: Walking through parks we saw a few activities over and over:
Ni hao – Hello
Xie xie – Thank You
Baked Good or Band Name
I am incredibly appreciative that many signs in China miraculously have English translations, especially because I got to play a great game called “Baked Good or Band?” name with them:
Ben: Every time we saw a cute kid in Nanning, I would explain to Kyra that they were cute mainly because of the clothes they were wearing: puffy coats, crazy colors, and generally adult outfits on their tiny frames. They would waddle around in these intricate outfits, looking like a small person with crazy style. Kids are also allowed to wander a bit more, which enforces the thought that they woke up, dressed themselves, ate breakfast, and hopped on the bus to get to their job building LEGO houses or taste testing baby foods.
Yangmei Ancient Town
Ben: This town is about 30km outside of Nanning and is hailed as an “Ancient Town”, although nearly all of the buildings are quite new and it seems more like a small country town than anything else. We took two buses to get there. Going to our first bus, we were escorted by a random guy we met on the street who was also headed to Yangmei, which he told us via a translation app on his phone. Once there, a couple that timidly spoke a bit of English approached us after disembarking from the bus. They bought us lunch and toured us around the “ancient” town.
Ben: There was a moment when a group of eight girls wanted a picture with Kyra and me, then they all huddled around my phone to get my WeChat information.
Kyra: I was completely caught off-guard and blown away by the grounds on this mountain. The paths were all nicely paved, it was not crowded, signs were well translated, and the flora was stunning. They even had a small section with a dozen or so dinosaur sculptures!
Kyra: Have you heard stories of people visiting more remote parts of China and becoming instant celebrities? I can now attest that it is true and as soon as one person asks for a picture the floodgates open. It is a phenomenally surreal feeling having people push their kids towards you and being constantly showered with, “beautiful” or “handsome.”
Ben: As we were exploring a large park in Guangzhou, we stumbled upon an area with a park and about 10 ping pong tables. Amazed, we watched every group rally like they were in the Wimbledon of table tennis. After watching for a bit, we were invited to join in and showed off our mediocre skills as onlookers gawked and laughed.
Kyra: I love ping pong so much. Our skills were so rusty it was almost embarrassing but I was on such a high that it didn’t really matter. Most of the people playing around us were upwards of 50 years old yet easily the best players I’ve seen. Unreal.
Ben: Guangzhou is right next door to Shenzhen, which is known for its steady supply of any type of electronic or accessory to the world. Because of this, there are a few areas in the city that offer locations for factories to sell their goods wholesale. Kyra and I ventured into one of these buildings on our third day in Guangzhou and found it mesmerizing. There are thousands of tiny shops packed with anything you could ever want or need regarding cell phones or other smaller electronics. Some sold cases, cords, and screen replacements, and others Bluetooth speakers, battery packs, and hover boards. It was a challenge to buy just one case, especially for an iPhone 5s (as was Kyra’s goal), but I found that if I bought 100 nice cases the cost would be about $.46/case. We weren’t in the market, but countless foreign, mostly middle-eastern, men were buying, haggling, and discussing deals on their cell phones, probably to stock stores or websites back home. See the photo below to get a small taste (this is just one of five floors, in one of many buildings).
The Shuffle Run
Ben: I’m not sure if this is limited to China, but whenever girls need to get somewhere a bit quicker than usual, or if they want to make it look like they’re going faster, they do a shuffle run. I need to ask Hao or Li if this is typical, but I’ve seen it so many times I feel it is probably a cultural action.