By Jim

getaway to macau

There are times we seek to get away, when work or life takes us to the edge of a precipice, when the stresses or boredom of stagnant, menial days presses us to flee far from home. We seek repose in nature, leisure at a sea side resort, peace of mind on a bench in the park, or quiet in a stool at a coffee shop. When I find myself feeling Ishmael’s drizzly November stirring in my soul, I take ship as he did, but that ship sails but for one hour, from Shenzhen to Macau.

Macau wakes and rests within the water; it is a few hills of land before the start of the South China Sea. Walk its streets and feel both the European continent and a Guangdong village. There is much more than casinos here. In fact, casinos are the least interesting bit about this island. You could taste wealth, only to see it swiped away from the baccarat dealer’s hands…or you could taste succulent, suckling pig slowly roasted with perfectly crispy skin. That taste, the taste of Portugal and of Guangdong, will stay with you sempre.

There are churches here as old as baroque Europe, sidewalks designed of black and white and yellow tiles, depicting the creatures of the sea. There is port and vinho verde, and octopus in olive oil. There are neon signs of traditional chinese characters lighting up the narrow streets where small shops offer the necessities of daily life. There is dampness always in the air. Humidity that soaks you and deteriorates the buildings all around so that the sea is in everything.

In the sweltering heat of southern china, there still remains an ocean breeze that can momentarily refresh you. The sweet meats somehow stay edible in this sub-tropical clime, and their smells entice you to sample them from the local vendors. Take an almond cookie into your mouth, and feel all the saliva instantly dried up into its sweet, powdery flour. You can find the typical small diner-like restaurants familiar to Hong Kong, but also stumble upon small gems like the the Pancake House. But whatever you do, don’t walk too fast. Though the climate and many other things are shared between Hong Kong and Macau, the local residents differ greatly in at least the speed of their gait. There is shopping to do, and great wealth, but people here still remember to meander through continental streets, soaking in the history, the atmosphere, and the humidity.

And if in this slower pace you let the colours and flavors of Macau blend before you in a delicious mixture of east and west, well, perhaps it will bring you back to the simple pleasures of life. Enter early on a Sunday afternoon any Portuguese restaurant, and witness families fresh from morning mass enjoying a meal together, leisurely leaning back in their chairs. Life has been slowed down, and the everyday, relished.

new year’s stories and tea leaves

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China Tea Leaves is bringing in the year of the horse in Hangzhou, home of the beautiful West Lake. In leaving Shenzhen at this time of year, we join the millions of people who return home to be with the their families at this most special time in the Chinese calendar.

We want to encourage travel to this beautiful land; we want to bring the beauty and the mystery, even the strangeness, to the West, to bring our appreciation and love for the culture we’ve found a home in for the past year and a half. We of course want to sell our books. But today, we want to revel in the catholicity of humanity, its universal commonalities. And also in the stories that make China unique even in the midst of this universality…

She has spent the last ten evenings, after work, on the internet. This in itself is not so uncommon, but she has been going to just one site, clicking and refreshing frantically to find a ticket to return to her home province of Hubei, return to the spicy dishes, the winter snow, and most importantly her mom and dad. The trip will be 18 hours by train, plus three hours by bus. But first she must battle the millions attempting to win the same lottery. She must first get a ticket, and she can only start 20 days prior to when she will want to leave. She has 7 days off for the new year, and her company doesn’t provide vacation. Her family is counting on her to be back to bring in the new year.

It’s the eve of the new year, and after a family dinner of pasted meats, he gathers around the television set to watch the Spring Festival Gala on CCTV, an annual state sponsored extravaganza with singers, dancers, acrobats, comedians and magicians. The family counts down the new year together, while sending chat messages to friends and family that cannot be there. This year, there’s a new twist on the tradition of passing out hongbao, red envelopes filled with Lucky Money. Tencent, Shenzhen based maker of WeiXin or WeChat, now allows users of its popular social media app to send each other electronic hongbao. Simply link your bank account, enter a total amount, and send to a group of friends. Then thanks to the magic of a random number generator, those who tap on their red envelopes will get a chance amount. Each family member keeps half an eye on the television set while Sophie Marceau, the French actress croons La Vie en Rose, and tap enthusiastically on their iPhones and Samsung phablets, chatting and giving hongbao, relishing in friends near and far. Relishing in a time to relax, eat, and celebrate the family.

Some cannot make it home. She is in San Francisco, far away from her parents. As is often the case in China, she is an only child, and the loneliness of her mother and father is great. She works at a Sichuan restaurant, but she is from DongBei, the northwest of China. She cannot get the dumplings she would eat in her home city of Qingdao. So after work, she gathers with her co-workers, older women from Hong Kongese families that emigrated long ago to the United States, and younger men and women who have come to try and study in the US and start a new life that for whatever reason escapes them in China. They share hotpot, and stories, and laughs. But each of them misses fireworks, the flavours, and family of home.

She and her husband have not been to their home village for twelve months. They have not seen their only son in that same time. They have come to Guangdong province to work in the factories and send home money to their parents, who are watching over their child. When they get home, after standing for 10 hours on the train, they will fuss over him, they will dress him in a special, fur lined vest, and cry over him. He will begin to remember them again.

We stand on a balcony, two laowai, foreigners, looking out over the Hangzhou’s West Lake. It is New Year’s Day. Surrounded by Chinese families, eating snacks, drinking tea. One table is facetiming their daughter who is at school in the States. The grandfather begins singing, oblivious to the other tables. There is laughter and joy all around. We are happy to share in this great festival that so celebrates the family. We feel, despite being so far away from many that we love, at home.

To learn more about some of the Spring Festival traditions, see niangao in the south, dumplings in the north, and good fortune all over.

west lake fireworks

Falling in love in Lijiang – the old town of Shu He part 1

Shu He AlleywayThe village is small, but it’s easy to get lost in the maze of shops and stone streets. Every fourth shop is leather goods, every seventh shop carries drums and ukuleles. There is puer tea and local clothing, scarves, purses, shoes, dried yak meat, and silver jewelry. And in between the tiny shops there are cafes, restaurants and bars, and small grills offering skewers of tasty meats. Naxi women sell produce on the street. While clearly the focus of today is targeted at the tourist, you can still reminisce and envision the tea and horse road market place booming with a different kind of commerce. But whether yesterday or today, the focus is on trade.

Shop keepers still use the water that runs down from the mountains through the clever canals in the village to wash their dishes and even their produce. If you walk too far down the river, this will become a little less charming than it otherwise seems. Horses still walk the streets, but these days they are usually leading Han Chinese princesses from a far away city. Clutching a Louis Vuitton purse while dressed in rugged clothes and tights, they are ready for a half-day’s journey.

It is a simpler way of life – not to be idealized, for the shop keepers often keep 12 hour days – but the pace is definitely slower, the smiles more frequent, and the air open and clean. There are artists who have come to live here – to eek out a living or while away the days. Sometimes you’ll walk by and the person running the shop is watching the latest drama on their smartphone, but in other shops, especially the ones selling the drums, the shop keepers turn on local Naxi music, and play along with it on their merchandise. The simple melody of a flute and the accompanying drum brings a sturdy, steady pace to life.

Part of a continuing series on Yunnan and Lijiang – see here for the previous post.

falling in love with yunnan

Yunnan. Some people who come here never go back to their old way of life. Some fall in love. In a place where the clouds are just beyond reach and eternal spring greets you every morning, you may just realise you don’t want to go back home.

Utopias, as we are told, either do not exist, or are shortlived. I recently made a trip to the old town of Lijiang, one of the most popular tourists spots in northern Yunnan province. It is not the place it used to be. That’s what I had been told. The forces of globalization as well as the catering to more regional tourists have caused both a sprouting of western fast food outlets and late night KTVs respectively. You can still meander down a narrow street in Lijiang Ancient Town and feel its charm, but you can also quickly tire of the crowds and the commercialisation.

Shu He
Shu He Old Town

Nearby villages Shu He and Bai Sha however, do allow you to peel back the years and find a bit of that tranquility you may be searching for. A slower pace of life unfolds here beneath the watchful gaze of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and Yunnan’s beautiful blue skies. Stone streets, courtyard kezhan (inns), and the customs and culture of the Naxi people delight and de-stress you.

Yunnan calls the weary workers of the world, the midnight toilers and desk dwellers, to a different way of life. If not a utopia, it is an oasis. Here at China Tea Leaves, we’re starting a series over the next several weeks hoping to bring a bit of Lijiang, Yunnan province to you. In the meantime, see how Dali, another town in Yunnan is calling to Chinese urbanites. (Please note, the link takes you to nytimes.com – and may not be accessible in your region).

Don’t forget to check out our travel guides, more coming soon.

tasty, spicy duck parts

photo (1)For those of you who have traveled to or lived in San Francisco, you may have run into a little gourmand shop amidst several gourmand shops in the popular Ferry Building that proffers tasty, salted pig parts. This tantalizing tagline is meant to provide a bit of shock at the victuals you’ll be purchasing while still comforting you with a reminder of that most beloved of pork products, bacon.

But pig parts are not truly shocking to western sensibilities. You want to shock someone – how about duck parts? While you may avert your eyes and tongues at such treats, they are much loved snacks in China. And at least this westerner highly recommends giving them a try.

The pictured items are a specialty of the city of Wuhan in Hubei province. They are coated and cooked in a marinade that includes star anise, chili peppers, soy sauce, and the popular spice found in much Sichuan cuisine: huajiao – flower pepper literally, known as prickly ash or Sichuan peppercorn in English.

The western mouth may struggle at first to wrap its tongue and teeth around duck tongues, duck necks, duck clavicles and duck wings, but soon it will be seeking out the mouth numbing seasonings and tantalizing textures. In Chinese cuisine, texture and mouth feel are prized parts of the eating experience – as important as flavour and appearance.

Different parts of China specialise in different duck snacks – you can find a sweeter alternative to the spicy duck tongue of Hubei in Hangzhou of Zhejiang province. Duck hearts and whole roasted ducks (amongst other parts) are famously available in Beijing with quite different flavourings from Hubei or Zhejiang.

So don’t let your western tongue be frightened – tasty, spicy duck parts should be on every foodie’s list. See some more about the variety of Chinese snacks here.

 

beautiful, interactive travel guides for the price of a latte

logo stamp strokeTo celebrate the launch of our travel guides, we’re offering an introductory price of $4.99. That’s about half the price of a typical city guide from those other guys – and we’re far more interactive and entertaining. We’re available in 51 countries on iBooks. Click the covers below to be directed to the US Store or find China Tea Leaves on iBooks directly from your iPad.

Our Hangzhou guide has been listed by Apple as New and Notable on iBooks!

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Visit the mesmerizing West Lake in Hangzhou, see modern and ancient China all at once in Shanghai, and meet and greet some giant pandas in laid-back Chengdu. Visit China just once and you’ll want to see more.


At China Tea Leaves, we’re trying to open up a little bit of China to the world – in its puzzles and its charms, to show in colour, story, picture and poem a sense of China that you can’t get from a black and white text. See what makes China Tea Leaves travel guides unique and read more here.

We’re just back from Beijing – and we’ll be sharing pictures and stories of our trip there soon. New books will be coming in the following months – Xi’an, Beijing, Hong Kong, Macau, and Shenzhen!

 

Chengdu = More pandas

pandastats

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Chengdu, the capital of China’s spicy Sichuan province is the hometown of the giant panda. The research center in Chengdu has 83 pandas, most of them on view to the public. It’s important to get here early and catch the panda’s bamboo breakfast.

While pandas are by far the cutest thing you’ll see in Chengdu, the city has a lot to offer the tourist. Its laid back lifestyle, beautiful parks, and delectable food treat you to a life of the senses. Historic sites abound – Taoist temples and sacred mountains, green tea fields on the Buddhist Mount Emei, and the residences of famous poets.

Visit Chengdu, see the Panda Research Center’s web cam here, and learn more about Chengdu by reading the China Tea Leaves Chengdu travel guide – offering beautiful pictures, advice, and interactive maps on this beautiful city. Available on iBooks for your iPad or Mac.

To learn what makes China Tea Leaves travel guides unique, watch this introductory video.

the china tea leaves difference

China Tea Leaves travel guides are available exclusively on iBooks.


 

china tea leaves now available on iBooks!

Download for your iPad or iPad mini today! At China Tea Leaves, we’re trying to open up a little bit of China to the world – in its puzzles and its charms, to show in colour, story, picture and poem a sense of China that you can’t get from a black and white text.  Click the cover below to access a direct link (for the US) or search for China Tea Leaves directly on your iPad. Available in 51 countries on iBooks!

hangzhouFinalThumb   shanghaiFinalThumb   chengduFinalThumb

Visit the mesmerizing West Lake in Hangzhou, see modern and ancient China all at once in Shanghai, and meet and greet some giant pandas in laid-back Chengdu. Come to China just once and you’ll want to see more.


 

Pandacam blues? Get your panda fix in Chengdu

pandacropThe US government shutdown has had an unfortunate casualty – the National Zoo’s much loved Pandacam has gone dark. Panda lovers – never fear – you can catch up on all the panda action at the Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in Chengdu.

Since China does nothing in a small way – here you will have the benefit of 28 cameras in 5 different locations! All panda action, all the time.

And if you’re already in China,  you can turn on a new television channel dedicated to 24/7 coverage of these leisurely animals. Eating, sleeping, eating some more…they truly live up to the literal translation of their Chinese name 大熊猫 daxiongmao or “giant bear cat.”

You can read all about pandas, visiting the research base, and the other enticements of Chengdu in China Tea Leaves Chengdu travel guide – coming very soon to the iBooks Store.