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March, 2013

This one time I was the first foreigner in a restaurant.

I can’t tell you where I was. I mean, I was somewhere in the Qinghai Province of China. It borders Tibet and is an area that isn’t quite developing along with the rest of China. People farming without tools and living in huts within large expanses of land unused and uninhabited. It’s home to China’s largest lake and huge mountain ranges, but in other areas has endless views of the brown high desert.

One day we were cycling through a rather unattractive area. If you were in a car you could have stepped on the gas without turning your wheel for probably an hour and never leave the road or see another car. In the distance, we could see what looked like a city approaching but as we got closer realized it was just some industrial smokestacks. However, it was lunchtime and we were hungry so assumed there must be something to eat in the area and pressed on. After exiting the main road we made our way toward the bottom of the smokestacks along a bumpy dirt road. Large empty salt puddles, crusted in white, were being ran over by semi-trucks full of what we later found out were the output of the potassium mine.

The small row of ancient and blackened shops that lined the street were only there to supply the mine workers with somewhere to go. I don’t think anyone lived here. But luckily there was a restaurant so we walked in and sat down. The cheerful man recommended some of his favorite dishes and our table proceeded to order lunch while, as usual, I glazed over with all the Chinese speaking. The food was surprisingly good and the place itself actually had quite a bit of charm considering the surroundings.

After we finished, a conversation had started between the owner and someone in my group in Chinese and suddenly I was told that I was the first Lao Wai (foreigner, or white person) to ever eat in the restaurant. We proceeded to take some photos together and laugh without understanding what each other was saying. I’m pretty sure I deserve to be framed on the wall as I can guarantee there will never be another foreigner ever to visit that place.

This one time our truck got stuck in the Laos jungle.

Day 1 in Laos and we woke up to gray skies and rain. We were departing for three days in the jungles of Laos to sleep in treehouses, zip line 200+ meters across deep canyons, and catch a glimpse of the famed Gibbon primate. But first, we had to get there.

Not knowing how far the drive was, our group jumped in the back of two small pickups. Throughout the journey, the landscape and villages got more and more isolated. Rolling hills turned in to densely covered mountains and acceptable towns turned in to third world villages complete with wood huts and no electricity.

Still having no idea how much further we had to go, we took an abrubt left turn onto a dirt road and immediately started crossing a river…with no bridge! Our truck just drove directly into the quick, deep brown river with water over the tires and before we got over the shock of what was happening, we had made it across.

We proceeded for a couple more hours climbing steep, muddy hills and sliding down and around the curves. During the most serious uphill section, the truck quickly slowed down and within seconds found that we were also sinking. We had no chance to get up the slope at all. We weren’t going to make it to the treehouses and the zip lines and the monkeys. And at this point, there was no chance that we were going to be able to drive miles back to the main road.

We all piled out of the vehicle and at first the driver tried to get the truck up the hill on his own, but he couldn’t. Determined to keep moving forward, we all spent the next 30 minutes pushing the two trucks up the hill, just so we could literally slide down the other side. We did make it to our destination in the end. Some day I’ll write about it.

Climbing Mount Kerinci, Indonesia

At 3,805 meters (or 12,484 feet), Mount Kerinchi is Indonesia’s highest volcano. Located on the island of Sumatra, it is surrounded by a lush national park which is still home to a few endangered species. At it’s base, you’ll find a rough yet charming town surrounded by dirt roads and tea plantations. At the top, you’ll find a dangerously steep crater filled with smoking lava and the strong smell of sulfur. What else could you ask for when looking for your next adventure from Singapore?

The Town

The small town of Kersik Tuo, a 6 hour drive from Padang, lies at the base of the mountain. The only tourists you’ll find here will be climbing the mountain, and we only saw a couple other groups during our 3 days. What you will find are friendly people living their daily lives. You’ll find kids running through the streets or playing in the fields. And if you happen to go during Ramadan (like me), you’ll find a lack of places to find a meal.

The Hike Up


The day started with a quick drive to the trailhead, and the trail got steep very quickly. The benefit of the elevation gain is that the air got even cooler, but the mountain threw additional challenges on us as we climbed. Before we knew it, we were using rocks and roots to hoist us through narrow gully’s and steep sections of the trail. I would later find my arms and shoulders far more sore than my legs from all the upper body work! We waited until we cleared the trees to find camp, which was especially impressive considering we were looking down at the clouds below.

The Summit


We started the summit trek around 3am the following morning. The purpose is to reach the summit before sunrise, which was completely worth it despite the cold and tired darkness. As the sun approached the horizon, we found ourselves looking down at a number of small volcano peaks and mountain lakes. We also found that the bottom of the crater was spotted with red lava! The crater was smoking and it was so steep that one wrong step could have ended very badly. Not only was the sunrise itself spectacular, but it also created a perfect pyramid shadow of the mountain on the opposite side.

The Hike Down


The hike down was much faster and much more fun. I like to call this bit rock skiing; the rock is so small and loose all you need to do is take giant leaps and you slide most of the way down. The problem is that if you needed to stop, well, you can’t. We got back to camp for a hearty breakfast and then hiked the entire way down to town. It was a long day and we were hungry…

The Random Meal

The problem was that it was currently the Muslim holiday Ramadan, which means everyone fasts from sunrise to sunset. When the sun does set, family and friends get together to celebrate their feast. What this meant for us is that we couldn’t find anywhere to eat. We roamed the streets sidetracked with a number of photo opportunities, but eventually we must have looked hungry because a random woman came out to greet us and invited us in her home. We sat on her floor, with what looked like the sheriff of town, and she proceeded to feed us many dishes of food that we didn’t know or recognize. We considered the fact that she was giving us drinks with ice and food that came from, well I don’t know where it came from, but we ate it all anyway. Including an eye-watering spicy dish with some kind of meat that we couldn’t figure out even after we tried to ask. One of the best and more unique experiences I’ve had in Asia.

Our Guide

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What Brian Ate In… Xi’an, China

A lot of things surprised me about Xian’s cuisine, which never failed to disappoint throughout my week in China’s Shaanxi Province. I think I went the first few days without having any rice at all! Xian people love their noodles and doughs, and this was very apparent as I tried as much food as possible. The other amazing thing is that great food is cheap. If you ever make a trip to Xi’an, make sure you try some of my favorites:

1. Rou Jia Mo, meat sandwich

For those of you that know me well, you shouldn’t be surprised that one of my favorites was the Chinese equivalent of a hamburger. In fact, you could argue that the American hamburger is the equivalent of Rou Jia Mo considering the fact that it dates back to many years BC. The meat, which I think is usually pork, is stewed for hours in many spices and then shredded. If you find a good one, it will be served in a freshly toasted slice of flatbread and literally melts in your mouth. I had at least one of these a day.

2. Kou Rou, BBQ

Xi’an is filled with just about anything you can imagine roasting on a stick. Meat, animals parts, vegetables, tofu, you can find it all. One evening I was led by some friends down a random alley in the middle of the Muslim Quarter, in fact I don’t think I could find it again if I tried. The ally ended with a small restaurant with a few tables and women walking around with handfuls of things on sticks. We told them how much we wanted and kept the sticks on the table, then at the end we were charged for each stick.

3. Mian Mian Mian, noodles, noodles, noodles

It’s simple, I love noodles. And since noodles are such a staple in Xi’an, there is no shortage of different noodle dishes. From cold noodle dishes sold on the street, to hand pulled noodles by an old auntie, to noodles that are literally many meters long, you can get just about anything. My favorite was a busy place introduced to me by some locals. The noodles came in a big bowl along with many small side dishes that you added to the large bowl also filled with spicy soup. You could even order extra side dishes to refill!

4. Bing Feng, Ice Peak Soda

Bing Feng, directly translated as Ice Peak, is an orange soda made and bottled in Xi’an. In fact, I haven’t seen it anywhere else in my China travels. Think orange Fanta, but really cool because it’s made locally.

5. Yang Rou Pao Mo, Lamb Stew with Breadcrumbs

This is a truly traditional meal that many people told me I must try. Several places in the Muslim Quarter serve it well, so I walked in to a random stall and ordered a bowl. I was first served with a bowl filled with bread, so I slowly started pulling it apart into small pieces (I was also told it was very important to get them as small as you can). I assumed they would bring me the stew when it was ready, but in reality they were waiting for me to finish crumbing the bread! So about 30 minutes later when my perfectionist tendencies were content, they finally served me the lamb stew. I topped it with my finely crumbed bread and dug in.

Exploring Yunnan, China


China has become an endless, uncheckable box for me. The more I visit, the more I hear about another amazing place I need to see. Yunnan was my most recent destination and it most certainly did not disappoint. Here are the highlights of my 5 days in Yunnan.

Er Hai Lake & Jin Suo Island

After spending a quick night in Kunming, we took a (very cold and unheated) bus ride to a giant lake called Er Hai. We had booked a hotel on the south edge of the island, and since it was off-season the boat wouldn’t take us directly to our place which required us to drag our bags along a dirt trail through the town to our guesthouse. Everything about this island is exactly what you want to find when traveling. There are no cars. Twisting walkways and sidewalks wind through the small village and quickly lead you to the shorelines and forest that surround. Food consists of the catch of the day along with locally grown vegetables which included tree bark and clear bulbs from a water plant. It really is a place that time has forgotten, and of course the views and surroundings are something that can’t be missed.

Dali

Directly across the lake from the island is the ancient town of Dali, a place that seems to be popular with Chinese hippies. We spent the afternoon roaming through the streets, visiting shops, watching artists and of course eating as much as we could. Cured and dried pig leg and local sausage were among many of the specialties that we had.

Li Jiang

Although Li Jiang is a bit more touristy than the previous two spots, it is also the most spectacular. It’s main streets are crowded with people and fairly ambiguous shopfronts, but it is truly easy to escape all of that by wandering down the less popular paths. The old town is built around a large hill that rises above and provides amazing view of the town below along with Snow Mountain towering above at nearly 6000 meters (18,000 feet). We easily spent 2 days roaming the streets, hills and town taking pictures and getting lost. This is also where I rang in the 2013 new year. One thing to keep in mind is that the city ordinance that requires bars to close at 11:30pm each night exists even on December 31st! However, if you meet the right people they will show you some places behind the scenes that stay open.

The Tibetan Trail and Lashi Lake by Horseback

One of the many tours you can take from Li Jiang is a trip to Lashi lake. Here, you can hop on the back of the horse and get a taste of what people did years ago when traveling to Tibet. We chose the “difficult” route which takes you up and down a mountain through small villages, burial grounds and forests near the lake. I had never actually ridden a horse before and thought it was a pretty good experience! We stopped in one of the villages for lunch and some tea tasting made locally. Although this is part of the “tour” it was actually really good. One of our group members asked if it would be possible to live in the village, but we were told outsiders are not welcome as it is truly a self-sustained community meaning everyone shares their goods and services among the other villagers. We then took a boat ride on the lake which seemed shallow due to high growing plants but in reality was several meters deep. The surroundings make for a nice afternoon outside of the city.