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Asia, Destinations

Absorbing the culture of Xizhou

November 25, 2014 • By

Today, I ate to my hearts content. Chef Pang created some culinary magic at Linden Center and I provided the assist. Fearful of my lack of kitchen skills and the nearest decent hospital a plane ride away, I sliced and diced eggplant and peppers and then handed over the meat clever looking contraption (knife?) to the chef when my imagination got the best of me. I donned an apron and paid attention to the chopping but I promised myself no injuries on this trip. The next step proved to be even more challenging. When the chef loaded a wok with half of bottle of oil and the flames shot a foot in the air, I stepped aside and allowed the master to create.

First, he crisped the mint. Next, he bathed the meat in oil and put it aside. Then, he poured out half of the oil in the wok and added the eggplant, which rapidly soaked it up. Lastly, he took the rice noodles and threw them in the wok for a few minutes and added water and then mixed in the cabbage and tomatoes. As far as ingredients, he used several tablespoons of garlic, salt and red pepper specs and a dash of pickles.

Making tie-dye knots

Making tie-dye knots

With the meal hot and ready for tasting, he presented me with three dishes that potentially could feed five people: Cured beef with mint, eggplant and red peppers cabbage and tomatoes with rice noodles all sans onions for a real treat. I powered through a 1/4 of each dish before my stomach revolted and my mind finally transmitted the do not eat anymore sensor. The mint tasted liked crispy kale; the beef I couldn’t get into and the eggplant would probably have been delicious if I had not seen all the oil it absorbed. I most appreciate the simple meals and the rice noodle with cabbage and tomato proved the winner. I dismissed myself from the feeding frenzy and darted to the terrace for an afternoon nap in the sun.

When I travel, I prefer to participate in activities where I can learn about the local culture whenever possible. It’s the best way to truly uncover the local customs and way of life. Today my friends from the hotel joined me for a visit with a Bai family known for making tie-dye pillows, tablecloths, wall hangings and scarves. Cecelly and Elmer are both age 24 and assist the guests with tours and join to help with translation where needed. The three of us sat at a small table with the older daughter of the home and her three-year-old daughter and scrutinized various designs before we selected our patterns.

Never one to claim any domestic ability other than cleaning, I required help simply threading the needle to begin. We stitched for about an hour when the daughter of the family hijacked my creation and said something in Mandarin like, “you’ve done as much as you can do” and reworked some complicated knots and we readied for the dying portion of the day. The grandfather concocted a dye of flowers and he heated up a wok type pan and added the liquid. Foolishly, I complained about the flies for a good two hours before I put two and two together. Flowers + Fragrance + heat = flies! After some swishing in the wok, my butterfly tie-dye was born in my favorite color blue. While my handkerchief work of art took a mere two hours, the ladies of this house (aunts, grandmas etc.) spend about four hours a day each day making various garments. An 8×10 tablecloth takes about two weeks depending on the intricacy of the design, number of knots color scheme. The more knots the more time.

Cecelly and Elmer both attended university far away from home and neither returned after graduation even though their parents paid the tuition. Elmer is from the north near the Russian border and is an only child. When I asked him who would take care of his parents when they turned older, he explained that his cousins could provide that service. I perceived somewhat inaccurately that in the Chinese culture children provided for their parents and that the culture honored the elderly. That is not necessary accurate as children in this generation are exposed to more and move away for more experiences and opportunities. Elmer plans to attend an international masters program in Germany in January and it’s my prediction, if given the opportunity, he will not return to China. He desires to see the world and is serious about research and study. Whenever I asked him a complicated question, he armed himself with answers upon our next meeting.

Cecelly is from a more rural area in the south of China. She speaks English as if she lived in the states. Her story is interesting. She was raised by one set of grandparents and her sister the other as her parents went off to work in the city. She described how many families are torn apart like this in China because many people are migrant workers and she wants more for herself. She also has a brother but he accompanied the parents. The family seldom reunited unless on national holidays. Cecelly plans to remain in Dali working for another year and may follow Elmer’s lead and head to Germany for a masters program.

They both explained how they feel pressured by their parents to get married. Elmer prefers to experience as much as he can and may marry around age 30 and Cecelly is certainly in no rush. She hopes to marry a non-Chinese man and aspires to live abroad so she is saving money for her journey. I enjoyed their company. It’s clear they are hardworking, smart and driven young Chinese people. They opened their hearts to me and I appreciated their willingness to share. I especially respected Cecelly because she thought it was fine I wasn’t married!

Nothing says physically fit like a decent hike. Along with a fellow American, Cecelly and Elmer, we hiked Mt. Cangshan (foothills of the Himalayas) through the tea plantations of Dali. It’s the end of tea season so our hiked involved pure exercise and scenery but the heart palpitations due to the altitude made the views all the more worth it when we reached the top. I kindly reminded Cecelly and Elmer who bolted ahead that they too would be 40 one day.


The ranges in this area are about 11,000-13,000 feet and the mountains are known for Azalea flowers, smooth marble and tea. The Bai people are avid tea drinkers and the tea ceremony is a common event at festivals and marriages. There are three courses: a plain tea cooked in a clay pot with loose tea leaves, a sweat tea where brown sugar is added and a third type mixed with honey. I found the leafy tea to well taste like trees, the ginger tea with brown sugar divine and the honey tea to be a bit syrupy.

After a two-hour hike, I gladly accepted my last meal in Dali (Yunnan) with new found friends. We feasted on ginger chicken, ginger tofu, veggies and tea with vistas of Dali and Lake Ehrai with the mountains embracing us in the sunshine. We opted for the cable car to return giving way to breathtaking views all the way down.

As I leave this very beautiful region, it warrants saying that THIS is the real China I came to see and it’s slowly disappearing. Just like in our own countries traditions are fading and the demand for new outweighs the preservation of art, language, culture and tradition.   This presents certain sadness. To visit Yunnan is one thing; but to experience the culture and discover the heart of the people is quite another.

I’m off for Xi’an in the North and the home of the Terra Cotta Warriors.  I’ve been warned it’s cold, colder and coldest and I need to brace myself for the pollution. Sounds like I’m leaving paradise for the 1920s in New York City. I’ve sampled brown wine and it’s decent maybe even good. It may be the secret to surviving the next three weeks or it could very well be “Made In China” for the assist.

On a side note, I must be the only one with weird airplane issues but the flight attendant buckled in my book and scarf laying harmlessly on the seat next to me.  Go figure!

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Asia, Destinations

A day in Xizhou

November 24, 2014 • By

In the mornings, the weather is fresh yet crisp and I bundle up in layers before the sunshine takes hold of the day and I dare say the temperature turns warm. Today, I celebrated many firsts. I gorged myself on my first omlette since leaving the states, I survived the fresh meat and produce market without vomiting, I met with two local farming families and I devoured local street food.



The first family I visited with produces cheese. They have two cows and each morning the cows are milked to supply enough cheese for the entire village. A young woman churns the milk for about 10 minutes before stringing it along two polls of bamboo where it will dry for 24 hours. When offered the raw cheese, I hesitated for a moment but feeling quite fearless, I tasted it. My first bite tasted like a very bland mozzarella but then a prodding man motioned for me to dip it into white sugar. I actually preferred it plain but I do see why one might need the sugar. The 24-hour aged cheese I sampled tasted like biting into a hard piece of wax and required multiple chews to swallow. Perhaps I am missing something but even five bites later, I couldn’t quite determine what I was eating. Cheese is not something Chinese normally consume but in this area where there is a significant Muslim population cheese is more prevalent.

The architecture in this area is representative of the Bai people. Their homes consist of three buildings forming a U and a fourth wall acts as a screen depicting various religious influences. The middle courtyard is open and the home is build of traditional stone and wood. The wealthier people may have several courtyards and the home may occupy two to three floors. The cheese making family lives in a two-story, one courtyard home split by two brothers who no longer speak. Can you imagine the looks they must give each other when passing through the open areas? The Bai homes utilize typical Chinese architecture as it relates to this region.

The other family I had an opportunity to meet produces rice biscuits, noodles and other products. The raw rice is steamed, placed into some sort of suction machine where a type of sticky dough is created. From there, it is thinned into two feet sheets and dried on racks. Nine people worked on this process taking about 15 minutes from start to finish. I took a mouthful of the processed rice dough and tasted it. Again, my taste buds did not awaken.

The people in this area are farmers and fisherman. In the rainy summer season, rice, tobacco and corn are harvested and in the winter varieties of lettuce, garlic and scallions. I took a bike ride along Lake Ehrai to check out the various farms and to catch a glimpse of the fisherman in action. “Ehrai” means Ear Shaped Lake and it’s sandwiched between the mountains and the city of Dali.

My bike ride took me along the lake and through many small villages each emphasizing an individual identity. Several farmers worked the fields and some fisherman lounged in their boats taking a nap in the sunshine, while others busied themselves with nets. In this area, trained cormorants (type of bird) catch the fish and bring them back to the fishmongers. The birds do not swallow the fish because they are fixed with a ring around their neck. It’s fascinating.  The rustic and fall colored trees decorated the water’s shoreline and I enjoyed a sense of peacefulness as I watched nature do its thing.


After tolerating lots of Chinese tourists waving H-E-Y -L-O and smiling at me, I decided I didn’t want to venture farther and risk being lost. I huffed it back to Xizhou and into town for lunch. I earned a decent meal after a four hour bike ride and this time I was ready.  On my tour, I learned the lard looking yellow blocks on the food stands are actually noodles (my mistake) and the white noodle bowl dish with red specs I guessed to be inedible is actually a house favorite noodle, pickle, radish combination dish.  I really wanted to try something with noodles but the locals serve it cold and I thought I needed hot to ward of the germs.  I took a deep breath, rounded the main street and focused my attention on the coal burning “pizzas.”  Armed with my nose, I started smelling each ingredient (no one speaks English and they humored me) and I made an impulsive purchase before I could give it further thought.  It’s called Ba Ba and it’s a pizza like dish filled with a thick prune sauce. The more popular version of Ba Ba is filled with lard, pork and scallions and for obviously reasons I skipped it.  I confess.  It was delicious and I inhaled half of it before considering the dinner I would also be eating in less than three hours.

Finally, I thought you might like to know about the amazing couple who founded Linden Center where I am staying in Xizhou. It took them several years working with the Chinese government to be granted permission to renovate and preserve this national relic once owned by a wealthy family. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the incredible hospitality of the English speaking staff.  The “home” itself welcomes a weary traveler.  I’ve occupied the roof terrace for reading in the afternoon and the bar for ginger tea drinking at night.  Their beds are soft, the water warm and the food appetizing.

Here is their story:

Inspired by years of collecting antiques and contemporary artwork in China, Wisconsin residents Brian (he is from Jefferson Park, Chicago) and Jeanee Linden moved directly to the source and opened the Linden Centre in the southern province of Yunnan. Using a restored inn as a base, they’ve created a series of programs to introduce travelers to the region’s art, architecture, culture, and food. Guests at the restored historic mansion can participate in 10-day to three-week-long painting, writing, and culinary-arts programs, attend a local wedding, or even help carry sedan chairs during a temple celebration. The Linden Centre has helped persuade skeptical officials of the importance of preserving the heritage of China’s rural areas, and the owners are now adapting their model for two more historic buildings in Yunnan.

*As an added note, their oldest son is a freshman and UW-Madison for my big 10 and UW fans.

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