When we arrived to the quaint little town of Yangshou, China, we were faced head-on with Chinese culture and small town life. Experiencing markets that sell live animals and dog meat, learning how to dodge traffic like we were characters in “frogger,” and enjoying a home cooked meal with a Chinese family…. Yea, this was our life for the one week we stayed in Yangshou. But what a great learning and cultural experience it was!
Yangshou is a town just one hour south of a much larger and more well-known city, Guilin. Ahead of time, I had read a comment on one forum that a woman had written: “Just skip Guilin and go directly to Yangshou.” Hmmm… I considered that, but still wanted to give Guilin a chance. So we stayed for a few days in Guilin, weren’t really impressed, and then meanwhile got “stuck” a few extra days there due to our stomach sicknesses.
But I have to say, I agreed with that comment… We should have just gone directly to Yangshou.
What a cute little town Yangshou was! It was a colorful and bustling little town, full of culture and surrounded by some of the most unique and beautiful green rolling mountains I’ve ever seen! I’ve really never seen anything like those mountains, they seemed almost magical and fairy-tale like.
The hostel we stayed at was more like a hotel: clean, private bedroom, TV, water boiler pitcher, and typical “stinky Chinese bathroom,” and the owner, Hamson, could speak decent English and was very kind and helpful. Our first night at the hostel, Hamson invited us to dinner with his family in the hostel common room, and we enjoyed chicken soup with chicken bones and feet, a whole fish with bones, and a very spicy tomato side dish that we mixed with rice. There were also some cabbage leaves on the side, and James and I got nervous at first, since we know we shouldn’t eat any raw veggies because it’s a food poisoning risk in China… But soon enough, the cabbage went right into the soup to boil. Um… OK? We eat lettuce and cabbage raw in salads in the US, but they boil it instead here. Different.
The dinner was pretty good overall, and the experience with family even better, but I spent the majority of the meal trying to cool off my mouth from the spiciness, and was constantly pulling fish bones out of my mouth. I looked around the table to get some kind of cue to what the appropriate manner was to do this, and it seemed it was OK to use your fingers to pull the bones out. By the way, in case you’ve never eaten from a whole fish: my goodness, there are A LOT OF BONES!!
Two things to know about the Chinese and their food: 1. They believe the most flavorful part of the meat is closest to the bones, so almost any meat you order comes with small pieces of bone with the meat. Chicken, fish, pork: all the same! Same with chicken feet… and James was actually brave enough to try one! 2. The Chinese like their food SPICY!! Tell them “no spice” and they’ll look at you like you’re crazy, and put “a little” in anyway, which is still incredibly spicy to us. Funny…
The hostel had a small kitchen we were able to use, so we set out to find food to cook. But we quickly realized this would be harder than we thought. Stores labeled as “supermarkets” had only dry, unrefrigerated foods in plastic and boxes… And the items available were mostly weird processed meats in plastic, instant ramen noodle bowls (yes, like the stuff you may have eaten in college), potato chips, and candy. In China, you won’t really find cheese, lunch meat, bread, butter, REAL milk, or refrigerated eggs, so that makes cooking a bit tough. In addition, because the water there isn’t safe for drinking, you also need to be careful with fruits and veggies (which may have been washed with contaminated tap water) which means you should NOT eat anything you can’t peel or boil. Yikes.
Well, fortunately we finally DID find a local market that sold fruits, veggies, and meat. The veggies were fine: I could just chop them up and boil or throw them into a stir fry. The meat, however, was a totally different story. Here at this market–with the exception of pork and beef–you bought your meat ALIVE. Chickens, ducks, geese, rabbits… EVEN cats and dogs (to our horror!!!) were sadly sitting in cages, just waiting to be butchered and sold to the next customer. Um… No thanks.
After a few meatless and proteinless days of potatoes, veggies, and fruit, we got brave and went back to the market to buy a live fish! And yes… We chose a live fish in a tank and the woman actually killed it in front of us and handed it to us in a bag. Wow. Not for the faint of heart, that’s for sure! [To see a video of us buying the fish, click here.] We spent hours on the internet reading and watching videos about how to fillet a fish, and James had watched fishermen do it in front of him in the past, so this should be easy, right?
Hah… Yea, exactly the opposite!! What a funny and frustrating experience, we must have looked totally ridiculous… Long story short: we chose a fish too small to filet and we had a crappy knife that was too dull, and after an hour or longer, and after going through the damn fish meat a billion times trying to remove all the teeny tiny bones, we were left with just a small amount of meat that we ended up cooking like ground meat! SIGH! Oh well, it was an experience for us both and we are still laughing about the whole ordeal.
Around Yangshou, there were tons of (mostly) motorbikes on the roads, plus some cars and buses, and you quickly needed to learn the technique and heirarchy of traffic flow to get across the street. As long as you crossed the road CONFIDENTLY and avoided cars and bikes, you’d be just fine. Hesitate for a moment or show any sign of “weakness” or uncertainty and you’ll probably get run over!
This idea of confidence and hierarchy also applies to driving ON the road… We rented bicycles a few days in Yangshou and realized you need to have confidence when driving, but also yield to all other vehicles if you’re on a bike. Buses are at the highest “tier” in the hierarchy, and everybody gets OUT of their way. Then next comes trucks, then cars, motorbikes, bicycles, and then pedestrians. However, some VERY confident pedestrians (sometimes even mothers carrying children) can stop fast moving traffic at times.
Despite the fact this sounds incredibly chaotic, our absolute favorite memories in Yangshou were bicycling and being in the middle of it all! We cycled for two days in the wilderness outside the city, around the lush green mountains, through tiny run-down villages, and next to a small river through the city. [To see a video of us biking through the amazing Yangshou mountains with crazy countryside traffic, click here.] The views were completely unreal, and we kept reminding each other to take mental snapshots of what we were seeing and feeling as we coasted along through the amazingness of Yangshou’s countryside, because even photos couldn’t capture the beauty of it all!
Overall, even though we were a bit uncomfortable in our skin in the beginning as we were thrust upon the culture shock of a small Chinese city, Yangshou has left us with so many wonderful, eye-opening, and funny memories of our time there together. And it also prepared us for the weeks ahead in other Chinese and Southeast Asian towns as well, as this was only the beginning!!
To see photos from our adventures in Yangshou, China, click here.
To see more videos of our adventures around the world, click here.