During our last winter evening in Lijiang this year, my family ventured into a coffee bar in the olden city. Dim lights, acoustic guitar and just enough warmth to be comfortable. We ordered something titled “Eternal Beauty Tea” in English and after a long wait, a very unassuming tea pot was delivered to our table.
The moment I tasted it, I immediately opened the lid of the pot. There it was: a melody of snow white fungus, boiled pears, dates and various herbs.
Not a single tea leaf.
It’s not tea. It’s a dessert soup with great warming and throat soothing qualities. One sip and you’ll taste the spiced blend of poached pear mixed with the sweetness of white fungus soaked in rock sugar.
The dates add a dimension of tartness but the tastes are all blended so well that it trumps all other winter drinks. It’s sweet and terribly addicting.
Here’s the recipe:
Two pears (I used Bosc, but any would do)
Three clumps of white fungus
1/4 cup of dried lotus seeds
One tablespoon of rock sugar (adjust sweetness to your liking)
Five cups of water
1. Soak the white fungus and dried lotus seeds in hot water for 20 minutes.
2. Cut the pears into cubes
3. Separate the white fungus into smaller pieces. Toss out any yellowing parts or hard sections.
3. Boil water in a slow cooker
4. Once water is boiling, add pears, then white fungus. Add lotus seeds and turn the cooker to high.
5. Wait 30 minutes then add dates.
6. Wait another hour and add sugar to your liking.
You want to soak the white fungus and dried lotus seeds in hot water first because when you buy them, they’re dehydrated. The hot water will allow the fungus and seeds to soften and open up.
This dessert soup takes a while to make because you want the white fungus to “烂,” which means, to decompose and get softer. A slow cooker is ideal but if you don’t have one, you can do this all over a fire.
Don’t add the dates in too early or else the soup will become too sour. The key is to get it to a mild sweetness.
Everything in this dessert soup is edible. So while others prefer just to drink the soup, you can eat the all the ingredients. I personally love munching on the fungus.
“Thought severing. When you go into a loop a repeat loop — it’s just bam. Stop it.”
There’s a weird phenomenon that happens when people feel sorry for you. You get a lot of advice. Friends, family, colleagues, bartenders, editors. This was from an editor.
On chat, I agreed with her wholeheartedly. In my mind, I had no idea what she was talking about.
We were sitting in a cafe inside the ancient city of Shuhe in Lijiang. A man was strumming on his guitar, belting out ballads. My mom ordered a cup of Yunnan coffee for the three of us and a cheesecake to share. I didn’t talk much. Everything reminded me of the past. The cutesy coffee shops of Lijiang was eerily similar to the ones I spent my summer with him in at Gulangyu.
The winding cobblestone streets and shops, the exotic food vendors. These were all too familiar.
Like in Thailand, I dragged myself through the experiences. We toured the mountain range via ponies, sat through a Naxi tea ceremony and ate fried fish off of a river boat. There was even a museum of food-shaped stones, which, in normal circumstances would have delighted me. But in actuality, I snapped a couple of photos and was done with it.
The thoughts replayed in my head over and over again. The conversations, the last time I saw him, the emails he never responded to. The begging, the crying, the screaming. (Unfortunately, it was all very dramatic.) I got headaches because of the continuous loops. At my worst, I’d wake up in the middle of the night screaming. After a while, the only time I had relief from it all was in my dreams. Even my subconscious was getting sick of thinking of my ex. I had glimpses of relief, moments where I was actually happy and not pretending, but it would all crumble by the end of the day.
My parents would sigh in annoyance when they saw me tear up. And though she didn’t say it, I could tell my best friend of 19 years was getting tired of me.
Where had I gone?
One cold night in a freezing hotel at Lugu Lake, instead of playing victim to my consuming thoughts, I started looking at job openings. I forced myself to think of the future, something I had stopped doing. The extremely clichè tidbits advice I had tossed in the back of my mind came flooding back:
“Take it one week at a day.” “Focus on yourself.” “You’re so young.” “There’s plenty of fish in the sea.”
And the most painful of them all:
And then something happened. I didn’t know how to move on. But I knew how to move. That concept broke the exhausting mental pattern of obsessing over the past.
So I did what I could: I packed my bags, started pitching more stories and cut my trip short. It wasn’t much, but it marked the beginning of the healing process. For the first time in months, I stopped crying. However minimally, I had shifted the focus to myself.
“You need to stop picking at the wound for it to heal.”
Alright cliches, I get the point.
Mention the words hot pot or shabu shabu and I assure you, I’ll be down.
The concept in itself brings warmth to my heart. Perhaps it was the countless holidays my family spent gathered around the ceramic hot pot. It was the only time my parents let me “cook.” I’d go straight for the vegetables while my brother was partial to the beef (what teenage boy isn’t?). And while everyone else opted for rice as their side, I would stick in a large helping of cellophane noodles until they became fat and juicy with broth.
It was also the first Chinese food bonding experience I had with my college floor mates in freshman year.
“It’s like fondue..but in water.”
They stared in horror at the red, glistening mala broth.
“Is that really spicy?”
By the end of the night, they all were beet red. Sichuan hot pot is a killer.
Yunnan hot pot?
Mushrooms and chicken are at the heart of the experience. Seafood, wild vegetables and fish balls are the icing on top. The meal is cooked in an embedded stone pot. The mushrooms are put in first. Add the straw hat to keep in the heat and wait ten minutes. Then you add all the raw ingredients.
Address: 长水路四方庙会内 Changshui Rd, Gucheng, Lijiang, Yunnan, China
Phone NUmber: +86 888 511 4369
The province of Yunnan in southwest China is as beautiful as the fiction makes it out to be. It is the home of Shangri-La, a term synonymous with paradise à la a 1933 novel by British author James Hilton. Yunnan also boasts the highest concentration of ethnic minorities in China, matriarchal societies where the women, dressed from head-to-toe in bright, bold colors, are the head of the households. Nature is looked upon in favor. It’s a place that’s exclusive to particular breeds of funghi because the air is just that clear. The region’s lake waters are so pristine you can drink out of them. At Lugu Lake, anything but man-powered water transportation is prohibited.
Sit still and quietly at one of the province’s rural ethnic enclaves and you can hear the faint singing of a woman, vocalizing the ancient folksongs of her tribe. It’s not Chinese. It’s Mosuo.
When we landed in Lijiang, the first order of business was to try the province’s Crossing Over Bridge Noodles and for less than $5 USD, we truly got more than we bargained for.
Hot, oily chicken broth with rice noodles and a plethora of fresh vegetables, mushrooms, tempura, fish and pickled vegetables. Add a dollop of their house-made hot sauce for a extra kick.
The whole meal comes with a platter of ingredients, a large bowl of broth and hot sauce condiments on the side. And according to the instructions, you put in the raw quail egg and meat in first and the noodles last. Now I’ve done quite a number of pieces on Crossing Over Bridge Noodles in the past. And though the serving methods are consistent with the New York locations (Lotus Blue and Yunnan Kitchen), the taste was much more similar to the Los Angeles versions.
Address：丽江 古城区 福慧路565
I wrote the following piece for CNNGo. Full article here
With nothing but 1.3 million-square-kilometer desert for company, Dunhuang (敦煌) really feels as though it’s in the middle of nowhere.
But it’s the desolation that makes the desert town so attractive.
The air is crisp; there’s not the slightest hint of light pollution at night; it’s one of the few places in the world where anyone can rent a camel and camp out in sand dunes.
With a population of 180,000, Dunhuang (the name means “big and grand”) is located in the Gansu province of western China.
As a town, it was a frontier defensive bulwark in the Han Dynasty and a major stop on the ancient Silk Road.
The city’s history dates to approximately 2000 BC.
Today, the wildest activities in and around the old trading hub revolve around accessing the desert that travelers once feared.
1. Horseback riding to Yangguan Pass
This fortress once marked the border between China and uncharted Western land.
A textbook staple for Chinese students, the Yangguan Pass was immortalized in Chinese history by Wang Wei (王维), a Tang Dynasty poet.
The pass once protected Dunhuang from invaders coming from the west; and though it has been reduced to a heap of rock with traces of design and architectural details, the view near the pass remains breathtaking: bleak but beautiful desert stretches as far as the eye can see.
Admission is RMB 50 (US$8), which includes a guided tour of the Yangguan Museum.
Visitors have the option of going up to the Yangguan Pass on a tram or by horseback. The horse, of course, feels far more epic.
Yangguang Pass (阳关道), 70 kilometers southwest of Dunhuang. There’s no public transportation between Dunhuang city and Yangguan Pass. A return trip by taxi costs around RMB 300 (US$47) for up to four people.
2. Hiking amid eerie rock formations at Yadan National Park
Mission in Yadan: spot the rock formations that resemble the Sphinx.
Yadan National Park is spead over 400 square kilometers and littered with various rock formations that are analogous to abstract art — they’re actually the product of lake erosion millions of years ago.
Now arid desert, the entire area was once underwater.
Visitors can jump on a tour bus to various sites with rocks that resemble the Egyptian sphinx, Great Pyramids and ancient Roman relics.
Awesome photo ops are everywhere. Nothing says desert nomad more than a midair jumping photo in the middle of nowhere.
Yadan National Park (敦煌雅丹国家地质公园), 180 kilometers northwest of Dunhuang. There’s no public transportation between Dunhuang city and Yadan National Park. A return trip by taxi costs around RMB 500 ($63) for up to four people.
3. Touring Mogao Grottoes
Shutterbugs should think twice before passing this gate.
The Mogao Grottoes are a series of Buddhist caves with amazing detailing.
There are 492 caves that contain some 2,100 colored statues and 45,000 square meters of murals. If joined together, they would cover a length of 30 kilometers, or the equivalent of 1,000 basketball courts.
Staff and tour guides are adamant about enforcing the area’s photography ban. Bags have to be checked in before their owners can embark on the hour-long tour.
The grottoes are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and each cave has its own unique character.
The area was a pilgrimage site and venue for ancient scribes. The fact that it’s intact today (after the destruction of so many other historic sites in China) is testament to its cultural value.
Admission is RMB 180 ($28) during high season (May 1-October 31) and RMB 100 ($15) the rest of the year.
Mogao Grottoes (莫高窟), 25 kilometers southeast of Dunhuang. Take the green shuttle bus in front of Silk Road Hotel (丝路宾馆) in Dunhuang. The journey takes around 30 minutes and costs RMB 8.
4. Bargaining at Dunhuang Night Market
Modern bazaar on ancient Silk Road.
Dunhuang was a major stop on the Silk Road. Today, it remains a trading town.
The best way to feel like part of the legacy is to try bargaining at the Shazhou Night Market (敦煌夜市).
Dunhuang is a small town, so the night market is the only place to stock up on trinkets and souvenirs.
Local merchants sell their personal items (mostly jewelry) and artisans hand-carve camel engravings and paint desert landscapes.
Piles of dried fruit and nuts (juicy apricots, mammoth pistachios) are also available.
Bargain hard. Merchants will purposely hike up prices for foreigners. Even a little Chinese helps the bargaining process.
The market is in the center of the town and accessible by bus or taxi.
Shazhou Night Market (敦煌夜市), Shazhou Lu, Dunhuang 敦煌沙洲夜市. The night market runs from around 6 p.m. till midnight every day.
5. Camel riding and paragliding at Echoing Sand Mountain and Crescent Lake
Legend has it that the water in this Gobi oasis has a high medicinal value.
It may be overpopulated with tourists and reminiscent of a giant sandbox, but this is where visitors can experience all of Dunhuang rolled into one convenient spot.
Echoing Sand Mountain is a series of sand dunes that surround Crescent Lake, which is named for its distinctive shape. Echoes can be heard as the wind blows over the dunes.
Visitors ride camels up sand dunes, which rise to 250 meters. With gardens blooming on the banks of the water, Crescent Lake offers a lovely visual counterpoint to all that sand.
The attraction is also suitable for those with a daredevil edge. Paragliding is available; you can traverse the hills via dune buggy; or grab a sled and slide down the giant mounds of sand.
Admission is RMB 120 ($18) during peak season (May 1-October 31) and RMB 60 ($9) in low season.
Echoing Sand Mountain and Crescent Lake (鸣沙山和月牙泉), six kilometers south of Dunhuang. Bus No. 3 goes to the attraction from Dunhuang. The journey takes around 10 minutes and costs RMB 1 (US 15 cents).
6. Overnight camel trekking
Coolest transportation for Gobi explorers.
A night in the sand dunes with camels and a completely unpolluted night sky is the quintessential Dunhuang experience.
Located on the outskirts of the Echoing Sand Mountain, Charley Johng’s Dune Guesthouse arranges overnight camel tours for RMB 400 ($62).
The trek begins at 5 p.m. and ends at 8 a.m. the following morning.
The all-inclusive trip includes a tour guide, dinner (ramen), breakfast (bread), accommodations (tent) and, the best part, transportation (camels).
Guides don’t speak much English, but they’ve had their share of foreign customers, so they know the basics.
Be sure to put on a few layers before crawling out of the tent to go to the bathroom at 3 a.m. The temperature difference between night and day is up to 30 C.
There are no toilets. You dig your own holes.
Charley Johng’s Dune Guesthouse, Mingsha Shan, Sha Sheng Zhi Wu Yuan, Crescent Lake 鸣沙山沙生植物园, 月牙泉. Call +86 13893763029 or +86 937 885 7298 for details. A half-day notice is required.
Getting there: Dunhuang Airport (敦煌机场) is located 13 kilometers east of the city. China Southern operates a daily return flight between Xi’an Xianyang Airport and Dunhuang Airport. Air China flies between Beijing and Dunhuang once a day.
Dunhuang station is served by trains only from cities in northwest China. However, Liuyuan station (柳园站), approximately 130 kilometers from Dunhuang, links to Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, Chongqing and Chengdu. Shuttle buses and taxis connect Liuyuan station and Dunhuang.
Dunhuang Tourism Service Center, 32, Mingshan Lu, Dunhuang 敦煌鸣山路32号, +86 937 8851 518