The Weekend in Review


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Asia » China » Inner Mongolia » Hohhot
May 22nd 2010
Published: May 23rd 2010
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Saturday: Blind Date, Daoist Temple, and Hushi's oldest mala restaurant. Sunday: Hiking near an old movie set, eating a huge, amazing lunch and almost getting drunk on baijiu (Hint: NEVER let on that you can drink when this liquor is involved. They WILL make you toast about a million times to see how far you can go).

Saturday:
The day kicked off with a sort of blind date arranged by my friend Lulu. Her friend (a guy) had a friend that he thought might be a good match. We set out in a taxi, Lulu giving me advice as we headed to the restaurant where we were to meet the boys. The trees are in full leaf now, and it was in the low 80's at 11am: heavenly after months of bitter cold, with a palette of grays and browns only mitigated by fruit stands and the colorful clothes worn by the local fashionistas. Summer seems to be here, all of a sudden, and here to stay. The streets were lined with donkey carts, I presume taking advantage of the lovely weather, selling mostly fruits and veggies. I could have kicked myself for not bringing my camera, especially later in the day.

We had an extremely good lunch at a trendy but low-key restaurant. Lulu's guyfriend was all good humor and cuteness. Unfortunately, his friend was not very sociable: he was either not interested or not a very engaging person. Nonetheless, I met some interesting people (Lulu's friend's brothers and one of their wives, all fun-loving folks), and encountered a novel business venture in the place we went to spend a few hours after our excellent lunch: an apartment that doubled as a "table-game" rental shop(?). A sum of money is paid to have access to a multitude of card and board games, a table and/or a private room. We played "Uno" (among many other games) and I informed the language geeks among us of the significance of saying that word when one has one card was left; most were not aware that it was from Spanish, since students tend to learn English, Korean, or Japanese in college here.

After the table-game crew broke up, Lulu and I ambled back towards my home, enjoying the sun. We talked over the events of the day and wandered into a side alley when Lulu remembered that a 麻辣 mala restaurant she used to frequent as a child was located in that general direction. Mala is a flavor that I have a hard time translating; ma is the numbing, lemony flavor of huajiao, a flower seed pod used in especially in Sichuanese cooking; la means spicy and usually comes from hot red peppers. I rather like the combination, and Lulu offered to treat me to her favorite type of mala.

We had not gotten far down the alley before I heard a windchime clanging in the breeze, and turning to look caught sight of the entrance to a temple - right across the road from where I live, and I had never noticed it before! A certain sign that I need to do more exploring. To my own credit, I must admit that it was a very, very small temple, and easy to miss. Lulu was as intrigued as I, and led the way over the threshold to find "the master," as she put it.

We were admitted to a small living space with a bed, a nightstand with candles and deities, and a fascinating map of the human body (including lines of energy and cycles of the moon) above it. This was a Daoist temple (a first for me), and the master was perfectly picturesque, with a long gray beard right out of a Hong Kong gongfu film and a topknot secured by a metal pin pushed through. His hat (which he put on when he rose to give us a tour of the temple) was designed with a hole in the top, accomodating the knot of hair, pin and all.

We paid our respects in two of the four or five worship halls; I learned the the way to kowtow (磕头, ketou) properly in a Daoist temple: it is slightly different from what I learned in Buddhist temples. Enhancing the experience was the accompanying ritual of the master hitting a large bell after each kowtow.

After chatting with the master for a while in the courtyard, we took our leave and headed on in search of mala. We took our time, walking slowly through the streets. Kids were playing games on the sidewalks; people were out on their stoops playing cards or walking for the enjoyment of it, often accompanied by their well-behaved little dogs. I don't know how people train these dogs, but they almost always are unleashed and acting with perfect decorum: no dogfights, little barking. One lady was eating an ice cream cone, and her little dog was sitting patiently at her feet, licking his chops and looking extremely hopeful.

After passing a charming cafe with an vine-covered arbor, we found ourmala shop. Lulu told me it is the oldest one of its kind in Hushi; it is what you would call a "hole in the wall," and doesn't even have a name, but its longevity is testament to its popularity. Lulu odered tofu sandwiches with spicy sauce, and the sauce was so like American-style BBQ that I had a moment of nostalgia. We ate our fill and left; we parted ways and I spent the rest of the day being very lazy indeed, enjoying my day off after a long week.

Sunday:
Amy, my manager and hiking buddy, had mentioned the possibility for a hike today. Last night she called to confirm the time and we met this morning for breakfast before heading out to meet our resident hiking expert, a manager at another hotel who hikes every chance he gets. This time, we drove to the set of a movie filmed in the past several years and walked out from there. I felt up for making the whole loop this time, but Amy was lagging and eventually she decided to call it quits and turn back: she was tried from work yesterday. We had a bag of delicious fresh cherries and plenty of water, so we sat for a while in the hills talking before heading back to the cars and the movie set.

I had been practicing an Inner Mongolian song as we were climbing, and now that we were sitting Amy asked me to sing again, I'm not sure why since I have a very weak singing voice. I settled on an American bluegrass tune, I think called "I am weary, let me rest." Amy was able to pick up on the sadness of the lyrics from the music, and asked me to translate. She was quite taken with it and asked me to sing it again later as she was going to sleep. There is something very universal about folk music.

We had returned to the movie set by this time and had climbed up onto what I think was supposed to be a watch-tower. The wind kicked up and we sat cooling our heels; several vans full of sight-seers passed through and the ones that spotted the blonde laowai up on the watch-tower waved and yelled "Hello." In more quiet moments, we listened to the sound of magpies, sparrows, and an actual cuckoo: the first time I have ever heard that bird in my life, but unmistakeable. I asked Amy what it was called in Chinese; it is called a "gubu" after the sound it makes, just like in English.

When the hikers came back down we went to lunch; it was an exceptionally good roadside diner, the men broke out the baijiu and the feast began. Liang fen (potato noodles in spicy sauce), bean sprouts, tofu, fried eggs, you mian (a local dish of noodles in a special vinegar and cilantro sauce), fried pastries...the dishes seemed endless and I had to pass on the last dish because I simply didn't have room. I was also getting tipsy from the alcohol: the men were very adamant that I should be properly toasted, several times. Toasts ranging from "welcome to China" to a simple "hello" came my way; towards the end I toasted the group by saying I came to China to learn the culture and meet interesting people, so I owed everyone my thanks.

We finished our meal and headed back to town in a rainstorm. The sound of thunder was music to my ears, since my hometown is so prone to thunderstorms, and Hushi is so dry. I slept off my lunch, ate a light dinner, and am now getting geared up for the new work week. Somehow, for all my lack of organization and planning, some of my weekends turn out quite well.

Signing off - Sam




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23rd May 2010

You like food!
Hi Sam, I like your Blog but it is easy to notice that you like food, for at least you mention it very often. I keep following you! I wish you a nice spring! cheers walter
24th May 2010

Haha, yes I like food, and here it is all new and different for me, so I like to write about it and "share" it as part of the experience. Usually any significant excursion with friends occasions a large meal - it is part of how Chinese folks show their hospitality. Thanks for reading! Take care - Sam
27th May 2010

My vacation days are planned around food! :)
16th June 2010

Enjoyed!
I am a food person too ... I often search out a BBQ joint when I am out on my adventures and then write about them in my blog. I really enjoy reading you blog.

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