China by Bicycle :: April -- October '98

Subject: Gastronomy Domine.
Date: Sat, 06 Jun 1998 22:42:32 -0700

20:32 Lounge, Shanxi Grand Hotel, Taiyuan; Shanxi -- China :: SA 06 JUN 98

OK. I admit it. I've eaten both lunch and dinner in the Shanxi Grand's "Western Cafe". Hamburger for lunch (nice, but oddly and uniquely Chinese with a token serving of french fries) and for dinner a chef's salad (Oooh, CHEESE! Olives! R O A S T B E E F!) smothered with ketchup and mayonnaise--I mean French dressing--followed by New Zealand lamb cutlets on sweet potato (actually, on a bed of shallots with slivers of sweet potato and three cloves of roasted garlic all slathered in a really fine, dark gravy). The lamb was cooked to a delightfully tender juicyness. Ahhh.

Now I'm sitting in the lounge, finishing the rather pleasant pint of Chinese brewed San Miguel listening to the pianist and violin dueting a thoroughly familiar tune, (Jay will be able to name this tune in no notes) the Love Theme from Titanic. When Travelling through Malaysia back in '95, the pop song of choice was the Cranberries' tune featuring the line "In your head." China will be remembered, if for nothing else, the Titanic's theme song. If you're not hearing Celine Dion crooning it from every music and poster shop (DiCaprio's boyish looks sell well here, or at least his image is well stocked in poster shops), there are a couple covers of the tune now available in both english and chinese. And any town with more than 10,000 souls is on the distribution matrix.

Anyway, I'm digressing from the original digression. I dined tonight at the Shanxi Grand for a couple reasons. A couple days ago I ran into some stomach troubles. Nothing seriously distressing, but it laid me up for a day in Yuanping, a little more than 100k north of Taiyuan. This stomach of mine is not overly fond of oil and beyond a certain threshold it puts the whole digestive system on hold. Disruptive, to say the least, but it takes alot of oil to cross the threshold.

Some Chinese food preparation is capable of getting me there. Both dinner and breakfast at the little fandian of the third night out were heavily oiled, and by breakfast my palate was rebelling. The particular dish, a stir-fried shredded pork, is really delicious but for some reason it was an effort to eat it, something about it seemed distinctly unappetizing. I figured some nutritional element I needed was missing. However, this was what was available and a long ride lay ahead so I stuffed it down anyway. A few hours later I ordered Sichuan-style diced chicken and peanuts with chilli peppers (gongbao jiding), popular all over China. Again, it's a favourite of mine, again it's served pretty oily, again my palate rebelled. The stir-fried vegetables (stir-fried in water, rather than oil) went down easily and I wrote the difficulty off as "not enough vegetables."

Well, by the time I reached Yuan Ping I began to realize what the problem was. Everything else ran right through my system (I'll spare you the details) but all that oil had collected at the bottom of my stomach. And would budge no further.

This happened back in Malaysia after a particularly scrumtious but wildly oil-soaked fish dish. It laid me low for a couple days. And I have to be careful about the Greek dish Moussakka (sp?) which often treats eggplant as little more than a sponge for soaking up oil. Tastes great; too filling.

So after a fitful night's sleep, and many trips to the bathroom, I decided to spend an extra day in Yuanping. Bananas were too rough on the system so I relied on the small store of ramen noodles I'd bought in Beijing.

Actually, those little packets of noodles can be quite delightful here. Rather than the version I sometimes get back home with its single 'flavour' packet containing seasoning and dried veggies, noodles here come stock with two or even three packets. One of them is always a sort of chilli paste. Heavy with oil, of course, so I applied this sparingly to the satisfaction of my weak stomach. Vivian prefers to steep the noodles with the seasoning and veggies, then drains the broth and adds the chilli paste to the noodles. The soup broth can then be mixed with other stuff or slurped up directly. And the noodles are tasty as is.

I'm not overly fond of traveling alone. Always thought this was primarily a reflection of liking to share the experiences with someone, to benefit from their perspective and insights in addition to just sharing the joy of travel. But I think there's a more subtle and important reason: I just don't like dining alone and traveling alone means dining alone. Alot. It's a shame too. There's a great night market for street food nust a block or so from my hotel, but last night as I walked through it my stomach got the same queasy sensation it had when I was choking down all that oily pork and chicken.

Oh dear, now I'm confused by all these asides.

When I get back to Vancouver, and all those Chinese restaurants, you can bet I'll have an array of new dishes up my sleeve for ordering. Over the years I've developed a list of 'old reliables' such as gongbao jiding and it'll be great to treat friends to the delights of Peking Duck (apparently, Vancouver serves up some of the finest outside Beijing, and I'd never tried it until this trip) and some of the other marvy foods I've been trying.

Now, there was another point I was driving at... Ah, yes. Aside from dining on food my fragile stomach will recognize, perhaps even appreciate, I'm sitting in the lounge of this classy, expensive hotel because it's a pleasant environment to sit in the company of people and write. For example, the writing of this piece was interrupted by a long, interesting conversation with an older Japanese couple, also touring China.

Personal contacts with the Chinese is elusive. Few speak more than a few stock english phrases, and I've not yet mastered even these in Chinese. Most contacts with english speakers come through service industry contacts and these rarely achieve a personal level.

I don't mind quietly observing people...quite on the contrary. However, there's only so much you can learn about someone through observation. You need interaction. Communication. Personal contact. I've been missing these the last several days.

Also, it's rare enough in China to find a public place in which an operating laptop won't draw a crowd. Having people look over your shoulder while you're writing about them is disconcerting, even when it's absolutely certain they can't read a single word of what's been written. To find a cozy public place where I can write is paradise. Nearly all the entries you've read to this point were written from the solitude of a hotel room, not my favourite atmosphere for writing. Even a posh western hotel lobby, all brass, glass and marble, seems more an adventure than shutting oneself in a hotel room.

Oh dear, my bike's locked up in the hotel's cycle storage facility, which shuts for the night in 20 minutes. Back to my hotel room, I guess. Probably a good time to stop this muddled string of disconnected thoughts anyway.

~~~ Responses Sought ~~~
When the Master governs, the people
are hardly aware that he exists.
Next best is a leader who is loved.
Next, one who is feared.
The worst is one who is despised.

If you don't trust the people,
you make them untrustworthy.

The Master doesn't talk, he acts.
When his work is done,
the people say, "Amazing:
we did it, all by ourselves!"
  graphical element Attributed to Lao Tse
The Tao Te Ching
Chapter 17.
trans. Stephen Mitchell