World Travels, Part I: China

by Liz Caskey on September 6, 2012

In July, my husband and I took off on a 33-day round-the-world trip spanning three continents. One of the big motives of the journey was to go to Asia. I had not yet been, and it has been high on the list for a long time. After much debate as to where, we settled on China for a number of reasons—global relevance, fascinating history, a personal obsession with regional Chinese food, plus, our original idea of Southeast Asia would be awash in rainy season (no thanks!).

We spent a week and a half between Beijing and Hong Kong on this “first approach” to China. To be completely honest, I wasn’t sure if it would one of those destinations I would resonate with. This was the first trip in many years that I was completely lost in translation and could only mutter a few words in Mandarin like Ni hao or Xie Xie. While frustrating at times, I found not being able to speak the language also liberating. I could sit back to simply listen without having to understand, observe, and just “be” with no questions asked—or at least any I could plausibly answer. Short story, we loved China and cannot wait to return again. Here are some of the trip highlights:

Asian Airlines Rule: On this trip we flew 11 flight segments on 8 different airlines for a whooping total of over 30,000 miles (or about 80+ hours in-flight). Top of the list? Asian airlines, by far. The difference? Great service, kind stewardesses elegantly dressed, yummy food and free booze, and new aircraft with all the bells and whistles to be entertained on board. We flew business on Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific (a vacation in itself) and also had partner flights on ANA (Japan), Dragon Air (part of Cathay), and for the long haul flight to Europe, Thai Airways. Bottom of the list? The US legacy carriers like American Airlines and United just proved how far from the pack they are these days. Honestly, in this era of bankruptcy and trying to win back clients, they could learn a thing or two about attitude and service from our neighbors across the Pacific.

Soup Dumpling Heaven: Several foodie friends had all told me I must eat at Din Tai Fung, a Taiwanese dumpling chain, while on the mainland. I have been a long time connoisseur of XLB (short for Xiao Long Bao) since first trying them at Joe’s Shanghai in NY Chinatown decades ago. These dumplings blew them out of the water. Pork with black truffle. Hairy Shanghai crab with roe. Please skip the soy and just dip them in black vinegar laced with chili sauce. Order some sautéed pea shoots or water lilies on the side. Heaven. It was so good, we went twice in Beijing.

Imperial China: We decided on Beijing to understand China, both modern and its imperial past. It did not disappoint. While many have the Great Wall on the bucket list (I did, at least), and the Mutinayu section was impressive, I was full on blown out of the water by the Summer Palace. Built around a manmade lake, it was a living work of art with so many ornate, subtle details from the imperial colors (red, green, blue, gold) to the imagery of dragons and Buddha. The Forbidden City was also impressive, although the throngs of tourists make it harder to imagine as the emperor’s residence. Hmm, maybe I should revisit the classic Bertolucci movie, The Last Emperor, on the life of Puyi (China’s last emperor), set in the Forbidden City. Of course we hit the dynamic Tiananmen Square with ever-present Mao with packs of Chinese tourists descending in their capital. I imagined Mao speaking to millions on the square during the Cultural Revolution. There’s still an intense energy in the square you can’t help but pick up. Beautiful, and also imperial, was the Temple of Heaven. At that point, the heat had sucker punched me and I could only focus on A/C relief. Fortunately, our room on the 47th floor at the Park Hyatt Beijing was scenic.

Peking Duck: On my foodie list was this duck dish dating back to the Ming Dynasty in China. We went to the specialists in Chaoyang, Da Dong, to savor this duck prized for its thin, crisp skin and tender, succulent meat (the ducks are from Nanling and are a special breed). The restaurant itself is set up around the “show area” where the cooks move hanging, glazed ducks in and out of the four brick ovens. You order half or a whole duck. Your chef carves the meat at the table with the precision of a surgeon. Pancakes are the preferred vehicles to devour this tasty treat, mounded with scallion, radish, and hoisin sauce. We dipped the duck skin in grainy sugar, which melted in our mouth like sweet, duck-flavored butter. Divine simplicity.

Hong Kong Love: If there’s truly a cosmopolitan city in China, this must be it. Hong Kong reminded me of Manhattan with its vertical nature, sheer density, and go-go-go vibe. Immediately I was relieved that there was more English than in Beijing (nearly non-existent), and there was something remotely British in the city’s organization, driving, and signage. The similarities ended there. We went to the wet markets with piles of Chinese greens like gai lan, chom sui, and yu choy. We sauntered past stalls filled high with pungent dried seafood, dozens of types of noodles, tofu. Residents chose their fish from fresh water tanks to have them slaughtered and filleted in front of their own eyes. Every evening, we’d settle into the Club to sip champagne and watch the sun descend on Victoria Harbor as the city lights twinkled. I never tired of the skyline, of taking the Star Ferry between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. It was sweltering heat and humidity, unlike anything I have ever felt before (even in New York). It was really too hot and heavy to walk…so we took the tram that rambled up and down Hong Kong Island to get a second story view of local life.

Cantonese Cuisine: Two words to sum up why I love Cantonese cuisine (and Chinese in general). Pork and dim sum. I probably have never eaten so much (good) pork in my life as I did in China, particularly in Hong Kong. Favorite pork dish ever was at an unsuspecting restaurant in Wanchai, Fu Sing, recommended by a foodie client who lived in HKG. We went on a pilgrimage to try the beloved char siu, barbecue pork. The pork loin is marinated in a sticky, sweet, caramelized sauce and roasted to perfection. It is so insanely delicious that I am now completely obsessed with either recreating it at home, or better yet, returning to Hong Kong to have it again. Another near religious dining experience was at the 3-star Michelin food temple, Sun Tung Lok. We went Saturday for dim sum, hoping to find something different than the rather pedestrian version we’d had at Maxim’s Palace earlier in the week. We hit a home run as my taste buds did jubilant cartwheels with each morsel. Dish after dish of Cantonese bliss appeared on our table: char siew shou, cheong fun, Lau Sa Pao, Har Gau, braised pork ribs, scallop dumpling “purses”, and seared turnip cake. Happy Liz.

{ 3 comments }

Emily in Chile September 6, 2012 at 5:53 pm

Honestly, after reading this, I want to go to China for the first time ever! It’s never been a destination that really appealed to me, but you make it sound exciting and delicious. I’m glad it was such a pleasant surprise.

Frank Liu September 9, 2012 at 11:43 am

Hi, Liz. Some pictures look very famillier. Your husband, he is really a good photographer. Nice job. Hope can see you in China again.

Marie September 12, 2012 at 3:45 pm

I would love to read more about Hong Kong and see more great photos (Francisco, you’ve really outdone yourself with the beautiful shots)! My trip to HK was stopped short by SARS, so I need to live through your experience.

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