Good Lord, the time flies quickly here. It seems like Putuoshan was ages ago, and already we’re embarking on our next side trip – a long weekend in Shanghai, starting tomorrow. Before that trip eclipses all of the post-Putuoshan memories, here’s a quick round-up of what we’ve been up to.
Last week, we discovered with some disappointment that our favourite Nanjing Turkish restaurant, Café Istanbul, is closed for summer vacation until just after our departure date. What a let-down! Last year, we loved their gorgeous zucchini fritters, their delicious hummus, their light and zingy carrot dip, and their laid-back cosmopolitan cool. Everyone in there spoke at least three languages and was completely chill about everything – despite the often oppressive heat. We loved it there. Ah, well. Next year, perhaps.
Well, when one door closes, another one opens. I remembered that we last year missed out on a local Saudi place because it too was closed for vacation; so resolved to find it before its proprietors absconded. I didn’t find the Saudi place (I think it’s gone), but in searching for it, I found a Syrian restaurant, Barika. I went to Barika on my own for lunch and had a very nice falafel sandwich with homemade pita and lovely crunchy vegetables (a nice change from Chinese veggies, which are always cooked). On the side: mint black tea. Very nice and only 18 RMB for the meal (about $2.50) – a bit pricier than Chinese lunch, but much cheaper than most foreign food.
It was a cool enough day (maybe 30 degrees Celsius) that I was able to sit on the small patio with my bike parked beside me. As I ate, a worker napped across the street on the side of the road and a mother walked her daughter to school. Overhead, the cicadas buzzed electrically.
That night, the Kid and I resolved to move beyond our comfort zone and discover some new cheap “alley food” for dinner. In China, alleys are as busy with industry as roads are. They are marked on maps just like streets. The alleys are crowded with cars, bikes, people, restaurants, food stands and shops. Just like streets, but cheaper and more crowded. As we headed down an alley near the university, flames caught the corner of my eye. A woman was stir frying noodles in a wok over an open flame on an outdoor stand. We weren’t really planning to eat there, but, fascinated by the leaping flames, we slowed our pace enough that the owner of the stand rushed over to wipe off a folding table for us and to proffer us stools. How could we refuse such hospitality?
There was no English on the menu; so we asked “Do you have vegetable dishes?” (Much alley food is meat-based in Nanjing.) “Yes, we have vegetable noodles,” they replied. By that point, the Kid had already eaten noodles twice that day. So she asked, “Do you have vegetable dishes that are not noodle dishes?” “We have vegetable noodles,” they replied. So, vegetable noodles it was. As the woman fried them, flames shot high in the air. Meanwhile, inches away from us, a car unable to get past the bulldozer and the motorcycle that bracketed that stretch of road brayed its horn. We shifted our table an inch or two closer to the building. With much manoeuvring and honking and yelling and revving of engines, eventually all of the vehicles somehow made it past each other, just in time for us to enjoy our delicious, hot, savoury $2 dinner.
The next night, five of us went back to Barika. We feasted on very good lentil soup topped with fresh lemon and fried pita crisps, pine nut hummus, falafels, fatoush, baba ganoush, a kind of Syrian cucumber raita and muhammara. On the side, we had an assortment of middle eastern sodas and other cold drinks, including homemade mint lemonade so thick with mint that it looked like green pea soup. The food was in general quite good, if a bit pricier than a Chinese dinner. The baba ganoush was worth the price of admission. It was smoky and rich, perhaps the best baba ganoush I have ever had.
After dinner, the women came to our room for our first (and maybe last? the clock is ticking…) “girls night.” We made watermelon daiquiris and banana-rum drinks garnished with waxberries and preserved mandarin oranges, and nibbled fresh fruit and potato chips while playing Texas Hold ‘Em. The day before, the Kid and I wandered all over looking for poker chips, but none were to be found; so instead with played with multi-coloured fruit mentos. (A poker-playing student of mine confirmed the next day that it’s impossible to find poker chips in Nanjing.)
The next day, cousin Rob arrived from Japan. The Kid and I met him at the Nanjing train station, with only a few hiccups along the way. Then, we headed off to a banquet held by SIE in a private room at a fancy hotel near the university. The food was gorgeous – one of the best meals I’ve had in China. Ma Fei, the director, is at last figuring out how to feed vegetarians (of which there are five or six this year – apparently the highest proportion of any of the SIE campuses). We had the most delicious braised mushrooms, and cold wood ear fungus salad, and sesame pastries, and dumplings and cabbage, and cold tofu skin, and countless other delicious things delivered to the table in a steady stream for over an hour. And, there was more mint lemonade, and watermelon juice, and cold beer… There were amazing things for the omnivores too. A “lion’s head,” a local Nanjing specialty – a huge meatball, almost as large as a midsized dog’s head, if not a lion’s, that gets shared among the diners. And prawns, and jellyfish, and many different soups, and ribs and rich stews… It was a great introduction for Rob to real mainland Chinese cuisine.
After dinner, seven or eight of us headed to the top of the Zifeng tower for cocktails and lounge music. We must be going there too often. When the waiter came to the table, he asked the Kid: “Margarita?” And to me: “Mojito?” It’s probably more worrisome that he knows the 16-year-old’s order than that he knows mine.
The next morning, we went to the Presidential Palace, which combines lovely gardens and ponds with great exhibits about (inter alia) the rise and fall of the nationalist Kuonmintang party of Sun Yat Sen and Chiang Kai Shek. Of particular interest to Rob, who has Taiwan connections, was the prominence of the Taiwanese flag throughout. Of course, when Mao took over, Chiang fled to Taiwan where he established the Republic of China (as opposed to the mainland’s People’s Republic of China), enshrining the Kuonmingtang flag as the flag of Taiwan.
After lunch (or rather, while eating on the fly a huge batch of dumplings), we headed out of the city to nearby Tang Shan hot springs. We were ushered into a fancy hotel and spa, where we were issued with waterproof bracelets that registered any charges we incurred for massages, drinks, etc. Then, outside to the sixty or so baths of varying temperatures (and ingredients!) at the spa – a milk bath, a rice wine bath, various medicinal herb baths, the surprisingly lovely celery bath, a watermelon bath and a lemon bath, baths built into faux mountains with waterfalls tumbling from above, others where you could push a button and trigger a steady wall of hot water to press upon you from above… And, most excitingly, the kissing fish bath, filled with hundreds (thousands?) of tiny fish that swarm the bathers and nibble off their dead skin. The young women with us briefly tried the bath, then screeched and ran away. The men and I loved it. It took me a few minutes. At first, it was difficult to relax in a bath full of tiny carnivores intent on devouring me. But, eventually, I gave myself over to the weird pleasure of being nibbled. Later, after the others had tired of the baths and were seeking massages and other spa treatments, I immersed myself for a long time in the fish bath and let the fish swarm all over me, even nibbling my face. Such an amazing sensation! Apparently, some folks warn against taking kissing fish massages. The fish can, they say, spread diseases as they travel from one body to the next. I should probably care, but in China this seems like far from the greatest risk to health and safety. And, I’m determined not to let fretting bloggers detract from my immersion – in fish baths or the country simpliciter.
On our return, we filled up on Uyghur noodles before heading to the Confucius Temple district to look at the canals, the bright lights, the lanterns and the people. While there, we got drinks – for me, a coconut with a hole deftly bored into it by a tiny woman with a pocketknife, for Rob a fancy milk tea. As the Kid ordered the tea (all in Chinese — her Chinese is getting *so* good!), a pushy woman shoved in front of her and thrust a handful of money at the attendant. The Kid turned, looked her in the eye, and firmly, in good Chinese, said “Wait.” The woman look gobsmacked, but she backed off and hovered at the outskirts of the line until we were leaving, not wishing to tangle with the formidable foreign kid a second time.
The next day, we took Rob on a whirlwind tour of Nanjing sites: the Yangtze River Bridge, the Jiming Temple, the Nanjing Massacre Memorial. Then, Sunday night, we headed for a second time to seek the Castle Bar, this time in hopes of seeing South Korean rockabilly band The Teddy Boys. This time, we were in luck. We found the bar, but the band hadn’t started yet; so we had a quick dinner around the corner… with mixed success. We tried to order beans, but got potatoes; tried to order bok choy, but got chives. Worse news for Rob: he tried to order a beef and mushroom dish, but the beef (or something?) turned out to be offal… and also, apparently, awful. Taking little pleasure in the food, we derived what satisfaction we could from the pun and from ribald speculations about exactly *which * body parts Rob was eating.
Then, back to the Castle. The large bar was almost empty – there were maybe a dozen people there — as we arrived. We took seats at a small round table at the front of the house just as the Teddy Boys were coming on stage. And, let it be said, the Teddy Boys *cooked*! The band was tight and super high energy with a great repertoire of what I take it were original tunes, most of them with a cool psychobilly, Cramps-sounding, vibe. But the audience didn’t quite know what to do. One young man was super excited and kept getting up to dance but wasn’t quite sure how to proceed with it. He tried to get his smiling but reluctant friend to join him. The latter was even more out of his comfort zone and resisted. The other audience members were attentive and clapped warmly, but sat still and looked nervous about the dancing. Periodically, the incredibly hard-working, engaging front man would urge the audience to dance, whereupon people would stand, shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot, near the dance floor until they felt they could get away with sitting down again. The three of us foreigners danced, feeling a bit of a duty to carry the rock and roll torch.
At first, I thought the Teddy Boys were actually making fun of us foreigners by their clichéd poorly pronounced Chinese-for-tourists utterances. Then, it dawned on me that *they* were the tourists. They sounded like tourists not because they were mocking us but because they were strangers to China and to Chinese.
The Teddy Boys!
After a tight 45 minute set, the band left the stage. The audience didn’t seem to know to ask for an encore, or didn’t know how. I was tempted to try to get one but thought there might be no encore convention in China. As I sat debating the point, one of the guitarists peeked out from backstage and flashed his guitar at us suggestively. A couple of us resumed clapping; others eventually joined in, rhythmically shouting “one more! One more! One more!” And then the band reappeared. “Do you know the Slam?” asked the frontman? “Do you know the Slam? …The Slam?” No reply. “Wait. Do you mean ‘slam dancing’?” asked Rob. “Yes! Slam dancing!” replied the singer. “Do you know slam dancing?” Only Rob and I nodded. “Ok. Come here, come here, I will teach you slam dancing!” said the singer. And so we slam-danced – Rob and the Kid and I slamming into each other and into the enthusiastic guy and his reluctant friend while all the other bargoers shrunk away in apparent horror at what was happening on the dance floor. And it was hot and we were sweating! And then the front man was on the floor, slamming into us and the enthusiastic guy was at the mike, singing his heart out. And then it was done. “One more” really was just the one more song.
The Kid and Rob with the Teddy Boys
And then it was suddenly over. The band packed up. Despite the efforts of “Candy”, a glamourous young woman handing all of us her business cards and hailing taxis as she tried to foment an after party with the band and the audience at her bar in Xinjiekou, the band went home. And then, so did we.
The next day as I was biking to work in the throng of rush hour cyclists, I saw a man standing stock still in the middle of the separated bike lane. What on Earth was he doing risking collision with all those frenzied bikes? As I approached, I saw the lines of bikes and scooters part to avoid the man, who, it turns out, was standing there precisely for that purpose. At his feet, an older woman lazy dazed beside an overturned e-bike. She must have taken a terrible spill. He was making himself a pylon to protect her from the bike traffic. It’s the first such incident I’ve seen here this year in this land of aggressive cyclists and no helmets. There have been some near misses and scrapes though. …Cyclists and pedestrians who’ve been cut off by drivers and punish them by punching their fenders. The dust-up the Kid had with an e-bike when she borrowed my bike for the ride home one afternoon. They collided, but with no injury apart from the Kid’s injured sense of justice: “He totally cut me off!” I’ve only once come near to hitting anyone. Interestingly, that was Alice, as she walked in one morning. As I passed her, she drifted cloudlike to her right and we very nearly collided. I noticed then that foreigners move differently than the locals. They haven’t been embodied their whole lives in this swarming bustle. Alice floated like a cloud. The locals dart among each other like fish. I can easily anticipate their moves and dart like another fish around them. It’s harder for a fish to avoid a cloud.
Two nights ago, the Kid and I went looking for some new street food, this time exploring the area south of Xinjiekou rather than Gulou district. After a few false starts, we found an awesome back alley food stand — an amazing array of veg, fruit, starches, tofu products, meat and seafood all on bamboo skewers. You choose what you want, put it in a basket, and they deep fry it for you in a wok over open flame. Then, they smother it in sauce and very spicy spices. So delicious! We gorged ourselves on lettuce, beans, peppers, cauliflower, lotus root, potatoes, taro, tofu skin, stinky tofu (it’s fermented, we think), and other unidentifiable tasty things and paid 21 RMB (about $2.50) for the two of us. So good! On the way home, we bought a big bag of fresh mangosteens from an old woman on a street corner for 20 RMB (<$2.50). There’s so much amazing fruit available in Nanjing this time of year. The next morning, I asked my students what region the food I’d had the night before came from. It’s too spicy to be Jiangsu food, I think. They didn’t know. When I described the food, they’d never heard of anything prepared in that way.
The next night, we brought three more people back to the same stand. Cab, in particular, has been looking for spicy vegetarian protein he can just point at, and has been complaining about a lack of depth in Nanjing spices. We thought this would be, ahem, up his alley.
When we got back to the alley, there was at first no sign of the stand. Where had it gone? We started to walk around the area surrounding its previous position. Then, one of the local residents, sitting outside, yelled to the stand’s proprietor, who was, unbeknownst to us, preparing his nightly wares just out of sight. The neighbour must have said something like “Your white women are back and they’ve brought more foreigners!” because the whole family (the mother and father who run the stand and their son and daughter who hang out nearby during the stand’s operation) all magically appeared and signalled to us that their stand would be ready soon. We walked around the block, peeking in restaurant windows and wondering about the “Business Club” with its fancy entranceway and scantily-clad, tiara sporting young female staffers. Wondering too about the big restaurant with the Arabic writing on the sign just below the Chinese. It didn’t look middle eastern. Maybe Uyghur? Or some other Xinjiang cuisine? We’ll check another time.
We returned to the stand and ordered five full meals. A huge sale for the proprietors, who presumably are more used to selling one or two skewers than entire feasts. It came to about 60 RMB ($10) for the five of us and there was so much food we couldn’t finish it. We sat around the counter on little stools, tasting each other’s skewers and cooling off the spice with yogurt drinks. (Jamie ordered her skewers without spice. They were delicious and saucy too, but the rest of us loved our burning lips!) As we ate, the stand’s patriarch came over to offer us cigarettes. He kept pressing them on us, but none of us smoke. We felt sad declining. He was clearly extending very warm hospitality to us, probably because he was pleased to have gluttonous new regulars with fat wallets and a clear appreciation for his culinary wizardry. When we didn’t take the cigarettes, his wife instead brought us a hot dish of complimentary spring rolls, a lovely little treat not on the menu, made just for us. Such lovely hospitality! As we left, I was feeling effusive and told the owners in my best caveman Chinese “We love this [gesturing toward their food]. Thank you , thank you. We love this!” Now, I know that the “love” is used is erotic love so deep that one only expresses such a sentiment towards the love of one’s life and, even then, only once or twice in a lifetime. But, I didn’t have any better words available to me. And, the owners understood what I meant. It’s kind of liberating to communicate in a way that is, in strictness, completely wrong and yet feel confident that, practically, it works just fine. Kind of the opposite of what I do for a living…
Ok. That’s more or less it for last week. Off to Shanghai tomorrow morning, where we’ll spend time with Cab, Alice and Rob. It’s the third visit for the Kid and I; so, we’re hoping to find some out of the way treasures. Stay tuned…