Beijing. Shanghai. Hong Kong. These are the cities that come to mind when many people think of China or envision a trip to the world’s most populated country. We did too, which is why we spent a week exploring Beijing. But did you know that almost half of China’s 1.4 billion people live in rural parts of the country where mountains outnumber skyscrapers and rice paddy fields stretch as far as the eye can see? We spent one month exploring rural China, what we are calling and consider to be “real China,” and encourage you to do the same if you’re planning a trip there in the future! We spent most of our time in Dali, with a weekend trip to Jianchuan, but the recap below can be applied to both cities. We also got to spend time with Karen’s sister and our brother-in-law, who met up with us at this point in our journey.
As we approach the halfway mark of our year abroad (side note: how is that even possible?!), there is one theme that pierces through all of our experiences thus far: expect the unexpected. I mean we’ve written a post specifically about just that here and have had some pretty unexpected moments, which we have written about here and here. Yet somehow, we continue to find ourselves being surprised! We encountered our fair share of unique surprises during a month in China’s southeastern Yunnan province. For one, we did not anticipate the beauty of this region with it’s pure air, beautiful lakes and 360-degree mountain views. Nor did we expect our bus driver to stop for a car wash mid route while we were locked inside, or for our cab to get a tire change on the way to the airport, while we sat inside the car (you can’t make this stuff up). But unexpected events lead to funny memories, interesting stories, and darn good video footage! So, let’s get down to business:
Though we both got food poisoning twice while in Yunnan (with one of those times occurring on our scheduled departure date), we did manage to try a lot of new things while learning about the traditional cuisine.
- Shared dishes. It is customary in China to share dishes with everyone at the table. The rule of thumb is to order one dish per person along with white rice for the table.
- All things pork. Seriously, they love pork and eat it in all forms. We saw everything from pork skin and uncooked pork fat cubes to blood curd soup.
- Spicy! We found much of the food to be pretty spicy, often topped with a type of crushed red pepper (seeds and all). Of course, if you asked a local, they would say that it was not too spicy. But our sweat glands and tear ducts told us differently!
- Always order soup. It is viewed as an essential dish at almost every meal. There are conflicting beliefs on when to drink the soup. Some Chinese believe that drinking the soup before the meal keeps you thin, while drinking it after makes you fat.
- Yunnan rice noodles. A signature noodle only found in, you guessed it, Yunnan! The noodles are typically served up in a broth with seasoning, meat, vegetables and spice.
We experienced our fair share of Chinese culture during our time in Yunnan and want to touch on a few noteworthy examples:
- Minority groups. One of the main minority groups in Dali is the Bai people. Their influence can be seen throughout the city from the colors and designs of buildings and homes, to the local festivals and tourist attractions. In addition to the Bai people, there are influences from both the Yi and Han people, making for a diverse mix of language, cuisine, and traditions.
- Spirits. It is common to see a small pile of food on the sidewalk in front of a home, which is believed to be consumed by spirits that visit in the night. The people also honor the dead by burning incense and paper money in hopes that the spirits of the dead will protect and bring good luck to the family.
- Squatties. You can’t write a post about China and not mention the squatty potties. If you don’t know what these are, I recommend a quick google search. Pro tip: bring your own toilet paper and hand sanitizer. It’s rare to find either in most public restrooms.
China is different than the States in a number of ways, but the most amusing difference to us is definitely the variations in social norms.
- Bait & Switch. There were multiple occasions when we would order something and receive a similar, but not what we ordered, replacement. Rather than tell you when they are out of certain ingredients, servers at restaurants will take your order and then serve up something different. We experienced this multiple times (chicken parmesan instead of grilled chicken and mayonnaise and pickles in place of tartar sauce) and every time we acknowledged the mistakes they plainly replied that they didn’t have what we ordered so they brought us something different.
- Meaningless seat numbers. Ever seen a 6’3″ man box out a group of Chinese people in order to claim his assigned bus seat? Well, it happened and it was glorious. Although we were the first people to purchase bus tickets from Jianchuan to Dali, and first in line to board, it didn’t really matter because the seat number printed on the ticket is meaningless for certain bus lines. This means it is first come first serve and people can be pushy, creating a crazy chaotic scene when boarding. But, when you’re the tallest person on the bus and only a few seats have any sort of leg room, you have to do what you have to do.
- Public transit delays. Always leave extra time when using any sort of public transit in Yunnan. You never know when your bus will stop for a car wash, your cab will need a tire change, your bus driver will stop to pick up anyone who flags them down and will drop them off wherever they’d like for a few extra $$$, or your cab driver will surprise you by picking up someone else who called them for a ride and then ask you to wait while said person browses at a market. Seriously, these things can and most definitely do happen.
China was certainly one of those places where the lifestyle differences are palpable. You recognize just how far away from home you are, and you really get a chance to appreciate what life is like across the world! Check out our latest YouTube video below for a feel of what life is like in the Yunnan province, and be sure to follow us on instagram @kimblesinbits for daily updates!