Real China: Our Review of the Yunnan Province

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:

The Food

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.

A traditional Bai meal.

A traditional Bai meal.

The Culture

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.
Dali Catholic Church with heavy Bai influence. Most beautiful and unique church we've seen thus far!

Dali Catholic Church with heavy Bai influence. Most beautiful and unique church we’ve seen thus far!

  • 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.

They even have porta squatties!

They even have porta squatties!

The Surprises

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.
Front seat champions.

Front seat champions.

  • 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!

Gobi March 2015: Running through the Desert

As many of you know, last week I ran in the Gobi March, a 250 km (155-mile) self-supported stage race across the Gobi Desert. The race (six stages taking place over seven days) consisted of nearly 200 competitors from 40 different countries, including several people who had placed highly in other stage-racing events. This was a completely new challenge for me, especially given the fact that I needed to carry all of my supplies on my back! Competitors are required to carry everything they need to eat and camp all week with the exception of water and a tent.

My “rookie” status in this style of racing became apparent at the competitor check-in. After filling out some paperwork and checking off a list of mandatory items, everyone weighs their bag. My initial weight came in at 12kg, which comes to 26.5 lbs. To give you an idea of where I stood among the field, the lightest pack came in at just under 6kg and the heaviest pack weighed 15kg. So, I was going to be carrying much more extra weight than most! To be fair, though, much of my weight came from food and I certainly didn’t want to run low on fuel towards the end of the race.

Following check-in, a three-hour bus ride to the start of the desert course, and some opening musical festivities with the local villagers, we headed to our tents to get the first of several sleepless nights. Everyone awoke to a chilly morning in a valley surrounded by the snow-capped Tian Shan mountains. It was an absolutely beautiful scene and one of the many things about this race that I will never forget. After eating the first of far too many freeze-dried meals, we got the morning course breakdown and announcements from the 4Deserts staff. The competitors lined up, waited for the countdown and 3…2…1…the race began!

To give a full race recap, I would literally need to write a novel. Instead I will list the three most memorable moments (good and bad) from each of the six stages.

                                                           Stage 1: Beyond Hami
1. Running on the crest of a sand dune (nearly a mile-high) through a vicious snowstorm. It was pounding snow so hard I could barely see, as my feet were trying ever-so-hard to trudge through soft sand. Possibly the most unforgettable running moment of my life.

2. Watching the weather change throughout the day. After the snow subsided in the afternoon, the sun came out and melted nearly all of it, including every bit that was on the sand dune!

3. Finishing the stage in first place! Fighting through the tough conditions to come away with a stage one victory was truly special.

Sand dune?  I'm not so sure...

Sand dune? I’m not so sure…

                                             Stage 2: In the Footsteps of Genghis Khan
1. Running up a snow-covered mountain. About a mile into this stage, we had to summit a mountain to reach the highest point of the race at 8,400 feet of elevation. My feet weren’t dry for more than a couple of minutes during this stage, because I spent most of my time stepping into snow past my knees!

2. Chasing down my buddy Kyle. Kyle McCoy, who ultimately took third place overall in the race, was one of my best friends in the competition. In this particular stage, Kyle set a hard pace after we summitted the mountain and I chased him down the rest of the day to finish just minutes behind for second place.

3. Finishing the stage with an American 1-2-3 finish! It was the first time in the HISTORY of a 4Deserts race that one nationality has finished in the top three positions of a single stage. With 46 races to date and six stages in each, that means that it never happened in over 270 opportunities. More to come on that…

                                                      Stage 3: Foothills of Tian Shan
1. Running on a road! For a race taking place in the desert, the terrain varied widely and was often quite technical and difficult to run in. However, during this stage, we got a 5k section on a paved road!

2. The freezing rain. Toward the end of this stage, the temperatures dropped to near freezing with rain pouring down. After finishing the stage, I shivered inside my sleeping bag for over an hour before my body temperature leveled out!

3. Finishing the stage with Kyle. The stage was dominated by Ralph Crowley, the other American in the top three. Kyle and I were about ten minutes behind him, as we ran nearly half of this stage side-by-side. We even crossed the finish line together, a memory I will always cherish!

Kyle and I fist-bumping at the finish line!

Kyle and I fist-bumping at the finish line!

                                                   Stage 4: Crossing the Hami Express
1. Going out FAST. This stage was 26.7-miles in length, and after three straight days of marathon-length stages, we ran this one in under 3 hours and 30 minutes. Kyle set a ridiculous pace and Ralph and I just tried to keep up. I finished seven minutes behind Kyle and Ralph was two minutes behind me.

2. The heat. For the first time in this “desert” race, it got HOT! Temperatures reached 100 degrees Fahrenheit and we got a good sweat on out there. We were happy that the heat came later in the week so that the smells around camp weren’t too nasty (did I mention there were no showers available all week?)

3. Backpack mishaps. Since I was using a Camelbak bladder for water while many other competitors used water bottles, I was forced to take off my pack to re-fill water at checkpoints. At the final checkpoint of this stage, I closed the water bladder incorrectly, one of my bib safety pins popped off and the nozzle of the Camelbak flew off. All of this with Ralph just minutes behind me and closing fast!

                                                            Stage 5: The Long March
1. INSANE HEAT. This stage was 50.3 miles in length, and the temperatures reached a staggering 120 degrees Fahrenheit. And how about wind? Well, there was very little of it, and most of it felt like a hair dryer was being blown in your face. This was easily the most challenging race I’ve ever experienced, but God lifted me up and guided me through in a big way!

2. Running out of water. In between checkpoints 5 and 6 (7 was the final checkpoint), I ran out of water more than two miles away from the checkpoint. My mouth dried up so fast that I had no choice but to walk. I even drenched myself in water at checkpoint 5, and within ten minutes I was completely dry. This heat was no joke!

3. Crossing the finish line. All day I had been told that Ralph was 40 minutes ahead of me. Somehow, someway, in the final 12 miles of the course, I made up 25 minutes on him! I was certain that he had bounced into first place, but after I crossed the finish line he said he came in only 15 minutes earlier. That meant one thing: I was in first place!

Soaking my head at one of the checkpoints during the Long March.

Soaking my head at one of the checkpoints during the Long March.

                                                    Stage 6: The One that Got Away
1. The sandstorms. There were some serious sandstorms that swept into our campsite before the sixth and final stage. We actually had to sleep outside because the wind had blown down all of the tents. I’ve never eaten more sand in my life!

2. The waiting game. I was expecting a nice and relaxing Friday after the Long March to recuperate before the final 7-mile stage on Saturday. However, the sand, wind and intense heat made it impossible to relax and stay comfortable. Plus, all I could think about the whole day was the final stage!

3. The announcement. At 2am on Saturday morning, the wind got worse and it began to rain. At this point we were told that the final stage would have to be cancelled. I was looking forward to duking it out with Ralph on the final state (I had a 5-minute lead), but it never came to be. However, the cancellation meant that I was the official champion of the Gobi March!  It also meant that the top three overall finishers were from the USA, an even more impressive feat that had never been done by any country before (in a single stage, much less overall).

I can’t even begin to express proper gratitude for the prayers, emails, blog comments and well wishes that I received during the race. After I had access to internet following the race, it was like Christmas morning reading what everybody had written. The emotion and the strength that I felt from everyone when I read their messages at the Cybertent during the race will always stick with me. You’re all a tremendous blessing to me and I am forever thankful for your love. You led me to become the 2015 Gobi March Champion!

If you’re interested in reading some of the news, recaps and results information from the race, feel free to visit the 4Deserts Gobi March webpage.

The Dos And Don’ts of Beijing

Adam and I have been on the road for four and half months and we have definitely experienced our fair share of adventure, usually in the “let’s go for a hike” sense but other times in the “did we really just sleep on top of a mountain” sense. We live for adventure but I have to admit…we were nervous about visiting Beijing, China. After spending a month in the US and two weeks in Europe, we had started getting used to hearing English and eating familiar foods. China was going to be an experience for all of our senses and we are happy to report that China. Is. Wonderful. With over 20 million people, ancient sites and impressive modern architecture, Beijing is unlike any other city that we’ve visited.

There are some seriously crazy new buildings in Beijing!

There are some seriously crazy new buildings in Beijing!

Old and new living in the same city.

Beautiful views at Temple of Sun Park.

It can be overwhelming planning a trip here, with so much to learn before you go and see and do once you’re there. To assist in your planning, we’ve prepared a short list of dos and don’ts in Beijing:

DO use the subway to get around town. It’s safe, cheap, and very easy to navigate. All signs are in both Chinese and English, and all announcements are made in English as well. If you can, grab a subway map from your hotel to help you plan your trip and navigate as you go.

DON’T drink the tap water, it is not safe. Bottles of water can easily be found at any of the small convenience stores scattered throughout the city.

DO visit The Great Wall. The Mutianyu section of the wall is only a two hour drive from Beijing and offers a great view of the wall and the foothills. You can reach the wall by foot, by ski lift or by riding in a four person gondola. If you’re feeling adventurous, take the winding steel toboggan track back down from the wall. It’s so much fun! (check out the video!)

DON’T cross the street without looking in all directions, twice, even if you have the ‘walk’ signal. There are buses, cars, mopeds and bicycles on the road and they all seem to follow their own rules of the road. The biggest vehicle should always have the right-of-way which means if you’re walking on foot and not paying attention, you’re going to lose.

Watch out for these guys! They're everywhere and you don't need a drivers license to drive them.

Watch out for these guys! They’re everywhere and you don’t need a drivers license to drive them.

DO expect to be served rice, noodles and soy sauce for breakfast. Say goodbye to your bowl of fruit loops and blueberry pancakes.

DON’T forget to check the hours for The Forbidden City. Otherwise you might show up an hour after the gates close like we did (oops!)

Locked outside of The Forbidden City!

Locked outside of The Forbidden City!

DO eat dumplings and peking duck. Highly, highly recommend Mr. Shi’s for dumplings and Da Dong Roast Duck for their lean duck. Quick tip on the duck: one is enough for two people, and since it is served with a condiment tray, soup, fresh fruit and a dessert, you definitely won’t leave hungry.

DON’T be surprised if people stare at you or want to take a picture with you. We’re not sure if it’s Adam’s height, his massive beard, or his downright good looks that’s turning heads in China but he is definitely an attraction for the locals. We’ve seen everything from a 360 degree stop-and-stare, to a wide-eyed, mouth open double take. In fact, our visit at The Great Wall was interrupted a few times by people wanting to take pictures with us! I only wish I could see what they were posting about us on social media.

To see a video recap of our time in Beijing, including footage from The Great Wall, Mr. Shi’s and Tiananmen square, click the link below or visit the “Kimblesinbits” YouTube channel!