Happy Year of the Monkey from Tongli!

Matt and I celebrated the new year with a day trip to Tongli, one of the many small water towns surrounding Suzhou. Suzhou and the neighboring towns are teaming with man-made canals. It’s not hard to believe that there were once more canals than streets. Historically, I suppose, the canals were the highways. Nowadays, you can still see the occasional cargo bamboo raft floating down a canal, but they are mostly for irrigation, drainage and tourism. So, we tourists strolled the narrow walkways lining the canals, explored the old courtyard mansions, ate the local food, and enjoyed a sunny holiday in Tongli.

Travel tips:
Eat Tongli pork: They will cut it up for you and give you plastic bags for keeping your hands clean. It’s not classy, but it’s delish.

Stay at Blossom Hill Guesthouse: If you want to stay overnight, which we didn’t, this place looked really beautiful.

Getting there from Suzhou: We tried to take a bus but arrived at the stop just after one had come. We didn’t feel like waiting 2.5 hours for the next bus, so we took a taxi. From East Dushu Lake area it was 20 min and around 65 RMB. Coming back we took 2 buses to the subway, changed subway lines, transferred to another bus and 3 hours later made it home. Just take a taxi.

Xishan Island, Taihu: Quick escape from Suzhou

We are in a new province now, Jiangsu 江苏 , which affords us an all new selection of places we can reach in a weekend.  Xishan Island 西山岛 was the first to get marked off the list.

According to Wikipedia, Taihu 太湖 is the 3rd largest fresh water lake in China.  Xishan Island is the biggest island on that lake.

We took the Suzhou metro line 1 to Mudu 木渎 , then bus 69 for about 1.5 hours.  It was worth the haul.  There were no crowds this weekend.  Perhaps, since National Day is next Thursday, everyone is saving their 元 for lavish travel next weekend.  Whatever the reason, we had a wonderful time wandering around Shigong Hill 石工山 and Mingyue Ancient Village 明月港古村 (translates to Bright Moon Port Ancient Village) , eating local food harvested from Taihu, and watching the sunset over the lake from our dinner table.

If you go, we suggest staying at Fish Inn 飞鱼咖啡店 .  We didn’t but wish we did.  We stopped in their cafe for a couple of beers and the place was so clean and inviting.  It was the same cost as the place we were staying and had a lot more charm.  Also, the owner spoke excellent English, so if your Chinese is 马马虎虎。。。别担心。Seriously, don’t worry about it.

Welcome to Suzhou!

This spring, Matt and I decided to change things up a bit and pursue new jobs in a new city. Now we’re in Suzhou, “Heaven on Earth” as they refer to it here in China. It is beautiful, modern, and quite different from the China that Matt and I have been accustomed to for the last 3 years. Less staring, more foreigners, more foreign food, a Subway (the public transportation and the restaurant), less noise, less trash, more English.  I may miss some of the challenges of Nanchang.  I am already missing my friends there, but for now Suzhou is a really nice change.  I think we’re going to like it here.  Classes start in the beginning of September for both of us.  We are eager to meet our students.  For now, here are some pictures of our new life.

Our new apartment building

Our living room

The view from our 15th floor apartment

Early morning walk around the neighborhood. Suzhou is also called “the Venice of China” because it has so many canals running through the city.

Matt’s new school, Soochow University

Jenn’s new school, Xi’an Jiaotong Liverpool University

Jenn’s new office

The Journey North

A new Chinese legend starring Kepler, Paula, Matt, and Jenn.  An extraordinary journey to the snowy North past ancient palaces and great walls to frozen cities.  Will our 4 heroes be beaten by the elements or will they find their way to the Nescafe warming hut in time?…duh duh duh…

Lao Long Tou “Old Dragon’s Head” where the Great Wall meets the sea at Shanhaiguan.

Summer Palace, frozen over for the winter, becomes a giant ice skating rink outside Beijing

St. Sophia’s Cathedral in Harbin, once a Russian Orthodox cathedral.  Still beautiful outside.  Inside it’s been gutted and turned into a history museum.

Harbin‘s Ice and Snow Festivals

Chunbing, all your favorite Chinese dishes wrapped in crepes. Yum!

Ice blocks are pulled out of the frozen Songhua “Pine Flower” River to build the ice city.

Official food of the Ice and Snow Festivals, ice cream.  It’s warm compared to the air.

4.5 hour commute to the grocery store

Living abroad is often an exercise in “Learning to live without ______.”

Don’t get me wrong, I recognize that Chinese people who travel abroad feel the same frustrations as I do when they go to the grocery store (Only 1 variety of soy sauce!  Excuse me, where is the dried fish aisle? You call this a rice cooker?!  But, there’s only 1 button.)  I also admit, we are blessed here with deliciously fresh produce, amazing local restaurants, and a large import grocery store.  However, there are some things that I miss (Every time I see something delicious on Pinterest, I scrutinize the recipe to determine whether the ingredients are available in our city or if cooking it is even possible in my kitchen).

Usually once a semester, I have an excuse to visit a larger, more developed city in China and you’d better believe that I hit up their import stores.  This month, a trip to Guangzhou (4.5 hours by speed train), resulted in a trove of gastro-treasures that we won’t have to live without for the next few weeks.  Curious what we bought?

In the picture: dill pickles, cornbread mix, walnuts, dried apricots, wasabi peanuts (a gift for you dad:), Dr. Pepper, salsa, Red Vines, granola bars, cupcake papers, macaroni and cheese, worchestershire sauce, hot sauce (China has their own spicy sauces that are amazing, but they’re not Frank’s).  Not pictured because they were consumed on the train ride home: Almond Joy, Pretzels

Things we’ve yet to find in our city or elsewhere: canned pumpkin (really hard in the fall when everyone is pinning pumpkin flavored everything!) and sour cream.

For those interested in finding these delicacies in Guangzhou, go to Corner’s Deli in the Backstreet Shops of CITIC PLAZA (Linhexi Subway Station Exit D)

Hong Kong & Macau: a photo tour with the Coupals

After 4 weeks of travel, if they were travel weary, it certainly didn’t affect their excitement for exploring China’s autonomous regions.  Mom and Dad Coupal joined us on our first visit to Hong Kong and Macau after traveling to New Zealand, Australia, and Fiji on their own.  We rode ferries, buses, subways, and our feet all over the coastal cities.  Here are the pictures.

This room was clean, and available on New Year’s Eve, so I won’t mention the size. Our first experience with airbnb.com.

Clams in black bean sauce. Best paired with orange Fanta.

Happy New Year from a very crowded Victoria Harbor!

Sai Kung: Seafood sellers don’t even have to leave their boats to pedal their goods.

Passed this sign every morning. Missed you, Nathan.

Saavy travel guides at Victoria Harbor.

Big Bus tours gets a Big thumbs up from us. Convenient way to see the city in a short time.

Dim Sum at Stanley Beach.


Hong Kong style duck. Yum!

Stanley Market


Hanging spiral incense at Man Mo Temple

See you next time, Mom and Dad!

The Fail-Safe Diet Plan

Hey Ladies and Gents!  I have a sure proof way for you to shed the pounds after a wonderful vacation visiting family and eating a lot of delicious food.  This plan is copyright so don’t try stealing these ideas.

First step:  Book a trip to somewhere exotic (read sweltering heat and humidity).  The farther away, the more effective this plan will be.  Hint: try to jump as many time zones as possible.

Second step:  This one is important.  Sample some questionable lukewarm soup at a fried rice street vendor.

Third step: Give yourself no more than 8 hours of rest at a time while trying to climb every mountain, ancient wall, and distant temple in your chosen destination.

Here are several variations to your workout that will help keep your trip exciting.

Go on a walk across a city and get caught in a rainstorm.  Sprint from awning to awning trying to find the subway.

It is difficult to keep your heart rate up while riding in a bus for 5 hours.  Try choosing a bus with a lead-foot driver and a route that swerves through very steep mountain passes, lots of traffic, occasional rainstorms, rock slides, and live stock crossing the road.

Stairs.  Choose tourist attractions with lots of stairs.

Fourth step:  By this time that soup should have kicked in.  Your appetite will have disappeared and everything you eat will rapidly exit your body. (If you feel uncomfortable at this stage, just keep going.  Weight loss is never easy folks.)

Fifth step:  Make sure you travel with great people whom you like a lot.  Family is best because it is harder for them to disown you after the adventure is complete.

That’s it.  I promise if you stick to this plan you will loose all that vacation blubber faster than any good doctor would recommend.  Good luck and stay safe!

Local Food or The Glue That Makes Us Stick to China

The food here is good.  We are always asked by students if we eat out or if we cook at home.  The truth is we eat out a lot!  The food shops found around our campus have some delicious dishes if you are able to overlook a lower standard of service and cleanliness than the US Food and Drug Admin. would.  We are and as a result we are richly rewarded with amazing meals for incredible prices.  I’ll let the pictures defend themselves.

Egg Fried Rice Noodles jidanchaofen 6rmb (1usd)

Typical meal at the student cafeteria, meat, tofu, and veggies served over rice gaifan “over rice” 9rmb (1.5usd)

The best fried rice is found in our cafeteria jidanchaofan 6rmb (1usd)

A selection of dishes from one of our favorite local restaurants.  Clockwise from to left tiebanqiezi “iron plate eggplant”, tangsuliji “sweet and sour pork”, qingjiaochaodan “green pepper and fried egg” : all together 50rmb (8usd)

Cumin beef ziranniurou 14rmb (2.25usd)

Beef noodle soup niuroulamian 9rmb (1.50usd)

You choose the ingredients and they boil it up as a soup for you malahuoguo 10rmb (1.75usd)


Do’s and Don’t’s of Yangshuo

We visited Yangshuo in January and were blessed with beautiful weather and lovely scenery.  Here are some Do’s and Don’ts based on our experience.

Do purchase a tourist map, rent a bike, and explore the Yulong River (a smaller tributary of the famous Li River).  The small villages along this river are really interesting and quiet.  The roads are good for bike riding and the scenery is incredible.  Locals happily offer directions although they don’t always direct you to where you want to go but instead to the front step of their family restaurant or bamboo boat dock.  Oh well.

Don’t leave your bike unattended ANYWHERE.  We figured inside the gate of the Moon Mountain hiking area was a safe bet.  You have to pay to get in and there was a security guard and what appeared to be his family sitting around watching over everything.  Unfortunately we returned from our hike and the tires of one of our bikes had been slashed. A scam for sure being as soon as we exited the gate there was a gentleman on his motorbike offering us a ride back to our hotel for a small fee (hmm…we opted for walking back)

Do stay at the Yangshuo Mountain Retreat.  We really enjoyed experiencing their commitment to being eco-friendly and luxurious.  It was quiet and clean.  The food was delicious.  The atmosphere was cozy.

Don’t try and do the Li River tour on your own.  We took a local bus for 2 hours to where ferries depart for the tour only to find that the tour was going to take twice as long as we were told and tickets were only being sold by some sketchy looking scalpers. We decided on passing on the Li River this time and headed back to Yangshuo via the same 2 hour local bus.   I think we would have had a much more pleasant experience had we just booked a tour through our hotel or a local agency.  We really don’t like tour group stuff so we wouldn’t offer this advice if we didn’t really mean it.

Don’t trust anyone to help you without strings attached (Okay, that may just be cynicism talking but do be wary of locals that seem eager to give you directions or advice, they are almost all trying to sell you something).  This place is crawling with tourists and locals are clever when it comes to getting every penny they can from you.  Hey, it’s their home and they make the rules, budget travelers will just have to deal with it.

Do try the local specialty, beer fish.  It’s delicious.

 Next time…We’re back in Nanchang eating the best food in China!

Nanjing: It seems like summer was ages ago! So, why am I still writing about it?

So, Nanjing was cool.

No really, it was.  Actually, it is a city that I have become interested in since moving here. I have read or seen many books and movies recently that take place in this city (i.e. Pearl of China by Anchee Min and Flowers of War directed by Zhang Yimou and staring Christian Bale, watch out it’s a devastating tear jerker).  So, I wanted to see the setting for myself.

We had a whirlwind trip to this former capital of China.  It was our last stop and we were anxious to get home but it was a good time none the less.

We visited the Nanjing Massacre Museum, a solemn and enlightening memorial for the victims of the Japanese invasion of China before WWII.

We saw the immense burial place of the revolutionary and former President of China, Sun Yat-sen, and adjoining scenic area of Zhong Mountain.

We genuinely couchsurfed for the first time in the home of a family of 4 from South  Africa.

And we did some shopping.  Sorry, no pictures.

After 6 weeks of travel, we returned to Nanchang on an overnight train, took a taxi to our apartment, spent the early morning hours cleaning up the dust and paint splatters left behind by the “redecoration” crew (that’s a story for another time), and then slept for the next few days, dreaming of the many stories we would tell and now have.

Next time…school starts, Chinese food gets more delicious, and house plants hit a growth spurt.  Trust me, it’ll be good.

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