We are back! As we couldn’t access our blog from China, we decided to write pretty much only the highlights, dates included. Enjoy!!
To get to Beijing from Seoul, we had to first fly to Shanghai, and then take a transfer to Beijing. I was a bit worried to travel to these airports as all I know in Chinese is “nihao” (hello!) but luckily most of the important staff spoke basic English. We arrived at the Shanghai airport in the late morning, and waited 3 hours there before the second departure. The airport was beautiful, and the waiting area had some sort of “fake sky” look:
The flight took 3 hours, but we had a guy behind us coughing and then clearing his throat of mucus VERY LOUDLY every 5 minutes. It made me shiver every time! But I have to get used to it, because it’s a common thing here. I should have recorded it though, it was quite spectacular. Anyway, about 15 minutes before we arrived in Beijing, we looked outside our window, and saw the city… and its immense cloud of pollution. I have read that Beijing was one of the most polluted city in the world, but I had no idea it was going to be that visible! Wow!
For the second time in our trip, we had a friend waiting for us at the airport. Wang, a Chinese metal head and record shop/label owner whom we’ve met several times in Canada (his doom metal wife, Kayla, studies at the University of Montreal), offered to be our host in Beijing.
Wang brought us to his wife’s unused apartment in Beijing, where he told us to be like at home. Wow! A real place of our own? After months and months of traveling, to have a real place to ourselves was a dream come true. Thanks Wang and Kayla!! So yeah, as we were hungry as hell, Wang immediately brought us to our first Chinese feast. We went to a Xinjiang (region of China that had had a lot of Turkish immigrants in the past) restaurant and had some absolutely amazing braised lamb and chicken skewers:
We also tasted a strange curiosity, century eggs! They are preserved eggs that went through a chemical process… the egg white becomes hard cola-coloured gelatine, and the yellow becomes greenish-black. They still tasted like eggs though, which is the weird thing! They were served on very soft tofu, and covered in salt. They have a light ammonia smell… (kind of smelled like pee):
We later saw what century eggs looked like before cracking the shells:
We started our intense sight-seeing the next day, but we had to have a big breakfast before leaving. We thus had some really yummy stuffed steamed dumplings with different flavours; pork, spinach and sea weed – a typical breakfast meal around here:
We then headed for the famous Forbidden City (Ming Dynasty – 1368-1644); the very center of Beijing that was forbidden to anyone except the Emperor, the Emperor’s 70-something wives and the chopped-penis/emasculated workers. Of course, high officials had to enter from time to time to talk to the Emperor about war problems or other city-related subjects, but it was quite rare as the emperor didn’t want to see too many people every day.
We then entered the gates, and ventured into what was one of the most mysterious parts of Beijing. The Forbidden City includes the palace, the resting places of the Emperor and its wives/concubines, the workers rooms as well as a small garden
The palace details were quite similar to what we had seen in Seoul, except that it had more golden dragons.
The architecture was really amazing, and the pollution/fog gave it an absolutely gorgeous mystical look:
In the garden, they had some very strange things like an artificial hill constructed out of eroded rocks (taken from a nearby lake):
After this, we went on one of the most famous ancient shopping streets, which has shops that are 100+ years old. There, we experienced a strange sunset with a supernatural sun!
Today we visited Yong He Gong, the Lama Temple. Built during the Qing (Manchu) dynasty (1644 – 1911), this temple was the home of the only official recognized Lama (leader of Tibetan Buddhism/Yellow Sect Lamaism) by the Chinese empire. Or something like that. The place was very colourful and there were many people burning fragrant incense to honour Buddha.
In the Wanfu hall, there is a 26 meter high/3 meter diameter statue of the deity Maitreya, which was sculpted from a single piece of sandalwood. It was impressive, I’ve never seen such a big sculpture in my life! It was 3 or 4 stories tall!
There were a few museums on site, displaying impressive Qing Dynasty imperial court items and Lamaism ritual statues and objects. One of them had a skull cup, made from an actual human skull…
And then we had a dumpling soup for lunch, which was like 75 cents:
ROADTRIP DAY! Wang drove us to the Great Wall of China (Badaling section), which was used as a military defence system built over 2000 years ago over the majestic mountains of North and Northwest China. At places with broad views, towers have been erected near the wall to send signals – which would be received quickly in case of an invasion. Of course, it has been re-enforced many times, but the original structure remained the same. In total, it is 8000 km long!
As you can drink publicly in China, we brought some cold beers to enjoy on one of the most mystical human-made places in the world hehe
Sometimes the stairs were very very steep, or there would be no stairs at all – just slippery bricks. It was quite challenging at parts, and the day after I totally felt my calves had heavily worked out.
And finally, we ended our day with some Kung Pao chicken (sweet and spicy chicken with peanuts and leeks). Yummy!
Today, we finally went to visit “666 Rock Shop”, owned by Wang. They are the only shop in China selling metal, and I was surprised to see the insane quality of the records you could find there! From extreme metal to doom, death, NWOBHM and thrash metal – everything is there. The selection is breath taking – it’s like going through a really killer online distro, but it’s an actual store! Of course, if you compare them to Japanese record shops, 666 Rock Shop is quite small, but its great selection makes up for it. I found some out of print South American CD’s there for really cheap, but had to pass on many other kickass releases (will buy them later on when we travel to Europe). Here are some pictures of this small but kickass shop:
I have been told that one of the most popular items there was my very own cookbook… they have sold around 20 copies of it! Incredible!
Afterwards, we went to another Xinjiang restaurant along with 10 other headbangers to have a long Chinese food and Chinese beer feast. We ate and drank for 6 hours! I love Asia so far, so many intense culinary adventures!!! We had some kind of Xinjiang lamb pizza, some pork with thin tofu sheets that use to wrap the pork in (making some kind of tofu tacos), century eggs, and many many skewers.
They would impale and roast everything; mushrooms, bugs, lamb, lamb cartilage, garlic and bread!
It was really killer… we were blasting metal at the table and nobody seemed to mind!! Welcome to China!!
The Summer Palace is what we visited today. Located a bit outside Beijing, but still easily reachable by subway, it is a huuuuge place with temples, palace rooms, gardens, islands, bridges and a lake. It was really pretty, but at the same time extremely touristic… pretty much every building inside was transformed into a restaurant/snack bar/souvenir shop, and if you had to pay extra if you wanted to visit more interesting things. We still walked around quite a bit though, as the place is absolutely gigantic!
Around there, we found some street vendors selling questionable food:
Today is the first day of the Chinese National Holiday week. It is therefore the wrong time to do any sort of sightseeing in the city. The places are filled up with Chinese people, and it is a nightmare walking around! So, we decided to go where the normal tourists wouldn’t go; a metal gig! We went to the first day of the “National Holiday Metal Fest”, which featured about 5 or 6 local bands. It has to be one of the weirdest gigs I’ve been to. The inside of the venue was covered with mirrors and feathers, and they were serving hot beer in paper cups!!!!
The bands themselves unfortunately ranged from mediocre to vomit-inducing. We pretty much came to see “Raging Mob” which was supposed to feature ASSASSIN’s Robert on vocals (he now lives in Beijing!) but he had quit the band on the same day. The band sounded like modern thrash… it was mediocre, but at least we could listen to it. The other bands of the night were just terrible – there were some melodic metal, some metalcore and some rap metal. Another band featured a keyboardist and a cute female singer… I was expecting some vocals à la Nightwish, but she was actually growling like a man! She added many effects to her voice, and some parts actually made me think of Vincent Crowley (Acheron)’s vocals, but the rest was pure crap. At least it was entertaining! Wang told me NOT to think of this concert as a good representation of Beijing’s metal scene hahaha
Our last day in Beijing! We ate all day (literally), and packed our bags as we are taking a night train to Shanghai. A few days ago, I had asked Wang if we could have Dim Sum for breakfast. Dim Sum are some sort of Chinese tapas; tiny meals carried around by people with carts in the restaurants. I had some a long time ago in Ottawa’s Chinatown with a Chinese friend of mine (hello Kevin!), and I wanted to repeat the experience in China. Wang explained me that Dim Sum was typical food from Hong Kong, but we could still find some in Beijing, so we went to a nearby restaurant. We ordered many many things, and it turned out to be quite a feast!
In the afternoon, myself and Wang walked around in a market and stopped at a fancy cafe:
And then, to finish our trip to Beijing on a perfect note, we went to a local restaurant to eat the famous Beijing Roast Duck! As an entrée, we ate pork and coriander meatballs, and then came the duck. The whole duck was only 10$… a steal!
After this, Wang took us to the Railway Station, and left us at the last gate.
Our first experience in Beijing and China was really great, especially thanks to Wang! He made us feel at home in such a foreign land, and we really appreciated everything he did for us!!! Thank you Wang, we shall never forget our absolutely epic week with you!!!
So now, we are heading to Shanghai… one of the biggest cities of the world!
We arrived quite early in the morning on the 3rd, and pretty much rested the whole day as we didn’t sleep too well on the train (it was just normal seats, and they weren’t very comfortable). On the 4th, we started doing some sightseeing, starting with one of the most famous Shanghainese neighbourhoods, The Bund (pronounced “the bunned”). First, I felt like I was walking through New York city or even London, and then BANG! You see buildings that totally seem like they come from space or something! It was the weirdest thing ever. Never thought I’d see something like this in China haha
They arranged a scenic pedestrian way beside the main river, so you can walk and appreciate the weird architecture. They were tons of people because of the National Holiday week, but it just made it seem crazier:
But not everything is totally modern and crazy; walking back home, we stumbled upon some weird neighbourhoods that seemed like ghettos or something! But yeah, I think these are just old houses that were there a long time ago. It was weird to see the contrast between those houses and the surrounding high as hell skyscrapers:
A thing that was hard in Shanghai is that we weren’t with anybody to help us with Chinese language anymore. In Beijing we had Wang, but now we have nobody! Learning Chinese Mandarin is a total nightmare – not only do you need to remember some strange (and sometimes very long) names, but you also have to remember a “melody” (or tone) that goes with the word. So, I tried, but even then… nobody understood me, so I just gave up. Haha. I got a guide book and pointed a pictures, and it seems to work out…
Although it is still the National Holiday week, we couldn’t just sit at home (well, at the hostel) and do nothing, so we decided to visit the Old Town. Easily accessible by subway, we walked around a bit and saw some surprisingly cool buildings!! I believe they are restored, but it still gave a good idea of the local ancient architecture. Unfortunately, it started getting extremely busy and crowded – and fake Rolex/Chanel merchants were pissing me off, so we left pretty fast.
What was the coolest around the Old Town were the markets. They had an interesting antique market (italics because the antiques are all new items, with an old style) but the best was the …insect and bird market!! That’s right, a whole market dedicated to selling creepy insects and chirpy birds!! It was kind of hard to find, but totally worth it to visit… although I did feel kind of scratchy when I left the place:
We honestly didn’t do too many touristy things in the next week. Shanghai is not a very touristic place, so we ended up with a lot of time on our hands to do other things. We thus mostly worked on organizing European CAUCHEMAR concert dates (we got 6 dates confirmed so far, will announce them in a few weeks!), worked on the tour concept and wrote new material. We found a rehearsal room, which we used for 12 hours! We are very productive and inspired these days, and we got to take advantage of it.
We got to taste some local things – but it was harder this time as our guide, Wang, wasn’t with us! Most of the things we tried ordering in the restaurants were not very good, or just too expensive for the portion size, so we stuck to eating stuffed dumplings, ramen noodles and lunch boxes from the convenient stores (all of these items were also dirt cheap!). We of course did have luck ordering some yummy meals in the restaurants:
Chinese snacks and soft drinks are weird, the logos are all translated, and they have very different flavours that what we are used to:
Today was our out-of-town day. We visited Suzhou, which is only 30 minutes away from Shanghai by bullet train (this time, it went around 300 km/hour). This very old city was once the capital of the kingdom of Wu, from the 12th to 4th centuries BC, and its world-renowned gardens have been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1997. It is also known as the “Venice of the East”, as 9 east-west canals and 12 north-south canals runs through the city. Suzhou did not stay stuck in its glorious past; they currently have one of the best economies on the globe as the world’s largest single manufacturers of laptop computers. We of course only focused on visiting the historic part haha
We first visited the Humber Administrator’s Garden, which was absolutely huge and really beautiful (but too full of tourists for my taste hehe). We weren’t in season, so the flowers were dead and the plants weren’t that green, but it was still really cool and well arranged. Every angle was absolutely picturesque!
We then walked around in the old town; and found some canals. They are really beautiful, and still in use today! People are using it for boats and other things…
Sadly, the water wasn’t very clean, and in some parts you could see garbage floating or streaks of oil:
Some people didn’t care though, like this woman cleaning her cranberries in the same water!!
We then went more towards the center, and visited some more things, like the Taoist Temple of Mystery. We thought it had the coolest name ever, and it looked pretty damn cool too (although we didn’t enter):
We then visited the brick Twin Pagodas, which were built in the Song Dynasty, and are currently standing in the ruins of a temple, surrounded by randomly placed bonsai trees.
Walking around the city, we saw many pets, including the following cute little one:
Near the end of the afternoon, we went to another very recommended place called The Garden of the Master of the Nets. Originally built in 1140, it is 1/10th of the size of the one we visited earlier, but it was really well done and much less touristic.
Walking back to the train station, we passed in front of the North Temple Pagoda, which was 9-stories tall and super impressive!
So yeah, this day trip was very worth it! We didn’t do too much in Shanghai, but our lone day in Suzhou made up for it!
Today we met up with a friend of mine, Erik, a diehard Swedish headbanger living and working in Shanghai. He explained us many things about Chinese culture, and brought us to one hell of an amazing hot-pot dinner at a restaurant called “Bone King” (How metal is that?) along with his girlfriend and other friends. It was a really cool experience, and we ate for hours until we were completely stuffed!!!!
Originally, we were only supposed to stay a week and a half here, but a few days ago, Mirai from SIGH wrote me an e-mail telling me they would be playing in Shanghai on the 15th, as part of an Asian Metal Festival! So of course, we changed our plans and stayed a few days longer. The fest started at two in the afternoon, and I arrived around 2:30… I wasn’t too sure of the exact line-up, but the first few bands were quite terrible unfortunately. I mean, some were good musicians, but they didn’t play my type of metal at all. The first band I saw played some power ballads (with terrible vocals) and a cover of Sid Vicious’s My Way. Second band was a “Black Metal” band with way too many keyboards. People seemed to love them though! I then met up with Mirai, and we went to buy some gas for his pyrotechnics. I also finally met the beautiful Mika (vocals/saxophone), who gave me a killer Gyudon recipe for Hellbent for Cooking! Mirai told me she wanted to try strange Chinese food, so I brought her some delicious chicken feet. She was very happy as she loves cartilage, and had them before in a Chinatown in the states!
So back to the concert, where we met with Erik and watched some more bands. I am very sorry, but I missed tons of bands and don’t really remember the names of the ones I did see… but the following one was some sort of modern melodic death. The music didn’t really interest me either, but the guitarist’s hair alone was worth watching them! They were some of the longest, and shiniest hair I’ve ever seen – and he was doing crazy windmills the whole time:
We then missed some more bands, due to going outside to drink beer. The beer inside was a outrageously ridiculous 6$ for a small can (even more expensive than in large venues in Canada!) so we happily drank our 75 cents 600 ml beers outside in the street.
A few bands later was Japanese G.S.D., who played some Behemoth-style “Death” metal. The two guitarists and bassists looked like the same person, and really impressed François and me! They were ok.
After drinking more beer, we came back inside just in time to see the last and headlining band, SIGH! I’ve been a fan for ten years (François, for fifteen!!!), and had regrettably missed them in 2008 when they came to Montreal. When Mirai told me they would come here, we were absolutely stoked!!! On top of it, it’s their first show in China, and a very very rare event in Shanghai. They played for about 40 minutes; a good mix of some old songs and newer ones. I was so excited to hear Hail Horror Hail, followed by The Knell… I just couldn’t believe I was listening to those songs live, yet alone in China!!!! All the guys played exceptionally well, and the home-made pyrotechnics were very cool. It’s rare to see a band with such striking visuals!
They played the following mind-blowing set:
Prelude to the Oracle
Hail Horror Hail
The Soul Grave
Death with Dishonor
A Victory of Dakini
Inked in Blood
Afterwards, we went to meet the guys in the backstage area, and partied and drank beer together – along with some local Chinese metalheads:
We returned “home” at 3AM, totally satisfied and a little bit tipsy hehe. Thanks to Mirai for inviting us at the show and to the SIGH guys for such a killer performance!!! Thanks also to Erik for being such a kickass guy and for telling us about the local culture and metal scene. We’ll miss all of you!
Right at this moment, we are sitting in the sleeper section of a train going from Shanghai to Kunming, in the Yunnan region of China (In the South, in the mountains kind of close to Tibet/Vietnam, home of 24 different ethnic minorities). We are doing the longest travel we have ever done so far; we’ll be traveling 44 hours in total! So far so good, the beds are hard but comfortable (much better than soft beds with springs), and we share a cabin with 4 other Chinese guys. We have access to hot water, so we brought an industrial supply of instant Ramen. Hehe. The countryside is gorgeous with tons of mountains, agricultural terraces (a bit like in old Incan sites!) and old houses built of local material. The train went pretty fast and I couldn’t take too many photos, but I did manage this one:
We can’t wait to arrive to Kunming and see a totally different China!
The train ride wasn’t that bad finally, and as we were well prepared, it went by pretty fast! The only bad thing was the 5 different crazy snores of a huge Chinese guy who was sleeping beside me. He eventually had to sleep in a sitting position because he was choking loudly every few minutes! I just put my earplugs and was able to ignore it.
We arrived in Kunming early in the morning to a surprisingly cold temperature… we were at 2000 meters above sea level! The city itself is way smaller than the other cities we visited, but with the neighbouring suburbs, it still holds 10 000 000 people. Haha! As soon as we arrived, we went to explore the downtown area:
They had a little park with a very green pond and a gazebo thing, full of old people drinking tea and playing cards or Chinese chess.
Yunnan is the region of China that grows and make Pu Erh tea, my favourite tea in the world. This type of tea is usually packed in sort of round “cakes”, and buried for a number of years until they become fermented. This method was traditionally done for easy transportation to tough regions like Tibet, for example. Some Pu Erh cakes are very valuable, and their value grows year after year – just like wine. We went to some market and had a tasting:
In the evening, we treated ourselves to some really comforting braised beef stew with home-made noodles. I don’t know if this is a local dish, but it tasted very North American/Eastern European!
We only had one “full” day in Kunming, so we decided to visit the biggest Bronze temple in China, the Golden Temple, from the Taoist cult. It was located on top of a hill in the north of the city. Before we started our journey, we fuelled up with some comforting rainy-day beef, mushroom and sweet potato noodle soup:
We then entered the impressive gates of the Golden Temple, which were HUGE! We then ascended the hill which took perhaps 20 minutes, and reached the Golden Temple.
The place was surrounded by gardens and parks, and there was also another Taoist temple on the grounds. It seemed to have more worshippers judging by the amount of charms attached and incense burnt:
In the evening, we went to the grocery store, and found some black chicken! I saw that in Beijing, but wanted to try it in a restaurant and haven’t seen it since… apparently the bones are also black! A rare delicacy!
Yesterday, we traveled a good 8 hours by train and local buses to a cute little town called Dali. Known for its traditional architecture, ethnic minority people, Cangshang mountains and Erhai lake, Dali was founded in 738 and was the capital of many Kingdoms over the years. Apparently, in 1000, it was the 13th biggest city in the world! Hard to believe, as for us, it was just a tiny quiet village… at least compared to other Chinese mega cities. We haven’t had so much fresh air since our hike in the Seoul mountain, more than a month ago.
Unfortunately, the most beautiful streets had also the fiercest souvenir sellers… on the street from the photo you see above, there was a little old lady that approached François and me. She tried selling me some ugly wooden bead bracelet, which I didn’t want, and then gave it to François. She didn’t want it back, and insisted he paid, so he just left it on a bench and walked off… and she punched him! HAHA! That was the only negative thing in Dali though, most people there were very nice and smiling all the time.
It seemed we were in a totally different country… everything was different; the street snacks, the color of people’s skin, the local architecture, the dogs… Even the tones of the language seemed different! We tasted some local speciality; grilled goat cheese:
We found a cheap vegan Buddhist buffet. For a 75 cent donation, you could eat all you wanted! I believe it is a way for the monks to eat for free or something… but anyway, the food was absolutely delicious, and we ate there three meals in a row (they changed the menu all the time).
Today, we rented two bikes to visit the surrounding Erhai lake villages. It was one of our favourite activities in China, as we were able to see the country side and really tiny villages first hand. No pollution! Women labouring the land! Everyone saying hello when we see them! Children running, and old men doing nothing… it was a truly relaxing day.
In the fisherman village of Caicun, we found a little dock where you could relax, and watch the day go by. There, we met a really old Chinese guy and some other tourists, who were also cycling.
We spent perhaps an hour there, talking, eating peanut butter on bread and mandarin oranges… when some kind of weird monk showed up to do his daily prayers. I’m not sure if he was a Tibetan monk; he had the robe, but the hat was totally out there. Perhaps it is how monks dress in the area? I don’t know, but the prayers he was reading were in Tibetan script.
We then took a local path and went to see other villages. Some peasant woman offered to share her lunch with us on the site of a field, but we politely declined because we were still stuffed by those peanut butter sandwiches. People were so nice and surprised to see us! Little kids were saying “hello” or “hallo” in English and they were so proud of it haha
On the way back we then did a small detour to visit the famous three pagodas on the site of a Buddhist complex. They are some of the best preserved Buddhist structures in China, and the middle one is apparently 1200 years old! You could pay 20$ and visit the entire site, but we decided to be cheap bastards and see them from far for free.
We honestly could have stayed there three days more, and done something different everyday, but we had to already head back to Kunming, to catch a flight to our next destination…
Today we had to wake up early in order to take the bus, which took us to the Dali train station. Our hostel (the Jade Emu), with the rise of the sun in a cloudy sky, had a really crazy colourful look:
At the train station, I bought some souvenir food from the Yunnan region, which had a funny name. They called the box “Yunnan eighteen monsters”, which perhaps they meant “Yunnan eighteen wonders”. It was not horrific at all, and actually pretty tasty! It was all sweets made with fruits, vegetables, chocolate, sesame and tea.
We took hard seats, the same class we used to go to Dali, but this time we shared the “cabin” with a bunch of old Kunming ladies. They were so nice, and we communicated using my phrase book. One of the ladies wanted me to try a bunch of food, as she saw that I seemed to enjoy eating… among them was spicy pickled ginger, a weird cinnamon tasting cube that was apparently good for the throat and finally, some tamarind – a sort of bean which you crack and eat the insides (it kind of tastes like fresh dates). I knew about tamarind since working on Hellbent for Cooking, my cookbook; Filipino band DEIPHAGO had given me a soup recipe using tamarind paste which I didn’t find, and had used crushed fresh tamarind instead.
The scenery was beautiful, as always, and I was able to take a photo of countryside houses when the train had stopped a few minutes:
And then, we finally arrived to our hostel, after spending a good 8:30 hours of traveling!
Now, we are in the plane on the way to Hanoi, Vietnam, where we are going to meet François’ parents – and travel with them for a month. We are very happy to finally see family members and to discover yet another country… which means a new language, new culture and new cuisine!!
In total, we have traveled around 70 hours in train in China, and we have done our best to discover as much as possible. We had many prejudices and pre-conceived ideas of China – which were pretty much all broken… China is a beautiful and gigantic country, with sweet people and a VERY diverse cuisine. A month wasn’t enough, but we enjoyed all of it!!