Aug 2008

The Road to Bejing: Heiku to Kunming

As long as the powers that be allow it, gas•tron•o•my is blogging live from China! Eee! There’s still so much to share from Vietnam, but since the eyes of the world are currently focused on China, I thought it would be most appropriate to share my travels as they’re actually taking place—a novel concept considering the back log of posts in my queue!

Ever since The Astronomer and I decided to venture on this yearlong journey to Vietnam, our plan has been to travel home via Beijing in time for the Summer Games. In addition to being food enthusiasts, we’re also jocks at heart.

We entered Heiku, China via Lao Cai, Vietnam. It’s pretty crazy how one side of the bridge is China and the other is Vietnam. Boundaries and borders are fascinating.

Farewell, Vietnam. It’s been an absolute pleasure. As I crossed the bridge into China, I kept singing to myself, “It’s the end of the world as we know it. And I feel fine.”

After finding a suitable hotel, The Astronomer and I sought an ATM to procure some Chinese currency (RMB) in order to buy me a snack and to buy us bus tickets to Kunming. I settled on a squishy white bread concoction with pork floss and scallion oil for my pre-run nibble. Even though the baked good was the size of my hand, the lack of density made it possible to down it in three bites.

After changing into our running gear, we jogged along the Red River. We knew for certain that we were no longer in Vietnam as we trucked along the manicured riverside path because as anyone whose ever been to Vietnam knows, the rivers are stinky, filthy and definitely not exercise friendly.

Upon returning to our hotel post-run, we discovered that there was no longer running water in our room (or in the entire facility). Wah wah. For the next hour or so, we argued with the manager for our security deposit and searched for a hotel with working showers. By the time we finally found suitable shelter, I was too angry and exhausted to eat dinner, which is a shame because there was some really good looking stuff on the streets of Heiku.

We woke up early the following morning to have a hearty breakfast before boarding our 11+ hour bus ride to Kunming. Most of the eateries with storefronts were closed at 8 AM, which was another sign that we were no longer in Vietnam. We stumbled upon a vendor under an awning and tucked in for some hot noodle soup.

Since neither of us spoke Chinese, we pointed to a bowl of noodles and smiled and then pointed to the chilies and shook our heads no. We’ll take everything but the chilies, sir.

After we placed our order, the vendor added fresh scallions, bean sprouts, mushrooms and a salty/oily pork mixture atop the noodles and poured a hot broth into the bowl. The broth was actually brown, but turned bright orange due to the oily pork mixture. Whereas the portions in Vietnam are quite modest, this bowl of noodles was nothing short of hearty.

The wide pappardelle-like noodles were my favorite part. Although I didn’t have high hopes for a bowl of noodles served in a parking lot, these were so so good that I couldn’t stop talking about them for the rest of the day. Two bowls of noodles set us back 10 RMB ($1 USD = 6.8 RMB).

We boarded the Yunnan Express at 8:45 AM and got comfy because eleven hours ain’t no joke.

A little past noon, we stopped over for some lunch and a restroom break. The Astronomer and I didn’t know what the heck was going on, so we mimicked our bus mates.

Inside a darkish room, a couple of workers were serving up meat, veggies, and rice for 10 RMB a plate. Even though we weren’t hungry, we played along and bought some food. Our hodgepodge of Chinese delights included stir-fried chayote (a familiar treat and my favorite item), cucumber salad, bamboo shoots and two pork dishes.

This porky number resembled what we knew to be Chinese food in America, with the inconvenient addition of bones. Everything but the chayote was too spicy for me. I wish I were tougher.

The accompanying squash soup was the blandest thing ever, but it turned out to be a good thing because after eating such fiery foods, I needed a calming broth.

All the locals were garnishing with this great-looking cilantro, scallion, garlic, soy sauce and chili salsa. As expected, it was much to spicy for me. After lunch, we boarded the bus and got comfy once more.

The scenery from Heiku to Kunming is gorgeous—seemingly endless green hills and mountains. The only disturbing sight was this burning-action on the side of the road.

And the huge cloud of smoke as a result of the burning.

A few hours later, we were rewarded with another rest stop! This one specialized in deep-fried meats on a stick!

The Astronomer went for deep-fried blocks of tofu sprinkled with chili flakes, which was hot and good! He would have ordered another stick, but the conductor was screaming, “all aboard!” Or so I translated in my head.

I bought some snacks at the convenient store. I was hoping that the product on the left were sweet and sour plums, but they turned out to be wickedly sweet dates. I was totally disappointed. Good thing I had haw flakes because they never let me down.

We finally arrived in Kunming a little after 8 PM.

After the cabbie dropped us off at our hotel near Yunnan University, we suited up for a run. It turned out to be a short one because I was mighty hungry. We started searching for dinner at 11 PM and were bummed that most places were closed. What kind of college town is this? Luckily we found a hole-in-the-wall serving up grilled meats on a stick and hot noodles.

I ordered two sticks of tofu (or so I thought). The one on the left was definitely tofu, but the one next to it turned out to be something totally different—it tasted like a cross between squid and pork fat! The Astronomer ordered a stick of the faux tofu as well and a stick of good ‘ol beef.

A bowl of bun bo Kunming. Not as tasty as the soup from Heiku, but pretty decent considering the options available. The broth started out brown, but after mixing around the oily beef it turned orange. Our entire meal of meats on a stick and noodles cost a mere 13 RMB.

On the way back to our hotel, The Astronomer bought a package of guangsu cake for dessert (6.5 RMB). It tasted really terrible—chalky, saccharine-laced pieces of foam.

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16 thoughts on “The Road to Bejing: Heiku to Kunming

  1. What a pain in the arse to get a room with NO running water are they crazy?.

    Stall food looks awesome and how in the world do you guys have time to run I would just run to a food joint and back and call it a day ;-). I was an avid marathon runner until I wore out my knew. I envy you guys! Can’t go wrong with skewer meat grilled over charcoal so flavorful and daring.

  2. Thanks for the map to the lunch lady guys! It must be an exciting time to be in China for the Olympics. Enjoy your trip and be safe! Look forward to read all about your experience in the Middle Kingdom.

  3. Sounds like an adventure. I’m currently in Japan and it is sure difficult to communicate, but I’m enjoying every meal & one-word conversation of it 🙂

  4. Aw, g’bye to Nam! Chinese bus rest stop food looks terrific, though it sounds like your faux tofu was quite a surprise! I’m watching the olympics here and all these amazing shots of China and am feeling a little jealous of you. Thanks for your realtime blogging!

  5. Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm, fried meat on a stick! Have a great time in China Cousin! Look forward to seeing you in sunny San Diego in a couple of weeks.

  6. So that’s what it looks like across the bridge! ;o) When we were in Lao Cai, some of the folks visiting from Hekou tried to convince the Missus to just walk on over the bridge, and not worry about immigration……..

  7. oh that’s so sad, you’re done with vietnam now…

    i’ve been reading ever since some food blog celebrity linked your blog… i think it was pieman maybe a year ago? i’m not sure…

    but i’ll continue to read until you simply stop posting. thank you so much for such awesome reads with great photos and valuable insight.

    i hope your stay in china works out well. i also want to wish best of luck to astronomer when he gets to grad school.

    and thanks for the tip on finding job opportunities when i e-mailed you a while back. i’m happy to know of such nice people on the other side of the earth.

  8. nhbilly – A pain in the arse indeed. The Astronomer and I are kind of OCD when it comes to working out. With all this eating that we do, we’d be blimps without the mileage. Oh, we’ve done our fair share of running to grab a bite and calling it a workout 😉

    Karen – You’re welcome. I hope your parents get to try her mi ga tiem. It’s my personal favorite.

    James – Oooh, Japan. I’m jealous. One of these days when I’ve got money to burn I’m totally going there. Are you blogging about it?

    Duy – Yes, definitely a bit sad, but life calls! Don’t worry, there will be plenty of Viet eats on these pages.

    Boots – You’re welcome. I hope to share the magic of the place through these postings.

    Cousin – You make me laugh.

    Kirk – I think the missus could’ve gotten away with crossing the boarder illegally back in the day, but with the Olympics crack down, she’d be toast!

    Vincent – Thanks for the lovely note. Are you still planning on heading to Vietnam?

  9. Oh oh! you’re going to Beijing…

    … I hope you’ll try some jain-bing when you get there– are nominally crepes wrapped around a rice cracker and smeared with stuff, but in reality, so much more! *nostalgia*

    … happy trails.

  10. ahem. that’s “jian-bing”… jain-bing would be… oh… “small-Indian-religious-sect”-cake… which, although interesting, doesn’t sound nearly as tasty…

  11. Dear God,
    I came back from China a year ago, and these photos awaken so many gastronomical memories…. eating everywhere in China is so exciting. you encounter so many different – sometimes wonderful, sometimes terrible – flavours that vary from city to province.
    I miss it all so much.
    Have an excellent time, I’m enjoying your blog a lot


  12. Perry! I had some AWESOME jian bing in the Chaoyang area of Beijing. It was as great as you hyped it up to be.

    Cindy – You’re totally right – cheap, delicious and adventurous. What more can you ask for?

    Gil – Thanks a bunch. I just returned home a couple of days ago and I miss it already.

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