Dongbei – First Step

It’s October again!  For those of us in China this is great news because we get a week off for the national holiday (like Canada Day except not in July, eh?).  At this time of year likely over a billion Chinese are traveling all over the country, whether it be a long train ride back to the hometown or a short flight to a touristy attraction in which must be one of the largest mass migrations of people on Earth.

I get set for my own little getaway, but as much as I would have loved to visit the misty peaks of Yellow Mountain, or the limestone karsts of Guilin, I’ve lived learned enough to avoid the hotspots during what they call the Golden Week, when prices everywhere are jacked through the roof and people are packed like canned sardines.

Last year I went for a bicycle adventure at Lake Qinghai, but though  I won’t be cycling through a herd of sheep again anytime soon, I had a rich cultural experience instead.  This year, I’ve decided to lay low and hang out with a friend at his hometown in Shenyang of Liaoning province.  Together with Jilin and Heilongjiang, these three provinces make up the north-eastern region of the country that we expats call by its name in pinyin: Dongbei.

Dongbei – the land of cold, snow, and ice.  A bit like home with a twist of dog meat and dumplings, possibly dog meat dumplings, and large women.  I walk out of the airport the first night and embrace the glorious 4°C weather with hands reaching for the sky.  I had a couple hours to kill before I head to the train station to await my friend’s arrival so I took a cab downtown in search of my favourite Chinese character:  串 .

The better my Chinese gets the more easily amused I am with the pictographic language.  Having lived in Beijing before I have grown peculiarly fond of the word we pronounce chuan’R, and if you see a large red 串 posted outside any restaurants, look forward to a night of local fun.  I skim through the all-Chinese menu looking for words I recognize.  Lamb skewers, beef skewers, chicken skewers.  Fish skewers, mushroom skewers, veggie and potato skewers.  If you get my drift 串 = skewer, see.  Genius, I know right?

For some reason 串 is more a popular pastime in the North and having lived in Shanghai for the past year, I have sorely missed the salty skewers, watery beer, and loud, smoky atmosphere where it seems to be perfectly acceptable behaviour to light up, ash, and butt out on the floor.  I match my skewers with 3 large bottles of Snow Flower, a Shenyang brew, and slam’em back thinking, after all, what better way to greet an old university buddy than to greet them half cut?

I am surprised I remember this trip enough to share it, for staying sober in Dongbei seems to be a difficult task.  The second day I tag along with my buddy’s family for a weekend in Donggang, a county-level city at the coast of south-eastern Liaoning near the China-N. Korea border.  We arrive at an insulation materials factory that one my friend’s father’s acquaintances is apparently the owner of and there in the cafeteria I had an enormous meal of fresh seafood with a bunch of middle-aged Chinamen.  I chuckled to myself at the strange resemblance to lunchtime during an audit at work.

I wasn’t prepared for what I was about to consume.  I can honestly say I’ve been quite open-minded about eating in China, but just from looking I was already reluctant to try the seafood and it had been a long time since I had to bust out one of my old theories for survival in China.

 “Rule #2 at the dinner table: if it’s soft you can eat it, if it’s hard then spit it out.  No questions.”

A proportion of the seafood on the table was raw and there was not a pot of boiling soup in sight.  Turns out it’s a local tradition to soak them live in saltwater overnight and eat it with a touch of soy sauce.  I’ve eaten more than a fair share of sushi in my day but to pry open the carapace of a crab that looks like it’s still bubbling at the mouth and drink, yes drink, its innards was news to me.  Knowing not to disrespect, I smile and say it’s delicious, cringing on the inside as I watch another being put onto my plate.

And then came the baijiu.

The foul, colorless poison they call white wine and drink by the litre.  I was told I don’t have to be so polite, so I thought I could relax until I realized that in Dongbei, manners don’t exist in the way that you eat, but in the way that you drink.  When cheers-ing, you have to position your cup slightly lower than the other person’s to show your respect, and when they say ganbei (directly translated as ‘dry cup’, meaning cheers), they really mean it.  Cups of baijiu poured to the brim were being put back like water, and everyone wanted to ganbei the Chinese-Canadian.  We started drinking at about noon and by one o’clock, me, my friend, and a few other particularly adamant drinkers were already at the puking stage.  After lunching and un-lunching, we went fishing for fathead minnows, which were turned into a few excellent tasting dinner dishes including deep fried filet, broth, and of course, more seafood n’ baijiu.

How many of you have been to North Korea?  Ya, me neither, but I got real close.  Later that weekend I was taken on a cruise in a fishing boat near the Yellow Sea and got right up to the North Korean coastguard, who was watching us like a hawk.  The fishermen driving us got the jellyfish they came for, turned around and headed back to shore.  With the cruise concluded the weekend and I breathed a sigh of relief as we prepared to leave the baijiu crew and return to Shenyang, where my friend suggested I crash a wedding but besides that and more 串 , the remainder of my trip was pretty low key.  My friend had described Shenyang as a Chinese Edmonton and I totally agreed.  I took a few photos and went for a little tour of the city, but really not much to see.  I’ll have to look forward to my next trip to Dongbei, when I plan to travel to Harbin, Heilongjiang Province to attend the world-famous snow and ice festival where I shall spend my Christmas Holidays~!!

See also:

Le Tour de Qinghai

https://speakupforscience.wordpress.com/

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