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Getting back to Beijing from America a month ago to date, one would imagine I'd be completely done with holidays. My Christmas-obsessed boyfriend has finally joined the dark side and proclaimed a ban on partaking in the stressful and materialistic celebration.
Around this time of year, I typically like to find myself with a drink in hand on some south east Asian island. But to my own surprise, I'm already a little homesick. Lucky for us, we were adopted for the night by snagging an invite to our old friend Nara's house, a bad ass Inner Mongolian girl we met in Hohhot almost five years ago.
This year we finally were able to meet her little trouble-maker, William, and the rest of her in laws. What's nuts to me about these guys, is that A.) They're Mongolian, B.) They're 老北京人(old school Beijingers), and C. Nara was pretty much abandoned by a foreigner while she was preggo with his baby, William.
This is essentially a concoction for her in laws to hate foreigners because A.) Mongolians are big on blood lines, so they like to make sure friends and family are usually of the same ethnicity as them. B.) Downtown Beijing basically defines gentrification due to heavy western influence and presence. It ain't what it used to be. But for people like me, that's a good thing. For them, it's a cultural loss. And for C.), well, us foreigners can somewhat be lumped all together when it comes to living in China. It has ups an downs.
In this particular case, the family had every reason to say "HELL NAH" to her asking if we could join them for such a coveted holiday. Instead, they welcomed us in as if we were their own, made sure we were mushy, cozy, and full of their expectedly amazing food. Ughhhhhh god I love them and everythinggggg.
Peep Genghis in the background.
We arrived while the feast was being prepared, CCTV was airing its annual propaganda-filled Spring Fest celebration, and William was just waking up from a nap, sketched out by the 外国人 (foreigners) on his couch. We took a seat next to their colorfully decorated coffee table - a staple when bringing in the New Year. Bountiful centerpieces filled with fruit, snacks, and flowers are essential for good luck and good health.
While the boyfriend cracked into a bottle of whiskey, I did my usual meandering into the kitchen to see what was cookin', pretending I was available to help, but in all actually, just available to eat. As I suspected, they had it goin' down:
Lotus root is. my. shit. I cook with it regularly, but haven't ever made these - ôu piàn, which translates directly to lotus root slice. These ones are smeared with ground pork and then deep fried. Bombbbbb. Srsly tho, keep your eyes wiiiiiide open for a recipe. Something tells me they're easy to put together.
Chicken wings, peppers doused in vinegar and garlic, 饺子(dumplings), bitter melon. They had it all:
It goes without saying that the food was solid. Nara brought back some Inner Mongolian beef jerky, which you can see from the picture, it's not like the jerky you get in the US. The clear glass bowl is filled with what's basically cured prime cuts of steak. A carnivores wildest fantasy.
You can see there is an abundance of food, but in my old age, I'm turning into one of my soup-loving Jew relatives, that may not actually agree with this rich pork broth. Ribs, chestnuts, ginger, and super secret spices were boiled together for hours. Hopefully Grandma doesn't take this recipe to the grave with her, because your girl is scheming to share it with the world.
We sat around picking at food and shootin' the shit, which commonly is done until about 11:30pm-12:00am. Nara decided she had a big idea, which ultimately turned into playing drunken dress up:
Yeah, that's my boyfriend in traditional Mongolian attire. Something both he and I successfully avoided putting on for many years in Hohhot. I got sucked in to wearing Nara's wedding dress, but looked like a super goon. William is wearing a wolf hat we brought him, leading him to use his Mongolian strength to tackle me. #kidz
And the last photo is the start of a series I'm working on, appropriately titled Brendan: Making Babies Cry. I'm positive Urban Outfitters will pick it up.
It's at this time the country becomes peppered with fireworks. You can look in literally any direction from the first night of Chinese New Year until about a week after, and you'll be sure to see the sky lit up, day or night.
When you're a n00b to China, you'd either feel like you're in a war zone or be in awe. But as a vet, these fireworks mean just one thing to me -- midnight jiaozi:
My boxing trainer told me just one thing before he left for this week-long holiday, "Eat right and continue to exercise." So just like every other year, I stuffed my face and skipped the gym the following day.
While this Spring Festival was essentially identical to the one's I've celebrated before it, it genuinely never gets old paying homage to a country and the people in it that have welcomed me year after year. Plus, Nara sent us home with some jerky and stuffed lotus root, ultimately signifying that the Year of the Monkey really is going to be damn good.
So, how'd you bring in the Year of the Monkey? Did you stuff your face too? Did you get the lucky coin in your midnight jiaozi? Did you make out in 红包 (red envelope with money inside)? Lemme know in comments below!
Despite what you may have heard, vacation planning is no fun. Powered by coffee and a drive to see the unknown, it’s stressful, time-consuming, and requires a lot of patience. If you are under the impression that planning your itinerary was an exciting part of a nomadic lifestyle, you’re wrong. D-E-A-D wrong. It’s the worst part of being a traveler, but also the most rewarding, if you do it right.
On my last vacation to Vietnam, I told myself I would do allllllll the touristy things. I wanted to stay in the capital city of Ho Chi Minh City, I wanted to stay in a well-known district, I wanted to go to the best island, and I wanted my hostel to have a perfect rating.
Yes, all of these demands are important if you want to have a great trip. A great trip that everyone else has had. A great trip that is safe, and almost predictable, which may defeat the purpose of exploring an unfamiliar land in the first place. This just depends on the type of traveler you identify with.
In this awesome article, a photographer explains her “ask a local three times” rule: For her, as a New Yorker, the first time she’d direct you to the Empire State building. Ask her again and she’ll point you to the Rockefeller Observatory to get a picture with the Empire State building. Ask just once more, and she sends you to a little speakeasy that only the locals know about, an experience that could easily be overlooked had you just stuck to the norms.
So as I’m in the midst of planning a 25-day tour around southern China, I have decided to do my best to stray from the tourist trail I took on my last journey, and go off the beaten path.
4 TRAVEL PLANNING TIPS
Go to the Expat Websites
It seems like a no-brainer, but this incredibly useful tactic is sadly overlooked when mapping out your trip because of major travel sites like TripAdvisor and LonelyPlanet. It’s like getting to ask a local before you land, and a local who definitely speaks English, at that. From my current experience, expats are typically fine with sharing their secret hideouts, how they got there, and when the best time to go is.
For example, there is an overwhelming amount of gorgeous places to visit in southern China, so I have to be really careful, as far as time goes. Sure, I can go to Yunnan province and stay in the capital Kunming, which I am, but I can also check out the mountainous valley of Nujiang, something that wasn’t coming up on any of my ‘What to do in Yunnan” searches.
So how do you find the expat websites? You literally just search “city/country expat site” and tons of different results will come up. You don’t have to be a member to read most forums, but you do have to be a member to post in them. If you’re not having any luck, which would be unlikely, you can even post a Reddit thread in the expat forums and get tons of feedback.
2. Stay at a (Basic) Hostel
When I say basic, I mean some of the best amenities your room should have are wifi and hot water, or AC depending on the season.
I have made an effort to stay in hostels like this for a couple of reasons:
In the past, I’ve stayed at several hostels with the bar, the restaurant, the pool, the pool table, etc. Yes, it’s fun. You’re guaranteed to have a good time with other new travelers. But that just the problem — it could easily make you want to stick around and get too comfortable and not go out and explore. If you’re new to traveling or even traveling solo, by all means, take the decked-out hostel route to give you in-house entertainment and the opportunity to meet tons of other newer travelers. It’s sometimes unavoidable and has more pros than cons.
The other reason I now prefer to stay at basic hostels is because I’m just a basic bitch.
But really, because the other travelers at the just-here-to-sleep-and-plan hostels know what they're doing. My best friend is currently on a 6-week excursion through Indonesia and has had nothing but good things to say about it. One problem she did run into at a hostel she booked in Bali was that it was packed with fresh grads that were partying hard, hard, hard. Don’t get her or me wrong, we’ve had our fair share of getting kicked out of places and not knowing how and where we woke up, but we had that at 19/20. At 25, (yes five years makes a huge difference) our agendas don’t prioritize snorting salt, squeezing lime in our eyes, and shooting tequila.
Staying at a basic hostel will allow you to mingle with serious travelers while picking their brain about the places they've been and the places they plan to go, which brings me to my next travel planning tip.
3. Make Your “Plan A“ Your “Plan B”
For well-seasoned travelers, you may think they have vacation planning down to a science. For new travelers, you might assume they do all the touristy stuff for FOMO. But in all actuality, one of the best travelers is the one that listens to others.
I currently have a friend who’s doing a similar tour to the one I’m planning. She is going full circle around all of overwhelmingly large China. It’s wild, and it’s also going to take her roughly two months. Her itinerary took weeks to plan and it caused a lot of stress, which she said she could have avoided if she winged more than she planned. But because of the the time she invested into her planning and booking all of her train tickets at once, she found it hard to let go of her plans, despite what other travelers were telling her to do.
For my current itinerary, I have taken her advice and assertively planned for the first week, only so I consistently have a place to sleep while I get into the rhythm. After those first 5-7 days I have planned a couple of things for each of the provinces I’m going through, but haven’t booked rooms or trains in advance just incase something better comes up. Who knew my 16-year-old flaky ways would eventually benefit me in the future?
4. Forget Google, Check the Hashtags
I’m really surprised more people don’t do this with how many social media sites allow tags and hashtags now.
One of my favorite ways to get excited about traveling is to get in touch with travelers that are currently living in that moment. Most people love getting engaging Instagram traffic. So for example in Sichuan province, I plan to hike Mt. E Mei Shan. I looked up #emeishan on Instagram and commented on a few pictures I saw asking how it was. 2/3 people responded saying it was a must and even told me the best time to go to avoid crowds. Tumblr is awesome for some planning being that a lot of professional photographers tag the locations they visited. While they may not respond as quickly as Instagram users, it will allow you to get a better visual of the places you’ll potentially end up, while aiding in experiencing new destinations. This is the community of people you’re looking for that will share happily their experiences.
The Takeaway: If you're new to traveling, it's not a big deal. These travel planning tips have taken me four years to rustle up together and I'm confident now that I will not only see more than I've ever seen, I'll have stressed far less during the preparation for it all. Have a friend who's looking for some travel planning tips? Share this with them or add your own advice in comments!