Off the Beaten Path in China: Part 1

The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.St. Augustine

There are many article written about famous tourist spots in China. The vast majority of tourists in China visit Beijing (Forbidden City, Great Wall and more) and Xi’An (terracotta warriors). I was lucky to have friends and family in China who encouraged us to travel to places that are more off-the-beaten-path. For a few years, I wrote, edited and researched articles for the Ministry of Tourism during my time in China. I was also did some voice acting as the voice of Hangzhou tourism.

I want to kick off this series of posts with my last road trip in China. As part of his university internship my step-son was working at a large hotel in Haikou, the capital of Hainan Island. Hainan is China’s large tropical island province. We visited several unusual places and the highlight was our search for the actual home of the banished poet Su Shi (Su Dongpo). I will include more information in future articles.

We rented a car from the Chinese partner of Hertz car rental. Renting a car allowed us to see so much more when we traveled around China. Seeing places before there are torn down and rebuilt is one of the most interesting reasons for traveling to out of the way places. Every city in China, large and small, is being rebuilt in one way or another. This is especially true of Hainan. In Haikou, there are huge construction sites down near the ocean especially. But the city is also known for its local architecture known as Qilou (chee-low). A similar building style is used across southern China and southeast Asia. Wandering around looking for Qilou, we worked up an appetite, and decided to try the local specialty.

For Chinese, learning about the local food specialties are a very important part of the preparation for visiting any area. One of Haikou’s signature dishes is “Cold Sour Noodles”. Because it is tropical, a cool dish is much appreciated. But in China I seldom ate anything cold, due to hygiene concerns. The room temperature dish had peanuts, strips of beef, pickled vegetables and coriander in a thick broth. My wife Hong had some dried fish and extra spice in hers. The secret the boss told us, was to mix it all together from bottom to top. Not much of a secret, but he was right. The dish was pretty tasty.

The first night we stayed in a sort of boutique hotel within an apartment building. Sometimes a hotel is located within an apartment/business building. In this situation, you take the elevator to the designated floor to register. The “front desk” had a facial recognition mechanism for registration as required by the local government. It took a while to have my passport scanned and accepted. All foreigners have to provide a copy of their passport, visa page and entry stamp page.

We had a nice room with a balcony. For dinner we ordered food from the awesome Meituan delivery service. I call them the Kangaroo Men, because their jackets have a yellow kangaroo on them. The kangaroo men are one of the things I miss about China. They are nearly every town and are fast and convenient. We had sweet and sour fish, duck, beans and rice for around ten dollars.

One odd thing about many Chinese hotels are the glass walls in the bathrooms. Now, my brother-in-law, who owns a construction/design business, says the glass wall is to provide more light in the bathroom and make it seem more spacious. I still think it is more of a voyeuristic design element. Either way, I always pull the curtain.

We visited a supermarket nearby so I could stock up on road food. There was a lot of friction about food on a trip I took years ago with my wife’s younger brother. Since then, I prepare in advance by packing some road food of my own. As I’ve said before, China is a food culture, and so food is a large part of life. This is especially true when traveling. What did you eat it seems is just as important as what you saw.

Coffee is not easy to find when off-the-beaten-path. There are two main varieties of 1+2 instant coffee (1 coffee – 2 creamer and sugar): Nescafe and Maxwell House. Nescafe is more common. In a pinch just dump a couple into a bottle of water and shake vigorously. The shaking helps relieve stress too.

Because young people in China like chips, there are a huge variety available. I like these with honey, plus there are two packs in the tubes so you don’t feel too greedy eating them one at a time.

Orion berry pies work as a snack or breakfast. Sometimes when my companions take too long to rise and shine, I have a “first breakfast”. Blueberry and strawberry are both good.

For a taste of home, I liked soft Nabisco Chips Ahoy.

And to make the angry tummy smile, nothing is better than these white chocolate covered beauties. For a trip to go more smoothly my backpack had to have some of these “survival” foods. There are no delivery men in the countryside.

We loosely settled on our itinerary before going to sleep. But the unexpected was often the most enjoyable part of traveling in China. About 2,500 years ago, Confucius said, “The journey of ten thousand miles begins with the first step.” Actually he said a journey of ten thousand li . A li 里 (lee) is around 500 meters, or 1640 feet. But it is further divided into 1,500 Chinese feet chi 尺 (about 333 millimeters or 13.123 inches. The Chinese foot can further be divided into ten cun 寸 also known as the Chinese inch. The cun is the width of a person’s thumb across the knuckle. I learned all this when I borrowed my wife’s measuring tape and my measurements were way off.

When we traveled in China, we used a gps with Chinese characters and Chinese voice. I was never brave enough to drive in China, so I was the navigator. Fortunately I can read the numbers and images on the gps and know that gongli (like the actress) means kilometers. I can also count in Chinese, but as navigator, my job was to make sure we got where we wanted to and back safely. I didn’t want to miss by a mile, Chinese or otherwise. Fortunately, we didn’t have any accidents, but we did have some great adventures. Stay tuned for the next installments.

Published by cewheeler

Writer/Artist:12 years in China – univ. lecturer: writing,poetry,culture; editor – magazine/newspaper & actor. 40 years students of the Tao. Traveler. Father. Read my books at:

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