THE ESSENCE OF CHINA: YANGSHUO COOKING AND CAVING
After my first day in Yangshuo, I was ready to get down to some pretty serious eating. That was, after all, the whole reason for the trip.
I had a few days to kill before joining up with my next group for the trek North to Beijing and had decided to take advantage of that break to spend a few days learning more about the local food at The Yangshuo Cookery School run by the estimable Pam Dimmond who, with the help of a number of locals has been running classes here for over nine years.
Before the first class, the chance for a guided tour around the market and the opportunity to try a local morning speciality of sweetened jelly served with vinegar which I have to admit being very firmly in the " did it once wont do it again" category and I had to take the taste away with a stuffed steaming dumpling
The classes were enjoyable, with mornings spent in the serene environment of the school some miles away from the hustle and bustle of the town centre.
Local girl, Amy took me in hand and, over the next few days, I learned to cook over a dozen dishes from the local speciality of Beer Fish to some of the more pan Chinese favourites using chicken and the abundant peanut.
A particular favourite, however, was what Amy called “Egg Rope Dumplings” to all intents and purposes, small omelettes made in the wok, then stuffed with a mixture of minced pork and spring onions before being cooked in a little water. Definitely something I shall be trying at home.
Also a dish of vegetables and tofu balls stuffed with minced chicken and steamed
The mornings were spent cooking and, by 1pm each day, those of us attending the cookery sat down to enjoy the fruits of our labours in the small courtyard of the cookery school. It is hard to imagine a more beautiful environment to enjoy a meal.
The afternoons were free which is just as well as Yangshuo offers a vast array of activities for the visitor. From kayaking and rock climbing to the more leisurely option of being punted down The Li River by wiry looking men on rickety bamboo rafts.
The Chinese, not being the most physically active of sorts, unsurprisingly like the latter option the most and I spent a very agreeable afternoon being taxied down the river from the cookery school back to the town on my own little raft while watching tourists from other parts of China enjoying one of the highlights of any trip to the region.
On my last day at the school, I met up with a local guide, Christina who took me on a cycling tour of the surrounding countryside. Those of you who know me will understand that me and a bike is as unlikely as a mouse trying to balance an elephant on its chin, but, I am ever game and, about 8.30am one rainy morning, I could be seen wobbling unsteadily down Yangshuo’s main street much to the amusement of any number of locals.
Added to which, the saddle of said bike seemed to have been sharpened just particularly for the torture of my buttocks and, after a few minutes, I was already in agony still with a few hours in the saddle to go.
It did rather hamper my enjoyment of the scenery, which is stunning. I winced my way around the villages, through the paddy field and past hard working farmers harvesting crops of peanuts for about two hours before we stopped, thank The Lord, and Christina asked me if I was hungry.
Even if I had not been, the opportunity to get off that damn bike was too good to resist and I nodded enthusiastically that I was famished. We were, as it happened, right next to the small farm owned by Christina’s family and she invited me in for lunch with her, her husband and her mother in law which turned out to be a simple but delicious affair featuring steamed local vegetables, pork with beans, home made pickled garlic and, most enjoyable of all, taro cut into strips and deep fried until crunchy.
After lunch, it was back in the saddle again for another bum numbing two hours of cycling through the fields and along narrow paths until Christina deposited me back at the hotel where I limped gratefully up to my room for a bit of a lie down.
If the mornings were filled with cooking and the afternoons with touristy activities, the evenings were filled with eating. The local hawkers market looked interesting with its offers of snake, pig penis and cane rat, along side more recognisable dishes of chicken and the ubiquitous beer fish.
However, I was more taken with local storefront restaurants offering hand pulled noodles and dumplings to be eaten while perched a little precariously on beer crates serving as seating.
For about 15 Kuai (about £1) it was easy to buy enough food to make me forget about the horrors of cycling and to wash away any residual misery with bottles of the local Liquan beer.
Boiled noodles with beef sauce, fried noodles with lotus root, dumplings filled with chicken and dried local sausage all served to return me to better fooling.
After a couple of days, it was time to meet up with my new group who would accompany me on the journey from Yangshuo to Beijing. The leader of the group was another local girl, Jackie Tang who had met up with the rest of the group in Hong Kong.
Slightly worringly, her first announcement to me was that we would spend the first morning together going cycling. My buttocks screamed a pre-emptive protest but, I felt that I should really join in if just to get to know the people with whom I would be sharing train space for the next three weeks.
What can I tell you, it was just as much hell. In fact more so, because I now knew just how long the afternoon lasted and what horrors were in store. Well, I thought I did until someone uttered the words “ anyone fancy going caving?”
Caving, it would appear is another popular pastime round Yangshuo way. But, this is not like any caving you would ever have experienced anywhere else. This is caving Chinese style. Where as, in the West, caving might involve a modicum of training, a plethora of safety equipment and maybe, just maybe a rope or three, in China, it involved a child’s plastic toy helmet and, here is the good bit, a pair of flip flops.
Oh joy. I spent the next three hours underground walking around in ill fitting sandals while heading ever deeper into the depths of the earth. And, do you know what, I had a ball. After a brief tour of the caves where the guide pointed at two rock formations, on that apparently looked like Buddha and another that looked like a pair of breasts. I couldn’t see it in either case although I obviously, in the name of research, looked long and hard at the booby rock.
After that, we were left to our own devices which involved climbing down some rickety stairs ever deeper until we hit the “famous” Golden Cave mud pools. Now, as a child, I loved, as every boy does, playing around in the mud and this latest development brought out the inner child in me and I soon found myself along side the others up to my neck in God’s good mud. We wallowed, threw mud at each other, tried to swim and dunked the girlies until we were told our time was up and were forced to slip slide our way back to the surface looking for all the world like we had been to some sort of young person’s music festival.
And that was about it for Yangshuo. An easy access entry into China and a great introduction to both the food and the people I was to meet over the next month both for better and for worse.
But more of that later