“Ooh let’s get that one,” said Caroline.
“Yeah, that looks good,” I agreed. Everything was written in Chinese, and neither of us can really read Chinese (I know about ten characters and Caroline knows over one hundred – but there are more than three thousand), so we took a photo of the delicious thing we wanted to eat. It was pictured on the outside of a Taiwanese dessert store in Lipu. We were halfway through a cycle between Yangshuo and Mengshan and decided that lunch today would be dessert. And why not?
Inside it was, as is often the case with Taiwanese dessert stores, a jaunty, bright little establishment done in pastel colours with cottage-style seating and cute stuffed things hanging from pot plants. Caroline showed the man behind the counter the picture she had taken: baobing (刨冰) milk snow topped with mango bits and mango sauce.
“Xiao? Da?” he asked – small or large. We were sharing so we asked for large, to which he replied with many words we didn’t recognise. We kept nodding and agreeing until he seemed satisfied, then turned to take a seat. As we did, I noticed that the price on the till read 35 yuan. Surely that couldn’t be the price for our dessert? A bowl of noodles is only 7 yuan. We went to sit down and the grinding machine thing that makes the snow hummed into life and began chugging away. Soon, some giggling girls at another table went up to watch.
“You don’t think that’s all for us, do you?” I asked Caroline
“I hope not!”
“Yeah, those girls must have ordered the snow as well.”
But no. After 10 minutes of solid grinding the man bought us an enormous pile of baobing covered in mangoes and mango syrup. The pile was bigger than my head. It was delicious, and we managed to eat the whole thing, but a sweet, milky mountain wasn’t the smartest thing to eat when we still had 40 kilometres to cycle. And yes, the price was 35 yuan.
The next day we took one of most difficult cycles in our trip so far. It consisted of continuous hills and potholes for 90 kilometres on the road between Mengshan and Taiping. Halfway through the ride we stopped to get a drink in a small town. Caroline chose a green tea and I chose, as is my custom, something mysterious in a funny-shaped bottle.
Caroline’s tea was as expected: refreshing, and sweetened just enough to put the wind in her sails for the cycle ahead. My bottle was white and had a very satisfied looking woman on in. Most of the writing was in Chinese and the rest of it was in Thai. I think there might have been an English word too, like ‘sensation’ or something similar, but certainly nothing that gave away the contents.
I opened the bottle and took a big swig. It was creamy coconut milk with sugar. Like, really creamy. It was practically coconut cream. With sugar. Terrible for cycling. I guzzled it all and felt like I’d just eaten a block of butter.
The next day we took our longest ride ever – 99.2 kilometres to the town of Wuzhou – and met our second couchsurfing host in China, the lovely Zelda.
“It doesn’t mean anything does it?” she asked.
“No, Zelda’s a nice name,” said Caroline.
“Oh okay.” She was relieved. “I thought it might mean something bad.”
Zelda’s family owned two apartments. One which they lived in and another which was furnished and vacant waiting for new tenants. Caroline and I got the entire vacant apartment to ourselves and could choose from three rooms to sleep in. Not a bad deal at all. After we showered in our ensuite (we chose the master bedroom) we were invited to Zelda’s family apartment for dinner – our first home cooked meal in China, and delicious to boot.
Zelda taught Grade One English at a local primary school and had to work the following day, but she told us about a great place we could eat for breakfast. Dim sum! Caroline introduced me to dim sum in New Zealand and it makes my mouth water even just typing it now. Dim sum. So good…
The following morning we cycled 8 km (up a huge hill) to the dim sum place. We had both expected it to be the same as what we were used to, where you sit at a table and people come around with plates of delicious things. ‘Yes please’ and ‘no thanks’ are the only words you need to know.
We entered the restaurant (on a Thursday morning) and found chaos. The tables were all full of people blaring away in Cantonese – the harsh dialect that is commonly used in this part of China. A worker said we could sit at a small table that was already occupied by a Chinese man and woman but they did not look happy about it. We thought we’d better choose somewhere else to sit, but first we had to get our food. The food was not being brought to the tables; it was being held captive behind a counter at the back of the restaurant. A kind of queue had formed at this counter and people were furiously ordering different items by using some form of plastic coloured disc system. Plastic discs and cash were being thrown from hand to hand as a woman with an abacus pounded out calculations while pointing and speaking to anybody who would listen. The menu was written on the wall behind the counter but (of course) it was all in Chinese and there were no pictures. We tried to enter the ordering arena but people seemed to be cutting in or impatiently waiting behind us; we didn’t have any coloured discs; we had no idea what the name of anything was.
We were defeated. If it hadn’t been so busy we could have pointed and begged, but the queue of ravenous diners threw us off our game completely. We left and found dumplings elsewhere. They were okay.
These three small tales (especially the last one) are what a lot of people fear when traveling. But this sort of thing happens to us all the time. We make a conscious decision to travel outside of the realm of most foreigners and this brings with it a unique kind of experience that apparently we are quite attached to. I think maybe it’s a warped sense of discovery. I’m eternally grateful to Caroline, whose skill with learning new languages has made many of the things we do possible (I wrote this post while she was learning Mandarin), and to all the people we’ve met who have been friendly and understanding towards us.
Who knows what tomorrow’s misunderstanding will be? Caroline might say that me trying to enter the apartment block by swiping the key card over the fire alarm is a misunderstanding. But really it’s just stupidity.
Accent issues in Malaysia
Getting totally lost in the Central Highlands of Vietnam
Riding the bus of bewilderment