Things you will always see on a trip to rural China: A snake slithering inside your village hotel. A snake’s head snapped in half in front of a crowd after it was found inside the village hotel. Girls going up hiking trails wearing pencil skirts and platform sandals while carrying comically large handbags. A truck filled to the brim with pot-bellied pigs.
This past weekend, I escaped Shanghai to go white-water rafting in Baiji (close to 黄山 The Yellow Mountain) on a bus of 50 people, through a trip with Dragon Adventures. I don’t usually plug travel companies or businesses in particular, but these guys were great and the tour was incredibly well-organized. Jerry – our 5’2″ wife-beater-wearing tour guide – was on top of his game but also a little crazy. Jerry was the first to pop open the beer coolers, the first to cliff dive off a 20-foot waterfall, and the first to light an irresponsible amount of village fireworks at night. It was Jerry who brought three full coolers of beer just for the bus ride to Baiji, and for that, Jerry was our favorite.
We left Shanghai around 7:30 on Friday evening, backpacks and the coolers of Qingdao in tow. Jerry (did I mention his guy was incredible?) saw the tiny bluetooth speaker we brought on the bus and pulled out a foot-high subwoofer from the back to blast Justin (both Bieber + Timberlake) for the next five and a half hours. Needless to say, we didn’t make many other friends on that bus.
When I used to take long bus rides in middle school and high school, the best part was always the rest stops. Rest stops were great because no matter where you were, there would always be a place that sold greasy pizza slices the size of my head, a place to get oversized candy bars, and (if one was lucky) a Chipotle. In China, the rest stops are decisively the worst part of travel. Stepping into the bathroom with the four lonely squat toilet stalls for the entire rest stop complex, my promises of burritos and guacamole slowly faded away, replaced by the stench of stinky chou tofu and the said squat toilets (at some point the two become indistinguishable). And above that, it wasn’t even the lack of a decent coffee shop that was most unnerving, but the emptiness of the stop. The whole place felt abandoned, as if we were the only bus to come there in weeks. Perhaps we were.
The next morning, we set out for the Baiji Grand Canyon (now, where could they have gotten that name?) to go water-rafting. I had never gone rafting before and this being China, I had no idea what to expect. The first surprise was that they made us wear life vests. The second that the rapids were one of the best parts of the trip (minus the sunburn) The third that our boat didn’t flood even though by the end of the course it was more than two-thirds full of water.
The (not-so) farm-to-table meals
After the rapids came our first encounter with the food of Anhui province. I usually love grimy local food – jiachang cai 家常菜- as it it called. I love the oily vegetables and the soy sauce vinegar sauce doused over every dish. I love two kuai bowls of rice and the grumpy old women who throw them down on the table. The food in Baiji was not home-style, it was the most unsettling China-stomach experience I had since I came to Beijing in the winter of 2014. Everything we ate tasted muted, grey, faded and brown. We had sheep tripe, turtle and snake soup (more to come on the snake), chicken feet, duck beak, celery stalks in raw bacon. As appetizing as it all sounds, it was hard to get down. It’s hard to say bad things about the food, because despite us being in a small village two hours up a mountain from the main city, each time we had a meal, the guest house ayi filled the table with a dozen plates, half of them untouchable. But we still ate them, and because of it, my stomach is weeping.