You would think after living in China for a year and a half that basic things like going to the grocery store would no longer surprise me. Unless you’ve also lived in China, in which case you know that here everything is always ready to astonish and amaze even the most seasoned ex-pat.
Of course, I would like to think I’ve become more adaptable myself and able to react better to the wacky things that can happen. Today, for instance, I did a pretty good job politely ignoring the lady at the grocery store who refused to stop trying to sell me some special Chinese brand of toothpaste, even after I more aggressively explained that I really only wanted Colgate.
One thing that always manages to surprise me when grocery shopping is the sheer number of employees. On weekdays, when I have the luxury of shopping while everyone else is at work, I honestly think there are at least 3 employees to each customer in the store. This leads to a bizarre situation where employees accidentally block you from getting to products you want to buy and then try to get you to try things you not only don’t want but, in my case, don’t actually even know what they are. I once tried some very strange, sweet sausage and after that experience, resolutely don’t try samples anymore. I also recently swore off chocolate in some kind of masochistic experiment of willpower (healthy eating). Immediately after that decision, a store employee offered me a Lindt truffle sample…
After a lot of traveling to other countries in 2017, Amaury and I are now focusing on travel in China before we leave in July. In that spirit, and also because we needed some fun NYE plans since most of our friends were out of town, we decided to head to Foshan this past weekend, a large city that connects to Guangzhou via a speedy metro line. A while ago, one of our local magazines, That’s PRD, featured a new bar in Foshan called the Locksmith, which we have been dying to try ever since. It’s hard to find craft cocktails and fine dining in China outside of large city centers. The Locksmith is also located in my favorite area in Foshan, Lingnan Tiandi, an outdoor shopping area with small local shops and lots of restaurants right next to a beautiful ancestral temple. The whole shopping area is designed to look like older, traditional Chinese buildings and there are some original ones there alongside the newly designed squares and alleyways. It’s a beautiful little place that is quintessentially Chinese while also being quite hip and modern.
Market leading to Lingnan Tiandi
We had also wanted to explore more of the parks in Foshan. The Xi Qiao Mountain Park had particularly grabbed my eye as it seemed to have lots of natural beauty along with culturally interesting sights. As Foshan is quite big and about an hour and a half from Guangzhou, we decided to spend two nights there at the stylish Marco Polo Hotel next to Lingnan Tiandi. That way we’d have time to drive out to Xi Qiao Mountain another hour away and not have to head all the way back to Guangzhou after a night of New Year’s revelry. Foshan is far enough away from the big cities (Guangzhou and Hong Kong) to be pretty affordable, so we got a whole one bedroom apartment with kitchenette overlooking the temple. It was incredible to start the morning with the sound of traditional lion dance drums echoing over the temple walls.
After a long but uneventful metro ride, we got into Foshan on January 30 just in time to have a wander around Lingnan Tiandi before dinner. We thoroughly enjoyed walking along a crowded street food market next to the temple. Funnily enough, just as I was commenting that we probably wouldn’t see any other foreigners there in the highly local crowd, we caught sight of the familiar faces of our friends J and Y with their two children wandering down the street. We caught up with them for a bit – they had also decided to explore Foshan over the holiday weekend – and then parted ways laughing that we probably wouldn’t see many other foreigners there the rest of the weekend… which was true. It just goes to show what a small world our little ex-pat community in Guangzhou is.
Fun street art in Lingnan Tiandi – to capture this quick pic, I had to dash in front of parents wanting to spend hours doing photo shoots with their children. I was gone before they knew what happened – dedication
The next day, we had a lovely time exploring Xi Qiao Mountain. Of course, seeing as there were very few non-Chinese tourists there, it was a bit of a challenge to get around. We had to draw on our Mandarin skills quite a lot and occasionally just follow other visitors to see where we’d end up, but in the end we managed to see the main sights I was excited about- the Bao Feng Temple and colossal 253-foot Buddhist statue of Guanyin, known in English as the Goddess of Mercy.
Both fortunately and unfortunately, we had no idea how far or high up the temple and statue were, so walked up thousands of steps to get to the top of the mountain. I think if we’d known how far it was, we wouldn’t have done it, but actually, it wasn’t all that bad and very scenic. In typical ex-pat-in-China fashion, we were also slightly misled by a large sign that said “100 Step Stair” as we started our ascent… 100 steps my bum. We also missed out on buying tickets for a shuttle up the mountain, because despite our best efforts we simply couldn’t figure out which shuttle to take to get to the temple. That may sound silly, but there’s nothing worse than painstakingly using your faltering Mandarin skills to then get on a bus going the wrong way downhill.
Going on a nice, long hike, is generally a New Year’s tradition of mine, so once we got a good rhythm going, I was quite happy to clamber up the beautiful mountain with it’s stunning, natural beauty. I think Amaury enjoyed it too, especially once we got to the top. We also took a lot of breaks at scenic stops to enjoy the view and people watch.
Bao Feng temple reliefs
Top gateway of Bao Feng Temple leading to the Goddess of Mercy
One sight that particularly entertained us were stands selling fish near large koi ponds. Apparently, you could spend $10-$20 on a koi to put in the koi pond. I’m sure there’s some meaningful religious reason behind this, but economically it did look like a bit of a racket considering the short distance from the stand to the pond… and back again.
By the time we got to Bao Feng temple, we were quite tired and hungry. Throughout the hike there had been little shops and impromptu carts selling pot noodles and smelly fish balls, so we were pleased to find actual restaurants at the top. However, we were completely confused as to what the food options were since everything was in Chinese. Thank goodness we read enough characters to parse out some of the options! We finally found a small place selling huge baozi (Chinese steamed buns). We couldn’t tell what was in any of them, but it’s hard to go wrong with buns, they’re generally delicious… except if they have durian (a smelly, horrible fruit that is very much an acquired taste) in them. Having made that particular mistake recently, Amaury was a bit cautious.
We decided to order one of every bun to make sure we got at least one good one. The server was a bit confused by my order, since I basically pointed at every type of bun and said “I want that one, that one, that one, and that one.” It turned out that some of them were the same kind. She equally confused us by mainly speaking Cantonese at us. In the end, through a lot of pointing, we got several tasty buns and some rice wrapped in pandan leaves for $5 total. Well-fed and rested, we hiked up the final few hundred steps to the huge Goddess of Mercy statue, which looks out over the smoggy expanse of Foshan below.
Inside the statue were beautifully lit up carvings and paintings along with a multi-colored, neon-lit statue of the Goddess. Stairs led up to two more huge circular rooms with thousands of smaller statues sitting vigil.
I’m not sure if I was supposed to take pictures in there, because later I noticed a sign saying no photos, but lots of people were taking pictures with guards looking on, so I think it was ok. As usual, a lady approached me and asked if she could have a photo with me… Honestly, that is something that always confuses me in this country. How can I possibly be as interesting as the giant Goddess statue? You’re not even supposed to take pictures of this place and you want to waste your surreptitious picture-taking on me? And what on Earth are you going to do with that photo? Show it to friends as evidence that laowai (somewhat impolite term for foreigners) exist? I gave her a polite but firm “no” and then somewhat awkwardly ran away around the circular room towards the stairs.
Amaury and I have yet to see many of China’s wonders, including the terracotta warriors in Xi’an, the Great Wall, and the Forbidden City, but Foshan’s Xi Qiao Mountain utterly astounded us. It just goes to show how much there is to see in China that this park is not a major tourist attraction. It really is worth a visit if you happen to be in the Guangzhou-Foshan area and have a few days to spare.
This intimidating statue guards the entrance into the Bao Feng Temple complex
On the way down, we successfully bought tickets for the shuttle, so skipped about half an hour slogging back to the entrance. That left us plenty of time for a nice long nap once we got back to our hotel. Of course, we then had to take some glamour shots of our NYE outfits before heading over to the Locksmith.
Reserving in China as a foreigner can be an interesting business. First, it’s pretty complicated to make reservations as an illiterate foreigner who only has a shaky grasp on the national language, which incidentally isn’t really the local language. Next, most everything is done through WeChat or other booking apps… it would actually be easier a lot of the time to just call a restaurant up, but again, we don’t really speak the language so that’s near impossible.
To confirm ahead of time that the Locksmith would be open and a fun place to celebrate the New Year, I first had to find their WeChat account and then through that, the WeChat of a specific events coordinator at the restaurant. After adding the coordinator Wendy to my WeChat, I then asked her in English if they had anything planned for New Years. Asking in English may seem problematic, but actually, it’s a great test of how ex-pat-friendly the place will be. She quickly sent me a “sorry” in English followed by a string of Mandarin to the effect of she wasn’t working there at the moment (she may have been off shift, no longer with the restaurant, or just terrified by my English). She then connected me to the very helpful restaurant manager/Maitre D'(?) named Michael. He was able to then send me information about their special NYE set menu and their planned party with DJ and band for later in the evening. After asking questions about pricing etc., I reserved by simply confirming with them that we’d be there and paid for our tickets to the party through WeChat wallet.
When we showed up at the restaurant, we had a moment of confusion because we were not on the guest list. This was likely because we hadn’t used a traditional method of reserving, but had gone through Michael. One of the maitre’Ds swooped by and quickly took us in hand saying “Hello, are you Nicola? You booked with Michael right?” Michael himself then politely introduced himself to us and we were on our way to our set menu. Everything on the menu was creative and delicious with lots of interesting pairing like foie gras and chestnut soup that worked well. We felt a bit like we were in an episode of Master Chef where the finalists are coming up with nifty, fun takes on food to wow the judges.
NYE Locksmith Menu
I will say that I wasn’t a huge fan of my dessert, which wasn’t really their fault. Amaury got the chocolate lava cake that came with the menu, but I changed it out due to my chocolate ban. I hope that shows you just how resolute I am about this! They offered me a buffalo milk curd dessert instead, which I willed to be good, but it’s hard for anything to top chocolate lava cake.
Of course, we also tried some of their delicious craft cocktails. Amaury went for a traditional old-fashioned, and I tried their take on a Negroni, which had rose and mandarin flavors along with the traditional recipe. The fancy drinks went really well with the excellent decor which was Great Gatsby art deco meets cozy pub.
You know how I love fancy
After our tasty dinner, we headed upstairs to the second floor, where a couple DJs were playing some pretty great music that fit well with the dark, moody atmosphere of the different decor up there.The second floor still had a pub-atmosphere, but it was more lush and mysterious, with velvet seats and sweeping curtains dividing the space into little alcoves. The second DJ spent most of the time playing Mandarin and Cantonese rap, which we thoroughly enjoyed due to the novelty and because I made sure to provide translations to Amaury (that may have been made up on the fly).
We were a bit confused about where to go, since we technically got two drinks included with our ticket, but weren’t on any list to prove that. However, as soon as we got upstairs, a helpful hostess immediately asked if I was Nicola and took us over to a booth where we could enjoy our drinks and some free snacks. Yeah, we felt pretty special… being two of six laowai there also helped them keep track of us.
Since we didn’t want to lose our seats, we took turns exploring the bar area and sneaked upstairs to the third level which had live jazz. It was decorated like a veranda with light green hues and plants everywhere, beautiful, but not really in the NYE mode so we just snooped around and then stayed downstairs. I’ll admit, I usually prefer to be out dancing in the new year, but barring that, we had a lovely time chatting and enjoying the laid-back atmosphere.
Living abroad has taught me to go with the flow, seek out my own fun, and be brave. We’d wanted to try this place for a long time, so I’m glad we just went even if it meant going a bit out of our comfort zone. Around 11:50pm, we could tell that a countdown wasn’t forthcoming… I think that’s likely more of a Western thing, because this happened to us last year too when celebrating in Guangzhou. So instead, we found a New Year’s countdown website and watched the clock count down ourselves. Then in the last 10 seconds, the two of us started loudly counting down which prompted the whole bar to excitedly join us resulting in everyone laughing, cheering, and yelling HAPPY NEW YEARS all the same. We clinked glasses with a few people around us, saying “xin nian kuai le” along with happy 2018.
Despite being completely out of my depth in the middle of South China, I know that this is where I’m meant to be.
In the movie, Paris Je T’aime, which contains short vignettes of people living in and visiting Paris, my favorite short piece is of an American woman who travels to Paris by herself and then describes her trip in an assignment to her French class. Throughout the short film, she describes her solitary explorations in Paris and self-reflection in slow French made clunky through a heavy American accent. Finally, she sits down on a park bench and as she sits there, shares a profound realization that she had in that moment:
Sitting there, alone in a foreign country, far from my job and everyone I know, a feeling came over me. It was like remembering something I’d never known before or had always been waiting for, but I didn’t know what. Maybe it was something I’d forgotten or something I’ve been missing all my life. All I can say is that I felt, at the same time, joy and sadness. But not too much sadness, because I felt alive. Yes, alive. That was the moment I fell in love with Paris. And I felt Paris fall in love with me.
I always tear up when I watch that part. I’ve felt that feeling a few times since moving to China.