Xiamen is a big city getting bigger, but we find some old style charm and great food amongst the building boom.
We arrive at North Xiamen train station, a new station quite a far way out of town. Using only two twigs and some magic beans (sometimes the way we get around without speaking any Chinese seems like magic) we arrive downtown via the express raised bus system.
We get off at the very last stop down near the wharves and there are street food vendors out grabbing the after school / uni / work crowd.
At first we thought these were bags of honey.
They ended up being gooey toffee on a stick, a melting school fete treat without the hundreds and thousands.
Even with our backpacks on and our hostel waiting to be found, we couldn't help but stop and watch this lady churn out these hot tasty morsels.
She poured a little bit of pancake like mix on the bottom of the pan, let it cook for a while, then cracked an egg on top and added green shallots and other tasty bits and flipped it. Our mouths watered, we waited, and waited, but so did another dozen drooling punters. We had to give up and move on.
Trying to find our hostel in the maze of streets that is the old quarter was impossible. With no English speakers around to help us out we were pretty much screwed. Out of nowhere appears a polite young bloke with a few words of English and a mobile phone. He calls the hostel for us and saves the day. Many times in China we were saved the by the kindness and patience of strangers.
No wonder we couldn't find the hostel, it was located in a tiny back alley in the old town. Everything got done here, even devotional paper burning. It was hardly wide enough to walk through.
Venue for pre-dinner cocktails - a couple of Tsing Taos on the street. At many little hole in the wall places you could get beer and bottles of rice wine. Western style spirits like Johnny Walker could be found but you had to hunt for them.
Walking around the city later that night we find Big Cattle Mouth - we have to eat here.
This pick'n'mix on rice joint turned out to be one of Shawn's favourite feeds in China. Just good, fresh, simple food.
Plate of duck, mushrooms, vegetables and cabbage.
Pork, a little fish, egg and tomato and a few green veggies. All up about 28 RMB, a bit over $5 for dinner for two.
On our second night we try a Taiwanese joint. Alison trys this soup with glass noodles, blood jelly, green pickled mustard and green veg. Thumbs up. Taiwan is only 300km out to sea from Xiaman and has a huge influence here.
This style of Taiwanese dish was common: pork, pickled cucumber and strips of beancurd skin, half egg, and black bean sauce on rice.
It's dessert time at Tia Si Si Hong Kong Delicious.
Sago, mango, mango ice cream and pomelo dessert.
** Reader LucyL says: the pomelo, mango, sago dessert - it's called yeung chi gum lo but won't come with icecream, it normally comes with a cold mango puree base. **
This one took a while to turn up, an intriguing flavour of warm papaya and white fungus (called snow fog on the menu) with some coconut cream. We tried hot papaya later in Hong Kong, it's an unusually nice textural treat, highly recommended.
** Reader LucyL explains: The steamed papaya dessert - if it said snow fog on it then the possiblity is that it isn't white fungus, it's snow "frog" intestines which are believe to renew the collagen in skin - so is normally it's favourite amongst the ladies! **
Not a brothel, it's a dessert bar. One for our mad cat loving readers.
As we walked around the streets this group of youngsters greeted us with hello's and Merry Christmas cheers. One even gave Alison a pen and we exchanged a gift of a tiny stuffed koala.
It was quite low key Christmas-wise, a token hat or snowflake here or there. Our hostel hosts explained Christmas is slowly gaining traction in China, more for the gift giving side than anything else. They were surprised that their daughter is taught about Christmas in her Chinese primary school. We note this full restaurant to come back to later.
On the main street right near our hostel is a string of cheap eateries to try for breakfast.
Eating is a simple affair at most places, we pull up a little table on the front footpath to eat here.
Breakfast choice here is thin noodles in a peanut sauce. About 6RMB each (less than a dollar). Really good too.
We also liked the look of this place and tried it the next day.
Lots of choices of fresh veggies, pork dishes, noodles, eggy mix with tomatoes.
There's also roast duck and crullers...
...that are dunked into a brown runny duck gruel.
The soup is far more watery than a standard congee, and the roast duck colours the rice soup. The breadsticks or crullers are cut up into dunk sized pieces.
You are rewarded with tiny bits of snipped up duck as well, add some white pepper to taste. This breakfast may not look fancy but it was perfect: hydrating, carby and ducky-delicious. We would do anything to be able to jump in a Tardis and have this for breakfast every day.
More street side options, more duck, cockles and pork pieces.
Around Xiamen are a number of fruit shops that are all decorated the same. There will be a few of them in a row, all decorated with hanging fruit in exactly the same way.
At probably the worst coffee shop and fruit bar in China, they try and make the empty cups into a message board. Who needs Friendface?
Off the main street are a number of old residences, often alleyways with a number of houses inside. And pussycats.
There's a lot of hard graft in street selling. You can move your shop to find the customers, BYO chair.
Or you can have a tiny shop front and hope to pick up a few customers a day.
Or perhaps ignore sitting in a shop altogether and conduct your business out on the street.
Small shops like these are peppered throughout small neighbourhoods.
And if you get really bored you can stand out the front and twirl your hula-hoop.
Behind the old town is a large park, well patronised by the community. Some signage nearby explains this park had a number of historic buildings that were destroyed in the cultural revolution. We were surprised to see this in writing.
There's still some classic Chinese old world charm here.
There's activities galore to participate in. Fan dancing for the ladies.
Mahjong for others.
Cleaning out the dead fish.
Or tea and a game of xiangqi, a type of chinese chess.
We're hungry after strolling through the park and find this sweetie shop.
How can you decide? We take a sweet centred slice, a coconut flavoured tart and a sweet caramel coconut flavoured cube, perfect for that morning tea fix. As we enjoy our morning tea in the sunshine a lovely 83 year old lady stops by to have a chat. One of those perfect travel moments.
In such a large town with a few large western style supermarkets and wet markets there's still roadside stalls to do shopping in.
We spy a warm soy milk stall.
Fresh made soy drink is a taste we get to really like, it's nothing on your prepackaged soy milk at home. We could actually taste fresh soybeans in this, it had a distinct edamame flavour to it. Incredible.
Out on the town.
After walking for a while trying to find the train station, we end up miles off course by the banks of a river. For those of you who follow some of our travel exploits, you will know getting lost is an all too common and happy occurance for us.
We are paid back for taking a wrong turn at Albaquerque with a great lunchtime restaurant.
The food here is preprepared and stored in clay pots, you choose your dishes and they serve out the goodness.
Most of the dishes appear to be pork stews, not much luck here if you are vegetarian.
There's other smaller pots with special soups and stews in them.
After some careful pointing and crazy grinning we make some choices.
Even deciding is hard for the locals.
Our selections are brought out to an outside table.
A light broth (with an Exxon Valdez oil slick on top) with pork bones and huge hunks of radish. The oil on top keeps the heat in and provides extra calories.
This one flots Shawn's boat, a mix of pork with stewed greens. The stems were slightly chewy, like they had been dried and reconstituted in the stew.
** Reader Eve tells us this is called Mei Cai Kou Rou - stewed veg and pork belly.
Bamboo shoots sliced on the diagonal and served with pickled veg and tiny bits of pork. We're coming back to China just for the veggies.
Plain old greens. We grow increasingly obsessed with plain greens.
Coke is around but you don't see folks drinking it much in these parts. Everybody gets around with a flask of green tea.
Our friendly restaurant owner.
We head back away from the river back to the main part of town. This side of the city appears to be older, with wide streets and older low level apartment blocks doomed to be wrecked and rebuilt as thirty story monsters.
There's a wonderful sense of a community down at this level, with small stores to grab something quick and to find out what the gossip is.
You might even have a little nap while you're selling your toffee out in the sun.
We can sense that one day this part of town will become...
Back near home and we try some of the fresh made bread with nuts on the outside crust made by some bakers from some far off 'stan.
Ducks ready for the trip home. Fresh is best.
Back at the busy restaurant from the night before, we find it's a quieter night tonight.
The pictures are big so you can really see the menu from anywhere in the place.
We're near enough to the sea to try the oysters, aren't we? The guys next to us are wolfing them down. They're nice and big and chewy.
We also try an oyster gruel. There are a few of them hidden in the congee.
Cheese topped oysters. So naughty, so wrong, so nice.
Garlic eggplant, flattened out and drenched with garlic. The flavour was almost cheesy. This seemingly simple dish was incredible.
Shredded potato with chili and garlic.
See, you can order more from just looking at the pictures on the wall.
Grilled Taiwanese milkfish. The inside grey part tasted slightly raw.
Asparagus and bacon rolls. For some reasons these make us think of Bernard King, bless his big gay soul.
We finish with some mystery squares, sweet crispy fried cubes of dough served with a small dish of condensed milk. A simple dish perfectly cooked, delicious.
** Readers Jack and Eve tell us these are called Mantou and can be eaten fried or steamed. We think we saw these frozen in the big IGA in Market City.
We love China.