"I can't recommend it to anybody, but I love this place" says Miss Chicken as we wander semi-lost in the streets of Zhaoqing, Guangdong, Southern China.
Our main destination on our recent quickie China trip was Gaungzhou, the southern capital famous for Cantonese cuisine. However it was nearby Zhaoqing that stole our hearts.
To our surprise we enjoyed the eating in Zhaoqing more than Gaungzhou. Zhaoqing was bursting with tiny, family run hole-in-the wall joints, lots of simple but perfectly cooked food. Sure you can find the same stuff in Gaungzhou but you had to hunt for it, in Gaungzhou there's a lot more average food, dinky themed joints staffed by bored teenagers. In Zhoaqing we had dozens of great joints and a buzzy night market within a block of our hostel.
Zhaoqing is the type of Chinese city we love so much: a regional centre that is small enough to explore on foot yet big enough to have some variety to it's streetscapes. It has a big lake to walk around, and it's devoid of foreign tourists (less foreigners = friendlier locals). Zhaoqing is perfect. For us.
We catch a ferry to Zhoaqing from Hong Kong (China Ferry Terminal in Kowloon). You can also go by train or bus but the ferry is more fun.
Between Hong Kong and the mainland is a mindblowing vista of industry on the sea - thousands of cargo vessels from huge monolithic container ships to dinky little container 'taxi' barges; we see dredges everywhere sucking up sand, reclaiming new factories and highrises from the ocean. We cruise down the mighty Pearl River which has miles and miles of industry, cranes, factories, ports, towns of red-tile roofs, farm plots, spooky abandoned factories, and more and more cranes. The sheer scale of industry is alien to us, from a small backwater town called Sydney, Australia.
Sadly the ferry no longer goes all the way to Zhoaqing. We get a bus for the last hour from Gaoming, where not a lot of passengers pass through. In fact, we are the only people on the bus besides the driver. The drive is amazing or depressing, depending on your mood, miles and miles and miles of factory towns dotted along the highway. We passed a town of secondhand forklifts, a small city of ceramics, a couple of towns seem to exist soley to recycle rubbish. Goods are displayed in the front yard so you can window shop in the car at 80km per hour.
As we cross the final bridge into Zhaoqing we get butterflies of excitement and nerves. Another city to negotiate with near zero language skills, little map, and no clue. Here we go...
We have no idea where the bus driver will discard us. Will it be in some dirty shack of a long distance bus station on the outskirts of town? Or in some bleak industrial area? He drops us in a random faceless suburb near the centre of town. The place is calm on a Sunday, and kinda pretty with it's wide tree-lined streets.
We have an address for the YHA hostel, but it's in English so it's of no use to a taxi driver, and road signs are in Chinese. Completely lost again....
Alison did a night course in Mandarin but all she remembered was how to count to five. Her kindergarten mathematics skills were enough to save our butts however. She noticed the street we wanted ended with the Chinese character for '1'. And a few roads back she saw a street sign with same road name ending with the Chinese character for '2'. Our only clue. After some pantomime and counting to three like kindy kids, a grinning old bloke rolling a smoke pointed us in the right direction to road '1'. We found '3', then a street sign that pointed us to '2', and we deducted that the streets '1', '2' and '3' are the same street divided into three sections. So we followed '3' for a couple of kilometers until it turned into section '2'.
After traipsing down '2' for some time we stopped for lunch at the first open joint we found. We point to the pictures above the shop entrance to order a wonton soup and a simple, perfectly cooked and rather incredible bowl of thin noodles in a subtle peanut flavoured sauce. The simplest things are often the best when you travel.
After lunch we continue our quest to find our hostel. We follow section '2' of the road for a kilometre or two until it ends at a sorry looking T junction. Where in the name of Tony Wheeler is section '1'? Some further pantomime and kiddy counting with some taxi drivers confirms we are only a minute away from our hostel, rest, beer and nocturnal salvation. But they refuse to drive us, we guess because they had prime spots outside the hospital that they didn't want to lose for a short fare. So it takes us another hour and three wrong turns to find the street with our hostel which was five minutes walk away.
Next trip we're taking a GPS...
Friendly locals we met along the way. And then again as we walked back.
YHA Zhaoqing is a new-ish joint in a new-ish city block.
Our neighboorhood from floor five of the YHA - a mix of industry, farming, suburbia and highrises. South China in a nutshell.
We hit the street food jackpot. 300 metres from our hostel a buzzy little nightmarket is getting into full swing. We give each other that mad grinning look that says 'oh yeah!' and head in to find some eating treasures.
Whatever that lady is making, we want it.
She mixes cold noodles with lots of goodies. Preserved veg, fresh green onions, minced garlic, chilli, coriander and shreds of cucumber. She also uses what we think look like tiny peanuts but they could also be a small fried dried bean.
End result is a sensational cold noodle salad with a sweet chilli oil dressing. So fresh and zingy. About 3 yuan a bowl.
We do a bit of point'n'smile ordering from this guy and wonder what we will get.
Bingo! Stir fried flat noodles with lovely smokey breath of the wok flavours, similar to char kway tweow.
The noodle man is also doing a good trade in snails. So we grab a bunch and some beers (Pabst is THE beer here). We picked at the snails with toothpicks while the locals simply sucked them. Alison liked them but Shawn was so-so, in some snails you get little gritty baby snails. We didn't worry while we ate them but in the middle of the night we both woke up and though "yay - the snails didn't make us sick!".
We sit on our little stools in the market, have a few beers and watch the world go by. When travelling there is nothing more we like than simply immersing ourselves in daily life.
This soup stall is super popular so we do some more pointing.
This dark broth contains chinese red dates, peanuts, lily buds and a small piece of black chicken known for it's medicinal qualities. Alison thinks of black chicken like in 'Love at First Bite'. She has a strange sense of humour.
The second soup is more simple with pork bones and some yam or taro for a starchy hit.
In the morning the hawkers have cleared out and fruit'n'veggie sellers have taken over. It's a large market area with several sections of wet market.
Mr Shawn sees a guy selling cupcakes, then wonders how they cook them when not a lot of folks have an oven. He looks to his right and sees the hawker has a freaking bakers oven on the back of his motorbike. That's a new one! He even has an industrial mixmaster, bags of flour and sugar on the ground.
For breakfast we pick the first joint we see. The locals think it infinitely amusing that we want to eat there. And we suggested we would like soup, well, that brought the house down. Those crazy gweilo's!
We pointed to one diner's noodle soup and another's wonton soup, and with two figures suggested we'd like one of each. Instead we got two bowls with the lot in each, which worked out better. Once again, the simplest things on the road are the best.
The wontons in the soup are tiny, a little fingernail of meat wrapped in a square of wrapper. They remind us of tiny little ghosts you would draw or make as a little kid with a ball head over a sheet.
Random side street near market. Walking around these streets Alison spies a little boy in a t-shirt with a random english generated phrase on it, "It is always the same elephant". Spoken in a hushed spiritual tone, it becomes our response to anything weird we can't comprehend.
Steamed bun dudes. We tried the yellow buggers which were plain and bready, we saw one smart lady dunking them into congee.
This guy insisted on having his picture taken with his wares.
We tried the brown stuff which looked like a sweet steamed cake, it was like a rough sponge cake in texture (good), but tasted like Vegemite (bad).
Googies preserved in a salty rice crust.
The lake here is a big bugger.
The lake is quite purdy in the middle. The Seven Star Crags are the key attraction for the domestic tourists. If you wanted to get more Australian tourists here, you could rename them the Seven Star Craigs - Craig McDermott, Craig Thompson, Wendy Craig, Daniel Craig, Craig Reucassel, Craig Lowndes and perhaps even Jenny Craig?
Make sure you fork out that $1 to feed the fish, it's a frenzy. Hungry carp make random gulps at the surface and even crowd surf to get some din dins. We took a video but Alison was laughing so much it ruined it.
The lake has paths all the round and is a nice easy walk. Most locals ride a bike, you can rent a peddly near town. Old folks peddle around with little old skool transistor radios blaring tinny, distorted versions of Chinese folks song (like this) and songs that sound like propaganda tunes from the days of Chairman Mao, (like this). We saw one dear old man double dinking his dear old lady, it was so sweet. Later in the day we saw the dear old man had dumped his dear old lady and was chatting up another one. Go tiger.
At one end of the lake is a very new part of town, with a brand-spankin new townhouse estate, fancy supermarket and car dealerships. Trust us to get hungry in the one part of town where there's hardly any restaurants.
We find salvation in this two sided tent next to the train station, which is located some distance away from the main centre of the city. It's run by a bunch of young friendly blokes, two dogs and a pussycat.
Action-man beer and cryogenically sealed cutlery.
The kitchen - note the two hounds hard at work.
Stir fried Chinese greens. So simple. So good.
Shredded potato. Perfectly cooked. Vegetable dishes are insanely good and insanely cheap in China.
We follow the lake around until we hit the town centre.
The delights of KFC China. We pondered trying 'the one with the brown goop' but never made it.
We walk back down the main road to home. It's buzzing as folks knock off at the end of the day.
Back at the night market we get posh with gold label Pabst.
Our entertainment for the evening is watching these blokes fill a shipping container with coat-hangers bound for Quebec, Canada. We become instant experts in container packing, much like watching any event in the Olympics and knowing how to score so much better.
A cool dish of custard like rice cake in chilli oil from the cold noodle lady- insane.
Steamed pork buns.
This hawker sets up shop right next to our little party.
He's got everything on a stick. Your selection is dunked in the tumeric flavoured broth.
Our selections - come kind of seaweed (meh), some kind of fishy-rice cake, a googy and a Footy Frank.
We see a bloke selling a mystery tofu dish so we order one. He takes squares of fried tofu and mixes it up with coriander and mystery goodies.
Turns out we have ordered stinky tofu. Looks good. Tastes like vomit. One of those dishes you have to grow up with, like natto or Vegemite.
The stinky tofu man of Zhaoqing.
The fried bread stick lady is making a killing. Either because her bread sticks are extra good, or she is extra pretty. It's a bit of both.
The next day we stop for breakfast as we head out of town.
This bloke is making rice noodle rolls right out on the street. He adds a dollop of batter from his magic red bucket.
He then shakes the pan like a mad man to spread the mixture out flat.
Fillings are added.
He rolls it up.
Wallah! The humble rice roll is our favourite breakfast in Southern China, along with a bowl of congee.
This lady drags Mr Shawn over to show him her goodies. Who can resist some breaky dim sum?
Boiled peanuts, pork ribs and mystery meat balls. Yay.
The locals wag goodbye as we waddle off to the bus station to ride to Guangzhou.
Pussycats hard at work in some weird health appliance store.
Bye bye Zhaoqing, hello Guangzhao. We love China.