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"Short stories and travel reports from my life adventures around the globe".

Yangshuo Master Chefs, a short story from China.

Cloud 9 Cooking School Yangshuo China.

Yangshuo Master Chefs, a short story from China.

After a prolonged period of stability, I finally bid farewell to Belgium in the summer of 2009. Uninspired by life in grey, uneventful Brussels, my girl and I headed off to China for an unforgettable year of teaching and traveling.

“Oh crap!” I cried, as S went crashing to the ground in a crumpled heap. A rising cloud of dust blocking my visibility as I skidded my own bike to a crunching halt.

I sprinted over to her where she lay, winded on the floor clutching her ribs. Her bike wheel still spinning on the earth beside her. “Are you ok?” I asked, relieved to see that a section of the wooden fence lining the trail had broken her fall.

“Yessssshhhh!” she gasped, half grimacing, half laughing as she tried to sit up. She’d grazed her leg in two places, but otherwise seemed to have gotten off lightly. “I killed the fence!” she chuckled as I helped her up, nervously glancing across the countryside. I was half expecting to see an angry, axe-wielding farmer striding towards us. Thankfully, there wasn’t a soul in sight. 

Yangshuo Master Chefs a short story from China.

Oops. Misadventures in Yangshuo.

Yangshuo Master Chefs, a short story from China.

Perhaps under different circumstances the crash could have derailed the day. But actually, there was no question of turning back. The verdant landscape of Yangshuo County was just too damn lush to let anything spoil our plans. Hence we got back on our bicycles and continued through the dreamy countryside.

Paddy fields Yangshuo China.

The paddy fields of Yangshuo County.

The winding pathway took us through a series of sparkling green paddy fields. As we cycled, it was impossible to take my eyes off Yangshuo’s signature karst-studded peaks. A piercing collection of multi-shaped limestone pinnacles that truly have to be seen in person to be believed.

Yangshuo County, China.

We’d had so many amazing travel experiences during our year in China. And yet, it already felt like this place was laying down a banner for most beautiful. Oh how I wish I could have taken those photos with the camera I have today.

Yangshuo County China.

Yangshuo Master Chefs, a short story from China.

Eventually, we came upon a tiny settlement, no more than half a dozen shacks by the side of a dirty-grey section of The Yulong River. There was a pair of grubby children playing tag around some bushes. Nearby, a handful of adults gutting and washing dead chickens in the water.

Yangshuo Master Chefs a short story from China.

Chicken washing at The Yulong River.

Yangshuo Master Chefs, a short story from China.

Having exchanged greetings with the locals, we cycled for a further twenty minutes until we reached the crumbly magnificence of Yulong Bridge in the little town of Baisha. Jumping off our bikes, S and I sat on the riverbank where we swatted flies and watched the occasional bamboo raft float by. It turned out the bridge was seven hundred years old, while the word Yulong refers to meeting a dragon.

Yulong Bridge Yangshuo China.

Yulong Bridge, Yangshuo.

Yulong Bridge.

Tickled by this, I decided to clamber up to the bridge in search of mythical creatures. However, all I found was an old, hunchbacked woman plodding by with a bulging sack of branches on her back. I felt a little guilty about photographing her. But she was just too perfect a specimen to ignore. Moreover, I’m not sure she even noticed me, what with her posture. 

Old Chinese woman Yulong Bridge Yangshuo.

Yangshuo Master Chefs, a short story from China.

It was another half on hour of pedalling before we reached the village of Xiatang. As soon as I saw the sizeable collection of bamboo rafts gathered by the riverbank, I knew we had to take a cruise. In fact, we were so enchanted by the place I didn’t even bother to negotiate the price. 

Xiatang Village.

Yulong River Yangshuo China.

Xiatang Village, Yangshuo County.

Our captain was a smiley man who insisted on dragging our bikes onto the raft himself. This made for a tight squeeze. He was a wiry little guy and yet he possessed real strength. Expertly, he propelled the three of us, bikes and all, down The Yulong’s emerald waters with his lengthy bamboo pole.

Yulong River cruise Yangshuo China.

Cruising The Yulong River.

That river cruise remains a defining memory of my first year in China. A blissful hour of pure laziness staring up at the sky with its Tolkien-esque scenery.

Yulong River cruise Yangshuo County China.

Drifting down the Yulong River.

Yangshuo Master Chefs, a short story from China.

We decided to stay in the city of Yangshuo for a couple of nights. After our biking exploits it seemed wise to take a day off, which we spent idling around Yangshuo’s trendy cafes. It really was a pleasant town to wile away a day doing not very much. 

Yangshuo City China.

Yangshuo City, China.

It turned out to be the perfect day for lounging, especially when the heavens opened mid-afternoon for an almighty downpour. It was amusing to see the little souvenir market empty within seconds, backpackers scrambling off in all directions. Stall owners pulling out their awnings to protect their wares. One poor old lady got completely caught in the ensuing storm, reduced to little more than a hobbling umbrella-with-legs creature.

Rainy day Yangshuo Town Guangxi China

Afternoon downpour, Yangshuo Town.

S discovered a cooking school that day and consequently had her heart set on taking a class. Thus we popped in, spoke to the friendly woman at reception and signed up for a three-hour session. The next morning we made our way to Cloud 9 Restaurant, where we received a warm welcome from a Chinese woman called Jane.

“Nice to meet you!” she grinned.

“Today I will be your tour guide, chef, teacher… and I hope friend. Are you ready to go the market?”

Leighton Travels travel reports short stories.

Yangshuo Master Chefs, a short story from China.

Jane took us to Yangshuo Farmer’s Market to buy our ingredients. Along the way, she told us that we’d be cooking up a grand, three-course feast. Firstly, we’d be getting to grips with Deep Fried Stuffed Eggplant with Pork. Then trying our hand at Stuffed Green Pepper with Pork, before finishing up with Sizzling Beef with Mixed Vegetables.

There were no complaints from our side. “Do you cook well?” she asked us, with a mischievous smile. “Uh…. S yes,” I answered. “Mm, me not so much”. 

Yangshuo Farmer's Market China.

Yangshuo Farmer’s Market.

The market was massive, with three covered halls and over two hundred vendors. Jane expertly marched us around so that we could grab what we needed. As we went, she gave us tips on how to get the juiciest peppers and choice beef cuts. I spotted plenty of questionable stuff, including the sad sight of caged geese, rabbits and dogs. One stall sold pig’s ears, with tray after tray of giant, dark brown flappy cuts. They looked like mushrooms and made my stomach turn. 

Pig's ears Yanghshuo Farmer's Market Guangxi China

Pig’s ears anyone?

Back at Cloud 9 Jane led us up to the rooftop to two huge kitchens and a balcony overlooking a pretty lake. Ironically, the view also included a massive McDonald’s. One of the kitchens was chock-a-block with a large group, the other was all for us! Putting on our supplied Cloud 9 aprons and silly chef hats, Jane directed us to our fully equipped workstations and wasted no time with small talk.

“Ok, we start with deep fried eggplant!”

Cloud 9 Cooking School Yangshuo China.

Cloud 9 Cooking School, Yangshuo.

And off we went, following her clipped instructions to the letter. We sliced carrots, chopped chives and diced onions. Furthermore, we did our best to cut the pork into very fine strips, a point Jane was very strict about. “Finer!!!” she barked, over and over again as I flailed hopelessly with my knife.

Chinese cooking class Yangshuo China.

Jane doing her thing at Cloud 9.

Having cut our eggplants to form an open pouch, we subsequently put the mashed filling in by hand. Then added teaspoons of salt, sugar, white pepper, corn and oyster sauce. Happily, Jane had pre-made the batter. It was an incredibly thick, paint-like goo comprised of wheat flour, corn starch, egg, salt, custard powder, soda and water. The next task was to dip our eggplants into the batter and drop them gently into our oiled woks.

Yangshuo Master Chefs a short story from China.

Don’t mess with the chef.

Yangshuo Master Chefs, a short story from China.

I’d mistakenly thought that we were now done. But Jane, ever the taskmaster, told us we had to continually turn the eggplants from back to front while they cooked. This took about ten minutes. When they were ready, we scooted off to the balcony to enjoy the mouth-watering results. We had made way too much, enough to feed at least four people! With two more dishes still to prepare, we recognised the importance of pacing ourselves and resisting the temptation to devour everything!

Deep fried stuffed eggplant with pork Cloud 9 Restaurant and Cooking School Yangshuo

Deep fried stuffed eggplant with pork.

Much to my relief, the pepper dish was comparatively easy to make. We used the same stuffing mix from the eggplant recipe. Once again we cooked up a ridiculous amount of food and I could only conclude that Jane’s family were going to be very well fed for the next few nights.

Stuffed peppers with pork Cloud 9 Restaurant and Cooking School Yangshuo Guangxi China

In progress… stuffed peppers with pork.

For the grand finale, the sizzling beef dish also required a very fine cutting process. This, Jane assured us, was key to its great taste. With the beef cut (badly in my case), we set to work adding salt, oil, rice wine, corn starch, egg white and meat tenderiser. Then left it all to soak for ten minutes while we chilled on the balcony, watching people file in and out of McDonald’s.

Yangshuo Master Chefs, a short story from China.

Back at our workstations, we wok-fried the mix until Jane confirmed the meat was “80% cooked” and therefore ready to be removed. From there we had to rapidly fry up some ginger, spring onions and red peppers. On top of that went water, soy sauce, oyster sauce, salt, sesame oil and the wildcard ingredient of chicken stock.

Yangshuo Master Chefs a short story from China.

The Sizzling Beef dish, in progress.

It was at this point that the sizzling kicked in! Instructing us to heat up an oiled iron plate until it started to smoke, Jane then gave us the green light to pour everything in, meat and all! It was music to our ears to hear the violent reaction of the ingredients as they collided with the iron plate. It fizzled, hissed, jumped, spat and complained for about five minutes.

short-stories-from-china

“Ok, we’re done!” cried Jane, “is time for eating!”. 

S and I carried our plates over to the balcony overlooking Yangshuo’s main street. The food was just wonderful and it gave us a great deal of satisfaction to know we’d created it. Of course we couldn’t finish it all and I remember feeling so incredibly bloated by the time I dropped my chopsticks in defeat. 

Cloud 9 Restaurant and Cooking School Yangshuo Guangxi China

Yangshuo Master Chefs, a short story from China.

The last stop on our farewell China tour came in Hong Kong. This, we figured, would be a celebratory end to our twelve month adventure. Here, there would be creature comforts galore and widely-spoken English. That said, accommodation is a tricky one for foreign visitors, especially for those on a budget. 

After much searching, we opted for The Hong Kong Hostel in the trendy Causeway Bay neighbourhood. It was a glitzy district stuffed with European cafes, western restaurants and boutique shops. A place where pretty, leggy women strutted around with rat dogs, invariably armed to the teeth with shopping bags. Less glitzy was our closet of a room, which proved so small you couldn’t fully open the door without it knocking into our bed.

I also recall signs in the hallway admitting that the hostel hadn’t been legally registered! As a result, guests were warned to “stay at their own risk“. Clearly some kind of secret establishment, even the entrance down at street level gave no indication that a hostel lay within. Oh, and there was a Chinese family of six living in the room opposite our double. 

Hong Kong Hostel Causeway Bay.

Entrance to The Hong Kong Hostel.

Yangshuo Master Chefs, a short story from China.

Nevertheless, I have great memories of that week. I’ll never forget walking around the city’s Leighton District, which felt like it had been constructed in my honour.  We wandered up Leighton Hill, popped our heads into The Leighton Centre and gazed up at Lippo-Leighton Tower. Needless to say, I didn’t pass up the opportunity to pose for a picture on Leighton Road. As amusing as it all was, I drew the line at making an appointment at The Leighton Hair and Nail Salon.

Leighton Road Hong Kong.

Yangshuo Master Chefs, a short story from China.

We paid a visit to Man Mo Temple with its whispery fortune teller and vaults of human ashes. Riding the 800 metre Mid-level Escalators, the world’s longest outdoor covered electric stairs, was fun too. 

One of our most memorable lunches came at the delightfully ramshackle Graham Street Market, an open-air warren of food stalls set into a steep hill. Home to amazing noodles, fried rice dishes and smoky barbecued meats among other delights. 

Graham Street Market Hong Kong.

Graham Street Market, Hong Kong.

Strolling aimlessly through Soho, we came across a group of excitable locals chattering on the pavement. One of the men, wearing a traditional silk vest and golden waistcoat, stopped us to reveal it was his wedding day! “Congratulations!” I exclaimed, while he blushed into his bouquet of flowers. 

When I introduced myself to the party as “Sir Leighton of Leighton Hill” they all roared with laughter, perhaps a little too hard. In any case it was a warm, quirky experience and we were only too happy to sign their wedding book and wish them all the best for the future. 

Colorful groom Hong Kong

Mr. Groom & his wedding book.

Yangshuo Master Chefs, a short story from China.

One afternoon was dedicated entirely to the magnificent Hong Kong Park, with its streams, observation tower and community of exotic birds. A particularly fun evening played out at Happy Valley Racecourse, for what was my first experience of live horse racing. I had a great time learning how to fill in the forms and attempting to strategise over which steed to pick from the lists of runners.

Happy Valley Racecourse Hong Kong.

A rainy evening at Happy Valley Racecourse.

Sadly, we failed to win any money over the evening’s eight races. But that was fine, I had more than enough entertainment simply from people watching. Hong Kong’s racecourse regulars were a kooky bunch, almost exclusively scruffy, introverted local men with newspapers clutched under their arms and pencils behind their ears. They watched the races silently in their little groups. A victory celebrated with a sharp nod of the head. A defeat for their chosen horse met with a weary sigh and gritted teeth.

Happy Valley Racecourse Hong Kong

Happy Valley Racecourse, Hong Kong.

On our final day we headed out to Lantau Island to see The Big Buddha, the fascinating little fishing village of Tai O and the idyllically deserted Cheung Sheu Beach. These places seemed like a whole other world to the relentless buzz of the city. 

Cheung Sha Beach Hong Kong.

Cheung Sha Beach, Hong Kong.

Yangshuo Master Chefs, a short story from China.

Arriving back at our illegal hostel that final evening and the entire street was jam-packed with angry demonstrators. There were hundreds and hundreds of people chanting, while an indignant, pony-tailed man addressed the crowd from a small podium. He was doing a grand job of geeing everyone up, passionately shouting into his microphone as a sea of mobile phones lit up the evening air.

“What’s happening?” I asked a pair of clapping teens.

“Today is 21st anniversary of Tiananmen Square!” said the boy, shouting above the general din. “Today we remind Chinese government that we are Hong Kong. And we will NOT accept any threats to our freedoms!” Looking back on that evening now, ten years later, I can’t help but feel sad for the city and its people. What’s more, I find myself wondering what became of the teens, not to mention the ponytailed man. People, I imagine, who will not fare well under Hong Kong’s new security laws. 

Anti Chinese government demonstrations Causeway Bay Hong Kong May 2010

Hong Kong demonstration, June 2010.

“Are you going to miss China?” S asked.

“Umm… yes and no” I replied, my head up against the taxi window as we hummed down the motorway. “I’ll miss the travel… and the food! But I won’t miss the spitting, the foul air, or having to engage in combat every time I wanna get on the subway”. A period of silence followed as we sat lost in our own thoughts.

I had no idea what awaited us in The Netherlands. If I’d had just an inkling of the professional adventures that awaited me in Amsterdam, I may have started hyperventilating. But I didn’t know anything. I had no clue where we were going to live. Or what kind of jobs we’d get. And of course, I was entirely unaware that for S and I it would be the beginning of the end.

‘Yangshuo Master Chefs’ is the eighteenth and final chapter of my short story series Challenged in China.

I’ve also written hundreds of travel reports from all across China.

I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.

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6 Comments

  • travelchinaclub

    YangShuo is a lot more interesting than GuiLin, it seems that you had a great time there, quite surprised you still remember all the travel details in there though some years had passed. I had been there many times and liked it very much, except the humid air and hot weather .
    But the rice noodles. Beer fish. Bamboo rating on the river still appeal to me.

    March 26, 2017 - 1:48 pm Reply
    • leightonliterature

      Hey, yes Yangshuo was a real highlight of my first year in China! Thanks a lot for stopping by Leighton Literature and taking the time to comment!

      March 26, 2017 - 1:50 pm Reply
  • Mary Phillips

    Well done, Leighton! Wonderful description and fotos that fit exactly.

    March 26, 2017 - 2:56 pm Reply
    • leightonliterature

      Thanks Mary, I cherish your ever-loyal readership as much as ever!

      March 26, 2017 - 3:15 pm Reply
  • natty4t

    one of my faves. Would love to do an international cookery course some day.

    March 26, 2017 - 6:54 pm Reply
    • leightonliterature

      You’d be damn good at it too! ‘Real’ Chinese food is just amazing, nothing like what we get in the U.K.

      March 26, 2017 - 7:09 pm Reply

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