I have never seen anything like it. It was a mini mountain of fluffy egg white paste, with menacing, fried scorpions jutting out of it. And this was for dinner?
One thing’s for sure – I was on unfamiliar ground, out of my comfort zone and on a journey to get to know two Chinese cities in eight days, courtesy of the China Daily. As quirky as this welcome dish was when I first arrived in Xi’an city, it had a more elegant meaning; it symbolises the majestic peaks in the Shaanxi province, situated in the north-west of China.
The egg white was to denote the sometimes snow-capped mountains in the province. And such elevated grounds are normally habitats for scorpions, which, when fried and served to a true blue Malaysian girl like me, taste like crunchy, salty ikan bilis in your regular plate of nasi lemak!
This dish was a rather apt introduction to my visit in Shaanxi, where I drank in the breathtaking sights of Hua Shan (Mount Hua) and Taibai Shan (Mount Taibai), the tallest mountain in East China. Xi’an, the one-time ancient capital of China, brings to mind the famed terracotta warriors, buried together with the Emperor to guard him in the afterlife.
But when one is in a mood for something more earthly, a 120-km drive from the city would bring you to one of the province’s natural jewels – Mount Hua, dubbed the “Western Great Mountain”. One would need to take a slow, steady cable car (with transparent walls!) up steep elevations to get closer to the peak, which can be quite unnerving.
But even if you are wary of heights, the wondrous view assures you that it is all worthwhile. Like traditional Chinese paintings of mountains leaping to life, Hua Shan basks in its full glory on a sunny day.
The beige, granite rock formations with trails of green shrubs running along its sides, gently being blown by the wind, reminded me of a mighty ancient warrior with rock-hard muscles standing tall in the misty air. It was not surprising when my local guide said it is believed that if you have seen Hua Shan, there is no need to visit other mountains in China.
Named “Hua” after an official from heaven who met a monk who resided there, the mountain is also deemed a rather romantic spot, with love-locks adorning the railings along the way to the peak.
But Hua Shan would still have to look up to its taller brother, Taibai Shan, which soars at 3,511m above sea level and offers travellers a chance to feel like they could touch the sky.
My heart raced with excitement when I was told I may experience snow at the top – it would be a first for me.
Alas, there was no precipitation that day due to the warm weather. But I did feel kind of on Top Of The World, as the song from The Carpenters goes.
From the peak, I felt like I was standing in the middle of a strange building with the sky as a round blue dome at the top and the green hills and greyish plains below, the vast hallways belonging to earth’s residents.
As I descended to lower ground and into the city, my bus passed through the imposing Xi’an City Wall. Its long arms protectively wrap around the city centre, spanning about 14km in length.
Built during the Ming Dynasty, the 12m-high wall is now the pride of the city and, for tourists, a chance to cycle on the platform to soak up views of this historic city. From there, one can see the Bell and Drum Tower which, according to legend, was erected by the Xi’an people to stop earthquakes caused by a dragon living underground.
They were told that if they built the structures on top of the dragon’s head and tail, the quakes would cease and peace would reign. Nobody can say if the story is real but, true enough, there are no more earthquakes and the city’s cold night air fills me with a sense of mysterious calm.
From engaging with soulful Xi’an, I also met the acquaintance of her dynamic and unique sister, the coastal city of Ningbo in the Zhejiang province in eastern China.
Meaning “serene waves”, Ningbo is said to be one of the oldest cities in China, and a major port, thanks to its proximity to the sea. But despite its 7,000-year-old history, this port city pulses to a modern beat and belies its true age.
With its trendy bars, futuristic architecture and many ongoing development projects, it convinces me that it is young at heart and full of promise for so much more. From its growing High-Tech Industrial Development Zone and robust Ningbo Port, it is obvious that the place is poised to springboard itself into a highly advanced city.
I found myself being more intrigued by her little nuances, including the exceedingly fresh and succulent local seafood. One of the specialities is another multi-legged creature – the crab.
Unlike the scorpions, I was definitely more open to trying the crab, which is served raw. I was pleasantly surprised. I found myself relishing the crab’s naturally sweet and juicy flesh, which didn’t even have the slightest whiff of fishiness.
For dessert, Ningbo’s signature glutinous rice balls with black sesame filling are a must-try. As my local guide noted, you can’t say you have been to Ningbo if you did not eat this chewy and flavourful sweet treat.
Perhaps a historical and cultural gem that betrays Ningbo’s seemingly youthful vibe is the Temple of King Asoka, built in 282 CE and the only ancient temple over 1,000 years old in China. The structure was built by King Asoka from India, who became a Buddhist after he dreamt that the Buddha told him to stop killing off his rivals.
The temple also houses one of the 100 relics from the Shakyamuni Buddha’s remains, a holy artefact revered by followers.
Few would know that Ningbo is also home to several significant figures, including Tu Youyou, who was recently awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for her contribution in creating a drug to treat malaria that has saved millions of lives. The 84-year-old’s family home in the city, which has been preserved for its traditional architecture, is open to visitors.
It is also the birthplace of Chen Yumen, the inventor of mah jong and his former residence, also in the city, has been turned into a mini museum for the public.
At night, Ningbo lets her hair down and transforms into a marvel of light and sound. One can easily soak up the vibrant atmosphere by taking a stroll along the charming and scenic Nantanghe Block.
Decked with rows of food shops and cafes, the block has the facade of traditional Chinese buildings, giving you the feeling of being transported back in time to an ancient dynasty. Opened some months ago, the block is also an attraction for locals who want to relax over a meal or admire the night view.
For a stiffer drink, Ningbo folks and tourists alike can be seen converging at the hip joints near The Old Bund and bars overlooking the Yong River, which runs through the city.
Despite its rapid development and advancements, there is the other side of Ningbo that coaxes you to just kick back, relax and drink it all in.