Anthony Bourdain traveling through Chinese food

Given how much Anthony Bourdain traveled in the world, it comes as no surprise that he made it to China. Though his death is still shocking, I’d just like to take a moment to talk about his brief encounters with China and Chinese food.

“The one thing I know for sure about China is, I will never know China. It’s too big, too old, too diverse, too deep. There’s simply not enough time.” (Bourdain’s words from On Parts Unknown). Of course he’s right: China is huge, both culturally and geographically.  There are 1.3 billion people living in China, and just about as much geographical area  as the United States (depending on how you divide borders). There’s an immense impenetrability often associated with it, and because of this, fear. But Bourdain wasn’t afraid to explore China or to really grapple with its intricacies, much like his ventures in other parts of the globe.

It’s true that Bourdain suffered from depression, which is something very few could possibly glean from his energetic pursuits. Not too long before he committed suicide earlier this month, Bourdain was in Hong Kong, learning jiu-jitsu with tenacity like a pro.  His sparring partners would likely have no idea that before long, the man would be gone. Instead, there was a man throwing himself into the ring and really engaging with a culture face-to-face. Though he did not live as long as it seems fair for him to have lived, it’s clear from his adventures that he was always fully present when he was around.

Bourdain didn’t shy away from spicy Sichuan food, either, and instead found the humor in spices that sear the tears right out of one’s eyes, quoted as saying “If you imagine Ilsa, she-wolf of the SS tormenting you with nipple clamps as the la, the ma, provided by the pleasantly deranging peppercorns, would be like the naughty nurse with the ice cubes,” when talking about Sichuan’s mala spices.  He was a fan of whatever took him furthest away from what he knew, staying forever curious in a way that can sometimes baffle even me, someone who has lived in China for so many years. Familiar places have their strangeness, and strange places can be familiar. But even if a strange place is unfamiliar, it is still worth stopping by.

There is something poignant and pressing that we as travelers and citizens of the world can take from Bourdain’s experiences. It is that nothing is truly impenetrable, not even China and its Great Wall. No place is deserving of knee-jerk fear and aversion; other cultures deserve our very best, on-the-ground-efforts to engage with the world. China is becoming a bigger and bigger part of our daily lives, and so we would do well to make the effort to greet it with curiosity and stamina.

Bourdain’s end came as a shock, and so in tandem with the lessons he has taught us, we must learn leverage with what we are doing and what we feel we ought to do. Reach out when we feel alone. Listen when someone is upset and needs attention. Recognize when professional help is needed — and feel no shame when it is.

And when it comes to China, order some hot pot, brew some tea, and eat some dumplings. Who knows? China might just be what you should order from the menu.

At the End of the Great Wall: My Journey to Every Chinese Province

Back in 2013, I stood on Jiayuguan fort, the end of the Great Wall in Gansu Province that was called “the Beginning of Nowhere.” The crenelations faced a vast and brutal desert that sentries used to guard, often watching merchants slip into the packed sand to continue along the Silk Road.

I think about this now in 2017, having just stood atop a fort on the Great Wall again, this time at the other end in Hebei Province’s Shanhaiguan — the Great Wall that enters the Bohai Sea. My hiking boots have been worn down, rips and seams gaping open and beyond repair. It wasn’t gritty sand caking my skin, but seasalt and the crashing sound of the waves below.

Great wall water 2

I wanted to end my trip at Shanhaiguan, because it’s more than the end of this trip, but the end of many trips that have taken me all over China’s diverse soil. My tattered boots and I have trekked sand dunes, mountain paths, seashores, and snow. We’ve gone all over China together for the past five years. And now, we’ve been to every single Chinese province.

Hannah boots

Back when I first got these boots in 2013, I had no intention of traveling so much. In fact, before I came to China, I had never traveled alone, period. My first stay in an international youth hostel was in Shanghai in 2012, and it was thrilling because it was so new. When people recommended a place to visit, I searched for it on my then-clean map of China thinking “maybe someday.” China on that map was like a distant star then: something I could look at but perhaps never touch.

Since then, my map has been filled not only with ink, but with memories of where I was and even who I was in the moment I visited a place. At times, I was the lost foreigner. At others, the dusty hitch-hiker. I’ve had conversations with people that stayed with me for years. I’ve had conversations that I didn’t understand.

The road my boots and I have walked through China has greatly shaped the person I am today. Where once I was a terrified girl playing at being an adult, now I’m standing tall and walking strong. Though the world can be scary, I’m not scared to be a part of it anymore am ready for new things. So, it is with bittersweet satisfaction that I write this, knowing that I’ll have to replace those boots someday (soon, probably), and that all roads come to an end.

But as a friend in Changchun told me, the fort at Shanhaiguan is NOT the end of the Great Wall. It’s actually the beginning. The name “Laolongtou” (老龙头) means “dragon’s head,” which is the starting point.

And what better place to end, than at a beginning of something new?

I did it 2

Panjin’s Red Sea

Probably the only famous part of Panjin (aside from the Panjin Crab dish, apparently) is the red seaweed that grows in late summer and fall. The seaweed in the wetland reserve begins to grow in April but turns red in the fall.

Despite what you might think, it’s totally natural and happens every year. It also covers a huge area so you can take your time as you visit. You can also check out the slightly-horrifying figurines that look like monsters turned into straw. (Let’s hope they don’t come back to life…)

To be perfectly honest, while the sights are unusual and picturesque (on sunny days) I wouldn’t recommend making a special trip just for the seaweed. Transportation out of Panjin isn’t as reliable as you’d think, and it’s not guaranteed to have the big swathes of red you might hope to see.

That being said, if you’re in the area, it makes for a pretty cool sight. It certainly put me in an autumnal mood to see fiery colors, straw monsters and all.

Hannah’s Top 5 Chinese Provinces/中国排名的前五省


When you’ve been to as many provinces as me, it’s hard to list Top 5 or Top 10 Places, since there are just too many to choose from. Do you list cities? Attractions? Local food specialties?

For me, it’s none of the above. I’m going to share with you my Top 5 Favorite Provinces.

5.  Xinjiang
Because Xinjiang is just so different from other places I’ve seen in China, it’s automatically special. The language is different (and not everyone even speaks Mandarin!), and there’s a huge range of natural scenery. You’ve got mountains, a huge desert, ancient rock fortresses, and even lavender fields way up north. What did it for me, though, was Kashgar. I could hear the call to prayer every day from the rooftop of my hostel, and got to spend afternoons strolling through the International Bazaar. Though not easy to get to, definitely a personal favorite.

4.  Sichuan
Sichuan should be on everyone’s Top 5 list. Like Xinjiang, it also has a huge range of scenery. It’s home to many Tibetan nomads, and mountainous, western Sichuan is actually a great place to go if you want to experience Tibetan culture, but can’t get to Tibet Autonomous Region. The capital Chengdu is one of my favorite cities (and this comes from someone who generally doesn’t like big cities). You can see baby pandas here, and as any Chinese person will tell you: eat lots and lots of delicious snacks (if you don’t mind your lips going numb from the spices).

3.  Gansu
This might seem like an odd choice for some. But, with its important place along the Silk Road, and bizarre scenery, it has a special place in my heart. In Gansu, you can find rainbow-colored mountains. You can go mountain trekking. You can see (and hopefully interact with) Tibetan nomadic culture. You can go to the end of the Great Wall and look out into what ancient Chinese believed was the beginning of nowhere. Then, once you venture into Nowhere, you can go to the Dunhuang grottoes and play around in sand dunes like it’s a normal thing.

2.  Yunnan
Many would consider this a top choice, and I can’t blame them. Yunnan is like Pandora’s Box: once you’ve opened its doors, there’s no closing them: You rarely go there just once. Whether it’s the chill, artsy town of Dali, the staggering heights of the Tiger Leaping Gorge Trail, rippled rice terrace fields, the stone forest outside of Kunming, or even the tropical Xishuangbanna, you’ll defintely fall in love with something. I guess the only reason this isn’t in my #1 spot is just because transportation can be iffy at times just because of the mountains, and some spots can get quite touristy during peak seasons. But, it’s still the rare kind of place where just about anywhere you go, it’ll be almost postcard beautiful.

1.  Inner Mongolia
Are you sensing a theme? Indeed, I love big swathes of nature, and Inner Mongolia is exactly that. Inner Mongolia still maintains a sense of wildness, while also being fairly accessible for travelers. (I say “fairly” because it’s friggin’ huge, almost spanning half the width of China). Not only that, but it’s not yet being overrun by tourists outside of public holidays. If you go out east by the Russian border, you’ll be met with sprawling grasslands. In the west, the Gobi Desert (and the Badain Jaran Desert, where there are LAKES IN THE DESERT!) I’ll admit that I’m a bit biased, since I did my epic hitchhiking trip and desert jeep-riding here. I’ve also been told that Inner Mongolia’s climate is most similar to my home-state, Minnesota. All the same, of all places I’ve been in China, Inner Mongolia has left me with the deepest impression.

That’s all for now! What about you? What are your favorite places? Let me know in the comments below. And if you have questions/want travel advice, don’t hesitate to ask!