At a corner store in southern Thailand…
Austrian Dude: Wow, these stores called “7-11” I am all the time seeing in streets of Asia.
Me: Yeah, they’re everywhere in the US too, it’s an American chain.
AD: No, it cannot be so.
Me: Yeah it seriously is, they’ve been around forever, but it looks like some guy had the genius idea of bringing 7-11’s to Asia and is making billions of dollars.
AD: Wow, Scheiße.
Two days later, in a different town in Thailand, passing another 7-11…
Austrian Dude: What is the name of the guy who brought 7-11 to Asia?
Me: I don’t know, why?
AD: I fucking hate him.
No one goes to Wuhan. It’s one of those phenomena the traveler finds in every part of the world, a super mega uber metropolis filled with 10 million people that no one outside the country knows exists.
I went because it looked like a big enough dot on the map to merit a stop at on my way inland from the coast of China. My first two days there were interesting enough: taking a tour of Chinese Muslim noodly delicacies with an Argentinian backpacker; falling into the city’s main river, cutting open my hand (permanent scar!) and subsequently having Chinese men in speedos save the lives of my dripping electronics; and dining with a nerdy Chinese student as he told me I should be killed in an alley for my thoughts on Tibet and Xianjiang.
But it was the third day that I’ll always remember. I was in the hostel’s garden continuing my streak of demonstrating my embarrassingly poor billiards skills in as many countries as possible. My new friend Victor emerged from inside the hostel. I say “Victor” because all Chinese have an alter-ego name left over from junior high English class that they can tell foreigners for whom Zhaoguo Xin is unpronounceable. The best self-chosen name I’ve heard is definitely Butterfly. Anyways, Victor, whom I shall call Xi Guoqiang for the remainder of this blog post because it may for all I know be his real name and at the very least is more fun to write, was a businessman on business travel — apparently they spend the big bucks and stay in hostels in China — and was the one guy around who spoke English. He burst into my pool game with news for me. These two Chinese guys behind him are also going to Yichang! Now I don’t have to go to the train station to find a ticket, because they have a free ride to Yichang! Free ride to Yichang! Leave now!
I rushed upstairs, grabbed my backpack and was off with the two strangers on foot.
The conversation, admittedly, was less than thrilling. We could each say “Hello how are you?” and count to 20 in the other language, but this provided for an unsurprisingly brief and less than profound cultural exchange. So we moved on to hand movements and saying words super slowly in hopes that the other party would spontaneously begin to understand our language. This didn’t work either, but is loads of fun and better than charades.
Let’s face it: mushy brown food is just not appetizing. Likewise for anchovy-topped papaya, or burnt-looking noodles, or grilled animals whose heads and innards have been left intact for your gluttonous pleasure.
But trust me on this. Go to Malaysia. These things are gastronomically orgasmic.
If you need to, close your eyes. Try anything they slop onto your plate.
And if you need to, take a peek at the history of the place. A peninsula in Southeast Asia, with centuries of Indians and Chinese washing up on shore, and scores of meddling Europeans anchoring at its ports for a plundering, a barter, or a few wars over spices — I think tells you all. This place is a culinary Frankenstein.
What follows is a picture of every meal I had in Malaysia (a travel-nerd habit I’ve recently picked up):
Three months in Asia flew by, and I’ll never forget its sights, tastes, adventures and people. But how do you sum up an entire experience? What words do you choose? What stories do you tell?
Here’s a shot at trying to digest a whole trip through pages of scribbled notes and tally marks at the back of a travel journal.
(I copied this journal idea from traveler extraordinaire Cressida Stolp. Gracias, tia.)
CITIES VISITED: 38
Lake Forest -> Los Angeles -> (Tokyo) -> Seoul -> Phnom Penh -> Siem Reap -> Angkor Wat -> Phnom Krom -> Phnom Penh -> Saigon -> Cu Chi -> Nha Trang -> Hanoi -> Halong Bay -> Hanoi -> Guangzhou -> Hong Kong -> Shenzhen -> Shanghai -> Suzhou -> Hangzhou -> Tunxi ->Huang Shan -> Tangkou -> Wuhan -> Yichang -> Xi’an -> Beijing -> Kuala Lumpur -> Mersing -> Tioman -> Melaka -> Penang -> Hat Yai -> Krabi -> Railay -> Ton Sai -> Ao Nang -> Suruthani -> Had Rin -> Had Yuan -> Had Thien -> Had Yuan -> Had Rin -> Suruthani -> Bangkok -> (KL)-> (Taipei) -> Los Angeles -> Lake Forest.
NATIONALITIES MET: 43
South Korean • Serbian • Japanese • American • Cambodian • English • Swiss • Swedish • French • German • Canadian • Scottish • Welsh • Dutch • Vietnamese • Kiwi • Australian • Indonesian • Irish • Danish • Czech • Norwegian • Mexican • Israeli • Iranian • Spanish • Trinidadian • Indian • Singaporean • Argentinian • Russian • Senegalese • Algerian • Yemeni • Sri Lankan • Polish • North Irish • Maltese • Austrian • Thai • Chilean • Paraguayan • and Filipino!
Rivers (swim or boat): 3
Indian sweet milk tea
Te Tarik (Malaysian sweet milk tea tossed in the air)
Banh Xeo (Vietnamese burrito)
Sweet and sour pork (It’s better than in the states! I swear!)
Bamboo stirfry with pork
Kung Pao chicken (Better than Panda Express!)
Uighur lamb dishes (Muslims make the best food in China)
Thai curries (All)
Fruit shakes (Any)
Malay spicy chicken (Delish!)
Malay 3-taste fish (I think the three tastes are sweet, spicy, and sour?)
Nasi lemak (Malaysian rice, peppers, anchovies wrapped in banana leaf for like 30 cents. Obsessed.)