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Around the World 2017: Mudanjiang

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This was my second time in Mudanjiang, a city I've not so fondly described as the "Cleveland of China". This might be unfair to Cleveland, considering I've never been there and I'm often pleasantly surprised by unheralded mid-sized American cities. It's more because Mudanjiang calls to mind the popular conception of Cleveland as a colorless, industrial city with a distinct lack of culture and fun things to do. Why Mudanjiang instead of one of the countless amazing and beautiful cities in China? Because that's where Mei Ling's sister, brother-in-law, and nephew live. Her parents come over from Jixi, a couple of hours away by train, when we visit.

If China was drawn as a chicken, Mudanjiang would be its forehead. Didn't know that China looks like a chicken? Here you go.

Another similarity to Cleveland is the climate. Mudanjiang is located in the northeasternmost province of Heilongjiang in close proximity to Siberia and North Korea. Illustrious neighbors. Even in June, the mornings were uncomfortably cold. That was an issue since probably the most interesting thing to see in Mudanjiang is the daily morning market. Because China is on one time zone, daybreak comes very early in the northeast so the morning market is over by nine. That's how I found myself groggy and shivering on a busy street in Mudanjiang at seven in the morning the day after our arrival from Taipei.

It didn't take long for me to be drawn into the energy of the market and absorbed in all the delicious and exotic foods that are unique to China. Even in a backwater town like Mudanjiang, the variety of produce and prepared foods on display seemed endless.

One of the high points of any market in China is the abundance of fresh fruit, especially berries. One particular vendor was wheeling a cart down the center of the market that was practically groaning under the weight of cherries, yang mei, and golden gooseberries.

Mei Ling's sister's house was about a fifteen minute walk from a busy pedestrian zone with department stores and a miniature amusement park. The department store had upgraded itself substantially from our last visit two years earlier and now boasted a deli section and a food court that rivaled the ones one might see in Shanghai or Beijing.

On the pedestrian street outside there were food vendors already set up in advance of the night market which would begin several hours later.

That evening we had our first homecooked meal in Mei Ling's sister's apartment. Everyone tripped over themselves trying to fit in the tiny kitchen while I amused myself torturing the kids with still-living food items.

Dinner finally appeared with not one but two silkworm dishes. There's nothing like washing down homecooked spicy northern Chinese food with ice cold Snow beer.

I didn't have it in me the next day to get up by seven for the morning market, so I joined Mei Ling and the kids a little later at a smaller street market which had its own collection of interesting foods. The highlight was the vendor of stir-fried unhatched chickens, which proved to be quite spicy and tasty once you got past the little feathers. For anyone who prefers their little chicks already hatched before being fried, they had those as well.

Next stop was the barber shop for haircuts for Ian and Spenser.

After some lazing around at the apartment with the kids it was time to hit the night market on the main pedestrian street. large_IMG_0250.jpglarge_493EFE9505FF31388E4D1AF35E5D3013.jpglarge_IMG_1801.jpg

On our last evening in Mudanjiang we walked to a park where a couple of hundred people were getting some exercise doing a communal dance to Chinese pop.

Outside the park was another small night market but it couldn't hold a candle to the one in the pedestrian zone. However, I did get a chance to chew a pig tail.

By a stroke of good fortune, we had to visit a larger city called Shenyang in order to obtain a visa for Mei Ling's Mom to visit us in the US. Through persistent campaigning, I managed to convince Mei Ling to split our time in China equally between Mudanjiang and Shenyang. I didn't know a thing about Shenyang, but I figured three days there had to be better than three more in Cleveland ... er Mudanjiang. Therefore, we found ourselves taking an overnight train to Shenyang before I'd even had time to get bored. Hopefully I'll be able to find another way to cut down our stay in Mudanjiang the next time we visit China. The visit itself is non-negotiable. The town may be Cleveland to me, but to Mei Ling it's home.

Posted by zzlangerhans 14:08 Archived in China Tagged heilongjiang mudanjiang Comments (0)

Around the World 2015: Mudanjiang, China

Of all the countries I've visited, there's none that I prefer to China. I love Europe, especially the big three of Italy, France, and Spain, but nothing compares to the incredible markets, food, frenzy, and natural beauty of China. Now that I'm married to Mei Ling and my children are partly Chinese, I'm permanently joined to this foreign country and culture that is positioned diametrically opposite on the globe from the place of my birth. At some point Mei Ling and I agreed we would visit her family in China every other year so that we would still be able to spend some summers in Europe. The bonus is that there are so many other countries in Asia we've never visited, and traveling to China is a great excuse to stop over in some place that is completely new. The only downside is that Mei Ling's family lives in Mudanjiang, a mid-sized city in northern China with very little of interest for travelers. I like to think of it as the "Cleveland of China". This was my second go round in Mudanjiang, and after the excitement and novelty of Napa and Seoul I wasn't thrilled about six days of schlepping around in familiar neighborhoods and markets. Nevertheless, visiting the in-laws is non-negotiable so I resolved to try and have as much fun as possible.

Mei Ling's brother in law insisted on meeting us at the airport in a small taxi, which meant the four of us had to squeeze into the back seat and pile bags and strollers all over ourselves, the roof of the cab, and projecting improbably from the trunk while secured by a bungee cord. I half expected to show up at the family apartment missing half our belongings, but on arrival our property seemed to be intact. Mei LIng's sister, her husband, and their son live in a nice two bedroom apartment on a upper floor in a newly-constructed building close to the center of town.

Everyone had already met Cleo two years earlier when she was a super cute one year old, but as I expected Ian was able to upstage her this time around.

Mei Ling's younger brother also showed up and was staying in the apartment and her parents were in and out the whole time. Given the number of people sleeping in the apartment and the strain on the single bathroom, I insisted on booking a room in an inexpensive hotel nearby where I stayed with Cleo. Mudanjiang may not be the most interesting place in China, but that doesn't mean the food isn't awesome. We had some amazing restaurant dishes encompassing everything from sea snails to stir fried cow trachea.

We had some spectacular home-cooked banquets as well. Mei Ling is the best cook I've ever known, and both her brother and brother-in-law are professional chefs. There was a visit to a market most days, which was followed by several hours of bustling food preparation and then an incredible multi-course meal.

One thing that always seemed to be constant is that whenever we sat down to eat, there was always plenty of Snow beer.

Aside from shopping for food, cooking, and eating our days mostly consisted of walks around the city center and visits to the little amusement park downtown where the kids could bungee bounce or catch minnows.

Eventually our time in Mudanjiang came to a close. Mei Ling was more sorry to leave than I was, but it was great to have seen her and the kids reconnect with her family. We had a brutally early wake up call to catch a train to Harbin for the flight to Guangzhou.

Posted by zzlangerhans 11:23 Archived in China Tagged mudanjiang Comments (0)

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