The art of breathing is fundamental to the philosophy behind tai chi. Here I have my very first tai chi lesson with Master Huang who has been practising since childhood. This is followed by a cooking class making my favourite local specialty "Beer Fish" and then a visit to a vegetarian restaurant that impresses us beyond expectations!
We are almost three quarters of the way through our trip in regional China with Wendy Wu Tours. On this morning I rise at 6.30am and sip a cup of tea and ready myself for my first tai chi lesson. Master Huang is a 12th generation tai chi master who started his craft at age 7. He is dressed in the customary pyjamas with a long ponytail and beard. His speaks English well and he wears trainers on his feet detailed with a tin yang symbol. He speaks softly and explains that in this lesson we will be learning some basic tai chi moves.
Nowadays Master Huang concentrates of teaching Westerners the art of tai chi. The key to tai chi is breathing and the dantian aka the energy centre or the abdomen controls much of the body. Breathing is done through the nose and not the mouth - he explains that over the years we have forgotten the art of breathing through our nose and this affects our chi and creates blockages in our chest. The aim of breathing through the nose is to prevent these blockages as we want the energy to flow through our body.
He shows us some moves and reminds us gently to keep relaxing. He tells us that contrary to Western belief, many Chinese believe that being relaxed creates more energy although relaxed doesn't mean loose. So what is the ideal time to practice tai chi? Master Huang tells us that it best to do when the sun and moon change over. That is when dawn first breaks or when the sun sets. Otherwise, "It's not too good air, it's not fresh air," he explains.
After tai chi we adjourn to breakfast at the hotel. I'm getting used to Guilin's customs such as rice noodles for breakfast. I add pickles, peanut and chives to the pork mince topped soup noodles and slurp away. I get changed for the next adventure, a cooking class at Cloud 9 cooking school housed in a local farmer's courtyard.
We start the class with a visit to the local markets. The Feng Ming markets are a small market for locals and not tourists. Some of the produce includes winter melon, cucumbers, sticky rice, wood ear fungus, young ginger and sweet potato leaves. There are oranges, sold while green before they turn orange in colour - said to be ripe and sweet enough already.
The live area is not for the faint-hearted. Slaughtered chickens are plunged into boiling water with straw topped pots to hasten the removal of feathers. Live frogs pulsate in red plastic netted bags while ducks and chickens pad from foot to foot in a small cage. Large vats of wine with up to 50% alcohol are sold.
The cooking school instructor Bing Bing purchases some of the sweet potato leaves and other vegetables and we take the drive to the cooking school. We pass water buffalo on the leafy country roads. On the wall are two fascinating charts of healthy and unhealthy food combinations. There are ones that make sense such as pig liver and cauliflower (although who am I to judge, I've never had them together) but ones such as shrimp, tomato and chilli are interesting as they're often enjoyed together.
We take our stations with individual gas burners and shared condiments. She explains each ingredient to us and we start on our chopping. Bing Bing gives us some basic lessons on using Chinese cleavers. The forefinger position and thumb are important for comfort and safety and give us a good grip of the heavy knife.
We start the chopping process for the four dishes. Today we are making a beer fish (yay! everyone's favourite), sweet potato leaves, bamboo shoots and carrots, pork dumplings and deep fried eggplant stuffed with pork.
Even though the pork dumpling filling is simple, the seasonings make a difference. Bing Bing shows us how to pleat the dumplings so that they stand up in the oiled bamboo steamers. The excess filling is then spread into a slice of eggplant that is cut three quarters of the way through like a pita. This is then dipped in a flour and cornflour egg batter and deep fried.
After all the chopping comes the frying. We turn the woks up to the highest heat until they start smoking and then turn it to a low flame. This is interesting as I have always been told to fry in a wok on constant high heat. We then add two spoons of vegetable seed oil and start frying the vegetables and pork seasoning them with Bing Bing's directions. Then after plating this up we pour some water into the wok to remove any residue and then wipe the wok clean.
Next is the dish I am particularly looking forward to cooking. I've become addicted to beer fish while in Guilin and we start by frying the fish. Then we cook the tomatoes, capsicum and garlic, celery, spring onion and ginger before the beer is added.
Sweet potato leaves
It's just a matter of adding seasoning and gently turning the fish before it is ready. The sweet potato leaves are cooked last and are ready within a couple of minutes, the handfuls of leaves and thin stems transforming into a dish not dissimilar to stir fried spinach. While we are frying they deep fry the eggplant and steam the dumplings for us.
We sit down to a feast of the food we have made. This is the food for just one person! We are given the recipes (although it's best you pay attention as the recipes have some ingredients and quantities missing) and we are on our way.
It's a leisurely few hours of unexpected downtime while some go off for a bike ride to Moon Hill. I retreat to my room to finish writing and as night falls outside, I realise through my reverie that it is time for dinner. And I'm not hungry at all. In fact I don't think I've been hungry for years now realistically speaking...
We head back down to the main part of town to Pure Lotus vegetarian restaurant. It's a beautiful restaurant decorated in shades of orange. They bring out an iPad with a picture menu in both Chinese and English.
To order you simply press the item that you want. On the table are some soybeans and some slices of watermelon which we help ourselves to while we sip on osmanthus tea, a beautifully floral and fragrant tea with the perfect amount of sweetness.
Wok fried vegetable parcels
Like spring rolls, these are filled with a flavoursome mix of vegetables as well as a delicious but very unexpected spicy soy sauce with chilli. Dipping the rolls into the sauce adds a delightful savoury spice.
Braised tofu and mushrooms
The braised tofu and mushrooms comes as a generous serve of soft, pillowy tofu squares with a single slippery shitaake mushroom inside. The sauce adds much to it but I love the silky texture of the tofu. In my experience tofu in Asian countries is always so much silkier in texture with a better flavour.
Hunan style eggplant and tofu with chilli
But hands down the favourite dish of the night is the two textured Hunan style eggplant and tofu with chilli. The centre is made up of fan sliced eggplant pieces that are lightly battered and deep fried and drenched in a gorgeously spicy, slightly sweet rich sauce with black bean. The tofu pieces surround the eggplant and are soft and melt in the mouth.
Crispy fried shredded potato and eggplant
The last dish is the crispy fried shredded potato and eggplant. It seems more eggplant than potato, sliced in the same way as the eggplant dish above although this is served with a sweet and sour style sauce.
After dinner we go for a short stroll throughout the town. It looks entirely different during the night than in the day. Nightclubs and bars line the streets and locals and tourists swarm the streets. Local men walk down the street with their singlets and shirts lifted up, their rounded bellies showing and touks entice people in.
There's no shortage of variety - there are even two Jamaican bars. I spot a bright pink juice, a dragon fruit juice. I order one for 25RMB-about $5 here which isn't cheap compared to other drinks and he makes one fresh for me. It's sweet but indistinct and I sip on it as I wander past the shops and watch sellers ply their trade. Yangshuo is like an entirely new town at night.
So tell me Dear Reader, do you consciously try to breathe through your nose? Do you practice Tai Chi or mediation? And do you prefer ordering through an iPadordering the regular way?
NQN visited China as a guest of Wendy Wu Tours, Cathay Pacific and Dragonair
Wendy Wu Tours
Wendy Wu Tours escorted group tours offer an extensive range of fully inclusive and comprehensive itineraries throughout China and focusing on Guilin. Including the popular 17-day Southern Odyssey which includes visiting Guilin, Longji, Yangshuo and Hong Kong. For further information contact Wendy Wu Tours on 1300-727 998 or visit: