24 Hours in Nuodeng, Yunnan (Ham Paradise)

After reading Travels Through Dali with a Leg of Ham, I knew that it would be impossible to go back home without a trip to Nuodeng, the village in Yunlong county that specializes in the famous Yunnan ham.

How famous is “famous?” Yunnan ham has been shipped around the globe since 1912, and became an international sensation when it won a gold medal at the Panama International Fair in 1915.

It seems that most villages or towns in China have a specialty food that becomes forever and only associated with them. You would never see a baba shop that wasn’t called “Xizhou baba,” or an ham restaurant not boasting “Nuodeng ham.”

Every October and November, all Nuodeng locals make their own ham. They rub fresh pig legs with almost a 1/2 inch of salt, have it sit in a cool dark place for about a week, then let it air dry for at least one year. The longer the ham cures, the better and more expensive it gets. The best ham has cured for 2-3 years.

We visited a local’s home to see the back room where they were storing their family’s ham. Opening the room brought an overpowering (but delicious) wave of the ham’s salty fragrance. The room was dark with two small electric fans on the ground to circle the air.

Nuodeng is small enough that there aren’t many restaurants, so we ended up finding a local woman’s home to try some ham. We tried ham slices plain, which made it taste particularly special; there was nothing to get in the way of the delicious, salty, smokey flavor. In a country where almost all food is stir-fried and rich with oil and spices, this was a real treat. Yunnan ham tastes like very thick prosciutto, deliciously fatty and flavorful.

Pre-sliced

Nuodeng is also famous for their salt. Their salt wells is actually what put them on the map during the days of the Tea-Horse Road, when salt was incredibly valuable. We visited the ancient salt office that was built in 1383, as well as a home where the family still makes salt the old-fashioned way (albeit probably just for tourists now).

The gate of the historic salt office

Growing salt crystals

Blocks of salt

Before we left, we tried to research Nuodeng. What sites should we see? What should we try besides ham? Besides Travel Cathay, a blog run by a foreigner who strives to feature “alternative travel destinations” in China, there were pretty much no English language resources. We were on our own; foreigners just don’t go to Nuodeng.

On the bus ride back, it rained so hard that one of the roads was flooded, so with the extra 3 hours, I struck up a conversation with a Yunlong local heading to Dali for the weekend. She asked if I had been to any other places in Yunlong besides Nuodeng, rattling off a list of villages that were smaller and “more beautiful.” I’m not sure how much I was able to get across with my Chinese ability, but I tried to explain that I would love to have gone to more places, but unfortunately I am just unaware of what’s out there!

Travel Tips
– We stayed at the Nuodeng International Youth Hostel, which was very nice and clean. 35 RMB (~5 USD)
– Ask your hostel if they can recommend a good restaurant. Chances are, they’ll bring you to a house that they have guanxi (relationships) with, so you’ll get cheap, delicious homestyle food!
– One day is good enough to see everything in Nuodeng. The town closes quite early and there are few lights, so it is nice to find a good cafe or bar and hang out there after dinner.

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24 Hours in Kunming

My Chinese visa is only good for 60 days, which meant that by early July I had to leave the country to renew it. Even though I am close to the Chinese border, Xizhou is so rural that it requires an extra trip to Kunming (6 hour train ride, or 1 hour airport ride) to fly internationally. The rainy season constantly disrupts airports, so my boss recommended that I fly to Kunming, spend the night, then fly to Thailand the next day.

At first I thought that was overkill, but the second I got in line for security in Dali, I heard over the loudspeaker that my flight was delayed because of “schedule congestion.” Impressive, considering there are maybe 10 airplanes that go to and from the Dali airport every day.

I had only heard negative things about Kunming before I left, and the guidebooks didn’t make me very hopeful either. Everyone said it was a boring, big city with little culture or history left, and the only highly recommended activities (a stone garden, colorful terraces) were far away.

I ended up falling in love with Kunming almost immediately. The city reminds me of a mix between Taiwan and Japan.. Thick trees provide a canopy over the narrow streets, and made the city feel pleasantly green and approachable. It seemed that every block had a small bubble tea shop with an English name displayed in cutesy block letters. I also saw many joggers – something I rarely see in China, which also made it feel more western. Kunming strikes me as a place that would be wonderful to live in, but not visit as a tourist.

I skipped the many hip dinner cafes I saw to go to an open erkuai restaurant that looked particularly busy with locals.

Afterwards, I tried “cheese” tea, mostly just because what on earth is cheese tea. It turned out to be regular tea with a heaping spoonful of a thick, yogurt/cheesecake-inspired drink on top, which you then mix all together to get a drink that resembles a thick milk tea. I was pleasantly surprised!

Before heading off the airport again, I stopped at one of the many xiaolongbao places scattered throughout the city for breakfast. Xiaolongbao are bite-sized pork baozi that originated in Shanghai, but have been increasingly popular throughout the rest of China.

Other travel recommendations:
– The airport is about 1 hour away from the city. If you don’t want to take a taxi, you can take the airport shuttle bus (25 RMB) or the local public bus 919 (13 RMB, takes about 10 minutes longer).
– I stayed at Cloudland International Youth Hostel, which was just perfect: centrally located, cheap, and very clean.
– The best restaurant/shop street is Wenlin street, just north of Cuihu Park. Each shop has such a distinct style!

 

Favorite Podcasts / Radio Cherry Bombe

I have never been a radio person. It seems like most people listen to the radio in the morning, but for me, that is when silence is golden.

Recently, I have been listening to podcasts, but at night.  It’s like listening to an audio book, but it is neatly wrapped up in 45 minutes. There are so many bugs in this rural area here that when my room lights are on and my window is open, the sound of bugs on my window screen drives me a little insane. This way, I can have the lights out but still do some “reading.” Also, I can have my eyes closed which is pretty great.

Thinking of Cherry Bombe has got me thinking of all my favorite spots in NYC!

When I attended the Cherry Bombe Marketplace last April, I was super lucky to meet Kerry Diamond, the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Cherry Bombe magazine. The worst place to introduce yourself to someone who organizes a conference is during the conference, but hey. While we were talking, we stacked chairs for the next guest speaker. One of the last things she said to me (before I finally realized that I shouldn’t get in the way of this lady who has a million things to do) was “Hey, you should listen to our podcast?” I smiled politely and said “Oh yes, I’ll check it out!” but what I was really thinking was “Nope, I am not a radio person.” Also, “What a random thing to bring up???”

I am not sure what inspired me to listen to the first podcast last week, but now I am obsessed with Radio Cherry Bombe. Cherry Bombe is an indie food magazine celebrating women and food, and the podcasts are an extension of that, exclusively featuring interviews with “the coolest, most creative women in the world of food.” I have been listening to 1-3 episodes a night, starting with the stars I know (Christina Tosi, Martha Stewart, Joy Wilson), and then moving onto all these incredible people I am so glad I now know (Nancy Silverton, Lani Halliday, Amanda Hesser).

If you’re not a podcast/radio person, trust me, I feel you. But try one episode out – they’re worth it!