A woman, shoveling debris, put her hand out and yelled for us to stop. We did, and right as we did, a wheelbarrow descended clunkily from the second floor of a building, hanging from the claw of a crane, coming to a crashing halt right where we'd have been standing if it hadn't been for her.
Weishan was the friendliest city I encountered in China. Someone saving our lives was just the beginning.
The very first hotel we wandered into came complete with an effusive owner, who showed us his guest log to definitively prove he had given us the best deal of the week, narrated the local news channel's offerings in the evenings, got down on his hands and knees to try and fix our internet (despite being of the generation to which internet connectivity makes no sense), and whose wife offered to do all our laundry while we were at lunch. (Contrast this to a more typical first hotel, whose front desk clerk brusquely informs us that they don't accept foreigners.)
Old ladies in juice shops were thrilled to see us and to share small talk over mango smoothies. Nobody 'hello-ed' us like we were clowns in the circus, but rather waved as though we all shared a common humanity.
And, miracle of miracles, the waitress in the small country-style lunch place we went to was the helpful sort. She didn't merely stand behind us, tapping her pen against her pad impatiently. She hovered over Julian's shoulder, eagerly explaining what each dish was (in a country where dish names often bear no relation to their contents, this is invaluable). She even dashed over to the cooler a few times to grab a sample of whatever it was she was talking about, so we could see it. With her guidance, we ordered a stewed eggplant dish, tofu egg flower soup, cassava (not really cassava, but close) chips, and the omnipresent 'empty heart' stirfry.
She couldn't help herself, though:
"This dish is a mountain vegetable we grow here in this part of Yunnan. I don't know if you would like it. The flavor is maybe too... special for you."
Was this supposed to be a challenge? (Or just a subtly well-played marketing ploy?)
I fear not its specialness - bring me the special mountain vegetable!!
(Clockwise from top left: super strong Yunnanese tea, chips, soup, eggplant, pickles, empty heart, special mountain vegetable.)
This was one of those meals that was so complete, so filling from all directions, so obviously well-rounded, that I didn't notice it was vegetarian until hours later - until I looked at the picture, in fact.
The eggplant melted into its garlicky red sauce, its texture more like lentils than like vegetable stew. (After we had finished, a fly dove into the liquid and slowly drowned as though it were sinking in quicksand. It made no attempt to escape until the very last minute, when it was too late. I was buoyed by the thought that it was probably experiencing the best taste sensation of its life, and so didn't think to save itself.)
The cassava-ish chips were clearly fried just that instant, and more hefty-tasting than potato. They crunched briefly, then melted on our tongues.
And the 'maybe too special' mountain vegetables? You know what that tasted like?
Pumpkin seeds with the texture of a good oven-fried basil leaf, with a woody, gnawing sort of stem, but otherwise: 100% pumpkin seed flavor. It was uncanny. Why would a leaf growing in Yunnan taste exactly like pumpkin seeds?
Actually, this happened again later, in Ruili, when we ordered a dish of mysterious green leaves with okra.
The green leaves tasted exactly like ripe mango. Julian dutifully asked the waiter if they were mango leaves, but the waiter said that they were not. He did not, however, say what they were, and it's tickled at the back of my mind ever since.
Does anyone know what either of these leaves are?