China Travel Blogger Spotlight: Beijing-based food fanatic Caroline Berg shares her China adventures

Travel | by Aimee Groom
Posted: September 14th, 2010 | Updated: May 6th, 2011 | Comments
Caroline Berg on the Wild Great Wall of China Meet U.S. native Caroline Berg. A young lady who first encountered the Chinese language at an age when many of us are still learning to read our mother tongue, she certainly had a jump on getting acquainted with China. These days she's making a life for herself in Beijing and sharing her experiences and often entertaining tales of life as a "laowai" on her blog, Laowai Telegraph. With interests that range from food to figure skating and an insatiable curiosity, it's a great read for anyone looking for some insight into authentic Chinese life from the perspective of a born and bred American. We caught up with Caroline to find out more... China Travel: So Caroline, tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to be in China. Caroline: Kind of a long story... I went to Breck School, a private school in Minnesota, that automatically enrolled me into Chinese language class as a kindergartener. At the impressionable age of six, I found the Asian culture tantalizingly exotic with all the vibrant red décor in the classroom and the dancing dragons during the Chinese New Year celebrations. Alas, in third grade, I switched to public schools and only Spanish language courses were available. I was so bored. By eighth grade, I had dropped out of school for home school to focus on my Olympic dreams for figure skating. At this juncture, I found a Chinese tutor to restart my studies. Once again, the language and culture fascinated me. By my sophomore year in high school, I realized I was bored with skating and decided to attend Deerfield Academy prep and boarding school in Massachusetts, where Chinese classes are offered. The summer after my first year, I spent five weeks in China with my Deerfield classmates—two weeks in Beijing with a host family, one week in Yunnan province, one week in Sichuan and the last week in Shanghai. Although most of my communication with the locals occurred while bargaining or ordering snacks, these simple connections were incredibly motivating for my studies. I was also thrilled by all the differences between the urban and rural regions—both aesthetically and culturally. And, of course, the food was just as vast and spectacular. Van ride from Guilin to Longsheng Since this adventure as a 16-year-old, I have been back to China on three occasions. I spent my sophomore year of college abroad for one semester in Nanjing, living with host parents, and another semester in Beijing, living in the dorms. The third excursion was back in Beijing in December 2009, for an independent study project. Finally, I came back to Beijing for my fourth time on June 2nd with no plans but to pursue an exciting post-grad life. China Travel: When you’re not blogging, what do you do here? Caroline: Wander around, ha-ha. I’m a big fan of the Inner Mongolia to run around the grasslands and through the streets of Hohhot). Lately, I have been busy with work, so my opportunities to get out are fewer. However, whenever I have free time, I am out of the apartment and on my feet. China Travel: Have you traveled very much around China? Tell us about your best experience so far... and your worst. Caroline: Oh, yes. I have been very fortunate to leave my footprints in many, many corners of China. The best trips I have taken include…
  • A hike with friends during the fall of 2007 through the quiet mountains of Anhui along an ancient trail (the name has completely escaped me. Editor's note: most likely the Huihang Trail.) Only a few villages freckle this region and only a couple of small inns are offered. We decided bypass these inns and found a village with four homes and most of their inhabitants blood-related. We approached one of the homes and asked the old couple inside if we could spend the night. The villagers obliged and the old lady with missing teeth and a barely decipherable accent served us the same meal for lunch, dinner and the send-off breakfast the next morning. We spent the night with her nephew’s family getting acquainted over cards and drink. The younger couple even offered us a bucket to wash our feet and water to brush our teeth. And then there was the village pigsty that served as the only bathroom within the hillside neighborhood…
  • A trip with friends (fall 2007) that began with scrambling up the spiky rock hills of Guilin with monkeys howling nearby; then sailing down the Li river; onto biking the countryside of Yangshuo and kayaking the Li past willow forests; boarding a 16-passenger van with 30 locals to bumble up to Longsheng rice terrace hills; then hiking up to our secluded lodge with nothing but rice paddies and the wind surrounding us. Gooorrrrgeeouuusss!
  • A group trip with my study abroad program (fall 2007... see a trend?) to Jiuzhaigou in Sichuan province. We stayed in a quiet cabin lodge up on a hill with one squirrel roaming the landscape. The natural beauty was like nothing I’ve experienced. Being there while all the trees coating the hills were a mesh of yellow, orange and red was a particularly special backdrop for the one-of-a-kind cyan-colored pools and flushing waterfalls. Then, for culture, we spent the night at a large Tibetan home to enjoy a traditional dinner party and dance around a bonfire.
Juizhaigou, Sichuan And among the worst experiences... Getting from point A to point B in China is often a hassle, but no more so than when my mom came to visit me during the week leading up to the Chinese New Year and the widespread blizzard of February 2008. We started in Shanghai, had a flight canceled to Guilin, so we took a train to Suzhou where the station was teeming with commuters, snow and blackened slush. We waited for non-existent taxis in an ever-growing line to get into town and finally hopped a random bus to take into town and go from there. After spending another hour out in the frigid abyss without a taxi in sight, an angel pulling a rickshaw invited us and our load of luggage to ride in the back. A cloth curtain shaded us from the billowing snow and gusting wind during the 20-minute ride through the unploughed streets to a hotel that was closer than the one we had reserved. We spent the next couple of days arranging our next escape to get back to Nanjing to pick up my stuff to move to Beijing. The train stations were shut down and the roads were a wreck. In the end, we hired a private driver to navigate us through the clogged roadways, which took 11 hours compared to the normal two. Nanjing was no less sloppy and on the day of our flight to Beijing, we spent half the day at the airport waiting out delays. Miraculously, Beijing was clear both on the roads and in the sky. The air was clean and fresh, and all the crowds were tied up elsewhere… China Travel: Reading your blog, you seem to be quite the foodie—let’s imagine it’s your “Last Supper.” what are you eating, where are you and who are you with? Caroline: Ha! I would be at my mom’s home on Flathead Lake. My family and the Sogards/Sheridans on my mom’s side would all be there, and Anthony Bourdain would be the special guest. The meal would be my mom’s Swiss steak (with ketchup!), a simple salad with Asiago Caesar dressing, a twice-baked potato, lemonade and a carmelita square for dessert (Editor's note: for the uninitiatedwhich includes mea carmelita square is a delicious sounding gooey mix of oats, caramel and chocolate) … can I have more than one “Last Supper”?! Jiuzhaigou Sichuan China Travel: Staying on food for a minute—what’s the strangest thing you’ve eaten here? Caroline: We can stay on the subject of food as long as you want! Strangest thing… I copped out on eating pigeon brain, which was stuck on the end of my chopstick and a millimeter from my mouth. I’ve eaten snake, but it doesn’t taste strange; it’s just worthless because you have to pick and dig for the meat! I’ve also had fried scorpion, but I enjoyed that. I could pop those like French fries… I like chou doufu… I guess what I’m most surprised about is having lamb tripe soup and not just being able to keep it down, but going back for more! China Travel: What is the one thing you wish you’d known before coming to China? Caroline: No matter what I do, I will always be a laowai. China Travel: The holidays are coming—where are you headed for the October break? Caroline: Boring... I will remain here in Beijing. But my friend will be coming up from Hong Kong to visit! Our plans include a wine and cheese picnic on a wild portion of the Great Wall. She, too, is an avid foodie. China Travel: What are your top five recommendations for a first-time visitor to get a real feel for Beijing? Caroline: Five Beijing tips:
  • Don’t be afraid to do the touristy stuff like Tian’anmen Square, the Forbidden City, the night markets, Peking roast duck and the Great Wall (which you can experience in a completely non—touristy way), but don’t spend your entire time on these experiences.
  • Wander aimlessly, especially through the hutongs by the Zhangzi Zhong Lu subway station/Hou Hai neighborhood.
  • The food won’t kill you. Unless you are deathly allergic to peanuts, then I’m very sorry. A dish may look different and you might have some irrational phobia of Chinese cuisine but, to be perfectly blunt—get over it. Pick up you chop sticks and dig in and you could be very much surprised at the delight you have just discovered.
  • Try to learn at least a little Chinese. Even a few shaky phrases can put priceless smiles on Chinese people’s faces and you’ll feel less of an alien.
  • Go to the parks either early in the morning or in the evenings. It’s where all the locals go to do their exercises or to perform.
China Travel: What do you miss most from back home? Caroline: Fresh air, quiet streets, Jon Stewart, uncensored news/information, porch barbeques. China Travel: What would you miss most about China if you were to leave tomorrow? Caroline: The food, the ability to travel for cheap and my daily China adventures.
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