My East-Meets-West Adventure in China
My older brother moved to China in 2013. Wanderlust is one of the rare things we have in common, though my trips tend to involve meticulous travel arrangements (including my legendary laminated currency converters), good shopping, incredible beaches and the passing chance that someone might speak a bit of English, while he is the kind of confident sort who will throw himself into the most challenging travel situations without the slightest thought. The thing is – and I hope he won’t mind me saying this – he’s also a bit of a jammy git. He has natural charm that usually helps him through these situations, and China was no exception. He ended up falling in love with more than just the country, and a few weeks ago 14 family and friends flew to the far east to join 240-odd Chinese people to watch my brother tie the knot!
We (the boyfriend and I) started our trip in Hong Kong. Travelling to Lanzhou, where the wedding was taking place, would require domestic flight connections as there’s no international airport, so I decided to ease us in gently by stopping off at East-meets-West melting pot on the way. We only had three days in Hong Kong and the first was spent getting over the inevitable jetlag, so I don’t think we really saw what the city had to offer, but what I did decide quite early on is that the best bits of Hong Kong were definitely the more traditional Chinese areas. We stayed in Kowloon, on the mainland, and our one trip to Hong Kong island left us feeling like we could be anywhere (Canary Wharf, mostly). I had much more fun in Mongkok’s built-up shopping areas and markets (though I managed to resist the thousands of Mulberry and Celine fakes). There wasn’t enough time to really explore the city, though we did manage a trip on the Star Ferry, lunch at the lobby bar at the Intercontinental Hotel (stupidly expensive artisan burger shown below!) and a trip to a branch of Etude House to buy ridiculous lipstick.
My parents met us in Hong Kong, and we made the journey to Lanzhou together. After the luxury of Emirates A380 planes on the trip out, I was slightly concerned about the cheap, short internal flights (we had to connect in Xi’an). But China Eastern did us proud. Then, on arrival in Lanzhou, the fun really began! We visited during a public holiday, so the whole city seemed to be celebrating.
We were staying in a mystery hotel that had no online presence, so I didn’t really know what to expect when we arrived. It turned out to be gorgeous, and right in the thick of things, across from one of Lanzhou’s main squares (complete with huge Gucci store). The hotel was also the wedding venue, and to be honest, we barely left the place for our three night stay – when we did, it was to buy the cheapest and most amazing pork buns (baozi) I’ve ever had, or ogle the shelves of the huge underground supermarket and buy exotic junk food. I heard on my trip that only 1% of tourists to China venture to Lanzhou. If that’s true, it’s a shame, because they’re missing this…
…which is beef lamian, a Lanzhou speciality. It’s safe to say this was one of the culinary highlights of our trip. The name lamian refers to the hand-pulled noodles, which we saw being made by one of the incredibly talented chefs. They’re served in a rich, spicy, chilli-laced broth, to which you add pickles, vinegar and chunks of cooked beef to give extra flavour (in most cases the beef is cooked in the broth, then removed for serving). Here’s a great post from a Lanzhou resident explaining the phenomena of the recipe. I am desperate to try and recreate it at home but I know it won’t be a patch on what I had in Lanzhou.
Being part of a Chinese wedding was an experience I will never forget. Family is such a huge part of Chinese life, and we were welcomed like old friends. My parents visited in January and met everyone so they had a head-start, but I’d only met my future sister-in-law on skype so it was all new to me. This didn’t matter one bit, within minutes I could see why my brother had fallen in love with her, and I’m so happy to have her as part of my family now too.
The traditions of the wedding were quite amazing to behold. The grooms family stay home to receive the bride and groom before the ceremony, so I missed out on much of the early fun, when my brother and his gang of groomsmen got ready together then went to coax the bride from her home, hunt down her shoes, and serve tea to her family. Luckily, there’s a video that shows all of this, which I absolutely have to share (sorry for pre-roll ad, I can’t control this)!
Then, tea was served to my parents too, before the official ceremony began. Usually this would happen in the apartment that the couple will be living in once married, but as they will live in Beijing, not Lanzhou, we had to make do with the bridal suite!
The ceremony itself was conducted mostly in Mandarin (with only 14 English speakers and over 200 Chinese, it was only fair) but I confess to shedding a tear when the bride and groom said their vows in English. Then, the best man and my dad did their speeches with translation by two friends. Dad’s baby photos went down well with the audience, despite the language barrier!
Being at the wedding – and indeed just being in Lanzhou where Western visitors are a rarity – gave me a small insight into what it must feel like to be famous. The rule seemed to be that the taller or blonder you were, the more people stared. I had my photo taken with lots of strangers, and everyone wanted to talk to us or toast us! It made the wedding banquet an interesting couple of hours. No sooner had you put something in your mouth than someone else was there to coax you to empty your glass with shouts of “gan bei!” I learned very quickly to only keep a tiny splash of wine in my glass at any one time!
Dinner offered up a chance for the first wardrobe change of the day. Because you can’t have a Chinese wedding without some beautiful embroidered silks…
…or, evidently, a custom made pink party dress and that other far eastern favourite, karaoke!
For most of the Chinese guests, the wedding was over by 5pm (time to sleep off all the Baiju) but the rest of us had only just begun. We managed four solid hours of karaoke (Taylor Swift’s ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’ was a strange if successful choice for me) before going back to the suite for a few more hours of revelry. I gave up around midnight, but from what I heard (and overheard singing down the hotel corridors in the early hours) the final guests had to be kicked out at about 4am. Well, if you travel almost 5,000 miles for a wedding, you expect a good party, and I think my family definitely delivered!