Sunday, December 28, 2008

Eggnog Is The Mother Of All Invention

My Christmas day started out quite lazily because I didn't have to work. I woke up around 11 and logged on to my computer to try to kill some time before my Christmas party. As I am checking my mail, Golze sends me a chat message with a great idea. "We should make some eggnog." I am like that this the best idea I heard this Christmas, let's do it. Some sends me the recipe. I give it a cursory glance and tell him to come over, so we can pow wow and make a game plan, this was necessary because neither one of us has ever made eggnog. So he comes over and we determine, yes! we can get all these ingredients here in China, especially the all important nutmeg. We also read the instructions, but don't quite understand what they mean, but we figure we have at least one college degree between us and we know how to use the information gatherer we can figure that out later. After taking a quick trip to the store and buying all the ingredients, plus some extra eggs in case we messed up the seperating the egg whites process (for some reason we thought this would be the hardest part of the whole recipe, followed by folding the egg whites in, boy, were we wrong; who knew that beating 12 egg whites by hand would be hard), we begin trying to reconstruct this eggnog recipe. The separating the the egg whites and yolk goes over relatively smoothly, only a couple yolks fall into the the whites (this taught us valuable lesson as well, knifes and forks don't fish yolks out of the whites as well as spoons). Once the whites and yolks get separated. I begin the task of trying to beat the egg whites, while Golze does everything else and uses the information gatherer to look up what soft peaks means, (you don't really learn that at Middlebury for some reason) I spend like 20 minutes trying to beat these 12 egg whites into whatever soft peaks means. The closest thing I get to soft peaks is a little bit of bubbles in the egg whites. So Golze and I switch and I do some other random task of the eggnog process. After he is beating a way at it for 15 minutes, like my ex chinese co-worker, we decide to switch again. As I am doing this, Golze goes and looks up what folding egg whites in means and my roommate comes home. And looks at what I am doing and says, that's impossible, you will never be able to beat 12 eggs into soft peaks. Golze and I assure her, we are men, we can beat these eggs, and we have a lot of time before the party, this will not be a problem. She just kind of roles her eyes and says okay. But after another 10 minutes of beating these eggs, begin to realize that she is probably right, these eggs look in the exact same state as when I first started to beat them. Then, I have an epiphany, something like the Virgin Mary appearing to me in a water stain and saying, "on this Christmas day, I present you with a gift and a secret that will help you make great eggnog, and baby Jesus in her hands saying to me, "drill, baby, drill." At first I don't understand this message and I say to Golze, "I have a drill?" He takes this as an affirmative statement and says, "Yes, use it." And I am like oh I have drill, thank you baby Jesus. So we take my Black and Decker and attach the end of the whisk that we are using, see video; and in no time we have soft peaked egg whites.

video

We then add brandy and fold in the egg whites and let that chill for three hours, and did some other steps after that, that also involved the Black and Decker (this whole experience made me realize why and how the electric hand mixer was created.) To make a long story short, the trick to great eggnog is a power drill and nutmeg, oh and our eggnog was great. I highly recommend the recipe. Happy Belated Christmas and Hanukkah everyone, enjoy our Holiday party photo montage.



Highlight of the Day: Finishing the apple pie with digestive biscuit crust that I baked yesterday. And knowing that I still have gift cards to starbucks and subway to use; thank you very much Smith family for the lovely present, I can't wait to use them.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

I Make Less Than a McDonald's Employee

It has been a while since I wrote a blog post and there were several I wanted to write about for example: going to the Kanye West concert with the guys and girls, our financial crisis themed Halloween, Golze's awesome Uncle Adam (I am pretty sure is name was Adam, if it wasn't it is now) visiting Beijing and Golze taking him to get a happy ending (don't worry it was just a suit, that's what I call suits), and other stuff that I have already forgotten because I didn't blog about it. Maybe I make a photo montage to make up for it some time. I think the topic of this blog will supplement the over all theme of Golze's last post and I believe that theme, all though I could be wrong, is that the ECA doesn't know what the hell they are talking about. I have recently started a new job( which I will use as my excuse for not writing a post that and the government has blocked my laptop from accessing blogger) and recently decided to calculate my new salary. I know this is rude to be bragadocious about my salary, but I make 8000RMB a month. I decide to breakdown my salary to an hourly wage because I wanted to see how undervalued I was and because I recently read something on salaries in Beijing. So I don't consider myself that valuable here in China, I value my time about 200RMB an hour, which is about 30USD an hour at the current exchange rate. But to understand how far away I am from this goal which is obvious I am far away. I did the complete calculations. My working hours are scheduled from 9 to 6, but on average I have to stay past seven, so I considered I work 9 hours a day with an hour. Thus, 8000/4 is 2000, 2000/5 is 400, 400/9 is 44.44 which is roughly 6.5USD. And I am pretty sure that is less than what people at McDonald's make. I never worked at McDonald's but I am pretty sure they make more than that. I know it sounds like I am knocking McDonald's employees and assuming that their job is not really hard, and if it seems that way it is because I am doing that. This global financial recession is screwing up everything. I really picked a shitty time to quit my previous job. I think I had a point of for writing this, but I don't remember it. Oh yea, It was if you are thinking about making donations this year, make them to me, because apparently I live in the most expensive city in China or something and I make less than a McDonald's worker.

Highlight of the Day: Walking down the street listening to the bugle on ipod and giggling every 30 seconds while old Chinese men stared at me crazy every thirty meters. Yeah that's right meters, I have converted to the metric system. Celsius is coming next, wild card bitches!

Monday, December 15, 2008

living it up

the inimitable people's daily (the communist party paper) put up another hard hitting news story friday on its english language web site. surprisingly, this time the paper itself didn't do anything confusingly hilarious; it's the subject of the story itself that deserves posting here. beijing more expensive than hong kong, shanghai and singapore? it seems like eca international spent a bit too much time handing out their survey in shunyi and central park:*

Cost of living for foreigners in Beijing continues to rise
by People's Daily Online, December 12, 2008

According to Shanghai Morning Post, a survey carried out by the ECA International, the world’s largest human resources consulting firm showed that Tokyo is still the city with the highest cost of living for foreigners in Asia. While Beijing, by beating Hong Kong for the first time, became the city that is most expensive for foreigners in China.

According to the ECA report, Beijing ranks to 31st this year, while Shanghai is the 35th. Hong Kong climbs to 33rd from its previous position of 88th.

The appreciation of RMB and inflation helped raise the cost of living in Chinese cities, Beijing in particular. The survey shows that cost of living for a foreigner in Beijing is 15% higher than that of Singapore, which ranks 95th this year.

Luanda, the capital of the oil-rich African country of Angola, ranks number one this year. Tokyo follows Luanda closely in second place. Russia’s capital replaces the Norwegian capital Oslo to be the European city with the highest cost of living for foreigners.
granted, eca does seem to have some sophisticated indices and caveats that get lost in the people's-daily-english-reports-shanghai-morning-post-publishing-survey-results procedures. but i'm just glad i'm not living in luanda, for a variety of reasons.

*shunyi is the home of the central villa district, aka american suburbia in beijing, and central park is a luxury apartment complex in the cbd.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

back in business

sometimes living in china just beats down upon you with all its hassles, only to lift you up again with something that goes surprisingly well. this past week was one such week. first my tailor was being a dick about two shirts he made that didn't come out well, refusing to remake them and instead adjusting them and giving me a discount on a new shirt that i wasn't planning to buy anyway (he is shrewd, i'll give him that). next, i lost the atm card to my bank account that my company opened for me. this required me to hike out to the original issuing branch of the bank, which is inexplicably far away from my office, and wait a week for a new card without any access to my money.

and add on to that computer problems. as i may have used earlier as an excuse for the few posts here recently, my computer has been dying a slow death since october, with symptoms that i chalked up to an acknowledged defect in the video card. after lengthy chats with sandeep and rahul at dell tech support, we established that hardware needed to be replaced and that it was against dell policy to ship my system outside of china, though they did give me a number to china tech support. after being rebuffed by a recording of what i can only guess was "you are outside your warranty country," i poked around the site online and found there was a dell repair center across the street from my office.

so it was with cautious optimism that after looking up the words for motherboard (主板), video card (显示卡 or simply 示卡), and warranty (保单), i went to get my computer fixed this week. but my lifelong policy of lowering expectations paid off! they took my computer, which isn't even sold in china, replaced the video card (i gained some smug satisfaction on being right about that), and turned it around in two days. best of all, it was all free! and just in time to download this week's episode of 30 rock.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

view from the roof

the weather was particularly nice today, so i took the opportunity to head up onto our roof and snap a few shots. views to the west, north, northeast (across our development) and west, respectively.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

to the hills

panorama

a few weekends ago, in a bizarre bout of fitness, clark, durrell and i decided to head out hiking in the hills to the west of beijing. we abandoned an initial plan to head way up north, and instead after aggressive use of google earth we managed to decipher some guy's blog, at least by picking out the names of the places we were supposed to go and the bus we were supposed to take.
king coal in western beijing

the pingguoyuan subway station was as crowded as ever with people dressed to the gills in all the latest hiking outfits out for a saturday. our bus was jam packed with a group of twenty or so people that had met up online on a hiking web site. i chatted with one young guy i was squeezed up next to on the bus who spoke near perfect english. he said he was a tour guide for more adventurous foreigners. i said that sounded like a fun job, and he said not during a global recession. he hasn't had a tour for two months.



building new houses in jiuyuan

luckily, the blogger posted lots of pictures, because we hopped off the bus really in the middle of nowhere. from the picture we were able to identify a decorative archway over the road we were supposed to take, as well as the mysterious "pointing tree" that showed the way. where we were was an easy access point to this ancient road through the western hills, and the small town at the base was clearly attempting to reinvent itself as a local tourism point. several small "resorts" were being built, the road was newly paved, and there was a row of villa-style houses being built. the place i believe is anticipating rising local affluence leading to more people driving out there for something to do on a weekend afternoon, and i think they bet well. there was a good number of other people, mostly families, that had drove up to see the sights.

durrell tries to make his way through the underbrush

unfortunately, the sights were not quite what we anticipated. after about five minutes up the road, we reached the top, an arch that i think i read online might have been part of a qing dynasty nunnery. it was here that we made the worst decision of the day. based on past hiking experience in guangxi, we decided to just head out off the trail and make our way across the terraces on the hills. unfortunately, from far away what looked like grass and shrubs turned out to be six foot high weeds and impenetrable brambles. we spent a good hour stumbling around off the trail, at times fashioning crude weed whacking devices out of sticks. at one point we saw people hiking high above us in the mountains, clearly enjoying the unimpeded freedom of a trail.


durrell was making this face for most of this part of the hike

eventually we stumbled out of the brush and back onto the original road, at which point we fortuitously noticed an actual path off the road. after a quick break, we set off up a steep access trail to perilously placed high tension power wire towers. the trail ran straight up a ridge, and we probably rose a couple thousand feet over the valley floor before it flattened out into a rather nice trail that followed the contours on one side of the ridge. we eventually ran into some guys eating lunch (and throwing their garbage everywhere), who directed us down a different route we had taken up. after a steep descent we popped out into a terraced persimmon orchard and the town we started out in, ready to take the bus back. also, it snowed! pretty exciting stuff, even though the flakes melted as soon as they touched anything.

finally enjoying the view

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

politics by other means

Recently, Ben and I were discussing the United States Postal Service. I think it's rarely considered that this is a government agency whose executive, the Postmaster General (awesome name by the way), is endowed with the extra-constitutional ability to negotiate treaties with foreign powers. After all, I can only assume that it's the Postmaster General who decides whether little Julio or Ahmed can or cannot receive tins of American cookies while abroad in Cuba or Iran (China is not part of that axis, fyi, wink wink...) Ok, so we're talking postal treaties here, nothing too sexy, and of course the embargoes on Cuba and Iran were in fact decided by the president and congress, but just think of Tuvalu -- we send mail there and someone has to decide whether and how we should do it. So I think the principle is very intriguing and deserves some more aimless open-mouth daydreaming -- which I'm good at. Just think about it some more and you'll begin to see the implications with mail exchanging hands between two countries. Tampering with mail is a federal offense. Is it still a federal offense to tamper with mail outside US borders? Are there extradition treaties to handle this? It's a hypothetical black hole (which are, by nature, hypothetical...)

So you can imagine that I found an article in today's New York Times announcing that the FDA will open a permanent office in Beijing to be both interesting and relevant. Again, I'm not certain what the precedent is here, but to me it seems to be a rather significant event for American foreign policy. A Secretary of U.S. Health and Foreign Services is quoted in the article sharing this belief: "We're opening up a new era, not just new offices."

What will be the mandate of these officials, described as "inspectors?" How is this fundamentally different than the UN installing weapons inspectors in a sovereign country -- surely something that China, as well as many other nations, would not agree to. What does the Chinese government think about this new office? Clearly they're not wholly opposed to it if office plans to open soon. Perhaps this is a bit of good PR and also a chance to inject some new ideas and manpower into the unfolding and ongoing food safety crisis here.

This article also seems to dovetail nicely with recent opinion piece in the New York Times suggesting that problems with melamine contamination are not limited to China -- although the issue is much less severe in the US, and arises for far less nefarious reasons.

I do hope that this new FDA office is successful in at least beginning to address the problems with food safety here. It would be nice to be able to pour some milk in my coffee soon without thinking twice about it. And God forbid I start to take my coffee black.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

baijiu makes you angry, exhibit 1

durrell and i were eating dinner at our favorite xinjiang place the other night when we witnessed a great example of why you should never ever drink baijiu, the horrible chinese alcohol i'm sure we've written about before. the place is narrow and long, with two person tables lining each wall and a column of rectangular four person tables down the middle. we were seated at one of the two person tables against the wall, about three feet from a group of three people, two guys and one girl, probably a bit older than us. one on side of the four person table was one guy, with the other guy and girl on the other side. they were hitting the baijiu pretty hard, but that happens and besides a snicker or two we thought nothing of it.

about halfway through our meal, which was quite delicious, making this story even more tragic, i notice one of the chinese guys stumble to hit feet and reach drunkenly for his baijiu glass, spilling alcohol all over the table. then, all of a sudden, he grabs the glass and with a shout smashes it against the table, sending baijiu and probably small shards of glass all over us and our food. the restaurant went silent, and after a second or two the other guy jumps to his feet and throws his glass against the table, once again dousing us in alcohol. i don't remember what they said to each other if anything, but the girl jumps up and starts screaming and pushing away the guy who was sitting next to her.

at this point everybody is watching the three people, and we're too shocked to even complain about being soaked in baijiu. then, the one guy who was sitting alone on his side of the table shouts a well known obscenity, and all hell breaks loose. the other guy jumps him, with the girl still in the middle, and all three fall against a table and to the ground. the two guys are vainly trying to swing punches, while the girl, squashed between the two is screaming. At some point the one who shouted the obscenity gets to his feet, and hurls a small ceramic tub of vinegar at the other. when he misses, instead bouncing the thing off my shoulder and dousing the left side of my face in vinegar, i turn to durrell and say "let's get out of here." i grab my things, and my half finished can of sprite, and we clear out along with everybody else in the restaurant.

i've said it before and i'm saying it again: i'm never drinking baijiu again.

Friday, November 07, 2008

On Account of the Economy

I've been asked several times by those back in the States if it feels that China's economy is slowing down. My response is still that I have no anecdotal evidence from daily life here that the economic situation is deteriorating. In fact, quite the opposite; I see many signs that the average Chinese, at least in Beijing, are not concerned about a slow down at all. A friend is going out to buy a car this weekend. The owner of the apartment next door to us is completely gutting the place and renovating. Sometimes when I'm leaving our apartment in the morning I get a peek of the progress inside the door and it looks quite nice. It appears someone else in the neighborhood a few doors down is also renovating, from the new stack of supplies I see outside their entrance every morning.

Still, Wen Jiabao issued a statement last week that this could be "the worst in recent years for [China's] economic development," according to a recent New York Times article. The article also quoted several economists following the situation, and they all sound very bearish.

However, the article mostly focused on evidence from southern China, the country's main exporting region. After the burst of the 2001 tech bubble, cities like San Francisco felt a much more severe economic pain than the rest of the country. I wonder if in a country of 1.3 billion people, it's possible to have regional recessions that are even more isolated and separated. You've also got to realize that the slowdown these economists are predicting will still mean a whopping 5-6% annual GDP growth. To the naked eye will that even seem like a slowdown? I have no idea.

I am astounded, though, by the number of high-end commercial construction projects you can see by standing in just one spot here in Beijing. Ben -- and his superior JLL real estate insight -- says that projects are tripping over themselves to line up retailers like Gucci and Prada in order to establish themselves as a premier shopping location. There are only so many $8,000 man-purses a guy can buy for himself. This does not seem sustainable.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

election day

i hate to preempt all my other pending posts, but i think the election is worth writing about. it was indeed not a bad way to follow the election. cnn called pennsylvania pretty much right after i got into work, and then they called the election right before lunch. i spent most of my time at work listening to npr via the web site of the san francisco affiliate. once everybody went to sleep on the east coast they switched back to local coverage and i got to follow the california elections, complete with bay area traffic and weather. i think there's always an accident on 101 south near cesar chavez (moved to the shoulder, but traffic is still sluggish from the bay bridge).

the day itself was pretty enjoyable. it happened to be my boss's birthday, so we went out to lunch at the local TGI Friday's, his treat. treating people on your own birthday seems to be a peculiar tradition here. i don't think as much meaning is really placed on birthdays as we do in the states. people don't seem to give gifts on birthdays. it's more of an excuse for the birthday boy/girl to eat and drink a lot. we also had cake in the afternoon.

later in the night we all went to saddle, the most popular spot of last summer, and one of the core american hang outs. it also happened to be their monthly "cinco de drinko" event (half off, though apparently rounded up to the nearest 5), and so it was fairly crowded. and by fairly, i mean very. but everybody seemed to be in good spirits. nobody was drowning their sorrows. and durrell and i split some delicious nachos.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Writing on the Wall

I SEE THE FUTURE!!


Apparently, the Obama campaign had ad dollars to spare... in China.

The HTSICC (WRT) staff would like to announce it's full support for BARACK OBAMA!! That's right, we're setting the new trend in political endorsements: announcing it after the election! We're no dopes.

So let's the HTSICC (WRT) official party line was that we did not have a dog in this fight... even one with lipstick on... that can miraculously play hockey. Despite its name, THIS IS NOT A POLITICAL BLOG. So fear not, this post will ride the fence!

It was a very strange experience dating documents on November 4th but knowing that it wasn't election day -- being that China is currently 13 hours ahead of New York. But in a sense, it made for an ideal election watching experience. When I left work on Tuesday evening the polls had just opened. When I woke up the first results were just beginning to roll in. I was able to cut out those 12 hours of Wolf and AC yapping their heads off. It was great.

It's a widely observed fact that most of the non-State Department expats in Beijing were very pro-Obama (as demonstrated by the street art depicted above). Many of the expat bars advertised election parties beginning quite early on Wednesday morning. I made it down to The Rickshaw by 9:00am and it was already packed. By the looks of it, people must have been there as early as 7:30am. I ordered toast and beans to watch CNN in widescreen while standing at the bar. Pint after pint of Tsingtao kept flowing past me. I guess some were already starting to celebrate.

I'm going to take a moment and brag about how good of an American I am. Being abroad meant that I had to apply, receive, fill out, and then mail back my ballot. This was a complicated multi-step process, especially when you don't technically have a home address to receive mail. FedEx was sponsoring a program to overnight ballots for free -- which was great -- but it was only available at a single FedEx location in the entire city. Of course I didn't know this at first and visited 3 FedEx locations (each promising the next could handle it) before finally making my way to the 798 Art District from Donsi Shitiao... on bike! Those who don't know Beijing won't appreciate this feat, but it was really far, at solid 5 miles each way at least. I was on my bike the entire afternoon and my butt was so sore I couldn't sit down for the next day. But I did it, and a week ago my ballot arrived at Durrell's office. This time saved my butt the agony and paid for DHL to mail it back.

Overall it was very interesting to experience the election abroad, especially among the Chinese. A New York Times article today taking the perspective of non-Americans watching the election described it this way:

"From far away, this is how it looks: There is a country out there where tens of millions of white Christians, voting freely, select as their leader a black man of modest origin, the son of a Muslim. There is a place on Earth — call it America — where such a thing happens."

I mean, yeah, if you stop and think about it, even the unremarkable elements of this election could seem so unique from the outside. The last 3 elections have been incredibly contested -- dividing families, making for heated conversation fodder at dinner parties. Yet when the day is done, and the chad are counted, we accept the outcome and move on. We take this for granted, but it's actually pretty cool if you think about it. Go America.

You know what Mao said, right?: "An Election is not a Dinner Party."

And I was at a dinner party with a lot of locals where I "believe" (I say this because I was only keeping up with about 60% of the Chinese conversation) they were casually discussing if the Chinese people could ever manage an equally civil outcome, if (big if) China were a d---cracy. A Chinese man well versed in American history started to tell the story of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr (this I'm sure of). His point: America's had its own progress towards civility in politics. The general consensus was "ehhh, maybe it could be for China, but maybe not." And then the conversation moved on to another topic as smoothly as we picked up American politics.

>>>>>>>I'm going to hop in right here and add some more thoughts since I originally made this post, based on a conversation I had with a Chinese woman at Ben's above-mentioned Saddle (awesome place by the way... try the nachos!)>>>>>>>>>

I asked her what she thought about the election we had today. Of course I didn't know how to say election, so it was more like:

me: you towards us country today cast votes choose new president event have what opinion?

her: the new president you chose is really handsome.

(OK, fine I thought -- not the first time that looks played into a voters opinion. I think we're all a little guilty about that.)

me: yeah, well it's a tough comparison to McCain because he's so old, but I'm sure he was a handsome dude in his youth. but what about that Palin, she's kind of foxy, right?

her: yeah, but she's the kind of foxy that you don't believe anything's going on upstairs

(Ok, I thought, so she's been watching her fair share of John Stewart's Daily Show recently. I decided to kick up the conversation a notch...)

me: so like, what do you think, would this sort of thing be suitable for China...?

her: no, I don't think so.

me: oh really, why not?

her: our country has no tradition of this sort of thing. we have so many people who are incredibly poor, so so many problems with corruption and bribery already, that it would inevitably lead to bad policies and people trying to buy votes. in America, there's a meritocracy. people are elected into power to have ability, and they choose administrators also based on ability, mostly. in China, familial connections are everything. parents and grandparents in power would nominate and appoint sons and grandsons, regardless of ability, in order to strengthen their base. this would reduce our system to warring factions and nothing would get done. right now things are going pretty well. the economy's expanding and people expect this to continue. so no, i don't think it would be suitable for China.

She was born in a neighboring provice and now works at a very nice hair salon in Beijing.

Expressed in one way or another, this was the theme I heard from several Chinese about the election. There was a general sense of interest, but detachment. Everyone was aware of the election, and perhaps even had a favorite candidate for one reason or another. But it was very much viewed as an American phenomenon. To the Chinese it was "so that's your system, this is ours."

I think there is this immediate tendency to think that whatever's good for the goose is good for the gander (flying right towards a Beijing Roast Duck eatery!!!)... which doesn't mean we're not right perhaps, but means we probably consider that this is a major assumption. I'm not saying that our systems doesn't have MANY merits over China's (because it does), and that there aren't serious failings here that need to be fixed (because there are). But it's a very complicated picture for people who live here and people who govern here. I think that many in the Western press tend to overlook this. There are so many moving parts here. If it were that black and white, some one would have fixed it by now, we'd only have one political party, and you'd only need one version of charger to power the many different types of cell phones.

I'm still holding out on that last one. But so it goes.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

apologies!

apologies for the lack of posts lately. a combination of factors, not least of which is a half dead computer and no internet at the new apartment, has kept me from posting. but i've got lots in the works! posts to look forward to include a trip to the local amusement park (i did not die!), a run in with one of the blog's biggest fans, and our new aforementioned digs. new posts will be coming soon i promise!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

easy and breezy in dalian

returning back to work on monday i was reminded that the second half of this week would be spent on a trip to dalian. since i had returned from the states a mere 18 hours earlier and felt a bit like the walking dead, this was somewhat a shock, though in retrospect it was definitely easier to keep awake wandering around a city i had never been to than sitting at a desk all day.


the dalian harbor and shipbuilding yards

after an initial boondoggle wherein our tickets weren't reserved and i got to for the first time in my life buy a ticket from the ticket counter in the airport (i felt a bit old school), we arrived in dalian. the city is here, and is a hugely important port with lots of japanese and korean influence. you may know it as the site of intel's huge new chip factory, but it also apparently has a growing amount of outsourced korean and japanese call centers, much like how US companies outsource to india. all in all the city is small and clean and very nice.

offering supervision and consultation in cleaning a spot off the trunk

as the city is renown for its seafood, my coworker (hereafter referred to as "the bernster," short for bernie) and i headed for a recommended seafood restaurant. i unfortunately forgot to bring my camera. upon walking in the door you were presented with tanks full of various fishes and crustaceans of indeterminate origin, many of which were improbably moving. there was one bucket on the floor filled with what looked like a kind of foam that we did not order. we ended up getting some giant prawns and some clams and chopped up sea cucumber, which is very tough but apparently quite nutritious.

the bernster looking like a badass

one night after dinner i took a walk and found myself on the bar street. interestingly there was a distinct progression as i walked from one end to the other of bars turning into "sexy" massage parlours and then sex shops. though now that i think about it, perhaps i was walking in the wrong direction.

the castle of the king of dalian

as you may have guessed, the picture is not where the king of dalian lives. more amazingly it is actually a shell museum. like sea shells. i refused to believe that, and was only convinced once three separate people and my taxi driver said it was so. go china.

a "driving" school, which seemed more like a parking school to me

as pleasant as dalian is, with hills and waterfront everywhere, i can't recommend it as a place to go on vacation. there simply isn't much going on there. besides the incredibly interesting work of looking at buildings during the day, and once wandering down to the ocean, there wasn't really anything to do. it's also really windy.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Picture of the Day: October 8th, 2008

For the weak of stomach, please disregard Durrell's last blog... and his not-so-subtle digs at South Jersey. GO PHILLIES!!


Back in my youth, I worked a few summers in construction. Or as we call it in the Smith family: "the Biz." Wouldn't it be that the liberal arts educated kid was the least skilled person on the job. Back at HQ, "the Man" would send me out at the site's lowest wages (a move that I respect more than I can describe here in this blog) to do the only thing I was qualified to do: Pick Up Crap.

To be honest, I think I was more content picking up dry-wall scraps than performing any other function on the job site. This was because I got to throw said crap in what we called "the dumpster." No, actually, no scare-quotes there. I literally mean a dumpster. Many don't realize this, but loading a constructing dumpster is a delicate science. Heavy stuff first. Light stuff next. Then finish it off with a sweet topping of more heavy stuff -- like a fine pecan pie. All the while you get to hurl large objects blindly into this huge metal bin and listen to the wild sounds they make landing. Incredible. Finally, when it appears that not a single additional item could fit, the bravest of the brave are sent on top to perform the ancient gypsum dance to the gods of more space, and magically the items below are compacted allowing work to continue. Really, I don't see a more crucial job in the construction business.

Well, on an epic bike ride that I will potentially describe in a future blog (probability 32%) I came across these fellow Chinese brethren schooled in the art of dumpster. They are huddled in the back of the photo playing gin rummy after a long day of picking up crap. If you ever thought there we were loosing ground on the technology gap between the US and China, well here's your proof! In China, you get to pick up crap using HORSES!! Just IMAGINE WHAT I COULD HAVE ACCOMPLISHED!!

Monday, October 06, 2008

I Am So Grossed Out Right Now



Before I get to explains the title of the blog post, I thought I wwould show some lovely pictures of our trip to the Great Wall. I am not sure what part of the Great Wall we went to but, it was the best part I have been to some far. I am not sure of the name, but Clark knows it, ask him. And also ask him where the murderball post is. It was not restored and it even had a forest growing out of it as you can see from the pictures, okay, maybe not a forest but some greenery. It also had these aliens all over it. It took us three hours to hike about a kilometer on the thing, the hardest part getting on top of the actual wall. I think if we were in shape we could have hiked it in an hour. After we were done hiking the wall we had a nice gourmet meal at our guides house. I am pretty sure all of it was organic. He had a nice courtyard garden of which I have no pictures.

The most in part of that day wasn't even the Great Wall, it was before we even got there and we ran into this guy from the US. The conversation started off like many conversations in Beijing when you run in to another fellow American. Something like,

Random Guy- "Hey are you American?"
Clark- "Yes"
Random Guy- "Cool, where are you from?"
Me-"The "US"
Random Guy (with a duh look on his face)- "eh"
Me- "I mean Seattle"
Clark- "The Cesspool of America"
Random Guy- "Oh, South Jersey"
Clark- "Yeah"

Then it went on to more basic questions like what are you doing here, how long have you been here, and do you like China? And with this do you like China question, this where the whole conversation got a little weird.

Random Guy- "Yeah, I love China. It's great. Asian Girls are great"
Clark and Me- (chuckle, chuckle)
Random Guy- "I met my wife here"
Clark- "That's great"
Me- "Yeah cool"
Random Guy- "Yeah, I love Asian girls, the are so much better than American girls. (looking at me) You have been here a while, you know what talking about, come on, YOU KNOW WHAT I AM TALKING ABOUT"
Me- "Actually, no, no not really"
Random Guy turned in to Creepy Guy- "Come on, their great. I met my wife through this website Chinabrides.com. You can go on there and just pick out a wife, they love Americans. It is so easy. I can get anything I want."
Clark and Me- (nervous laugh)
Creep Guy- "Yeah, you can go on there and get any type of Asian girl, yours for the picking. My friend set it up."
Me- "Sounds Nice"
Clark "What is the website again, I need to look into that"

Long story short, that is how we got our new sponsor for our website. Our old sponsor Flyingcats.com didn't work out. They decided to sell sll their cats to the Hooters in Beijing. So go to Chinabrides.com for all your Asian women needs.

And now to why I am grossed out. One of the people in my company sits in a corner office with a glass wall, so it looks like he is in a fish tank. There is a fogged glass section in the middle of the wall that covers 1/3 of the wall, leaving a clear 1/3 at the top and the bottom. Everyone once in a while, when he is his office he has Chinese music blaring, but I normally don't mind because I normally have my head phones on to drown it out. However, today, I didn't have my head phones on and a quite disturbing sound came from his office. It was a strange moaning sound. I was like him, I have heard that sound before. Yes, I have. I think I have heard that sound on the Discover Channel. Was it from shark week? No. Was it from planet earth? No. What is that moaning sound? Wait, wait, wait, that is not an animal moaning sound? That is a human moan sound, they type of moaning you hear in R rated movies, the Pirate kind of R rated movies. I was like wow, is he really watching this in the office. This can't be. Think I turn to look at his fish bowl, and I see his right arm moving up and downing very rapid. Like the type of movement you use to brush lent off your pants or put a fire out that is in your lap. I don't know exactly for sure what he was doing. But from the sounds that were coming out of his office and how close he was staring at the computer screen and from the way his arm was moving in such a rapid movement. The only conclusion I can come to is that I don't want to shake his hand today. And I don't think I want to look him in the eyes for a while. I feel like I need a shower right now just writing about it. I never thought I would see that at work, never in a million years.

Highlight of the Day: That I get to go home and wash the gross off of me.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

This Blog Is Brought to You by...

Since the Olympics, China has quickly gone back to the China that I know and love. The smog has come back with a vengeance, the garbage collectors are starting to trickle back in to the city, the beggars are back out at their prime locations, and most importantly the DVD stores are slowly coming back. The DVD stores will official be all back in Oct. and I can't wait, there are so many movies I need to catch up on.

And now on to more important business. After finally usurping blogging authority from Golze after cutting his head off and absorbing all his power (really because he went to the US for three weeks and he can't do anything to me from there), I have decided to sell advertising on our blog. And the first sponsor that I have lined up is flyingcats.com, where their motto is, "you never have to worry about your cat getting stuck in a tree again." These special pets are for people who enjoy cats and birds. A flying cat is a bird and a cat rolled into one. And for those chicken wing lovers out there, cat wings also make an excellent and delightful snack, with much less fat than normal chicken wings, and cat wings are wonderful in buffalo sauce. Flyingcats.com does not refund you if your cat happens to fly away, but will clip its wings personally for you. That's flyingcats.com for all your flying cat needs.


This is not a new sponsor of our blog but I wish it was. This is by far my favor it toothpaste ever. Although I have not decided if it is racist or not. Even if it is, I would not stop using it, its too good. The translation of the toothpaste on the tube is Darlie, but that is not even close to what the actual translation should be. In Chinese it reads 黑人牙膏, which directly translates to "Black People Toothpaste." In China, a lot of people say that black people have really white teeth, therefore, the appeal of calling your toothpaste black people toothpaste. So I guess this toothpaste has been genetically engineered just for black or for people who want to teeth like black people. Either way it works for me. And the flavor is great, much better than that tea flavored toothpaste I bought by mistake. If you can get your hands on this stuff I highly recommend it, maybe I will make a business of importing it to the States.

Highlight of the Day: Knowing that I am going to get some homemade apple pie.

Monday, September 15, 2008

mooncake madness

means mid-autumn festival. yesterday was zhongqiu jie, and today is the official holiday. the name in chinesei'm not quite sure why, but it's according to the lunar calendar, which is generally a mystery to me, so i'll just roll with it. people also call it yuebing jie, or mooncake day/festival. this is probably a more accurate name because for the week prior beijing turned into a ridiculous mooncake madhouse.

a typical mooncake or two

i'm going to go out on a limb here and assume that mooncake is modeled after the full moon of zhongqiu jie. the outside is a dense and somewhat greasy cookie-type material. inside is one a variety of flavors, though i think the classic is a red bean paste, sometimes with a solid egg yolk center.

in full hallmark spirit, the mooncake industry has convinced people that giving mooncake is a social responsibility and crucial to maintaining good relationships. therefore, everybody is giving everybody mooncake. all last week were messengers with bikes piled high of the stuff. most come in fancy boxes of four or five delivered in colorful bags that produce a fairly significant amount of waste, despite government urging to reduce and go with "green packaging."

i ended up with two boxes myself. one my company gave to every employee. the other i got as a kind of bizarre reward for participating in a fire drill. my friend charley commented that giving everybody in the office a box of mooncake could be a kind of social experiment. people just went crazy for the stuff and a black market economy developed. i was out of the office one afternoon and when i came back i discovered that a coworker had traded away a whole box of mine, mostly to charley, who apparently operates on a don't-ask-don't-tell policy when dealing in mooncake.

the haagen-dazs ice cream store in my building transformed into a mooncakedispensary for the second half of last week and the ice cream mooncake proved extraordinarily popular. workers were continually shuttling in stacks of styrofoam boxes, while employees in the store made ten foot high forts out of the individual mooncake boxes. when i left work on friday night around 7:30, there was a line stretching around the building.

in general, mooncake is mostly ok. it's one of those things you only eat once a year and so when it comes around you think it's the best thing in the world. by the time the actual holiday rolls around, however, it's time for it to go.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Better Know a Chinese Restaurant: The Fightin' Hunan

Ben and Durrell recently approached me to say that, based on their years of rigorous blogging experience, they were worried for me: I was going to burn out. See, this weekly average of massively comprehensive blog posts is something all young bloggeroos go through, but it's a marathon, not a sprint. Gotta pace yourself. I was soon to become the James Dean of bloggerdom -- except I don't smoke, or wear white tees... and am not a general bad-ass. But still, their concern was heartfelt. Boys, friends know when to say when. Thank you.


So I'm going to mix it up some here, and go topical baby!

Back in the states, I would often be asked to describe authentic Chinese food and compare it to the American Chinese food we have in America. Usually, other than "it's just better," I found it hard to give firm examples. So I hope that a periodic profile of some of the local restaurants will do the speaking for me.

The other night Ben and Durrell took me to the local Hunan joint. Let me walk you through some of the items we ordered and what it's like to sit down in your average Chinese restaurant, or as they say here, just "restaurant."

Tough choices.

I've noticed that since 2005, several things have changed in the process of ordering your food at a Chinese restaurant. Similar to the encyclopedic nature of Chinese menus in the States (chicken with cashews in a brown sauce, beef with cashews in brown sauce, pork with cashews in brown sauce, chicken without cashews in brown sauce... you get the idea right?), the idea that a chef would design a prix fix of items he thought were good, or felt like cooking, simply doesn't apply here. Menu items tend to be many, and if you don't see what you're looking for they'll usually be glad to take your order off the menu. There's a definite a canon of dishes that any chef should be able to prepare, and if you're in a Hunan restaurant, and you request a Hunan dish, well that chef better be able to make it.

But if you'll notice in the picture, Ben and Durrell are looking off of a picture menu. I can't say whether this is specific to Beijing preparing for the Olympics (and the many foreign visitors), but there are more picture menus than I ever remember. Some picture menus did exist before, but generally, I remember single sheet paper menus with more than 50 items and just the dish names. No design, no decorations, no descriptions, no nothin'. But now there are decent pictures, and often pretty accurate English translations -- which leads me to believe this is Olympics related.

It also used to be that as soon as you sat down you were handed a menu and the waiter or waitress would immediately begin standing there for your order. None of this "ohh, we'll need a few more minutes." They would stand there for as long as it took you to decide. You could imagine how nerve-racking it was trying to peruse your first Chinese menu (without pictures or without English translations) while you took the gracious time of your patient waiter standing there. "What, we never learned 'Pork preparation style of the 3rd Ming emperor' in class!?!" But now, it seems the case to leave a menu at the table -- perhaps even two!! -- while you take your time to decide.

You'll also notice the old framed Mao propaganda poster in the background of the picture. Mao was from Hunan province, and the Hunanese are fiercely proud of this. I've been told that his hometown is almost unrecognizable. The entire village has become one entire Mao-related tourism industrial complex. But when you consider there are also towns in China that produce 92% of the words pants zippers, perhaps this isn't shocking. Still, it's no coincidence that this Hunan restaurant was littered with images of The Chairman.

Japanese Tofu

Another thing particular to "restaurants" here and the family-style ordering is that they bring the dishes out as they're cooked, with no apparent reason for the order of arrival. The first dish to arrive was "Japanese Tofu." It's not actually tofu, but medallions of egg custard that are fried and the resulting consistency does taste and feel a lot like tofu. Japanese tofu is not authentically Hunan per se, but the preparation with mushrooms, shredded pork, and hot peppers happens to be. It was very spicy.

A simple and healthy combination.

It is often misconceived that rice plays a large role in the authentic Chinese dining experience, like it does in the U.S. To the contrary, the Chinese think it is very weird that us Americans demand a bowl of white rice with every meal. Yes, rice does play a very large role in the Chinese diet (especially for the rural peasants), but to them the idea of ordering poor man's rice at a quality restaurant is crazy. Why waste valuable stomach space on empty starch? It'd be like us ordering Cheerios while eating out. Sure we eat them every day, but not at The Palm.

But if you are insistent, they will bring you some. In Hunan they have a special preparation method where they steam the rice right in these little clay pots stacked on top of each other.

The bok choy is a standard go to at any Chinese restaurant for some healthy greens. It is prepared with lots of garlic and a little bit of oil. An order of qing cai or "green veggies" doesn't need the preparation specified and can range from bok choy, to several spinach varieties, to rapeseed stems.

'Cause once it hits your lips, it's so good.

Finally the dish we all were waiting for arrived. We had ordered "3 Delights of Duck" or something to that effect. It arrived in this little chaffing wok. Turns out the delights of the duck were stomach, kidneys, and another unidentified entrail. The Chinese eat their animals head to toe, and I had never really acquired a taste for the stomach and entrails of other animals in China (our original Beijing roommates used to take us out and challenge us to eat bizarre stuff). But I'll be honest, this was really good. It was cooked in light vinegar sauce with tons of red hot peppers. Very good, but very spicy -- as Hunan food usually is.

So that's that. Hope you all were delighted and satisfied. Please come again.

Protest, What Protest?...I Am at the Beach

Last week, I went to Thailand and it was amazing. Apparently, during that time there was some big civil unrest going on in Bangkok, something to do with outing the Prime Minister. I didn't see any of that. But I would like thank every one who sent me text messages worrying about me, and I would like to also thank all the people who bet that I wasn't the one person who died during the protest. All the people who bet against me screw you. Please enjoy the slide show below. I don't feel like writing about my time in paradise so I will just use pictures.



I thought that Bangkok would be much more like Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior and was sad to see that it wasn't even close, although, there was a shit load of tuk tuks .

Highlight of the Day: Listening to Hall & Oates and figuring out what that song was from Herbie: Fully Loaded, which is probably Lindsay Lohan's best movie.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

dinking everybody i know

a couple of weeks ago, durrell and i succeeded in perhaps our greatest accomplishment since coming to china. i successfully gave him a ride on the back of my bike from q bar all the way into sanlitun, where a taxi traffic jam forced durrell to jump from my bike to the sidewalk before we crashed into a parked car. many people, most importantly the two of us, thought it couldn't be done, not least because my bike is tiny and durrell is rather large, or at least heavy.

giving somebody a ride on the back of a bike is an important skill in china. this technique seems to be most common among students and particularly in girlfriend-boyfriend situations. most bikes come fitted with a flat steel wire platform over the back wheel, which makes it easy to sit, either straddling or, if more advanced and/or in a skirt, side saddle. some people fit out their bike with a pad on the rack to make it more comfortable.

i've given a good number of people a ride here in china, and it's quite difficult. even the lightest of riders requires a good amount more effort; luckily beijing is flat--you'd never get started going up a hill. in fact, getting moving is the most difficult part. once some momentum is established, it's pretty easy to keep things going, as long as you're headed in a straight line. balance is the most important aspect, and responsibility for maintaining balance of the whole operation falls squarely on the person in back.

which has led me to the hypothesis that asian people have some innate ability in riding on the back of a bike. two white girls were less than stellar, one of which was a complete disaster. ann and chiann (both abc's) were naturals from the get-go, and i chalk durrell's success up to his quarter japanese heritage. i even gave my boss, an australian born chinese, a ride home from dinner once and he hopped right on and even rode side saddle, something other guys have been unable to do. clark is harder to explain, but i think it might have something to do with his polish blood, which is closer to the orient than either england or saxony. and also his lower center of gravity.

it was my boss that taught me the austrailian term for giving somebody a ride on the back of your bike: dinking. as in "i got durrell drunk and then dinked him."

Weekend Buddhists

Ben and I headed out Sunday morning to hike the Western Hills, an area to the far west of Beijing in the 'burbs. This region is known for its many forests, pagodas, and hiking trails. We chose Badachu Park, which according to one guidebook "has for centuries offered a heady fix to devout Buddhists, temple junkies, hiking enthusiasts and fresh air fields." Which of those categories we fit into, I'm not sure. Although Dad always said that once I finished CCD I could become a Buddhist, so perhaps we'll go with the first.

To get to the park, we first rode the Line 1 Subway to its last westernmost stop (about an hour ride). This was well beyond the farthest point that Ben had previously traveled along this line, so that was exciting in itself. Although we were still within the Beijing city limits (which tend to extend much farther in China than in the states: why Chongqing is technically the world's largest city) the feel of our urban environment when we got above ground was noticeably different. It reminded me of my travels around China outside of major cities like Beijing and Shanghai. There was a long line of taxi drivers beckoning us to use them to ferry us to different trail heads (our fancy backpacks were dead giveaways). We also got a pretty good start on the day, and there were huge crowds waiting to get into this one department store still preparing for a 9am opening. The atmosphere was frenetic, and it felt uncomfortably familiar to be the goofy white foreigner at the center of attention in amid this carnival. Well... not quite, but Ben and Durrell's neighborhood in central Beijing is not very touristy and has a heavy Expat presence. It's really nice to walk down the street in the neighborhood and not turn too many heads. I hadn't quite realized this fact until making it to western Beijing, although what am I talking about? Who wouldn't like to be a celebrity walking down the street for a day?

One thing we noticed that was interesting were these long barricades to manage lines outside the subway station. I guess that being the last stop on Line 1, many people from even farther west of the city travel every morning to subway into central Beijing. Could you imagine a 40 minute wait every morning, before you even make it INTO THE SUBWAY STATION??!!?? Bejeesus!

I've seen shorter lines at Six Flags.

From the subway station we found the public bus that leads to Badachu Park's gates -- to many taxi drivers' dismay. 1 kuai 4 mao = $0.21. Can't beat that! Entrance to the park cost 10 kuai = $1.50. Can't beat that! However, almost immediately upon entering the park, Ben was already looking for ways to escape from it. I know, right? We just got there! In all seriousness, we navigated tens of couples and families snapping stolid photos in front of a typical Chinese gate to scrutinize the park map. This is something very typical in China; to see individuals preferring to take a memorable photograph in front of the entrance sign denoting a major attraction, instead of the attraction (pagoda, vista, what have you...) itself. Oh yeah, it also has to be smileless.

This is also a red flag that you're headed deep into Chinese tourist territory, not somewhere you want to be caught behind enemy lines. Ben was simply trying to lead us to safety. We chose one of the park's paths that did not lead to the main pagoda, away from the crowds. About 20 minutes into the walk along a paved path through the woods, Ben started peeking into little dirt foot paths leading into the woods. I was a little worried -- I'm deadly allergic to poison ivy -- but I was willing to trust Ben's eaglescoutedness and any special elixers he might know for a bad case of the ivy. We headed off the paved trail onto a non-descript path. Very shortly we came across an older Chinese couple headed the other way. They tried to caution us that we were leaving Badachu Park, and that if we continued we'd enter into a non-park wooded area. We thanked them for their concern, and continued along our way. Later we surmised that the couple was trying to sneak into Badachu Park for free to join all those Chinese crowds we were avoiding. 0 kuai = $0.00. Can't beat that!

I'll give it to Ben, leaving Badachu Park was a great idea. The area we entered had many concrete paved paths leading through the hills, and only encountered a few hikers. Actually we saw more people on fancy mountain bikes, and at the top of one hill we discovered a cafe that appeared to be their destination. Most of them were laowai, but there were still a fair amount of Chinese. They were wearing those tight biking getups, and sleek areodynamic bike helmets -- which we thought was strange because surely this had to be less dangerous than Biking in downtown Beijing and no one wears a helmet down there.

Around one of the turns, we could see into a small valley with some traditional Chinese courtyard houses. This one compound had a really extensive garden in the middle of the courtyard with planted corn, sunflowers, peppers, tomatoes, and other vegetables. You can also notice a solar-powered hot water heater on the roof to the right. Ben says that these have been incredibly successful in rural China at providing cheap hot water to millions of households without adding pressure to the electricity grid. We also spied a huge black dog in the courtyard, perhaps a herding dog (though without livestock to herd, poor thing).

Go China. You're sustainability is like off the hook right now, girl.

Ben does some real estate market research in an abandoned house along the way. The red graffiti above the door reads "3 room house." I mean, you can't expect it to move in the Times's classifieds with that description alone, can you?

Given the degree of skill needed for the mostly-paved hike, it was pretty pathetic how exhausted I was at the end of the day. Probably should have packed more sustenance than just Snickers and Oreos. But hey, baby steps to getting back in shape. And what do all boys want after all that sweating and puffing? Peddies!!! Err, well, not really. But Ben and I did head back to get our hairs cut. Ben introduced me to his local place. Unfortunately it did not include the customary 40 minute head, shoulder, arm, and back massage you get before a haircut at many places in China. But for 20 kuai = $3.00, can't beat that! Ben cautioned me to be very specific in describing what I wanted, and I'm glad I did. You've always gotta be careful when you walk into a place with employees sporting haircuts that you wouldn't be caught dead in. I heard Ben use his Chinese to say "little shorter in the back than on top" (read: i'd prefer not to receive the mullet, please) and other helpful phrases -- all of which I made sure to repeat. But really it turned out to be a pretty decent haircut and I think they'll be getting my business again.

Apparently leather pants are de rigueur in this salon. My kind of place!

Monday, September 01, 2008

Lazy Beijing Sunday

Lazy Sunday, wake up in the late afternoon.
Call Golze just to see how he’s doin’.
Hello?
What up, Golz?

Yo Sima, what’s crackin’?
You thinking what I’m thinkin?
BEIJING!!
Man, it’s happenin’!

My first morning in China, I looked out the window and saw... well, not much. It was shaping up to be a pretty polluted day. Due to jet lag I was up a little before sunrise (though I'm often known to be up at that hour, preparing for a productive day), so I thought I'd give it some time. A while later I noticed the moon still out. Hey, what's up, moon! Except it wasn't the moon, it was the sun -- and I was looking straight at it. I pondered for a while whether it was any less worse for your eyes if you could painlessly stare right at it through the think Beijing smog, but then decided it would probably just be safer not to ponder that at all.

When Durrell finally rose and came into the kitchen, he immediately let go a "Holy crap that's bad! Wow!" Which made me feel so much better, because things really weren't looking that good. The following day there were some thunder storms that rolled across Beijing. Things still looked bleak, but it was raining intermittently, so it was really hard to tell, although I was able to make out some cloud definition above. On Sunday, however, the weather gods had opened the smog sluice, flushing out all that was bad, and what was left was a beautiful Beijing Sunday. Durrell's apartment has a view of the new crazy CCTV headquarters under construction in one of the city's business centers. I have before and after pictures below. The new CCTV headquarters, playfully dubbed the "pair of pants" or "pair of shorts" by the locals, is the hook-shaped building just above the Worker's Stadium (Beijing's main sports stadium before construction of the Bird's Nest).

Before...

... and after.

We first headed out to the tailor's. I had a few suits made in China during my last trip, and managed to loose all of them. One had the pants lost by the cleaners (I did not, however, decide to sue for $54 million). Another, I left sitting on the coat rack above me while riding NJ Transit and wasn't able to retrieve from lost-and-found (meaning there must be some other NJ Transit-riding bastard with my exact dimensions). Finally, the third suit miraculously had pants that fit in China yet were "1970s leisure suit tight" (if not even embarrassingly tighter) when I got back to the states. And I came back back skinniest I've been in a while, so it's not that I put on weight after having that suit made. Did they shrink from the altitude in my checked bag on the plane? REGARDLESS, it was time to have some suits made!

The tailor was located on the upper floors of the Yashow Market. For $116 I'm going to have one hand-tailored suit and two custom shirts made. Can't beat that! It was also extremely quick. An assistant first spoke with me about what style of suit I wanted made out of which materials, and started jotting a rough suit schematic on a carbon copy pad. Then the tailor was called out for the heavy lifting: measurin' me up. He worked the tape, and shouted dimensions to his assistant. In total, the process took no more than 20 minutes and we were out of there by 11am. I'm headed back in a few days to try it on and make adjustments.

After a quick dumpling lunch, we headed out for the real activity of the day: a trip to a rooftop cafe near the drum and bell towers to read and take in the nice weather. This required hoping onto the Line 2 subway (blue line in link) from out stop, Dongsi Shitiao, on the east side of the Forbidden City to Andingmen, located north of Beijing center. Line 2 follows the Second Ring Road all the way around the Forbidden city, and the Second Ring Road was laid in the remains of Beijing's ancient city walls after Mao tore them down in 1965 as part of the Great Leap Forward, an effort to modernize China. But many of Beijing's major intersections along the Second Ring Road/Line 2 Subway still retain names that have meanings from the days when the wall still existed. Men means door or gate, so Andingmen means "gate of peace and tranquility" (the same way that Tiananmen means "gate of heavenly peace"). Ok, Chinese lesson over now.

From Andingmen, we headed south into the hutong alleys and deeper into the heart of ancient Beijing. The hutong are traditional low courtyard housing that are somewhat unique to Beijing. They've been subdivided so many times over the centuries and crowded with several generational families that they now are a warren of publicly private space. We walked down some of the more public alleys, still wide enough to squeeze a car through, but could peer left and right into long narrow alleyways connecting courtyards crammed with clotheslines, cooking stove tops, and furniture.

Clark's Patrio-artistic shot of an Olympically decorated hutong alley.

An incredibly small car (perhaps meant to be bicycle powered) ditched in the hutong.

Eventually, one of of these hutong alleyways opened into a small courtyard with the Bell Tower on one end and the Drum Tower on the other. On our walk over the alleys were narrow enough, and the surrounding courtyard walls high enough that I couldn't see these two towers until we were upon them, despite their impressive size. I believe the Bell Tower was originally constructed in the 700s, although has been rebuilt after several fires, and served as Beijing's timekeeper -- a Big Ben of sorts if you will. I'm not really sure what the Drum Tower's purpose was, although it's probably a safe bargain that it involved banging on some drum.

Beijing's Bell Tower

Beijing's Drum Tower

We headed for a small establishment on the side of the courtyard that had converted a hutong household into a small bar and cafe. On the ground level, they had managed to maintain a lot of the original interior, and it had a really rustic feel. They also installed a steep staircase up to the roof where they had placed all sorts of outdoor furniture, giving it the feel of an Adirondack lake deck. We were at tree level, so we sat there sipping some iced milk teas and enjoyed the rustling breeze while reading. There clientele was part Chinese, but mostly Expat.

Ben looking interested.

That evening, we headed back to the neighborhood for some Xinjiang cuisine. Xinjiang is China's westernmost province. It is mostly desert and inhabited by Muslim minorities like the Hui and Uigyurs. Ben, Durrel, and I have each spent some time out there. It's about as far as you can get away from China geographically and culturally while still being in China. Yet these minorities have a very strong presence in Beijing and other northern Chinese cities. It may be traveled by other means, but the Silk Road is by no means dead. The Uigyurs also have some great food that's pretty different from the rest of this country's cuisine.

Ben looking interested.

We ordered some chicken kebabs (jirou tuan'r), small grilled slices of bread (mantou), and a noodle dish consisting of small flat square noodles (imagine one half of a ravioli wrapper without the filling) tossed in a tomato sauce with fried onions and peppers. The mantou (to the left in the picture underneath the chicken kebabs) came out tasting almost exactly like garlic bread -- it was really good. So there I was eating garlic flavored bread and wheat based noodles mixed with tomatoes, onions, and peppers. Add a spice, remove a spice, and it wouldn't take much imagination at all to get the Never Ending Pasta Bowl (China's top scientists are still hard at work perfecting a non-clumpy alfredo sauce). So it's pretty clear Marco Polo spent some time hangin' with the Uigyurs. The noodle dish was also served with a spoon, which I thought was kind of interesting. Spoons exist in Chinese cuisine, but are usually reserved only for soups and look like the thick mini-ladels you also see in American Chinese restaurants.

The next day I had a meeting with someone not far from Tiananmen, so I decided to pop down and see how our old friend Mao was doing (still entombed presumably). The day was also very clear, but Beijing's intense heat and humidity was beginning to creep back. I was sweating bullets. Many of the tourists were avoiding the square itself (a 90-football field sized square of baking concrete) for shade on the tree-lined avenues surrounding the area. There were also a lot of displays set up in the square commemorating the Olympics and welcoming the Paraolympics, so you didn't get as much the sense of its massive scale as I remembered. But Mao's mug was still there, sitting on Tiananmen, and so was the police/military presence.

Although clips from the Olympics (the good ones, aka the opening ceremonies and female Chinese lifters lifting inhuman amounts above their heads) are still inescapable on the streets and subways (there seems to be a jumbotron on every major hotel in my neighborhood showing footage), many of the Olympic advertisements have quickly changed over to the Paraolympics. Below you can see huge amounts of workers arranging huge amounts of flowers on what I can only assume is a newly erected (or recently adjusted) Paraolympic monument. Ben, Durrell, and I have tickets to see wheel chair rugby, and this got me a little more excited for that coming up in a week or so.