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, 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. does not refund you if your cat happens to fly away, but will clip its wings personally for you. That's 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’.
What up, Golz?

Yo Sima, what’s crackin’?
You thinking what I’m thinkin?
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).


... 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.