Friday, September 29, 2006

Beijing is for the Dogs

So you want to bring your dog to Beijing? Well, be prepared for a bit of a bureaucratic hurdle-jumping. First of all, there is the quarantine when your dogs arrive, though if you use a good agent you can get away with a much shorter stay than is theoretically required.

Once you get the dog(s) out of quarantine, you then have to get them registered with the local police. While you might think that is a pretty straightforward thing to do, you have to bear in mind that (a) each household is only allowed one dog, and; (b) that dog cannot be more than 35cm tall at the shoulder if it is to live within the central part of Beijing (as we do). As a result, in our case, we opted to register Leo, who is way too tall, outside of Beijing, and to register Genghis, who is only slightly too tall, locally. Our real estate agent found someone to do Leo for us, and all I had to do was pay the Y1000 fee and a Y100 commission.

For Genghis I went to the local police station (派出所)to get the form to fill out, only to find out that they don't issue the forms, though it is they who approve them. Instead, the forms are issued by the local committee office of the Communist Party (居委会), which I had no idea how to find. I was given several bum steers, but eventually located the place, only then to find out that it is only open during business hours, 8:30 to 5:00. When I finally got to the office during open hours, I was very encouraged at how nice and friendly the women who worked there were. They even helped me to fill out the form, giving me the Chinese for "sheltie", which is what I told them Genghis is.

Once I had filled out the forms, and they stamped/signed them, I took them over to the police station for approval. When I got there, I was told that the guy I needed to see was at a meeting, but that since I had left my cellphone at the Communist Party office I had time to go get it and then come back to see him. When I finally saw the guy, he took a look at the breed I had written down ("Scottish dog" or 苏格兰犬) and told me that this breed is too big for central Beijing. I tried to explain--in very broken Chinese--that we made this name up, and that Genghis is a small mixed breed dog, but he would have none of it. He told me I'd have to bring Genghis over, to which I responded that he's a 15-year old dog and would have trouble making the trip. The cop, very accommodatingly, agreed then to come see the dog at the apartment. Of course, this was not a great solution for me, since I did not want him to see Leo, so I made like I was very busy, etc. Finally the cop said he'd phone me at 10pm and come over soon thereafter.

With that news, we planned to stay away from the apartment that evening in order to avoid the cop's arrival. In the end, he does not appear to have come, and the next morning I phoned him to say that I'd be able to bring Genghis over the next morning, so perhaps this will have a happy ending tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Driving in Beijing

Most people who have never even been to China have heard that the traffic is just terrible here. It's pretty persistent, there's not really a time when there is no traffic, and it just keeps getting worse. Several people I have interviewed for positions working on my project have turned the job down because of the traffic involved in reaching us from their homes. Beijing recently fell from the 8th to the 14th 'most livable' city in China, largely because of the traffic (and the concommitent pollution).

Last night, as James and I drove to dinner at a restaurant just over 2 miles from home, we spent 30 minutes in a cab getting there. There should be no reason for such traffic; the city is pretty strictly rectilinear, with large avenues regularly layed out to speed traffic to its destination. There are also five ring roads (and they keep building more) to help move traffic at 'high speed' around the periphery of the city. Some would say that this is a result of the "DWA" phenomenon (Driving While Asian), but that is surely not the problem. Indeed, one does often see some pretty stupid driving maneuvers, such as weaving in and out of the lanes to try to inch your way forward, moving into the left lane even though you have a right turn coming up (and vice-versa), talking on the phone while driving, etc. All these certainly contribute to the traffic, though they are not the root cause.

I think the real cause of the traffic has more to do with the fact that most Chinese behind the wheel did not grow up in a car society, and so they are not familiar with the rules that those of us in the West come to accept as we watch our parents and other adults drive as children. The whole concept of granting right of way to others, a key concept to my mind in ensuring the smooth flow of traffic, just does not exist here. Instead, it's every man for himself, and if any one driver can gain a little advantage for himself, even if it means impeding a whole other lane of traffic, he'll take it. For example, last night there was a small accident on our way to the restaurant, in which a cement truck making a stupid turn pierced the flank of a cab. The two drivers stopped where they were, got out of their cars, and started to yell at each other in the middle of the intersection. A traffic cop came over, ostensibly to resolve their dispute and get traffic moving again, but instead he just watched them. Meanwhile cars moved around the stopped vehicles, making blind left turns around them, and generally keeping traffic coming from other directions from moving at all.

I remember when I was a young consultant in 1989, working on a project at the Beijing Amusement Park. There, while conducting my study, I visited the bumper cars, where we noted that the Chinese visitors NEVER bumped each other. Curious, we asked the young male patrons why this was, and they explained that none of them had a car, much less a driver's license, and so they took this opportunity to show their dates that they nevertheless were good drivers. Now that many of them do have licenses, and cars too, they have apparently abandoned that approach in their drive to get ahead.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Beijing Birthday

Anyone who knows me even slightly will know that I am a big baby when it comes to my birthday. I like people to wish me a happy birthday, if nothing else, and make a slight commotion about it. While that is a bit weird for a 42-year old person, I am not in the least bit ashamed.

The problem with having a birthday in September as a kid is that you are often just meeting people in school then, so not that many people will know you well enough to make the celebration worthwhile. Also, it's not great to have a birthday in late September if you're Jewish, since it's not that unusual for a High Holy Day to sneak around and render your big day a fast day. However, if you're in China this is a great time to have a birthday--the weather is ideal, neither too hot nor too cold, and the sky tends to be clear. It did not actually start that way today, instead we had the first rain of our nearly four weeks here, but it did end up that way, with actual blue sky and wisps of white cloud.

To celebrate the day, James and I decided to go out to dinner at a place of my choosing. Since I was getting a bit tired of Chinese, and wanted a slightly different experience for our celebratory dinner, I opted for Hatsune, a Japanese place that won the "best Japanese" restaurant award in That's Beijing magazine in June. Traffic getting there was abhorrent, taking nearly 30 minutes to travel the 3 miles from our place to the restaurant, but the food was good, the sake excellent, and the service attentive. Just what I was looking for.

Back home James had a birthday cake waiting for me. This was a major recurring point since our arrival in Beijing--me pointing out to him places that sold cakes so that he would have a range of places to choose from on the Big Day. In fact I did not really expect him to get anything, but when he came home from the office he had it in his hands. It turned out to be from Tasty Taste, a bakery just around the corner from our place, and it was actually a world-class cake, rather than the Crisco and rice flour monstrosities that I am familiar with from earlier birthdays here. It was also very chocolately, which meant James did not care for it, but that just means more for me! And to top off the day, I even got two birthday cards in the mail today, about average for while I was back home in the US! Happy Birthday!!

Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Story of my first Beijing Honey Cake

Some of you may be aware that it is traditional to eat honey cake during the Jewish New Year, as a way of symbolizing the sweetness that you hope to experience in the coming 12 months. I thought it would be a good idea to inaugurate our kitchen by baking a honey cake and bringing in a portion of it to the office.

The ingredients of a honey cake, at least my mom's version, are not that unusual: coffee, honey, spices, flour, eggs, brown sugar, etc. However, these are not necessarily all readily available in Chinese grocery stores, so I started to look for them on Friday. The cinnamon and cloves, honey and flour were available at Jenny Lou's, a popular expat-oriented grocery store, but they did not have ground ginger or nutmeg, and it seemed an expensive place to buy simple things like eggs. I found brown sugar and eggs at a local Chinese grocery on Saturday, and the remaining ingredients at Carrefour, the French hypermarket that has taken Beijing by storm.

Now I had the ingredients, but I still did not have a pan to bake the cake in. Normally it's made in a loaf pan, but these appear to be completely unavailable in China. I did find a small version of a loaf pan in a fancy department store, but it cost over $20 and was made of the thinnest metal I have seen in a while so I passed. I tried my luck at IKEA, where usually these sorts of things are available, but the closest thing I could find was an 8x12" or so baking dish. I figured it would work, so long as I adjust the baking time. I tried also to find measuring cups and spoons, but these are also completely unavailable, so I decided I'd have to guestimate.

On Saturday afternoon I tried to make the cake, turning to the oven to flip it on for the first time, but nothing happened. I was not sure whether it was gas or electric, and since the writing on the panel was mostly worn off, I could not really tell what needed to be turned to where. When James got home from work I enlisted his help, and it was then that we learned that the oven--and the cooktop,too--was plugged into a little extension cord that was sort of loosely thrown on top of the oven (which pulls out of its slot very easily), and that the extension cord wires were cut (to allow them to plug it into the wall outlet and then feed the wire through the countertop) and then reattached poorly. It also turned out that one of the two outlets on the extension was no good, so we would not be able to use the cooktop and the oven together. When we went out later in the day we bought a replacement extension cord, one with the highest amperage we could find, and set it up when we got home. Turned out this cord was thicker than the one it replaced, so we had to widen the hole in the countertop (my Leatherman came in handy again).

On Sunday morning I put the ingredients together, using a small rice bowl as a "cup" and my spoons to approximate "teaspoons" and "tablespoons". When I put it all together it had the consistency I was accustomed to, more or less, so I put it in the baking pan and hoped for the best. After 40 minutes I checked it and it appeared to be done--springy and cooked through. I was pretty surprised, but since mom's directions say not to touch it for 24 hours I had to wait and see how it really came out. Unfortunately, the dogs did not read the instructions, and while we were watching TV they helped themselves (we have to remind ourselves that the counters here are really low here, so the dogs can reach things more easily). They left enough for me to take a taste, and it was pretty good, so I decided I might as well whip up a replacement. Let's hope that one makes it to tomorrow!

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Rosh Hashana in Beijing

Today is the Jewish New Year, and last night I was invited by Roberta, the owner of the company we're working for, to attend Rosh Hashana services and dinner at the local Jewish community center. There seems to be an unusual preponderance of Jews in Beijing, which I believe is a result of the New York Jewish community's tradition of going to Chinatown after visiting the grandparents on Sunday (and also of going to Chinese restaurants on Christmas), and this was borne out during this event, which was attended by over 100 people. Interestingly, it appears that the Jewish community was founded by Roberta and her partner at the company, Elyse, when they were the two Jewish girls in Beijing back in 1979. Now, aside from High Holy Day services, they hold weekly Shabbat services, organize a Sunday school for children, and have the means of inviting visiting rabbis from the US and Israel.

Now the service was not the main attraction of attending this event for the two of us, but it was interesting to see how completely differently this service was run compared with those I attended as a child. From our perspective it was good to meet other people in town, and the meal was not too bad (though I was still suffering a bit from the after-effects of having been laid up with a stomach bug the previous day, so I did not eat much).

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Our First Duck

It's hard to imagine, but after nearly three weeks in Beijing we had not yet had a Peking Duck until today. Well, that's not entirely true, since at the Johns Hopkins alumni get-together we attended on Sunday a duck was among the dishes ordered, but it was lousy and we hardly had any of it, and it was not done properly, so we don't count it. Agreed?

We came upon the idea of having a duck after returning empty-handed from a trip to the police station to try to get Genghis registered. This morning on my way to work I picked up the newspaper and read that a new campaign had begun to crack down on unregistered, oversized and over-quota dogs, so we decided we'd better get Genghis registered (Leo will be be registered elsewhere). Unfortunately, it seems that it's only possible to do this during work hours, and it appears it is done at the residential management office, so we could not get this done today.

As we headed to the police station we noticed a Peking duck restaurant along the way, and since it's probably the closest such place to our apartment, and we figure our visitors will most likely want to have a duck during their stay here, we decided to eat here as a service to our future guests. Fortunately for all concerned, the restaurant was very good--we ordered a top-quality duck with all the trimmings (sweet bean sauce, slivers of scallion and cucumber, salt/pepper dip and a sweet sauce), along with soup and salt/pepper fried duck carcass. To go along with this we also got an order of garlic sauteed broccoli. The meal was uniformly excellent, especially the salt/pepper fried carcass, and we brought quite a bit of leftovers home. The meal was also pretty reasonable, at only Y109 ($13 or so).

Monday, September 18, 2006

Addressing Your Concerns

I have finally been able to reproduce the problem some of you have noted reading the ends of longer posts on this blog. James pointed out the problem to me on his computer, and it seems that the problem happens when your screen settings are set to too small a resolution. I think the solution is to read the posts on the home page ( rather than on each individual post's page. Hope that works.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Some new photos

I decided I should take advantage of the good weather to take some photos of our surroundings, our place, etc. Here they are:

This is an overview photo of the food market down the street from our place. It's open from around 6 to noon every day, and in addition to the produce and meats there are a few stalls on another side selling prepared foods for eating there or at home.

This photo is of the entry to our housing complex through the east gate, on West Worker's Stadium Road (Gongti Xi Lu). The building that our apartment is in is the one just in front of the gate.)

As you go out of the east gate of the complex, this is what you see--the clubs, bars and restaurants of Gongti Xi Lu. The bowling alley appears to be very popular, and if I can get a nighttime photo of the clubs' lights, I will post that, too--it's really something.

This is the dining room of our place, with the new China cabinet (or is it china cabinet) on the left. The bird of paradise flowers were bought on Saturday at the Laitai market.

We went to the Panjiayuan dirt market on Sunday morning, and this is what you can expect to see when you go there--row upon row of stalls selling trinkets. It's "laowai" (foreigner" heaven, especially for visitors.

This is a photo of the couch/bed that we bought a few weeks ago, with our new Yixing teapot on it. The teapot came from our favorite Beijing teapot vendor, a family from Yixing (the source for some of China's most famous teapots) who have become friends of ours.

Here's a closer view of the teapot, which you can see is made of green clay, which is rather unusual for Yixing.

At Laitai market yesterday we found some more nice orchids, including this specimen with a very interesting (to us) pattern on the petals (if that's what you call them).

At Panjiayuan today we bought, among other things, this little incense burner. We have taken to lighting a lot of insense to mask the dog smell, and this way we can do so more stylishly. If you look closely you can see the smoke from the insense coming out of the holes in the lid.

Shopping Beijing-Style

Many of my posts have something to do with shopping (and those that don't are probably about eating), so it seems that it might be useful to write a bit about the experience of shopping in Beijing for those of you who are not familiar with it.

Beijing still retains a lot of old-style traits that prove how old the city is. Among these is the continued existence of several markets where an entire district seems to be devoted to the sale of a single item. Take for example the Muxiyuan area in southern Beijing where we spent some time yesterday. I knew that this place was supposed to have a fabric market where we could peruse loads of different types of fabrics, with a view toward bringing some to our tailor for him to make suits, shirts, whatever. But I did not expect the entire area to be one big fabric market, with building after building, and market after market, devoted to nothing but the sale of fabric and the little doo-dads (buttons, zippers, etc) that go along with them. And then within the world of fabric there would be one section of nothing but feathers, another of nothing but fur, another with leather, etc. It was amazing, and a bit overwhelming for us neophytes, so we came away only with enough corduroy to make one pair of trousers.

Besides Muxiyuan there are other old single-item markets, but there is also Maliandao, in western Beijing, where the entire area is devoted to the sale of tea and teaware, and where countless shops and shopping centers have risen already (Maliandao was created only a few years ago). If you cannot find the tea you want or a suitable teapot in Maliandao, you're just not trying.

Exploring these markets is actually very fun if you have a lot of patience and no plan to do anything else that day; wandering Muxiyuan could easily take a day (and I am sure my sister, if I were to take her here, would happily stay forever), and with everyone wanting to show you their goods and give you samples of their tea, etc, it really can be a pleasant way to while away the time.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Bank Account

While I wait for a 90mb file to download so that I can open up a 74mb database file of all the patient records for the past 3 years at the hospital, I might as well write about the experience of opening a bank account here. I knew I would have to open an account, since it would make getting paid a lot easier, and it would also facilitate getting cash, but there was no real consensus on where I should open it. The hospital encouraged me to go for Bank of China, which has the attraction of being big and close, but others recommended Merchant Bank, which has the attraction of knowing what they're doing. (Merchant Bank also has the cool feature where they will send you a text message to your mobile whenever your ATM card is used.) In the end I went for convenience (at least initially; I may open another account elsewhere) and opted for Bank of China.

To open a bank account here you need a passport. My passport is being processed for a residency visa so I don't have the passport that contains my visa, but I do have a second passport so that I can get multiple visas at the same time (this is kosher according to the US State Dept) so I decided to take the risk that the bank here is not charged with anything to do with border control and so would not check for my visa. Sure enough, all they cared about was my name, date of birth, country of citizenship and passport number, and they never looked inside the passport (which in this case is completely empty). The receptionist filled out my forms for me, and gave me a waiting number. I then had to wait for my number to be called, which took about 10 minutes. Then I gave the guy Y10, Y5 of which was a fee to open the account, the remainder of which was to become my starting balance, and he started the paperwork. For whatever reason I have two secret numbers--one for the ATM card and one (I think) for accessing the account at the window. In any event, while I could choose the first, the second was assigned, and I'm sure I'll forget it.

All in all the process was painless. I think I may try it again at a better bank soon!

(Well, it's now 10pm and I found myself at the Apple service center in the early evening trying to get something fixed and it was right next door to the HQ of China Merchant Bank, so I figured, why not open an account? So now I have accounts at two banks here after all!)

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Thursday, Sept 14

It being Thursday today, we drove in to the office together, since James sees patients at the hospital on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Just as we got there my colleague, Carl, arrived on his new bike from his new nearby apartment (prior to Sunday he lived quite far away with his parents, now he has his own place near the hospital). In my office I dug right into my work, trying to make sense out of the piles of (electronic) papers I was given yesterday with financial information. Shortly after getting in I decided to try to see the hospital president for a few moments, and her secretary slotted me in. What I had expected to be a 15 minute meeting turned into nearly an hour. She is quite an impressive person, having worked in India prior to coming here a few months ago, and being also a New Yorker. I think she is leaning toward finding me a permanent slot on the hospital's staff working with the senior management on strategic projects to improve the hospital's performance, which I would welcome very much.

Because of the meeting with the president, I was late for my Chinese class, which today was focused on listening comprehension. After this I had lunch at the hospital canteen with Carl, and then got back down to work for the remainder of the day. When James was through with his patients, we left together to go to the tailor (again) to pick up James' coat and my trousers, and to return two shirts for altering. Mr Zhu, the tailor, was out, but his assistant was there and he helped us with our things. The coat is magnificent, truly beautifully made (photo to follow as soon as I can convince James to be photographed) and relatively inexpensive. We returned home with our clothes, let the dogs out, and headed out for dinner at another local place that we had not tried yet. Their specialty is Chongqing hotpot, so that's we ordered, with lamb, beef, and several vegetables. Service was a bit slow (they brought one of the vegetables just as we had finished with all the other items) but it was very tasty, and again the price was reasonable.

The rest of the evening was spent watching more episodes of "Rome" and just relaxing with the dogs.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Back to School

On Tuesday I had my first Chinese class since arriving in Beijing oh so long ago. The hospital has a crew of English and Chinese teachers to provide language training to the staff as a benefit. Last week I spoke with the director of the training program to find out how I might go about finding a teacher, and next thing I knew I was being assessed for a class at the hospital and then told that I would be given three free hours of class per week. My teacher is Xu Lin, and she assessed me to be an 'advanced' student, and we decided I'd focus on listening comprehension and more colloquial Chinese, so yesterday we began with a set of readings prepared by Beijing University that are designed to teach very colloquial, almost street Chinese. In the readings we used, an interviewer went out and asked people on the streets of Beijing to answer the question "what do you do on the weekend", and then recorded their answers. Amazingly, such a simple topic elicited a lot of very colloquial expressions that I was completely unfamiliar with, so I felt like an absolute idiot. But once we got through that, and moved on to having a conversation, I started to feel a bit better again.

James has yet to sign up for his classes, though he really should get going on that. Perhaps my taking a class will prod him along.

In the evening we met up with a friend of a friend who is here for a year on the US taxpayer's bill, to learn Chinese and travel around the country and region as much as he can. He's a marine, and is training to be a foreign area officer, so I guess it makes sense that he should know the area, but does he have to flaunt the fact that he gets reimbursed for traveling to fun and exciting places (so far including Tibet, Sichuan, Nepal and India)?? At least we made him pick up the check so we got some of our money back.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Back to Work

After our busy weekend it was almost a relief to go back to work again. I had a bunch of meetings today, including one with the hospital president, and my new intern started, so it was a pretty busy day (though it will be nothing compared with tomorrow, which is chock full of activities). We seem to be reaching a groove with the project, so that we should start seeing some progress soon (I hope). In the evening, after picking up a UPS package with Italian cookies sent by mom, we headed to pick up our clothes from the tailor. James' three suits and six shirts look phenomenal, and the gray cashmere suit he's having made will be stupendous. My suit and trousers also came out well, and the tailor even threw in two free shirts for me, one for James and a tie for each of us. He must be thrilled to have a client like me, with all the business I've brought him.

We had a quiet dinner at a new place near the apartment, Aunt Fan's, where we had three good dishes and one miss (I mistakenly ordered a dish of 1000-year eggs, which neither of us cares for).

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Wheels, and More Photos

We have posted some additional photos of the apartment, with the furniture we recently acquired, on the photo site:
  • New Photos

  • In other news, we were pretty tired today and limited our activities to things that kept us close to home, other than buying some more plants in the morning (photos of which are on another page of our site:
  • Plant Photos

  • And finally, I broke down and got a bike this afternoon so now we officially have wheels at last! Now to get James a bike so he can get back and forth to work at the downtown location without having to take a cab.

    Photos Posted

    I have posted some photos of the plants we bought today and yesterday at the Laitai and Liangma flower markets on our photo page gallery. As you can see, we did pretty well.
  • Plant Photos
  • And here is a photo of the aftermath of last night's amazing dinner at our local Sichuan place. As you can see, we did well here, too.

    Saturday, September 09, 2006

    Another Day of Shopping

    We made a trip this morning to the Laitai Flower market to get some plants for our house. The market is pretty big, with row upon row of vendors selling orchids, bromeliads, bonsai and other houseplants. At first it was rather overwhelming, since you really cannot decide where to go first, but once we found a system we were able to approach the place systematically. Prices are pretty reasonable to start, but of course you can negotiate, and we managed to get some pretty good deals on the things we decided to buy. James was particularly interested in getting some orchids, and the ones on offer here were really beautiful, mostly phalaenopsis, but also some oncidiums and cattleyas. Most of the orchids were around Y30 or so, but of course when you start to negotiate the prices come down a lot. I really wanted a bonsai, and found one that is some sort of ficus in a pot that is made to look like the tree is on the banks of a lake or something, with a small body of water in one portion of the pot (there is even a little man fishing). We found some green plants, like a Chinese parasol tree (most of which are pretty expensive, so we bought a relatively small one) and a camellia, and also a beautifully fragrant jasmine plant. Fortunately we were able to arrange for our purchases to be shipped to the apartment later in the day, so we did not have to schlepp them home or interrupt our errands with a trip back to our place.

    We spent the rest of the day looking for household accessories (like tie racks, standing towel racks, etc) none of which we ended up finding, and trying to find a reasonably priced kitchen island. This last thing turned out to be too tall an order, so we hit on the idea of having one made, so off we went to the Chaowai furniture market, where we bought our pieces last week and where a vendor I know made some custom pieces for me last year. We gave the general idea of the island to that vendor and to one that we just found today and were immediately impressed with the former people's professionalism in designing the piece and considering all the implications of their design options. We placed the order with them and are now waiting for the word on the price.

    In the evening we headed to IKEA to get some of the little household knick-knacks we needed, and to the Yaxiu clothing market to get James some warmer clothes to wear. We were starving when all this shopping was over so we went to our neighborhood Sichuan place for some outstanding food that left our lips numb and our faces completely red, just the right state for a bar of ice cream and a DVD at home (we watched Monster House, which was pretty good).

    New features!!

    As I learn this whole blogging thing, I am coming up with all sorts of exciting new features that will make this experience even more enjoyable for my public. Now you can enter your email address in the space to the right to get automatic notification when I update the blog! And at the bottom of the 'sidebar' you'll see an icon that you can click on to connect to be by Skype, the free 'voice over internet protocol' telephone service. And that little orange icon thingy on the right will allow you to link to a 'feed' version of my blog for ease of reading. And of course, all of this is free!

    Dining in Beijing

    When I first came to China, in 1988, I recall having come for a visit to Beijing and going with some friends to the Lama Temple (雍和宫) for a visit. When we were finished visiting the temple we went in search of something to eat, and had a very hard time finding a place that was serving at that time (it was not a 'normal' dining time. We finally found someplace that would serve us, but the food there was so abysmal that we could barely eat what we ordered, despite being very hungry. How things have changed!! There seems to be not a single block without at least five restaurants, food stalls, or other dining options on it, and most of these, no matter how small or dingy-looking, serve acceptable if not downright delicious food.

    In a three block radius from our apartment we probably have around 100 places to eat in, ranging from the street-side dumpling and bun stands and crepe makers to local sit-down places to high-concept eateries catering to Beijing's glitterati. If you go a bit further afield, to the Sanlitun district (originally the location of one of Beijing's embassy districts, it then gave rise to a bar street and a large number of other entertainment venues catering mostly to foreigners) there are even more choices, many of which serve international cuisine.

    In the week-plus that we have been here, we have tried a number of places worthy of mention:

    Bellagio: Our first dinner in Beijing was at this place, in the strip of bars and restaurants that line the west side of the Workers' Stadium (Gongti Xilu). These restaurants seem to be modeled on Taiwanese places, and serve Taiwan versions of Chinese dishes. We chose the place because when we first looked at the apartment complex we now live in our agent took us here for lunch and we liked it a lot; unfortunately our dinner was a bit less successful, with the dishes that should be spicy not being spicy at all, but it was still better than your average 'good' Chinese place back home.

    Shin Yeh: Another place on that same strip, this one is much fancier than Bellagio, with numerous private dining rooms for people who want to throw parties. We were brought here by a friend who is very knowledgable about the dining scene here, and she did not disappoint; the dishes she picked out were uniformly excellent, and showed a lot of originality. There were several dishes that we had never seen before, and those that we were familiar with were done extremely well. And since the dishes are smallish, you can order a large range. Finally, their 'shaved ice dessert' (something this strip of places is famous for) was very good, with not-too-sweet beans over beautiful and fresh shaved ice.

    Serve the People: A Thai place in the Sanlitun district, it is regularly voted "Best Thai" in Beijing's expat-oriented magazines. The place is packed on a Friday evening, but there is outdoor seating which would be nice on a warm night or for lunch (the street it's on is not very busy, so traffic noise and odor is not a problem). The dishes are very well prepared and they don't dumb down the spice too much. Prices are a bit high, however.

    As we find other places, we'll post our impressions of them, too.

    Friday, September 08, 2006

    Ayi's first day

    Today was to be the ayi's first day working with us, and she was expected to arrive around 7am. Just before 7 I was in the kitchen and heard someone chatting outside the window about the new people in the building being 'meiguo ren' (Americans), so I peeked outside and saw our ayi talking with our neighbor, Mr Wang. We met Mr Wang earlier in the week when we were leaving our place and the dogs started barking inside; he also has a dog, though his is a little tiny Pomeranian sort of thing who yips all the time. He seemed to be pretty unconcerned with our presence.

    I took some trash out as an excuse to see ayi, and once they heard me talking outside in the hall, Leo and Genghis decided to come out and check things out. I think Mr Wang was a bit concerned about the size of Leo, though how he could have heard him barking and not concluded that he is a big dog is beyond me. I hope he does not cause us any trouble. Time to think of ways to win him over, perhaps.

    Ayi took a look at our cleaning set up and seemed a bit surprised. Our sponge mop is not what she uses (she likes the kind made of ropes), and our cleaning rags (microfiber) are not as good as the old clothes she uses. I told her that she has carte blanche to buy whatever she needs and leave it with us, and gave her Y30 ($4 or less) to go buy it. She was a bit unaccustomed to the concept of a clothes dryer, but luckily all our appliances have their buttons in Chinese so she should have no problem figuring them out. I wasn't sure if she'd be able to handle changing our king-size sheets, so I helped her out, though I don't plan to make a habit of that. Turns out that she won't be able to come three times a week after all, but honestly I cannot imagine what she'd do with all that time; two times seems more reasonable.

    After we got her squared away we left, hoping that she'd have no trouble with the dogs (who, incidentally, did not bark when we left), we headed to the south gate of the complex to find a dry cleaner for our shirts. We found the store, but it was just before 8 so they were not yet opened, so we grabbed some breakfast in the housing complex across the road (xiao long bao steamed buns) and returned a few minutes later. The shop was open by then, but the shopkeeper had not yet got herself sorted out, so we spent a lot more time than expected getting out of there. For one thing, they offer a pre-pay card where if you put in Y240 you get 10% off your cleaning, Y700 gets you 30% off, etc. We opted for the 30% card, but to process that in the computer required more than her limited computing skills allowed so she ended up asking me to enter the info for her (name, address, phone, etc). Then when that was finally done she had to enter the info about the clothes we were cleaning. All 10 of our items were shirts, but each has to be entered separately, indicating the color of the item. We spent an inordinate amount of time making sure that we had the right count--3 white shirts, 5 blue shirts, a green one and a purple one--and yet we still got it wrong in the end. It's surprising in hindsight that the Chinese managed to monopolize the dry cleaning trade in New York for so long...

    Thursday, September 07, 2006

    More New Furniture

    This evening after work our second piece of furniture arrived at the apartment (see photo) after only four days rather than two weeks! When I got home from work they were already here (20 minutes or so early) and they proceeded immediately to bring the thing into the house. They must think we're an old Jewish couple, since the cushion we ordered is covered in thick plastic that we decided we'd leave on for the time being just to avoid any dog-related incidents.

    When I finished with the furniture people I went to let the dogs out of their new cage, a big old thing we bought the previous night at the local pet store behind our complex. Amazingly the dogs were not barking the whole time they were stuck in there while I was dealing with the furniture, nor for that matter had they been barking when we left for work in the morning. Perhaps we have finally turned the corner with them and their bad behavior!

    By the way, for anyone wondering what sort of things to be sure to bring with you when you move to Beijing, put high on the list decent Tuperware-style plastic containers (leftovers here are packed in the flimsiest of boxes, all far too small for what they're being used for).

    Getting to know the neighborhood

    The longer we are here the more people we meet who have been living here for years and years and who have no plans to leave. In previous stints spent here, most of the expat community had a definite view of how long they'd be here, and many were already counting the days until they could go home or to their next assignment. I think this must be a reflection of the fact that Beijing has become a "real" city, one where it is perfectly easy to have a "normal" life and do all the things that you would do back home, wherever that might be. And of course the food here is much better.

    We continue to be amazed by the number of conveniences near our apartment. Last night we went to a new place just across the street from the main gate of our complex, a Taiwanese place with very upscale decor and an extremely extensive menu. We went with a friend who goes there often and left it to her to order. For a while it seemed she was going to order the entire menu, she ordered so many dishes, but she assured us the portions would be small and that variety was the order of the day here. Sure enough, despite the proliferation of dishes, we managed to finish most of them and they were all excellent. She insisted on paying though, so no clue how much it ended up being, but I'd guess it did not exceed $50. She also lives in the neighborhood and recommended to us a bakery, a Western grocery store and some shops in the area that we plan to visit soon.

    As the weekend approaches we have decided we'll try to make a point to visit the flower/plant market to get some life into our apartment, which is a bit sterile still (despite the dogs' best efforts). We'll probably also shop for a bed for one of the guest rooms and some other small incidental tables.

    Wednesday, September 06, 2006

    How to Use this Blog

    As a newcomer to blogging I am learning this pretty much as I go along. However one thing that I really like about it is the opportunity for my readers to post comments on each posting. Feel free to add any comments, or ask questions, or suggest future material for the blog in the comments area, and I'll do my best to accommodate!

    Tuesday, September 05, 2006

    A New Member of the Family

    Early this morning we got a phone call from a woman who was given our number as a potential customer for her services as an ayi (housekeeper). We had asked our real estate agent to help us find an ayi, since we certainly did not want to have to clean up after ourselves, specifying that the main criterion we were concerned with was that she must be a dog-lover. We had agreed that she'd come this morning at 7:30 for an interview with the dogs, but instead she rang at just after 7, saying she was at the gate and that I had to let her in. Fortunately I was already mostly dressed and she was at the closest gate to our house.

    Yan is a Beijinger, about 5' tall if she stretches a bit, and quite petite. She assured me that she is a dog person, but even so I was a bit nervous that when I opened the door to the apartment the dogs would start jumping on her and she'd collapse in a heap. Fortunately this was not to be, since Leo in particular has always been skittish around new women and he could not get away from her fast enough initially (really, since he has no traction at all on our very slippery laminated wood flooring), though eventually he got used to her. She agreed to come three times a week (Mon/Wed/Fri) for Y600/month ($72). I am not sure what we have for her to do that often, but ironing comes to mind immediately...

    In the evening we had another interview at the house, this time for a dog sitter who had responded to an ad I had placed in "That's Beijing" some time ago. This guy was nice enough but I don't think he's really a dog person; rather he is looking for a new source of income and we are not frankly looking for someone to come on a very regular basis. We'll put him in reserve.

    Updated Map

    The map we sent out before we left showed where I thought our apartment was located within our complex. Now that we know its exact location, and have had the experience of telling taxi drivers how to get here, I am updating the map so that visitors can print it out and show it to the driver to give them a better idea of where to go. Also, it shows how close I am to the office that i am working out of (part of the time--the rest of the time I'm at the hospital location, which is a 20 minute drive away). The map also shows just how close we are to the veterinary shop I mentioned in a previous post.

    Monday, September 04, 2006

    First Day at Work

    After all the shopping of the past three days, it was a bit of a drag to have to come back to earth and return to the world of work, but it had to happen. James was to report at 9 at the hospital, while I had a 9:30 meeting with my new colleagues, but before that I had to go to a hospital to get a medical exam to start the process of converting my visa from a visitor visa to a resident visa, which will in turn allow us to have our stuff shipped from the US.

    I had expected the hospital process to be slow and difficult, so it was a very pleasant surprise to find that it was actually pretty quick and painless (other than the jab in the arm for the blood test). For Y644 (around $80), in addition to the blood test I got an EEG, a chest X-ray and a blood pressure exam, all of which appear to be normal. In all it took around 20 minutes, and I was able to get to my meeting on time.

    From the meetings I had it seems that the work will be fun and challenging, and should certainly keep me busy for a while. With luck it might even continue into other assignments, so let's hope they are pleased with my work.

    James got out of his day early, since it was all admin for him today, so we were able to get to see our tailor earlier than originally planned. We learned from him earlier that he had left his old shop to set up something of his own, and since we did not know where it was he kindly offered to pick us up and take us there. I did not expect him to come in his own car, though, nor would I have expected him to drive a VW Passat, but that's what it was. His new place is in a hotel, so he gets a lot more foot traffic, and since he's the owner he was able to give us better prices than what we paid at the old place (Y1500 for a suit, just under $200).

    Before heading home we stopped at the Yaxiu market to get James some ties; he was advised that getting some cheap ties would be advisable since he won't care if they get spit upon by patients. The vendor we ended up going with was very amused by my negotiating approach, and we were able to get 11 ties for only Y200 ($24). Not bad. As we walked home we stopped at the nearby Jingkelong grocery to see what goods they have on offer. It was a bit galling to see that, after scouring the city in search of paper towels, we ended up finding them so close to home, and at a much lower price that what we finally found yesterday at Jenny Lou's. They also had dog food, though in small bags, and a wide selection of frozen dumplings. As we neared home I noticed that right behind our complex, on Gongti Beilu, there was a pair of pet shops selling 15kg bags of high-quality dog food, and a veterinary clinic. The vet's shop had a wide selection of dog-related goods, including cages, so we won't have to order a kennel for the dogs from the US and pay shipping. It's really amazing just how well suited our housing complex is for us!!

    We were starving at this point so we stopped for dinner at a place just outside our gate for a dinner centered on the Sichuan dish shuizhu yu (水煮鱼), or fish boiled in oil with chilies. The dish was stupendous, and the other dishes we ordered to go with it were also good, so this will surely be a regular haunt of ours. One funny thing was that one of the dishes they gave us looked nothing like the photo in their menu. It was very tasty, however, so we had nearly eaten all of it when the waitress brought out the dish we had actually ordered (the first dish was delivered in error). Rather than force them to throw away the dish we ordered we had them wrap it for us to take home.

    Back at home we walked the dogs and settled in for a quiet evening of DVD watching and other pursuits that did not involve any walking.

    Sunday, Sept 3, 2006

    Despite having spent the previous two days doing little more than shop, there was still more shopping to do today. We started off at the produce market near the apartment to pick up some flowers and some vegetables to make for dinner, and continued with stops at the Landao department store (for a vacuum cleaner, extension cords and a new stereo system, among other things), the "Alien Street" market (to search for that hardest to find item, an electric alarm clock), and Jenny Lou's grocery store (for dog food and paper towels). In between all these things we managed to squeeze in a lunch with a friend, surprisingly enjoying a Tex-Mex place filled with expat families with kids. As we walked home from our shopping we noted the sudden arrival of autumnal weather as the temperatures dipped from the high 80s to the 60s and a gusty wind started to blow.

    By evening we were so tired from three days of non-stop shopping that we could not begin to contemplate going out for dinner. Fortunately we had some leftovers in the fridge and a virgin rice cooker to try out, as well as some asparagus lettuce (莴笋) to cook up in my new wok, so we had a pretty nice meal. The rest of our evening was devoted to watching DVDs on our new TV, listening to the audio through our new stereo system--what a difference it made over the old Chinese-made stereo, which was so bad that we assumed our new DVDs were all defective!

    The photos are of the new bar unit we bought yesterday at the Zhao Jia Chaowai furniture market.