Wednesday, January 31, 2007

東京へ行きます!

After all this time in China it is finally getting to be time to get out of the Worker's Paradise (yes, that apostrophe is where I meant it to be) and see some other part of Asia. For all the trips J2 has made to Asia, all of them have been to places with Chinese culture, so it's finally time to take him to see something non-Chinese. The decision is made even easier when you factor in that two of our closest friends are living in Tokyo, but only until the summer, so the pressure is on to get there before they leave. After many months of failed attempts to make this work, we finally found a suitable time, and are going to fly to Tokyo on that quintessential Sino-Japanese carrier, Northwest Airlines (which costs less than 1/2 what the Chinese and Japanese airlines charge for the trip) on March 8, returning March 13.

Why we live in China

This is soooo embarrassing. But very funny.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

James' Chinese Test

For the past month and a half or so, J2 has been taking Chinese classes at a school one or two buildings over from our apartment in the same little complex. As part of his course, he and his two classmates, an Australian woman and a guy from N Ireland, were to take a little test that would involve riding a Beijing bus by themselves. When the day of the test arrived, only J2 arrived for class, the other two having (I think) chickened out. The assignment was as follows: go to a bus stop up the road from the school, ask someone which bus goes to Di'anmen, take the bus there, get off, and phone the teacher for futher directions on how to get where she was waiting for them. For several days before the test, J2 was pretty nervous, having never ridden the Beijing bus before and having never really ridden a public bus by himself. He got to the bus stop and spent a little while trying to find a person who was there long enough to ask which bus he should take, and when he finally did, that person did not know, though somneone who overheard did know and told J2 to take "yao yao ba", which J2 realized meant "118" after he saw a bus sign with that number on the post. He looked further on that sign and could read the characters for "Di'anmen" on the sign (his classmates cannot read characters yet) and figured out how many stops it would be before he got where he was going. Thus on the bus he studiously kept count since there was no way he'd understand the bus driver's accented speech if he should happen to call out the stops' names.

Once at Di'anmen J2 called his teacher, who told him how to go to where she was waiting, and before long he was there. The prize? She took him to a nearby restaurant for a treat of some very popular snacks that J2 took me to try today (also on the bus). The place was really hopping, and we hardly knew what to order, but we picked out a few items and were very pleased with what we got (with one exception--a dish of mian cha 面茶--flour tea?--that we found completely lacking in flavor).

Not sure what punishment befell the other students for missing the class, but J2 not only won the praise of his teachers for his accomplishment, but he has since been much more willing to venture out on his own and take care of errands while I'm at work. So quite a big day!

How to spend Saturday night

This weekend we did not have much on our to-do list, so when my boss's husband asked if I would help him buy a computer at the local electronics center, I readily agreed. The four of us met there in the morning, spent a while looking at the various options available, and picked out a nice laptop that then needed to be set up so that the software etc was in English. While waiting, Anne asked whether J2 and I would be interested in joining her and Alan, the marketing guy, for a foot massage at a place near the hospital after dinner. We agreed.

The massage place was called Oriental Taipan, and it was nicely decorated and had very friendly staff. We were whisked into a darkened room with four comfortable-looking chairs and before long a staff member asked us if we wanted male or female masseurs. Anne, who's been doing this for some time, recommended male, so that's how we all went. Soon four young guys came into the room with big tubs of liquid and all sorts of other paraphernalia, and our massages began.

While your feet soak in the tub, they have you swing around so you get a shoulder and neck massage for about 15-20 minutes. Unlike other places where we have had this done, the masseurs did not attempt to synchronize their movements, so we did not resemble the Sino-American synchronized swimming team. The masseurs seemed to enjoy having someone they could talk with, since they kept a constant chatter going, which may have ruined the mood of serenity that perhaps Anne was looking for.

After our heads were done, we swung back around again and they went to work on our feet. As they started to look at our tootsies they told us three guys that we could have our calluses removed and nails cut etc, so we went for it. Soon you could see little flurries of callus being scraped off our feet, prompting the masseurs to make jokes about never having seen so much snow fall in Beijing, etc. Once that was done, they started the massage portion, which was in turns excruciating and ticklish. But it really felt good when they stopped (actually, the whole thing was fine, and I noticed that when I was talking with the guys I did not notice the discomfort as much as when I was just sitting there).

As they finished us up they brought us juice--all patrons are entitled to free foods and drinks, including all sorts of exotic juices, like cucumber, snow pear, and apple. And all this only cost $15 or so each! This may have to become a regular indulgence.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Harbin is Cool!




A group of seven of us traveled to Harbin, the capital of China’s Heilongjiang (Black Draon River) province and China’s northernmost large city. The reason for traveling to this city, famous for its -20C temperatures this time of year, was to visit the Harbin Snow and Ice Sculpture festival, held each year in January and February as a means of drawing suckers to the Arctic in mid-winter. As it turns out, however, this was the warmest winter in 50 years in Harbin, so we only had to deal with -20C at night, while during the day it was a balmy -5C or so.

Things started to go a bit awry at the airport on our way to Harbin; five of us were to have flown together, but it turned out that one did not have a ticket, and since this is the high season for travel to Harbin there was not a seat to be had on our flight nor on any other until the next morning. Then when the four of us got to Harbin, the car that was meant to accommodate seven of us (I had not realized that the remaining two were taking the train) was barely big enough to seat us four. Then at the hotel, while our room reservation was fine, the other couple found that their reservation had been cancelled with the two train travelers checked in that morning and only took possession of one of the two rooms they had reserved; fortunately, a room was eventually found, though not without quite some waiting around.

On Saturday morning we had thought that we’d all head out and see the town, but only James and I were up and at ‘em at a reasonable hour, so we ditched the others and figured we’d coordinate later in the day. We started out by visiting the old part of town, with its big Russian orthodox cathedral (Harbin was founded by Russians in the late 19th Century, and by the way was home to East Asia’s largest population of Jews) and strolling the pedestrian zone with its numerous listed buildings. Fortunately we had our fur hats and ski gloves, since the cold really does get to you after a while, but with our flaps down and with occasional stops in stores we managed to stay comfortable.

After a stroll downtown we walked to the banks of the Songhua River, which was frozen over and where you could ice skate, scoot down a snow slide, or take a ride on a dogsled. A woman approached us about taking a horse-drawn carriage across the river to the inaptly-named “Sun Island” where the snow sculptures were located, and we decided ‘why not’, since a cab was not nearly as interesting and would have to take a pretty circuitous route to get there. I was a bit nervous about the horse and carriage plunging through the ice, but they seemed to know where the thickest ice was and we made it over ok. Once at the island we had a bit of a walk before we got to the snow sculpture area, where we had to pay Y100 ($12!!!) per person to get in. Fortunately, the sculptures were worth it, and we thoroughly enjoyed meandering among the displays, which included hundreds of items, including some in the image of things like Quebec’s Chateau Frontenac and Montreal’s Rue St. Denis (this year’s theme being Canada) and sculptures that were part of an international competition (a Russian team won). There was even a large-scale model of a sort of stylized Niagara Falls, which words cannot do justice to. You’ll have to see the photos.

From here we went back to the hotel to rendezvous with the others and go for lunch. The train couple had us meet them at the cathedral and then walk to a Russian restaurant, where the sole waitress did her best to recreate the customer service experience of a traditional Soviet restaurant—nothing that we wanted was available, what was available came slowly, and in spurts, and throughout we had the impression that she was doing us an incredible favor by dealing with us. At least the food was passable.

After lunch, most of the crowd went home, but one resolute traveler (the one who missed his flight the previous night), tagged along with James and me to walk around twilight downtown Harbin (it gets dark early) and visit the ice sculpture park downtown. We got there just after it opened, around 4, as the lights were being turned on. There we some very large building-sized ice sculptures, all with colored lights imbedded in the ice, as well as an international ice-sculpting competition, with some amazing works that would do any bar mitzvah buffet table proud. Fortunately I had brought a tripod along, so we were able to get some good photos. We spent a good hour here before heading to the REAL ice sculpture park, also over on Sun Island, where there were scale models of numerous buildings, including several internationally recognizable churches and other religious structures. You could climb up an ice version of the hill behind the Forbidden City to get a slippery view of the whole park (lots of people had a hard time navigating the steps, and if one person falls, a whole bunch end up following suit). Plus, since it was nighttime, the chill in the air got more and more noticeable, until finally we decided we were iced up and headed out for dinner.

We decided to try some traditional Northeastern food for dinner, heading to a place called Da Fengshou (大丰收—Big Harvest) for a very raucous evening. We got there in the middle of a performance by a singer/comedian guy, and the crowd was eating up his performance. The sight of three foreigners dressed like Nanook of the North only added to the mood of hilarity, and when it turned out that one of us could speak Chinese, it only made the fun that much greater. We let the waiter help us order, since I was completely unfamiliar with the cuisine; we had one dish of huge lamb legs (or something) that was simply delicious; a dish of pork with sauerkraut; and a dish of fish steaks in a slightly spicy sauce. Our dining companion was not fond of fish, though, so we ordered another dish, a local specialty that turned out to consist primarily of pork liver and intestines—surprisingly, he did not like that any better than the fish. We washed this all down with a bottle of baijiu, Chinese grain alcohol that they served us in soup bowls, since there were no glasses left in the place. All in all, a great evening to cap off a fun day.

On Sunday we managed to get the whole group together to head out in two cabs to the Northeast Tiger park, a sort of preserve where 100s of Siberian tigers are on display. When you buy your ticket you can also pay for a chicken, or a duck, or even a cow, to be fed to the tigers during your tour around the place. We opted for two chickens, since we were told that they somehow put the chicken on your car and the tigers pounce on the car to get at it. Well, it turns out that the tourists are in buses, not cars, and the chickens and other animals are sort of presented to the tigers in the middle of a big field, with all the tourist buses circling the area like a big gladiatorial arena. It was pretty hard to see the tigers going for the chickens, since we were kind of far away, but as luck would have it, someone in the crowd had bought a cow, so at one point a blue truck showed up in the middle of the pack of tigers. The back of the truck gradually tilted like a dump truck and out came a live cow, though it did not remain live for long, since those tigers went after it like a pack of wild animals… As the tigers got their lunch, the buses crowded in so we could all get a view of the scene. Gruesome.

From the tiger park we took the others to the snow sculpture park so they could see the exhibits. Unlike when James and I went on our own, with the others we ended up going through pretty summarily, managing to see in 30 minutes what took us over two hours the previous day. Having thus seen what they came to Harbin to see we took them to a dumpling restaurant for a very satisfying lunch of dumplings and other snacks. Before long it was time to head to the airport and our uneventful flights home.

The photos are here.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Getting Ready for a Trip

Sorry for the lengthy silences of late; this past week I was in Shanghai for much of the week and with that and the slowness of the internet as a result of the Taiwan earthquake, I just have not been able to sit down and write. Apologies!!

Anyway, I got back to Beijing on Friday night in time to attend a dinner to say farewell to our Indian intern. During the dinner, Anne and John extended an official invitation to James and me to accompany them and several other hospital people on a holiday trip to Harbin next weekend. For those of you not in the know, Harbin is the northernmost major city of China, founded initially by the Russians as the terminus of the Trans-Siberian railway in the late 19th Century. It was also home to loads of White Russians fleeing the revolution, and a large number of Jews also fled there from Europe in the 1930s. It's also well known for its ice and snow carving festival, which takes place annually in January-February. It is for that reason that we're heading there next weekend, temperatures in the -20s notwithstanding.

In anticipation of freezing our tuchuses off in Harbin, we went out this weekend in search of warm boots, hats, gloves, etc. We met up with Anne, John and Alan (who will also be going with us) at a shop not too far from our apartment to look at shoes. Unfortunately Alan could not find shoes that fit him and I did not really like the selection available, so after lunch (at a pretty good tapas place) we headed to a military surplus store, where James and I found some boots, but again, Alan's clown feet prevented him from finding anything. So we headed to Yaxiu, our nearby clothes market, where we found him something, and where we got some gloves. We then continued to the Russian fur market, hoping to find hats (my sable hat from Moscow did not make it into my shipment, apparently) but they only had women's styles or crappy men's ones. It was only today (Sunday) that we tried the old tried-and-true Friendship Store, which used to be the only place to buy anything in Beijing in the bad old days but which now is not quite so busy. Nevertheless, it turned out to be THE place to go for hats; we found just what we wanted, and for next to nothing.

We also did some non-Harbin related meandering today; we headed to the area near the old Drum Tower to wander down one of the old hutongs, and had a nice lunch of fried dumplings. All in all, a nice day. In case you're interested, I will eventually upload photos for you to see, too.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Slow Weekend

This was a pretty slow weekend here in Beijing. We started it Friday night wondering what to do for dinner; J2 had been sick most of the week and only that day started to feel better and wanted to head out to get a break from the apartment for a change. We ended up going to a restaurant that had been reviewed in the current Time Out Beijing magazine, a small Tan family restaurant called Guoyao Xiaoju over by Andingmen, but unfortunately the flavors were a bit too subtle to get through J2's congested sinuses so I'm afraid the meal was wasted on him (I quite liked it though).

On Saturday morning we were at a loss for something to do until we got a text message from a colleague who was in the market for smoked sausages to cook red beans and rice with. We had wanted to take him to our new produce market so we took the opportunity to meet up with him and go shopping. It turned out to be a pretty cold day, so we minimized our outside time as much as possible, but even so there were some pretty chilly moments going between buildings. Once we got him--and ourselves--some cooking ingredients, we headed home to drop our perishables off and then headed off with a baking pan in hand to check out the ovens at the Scitech shopping center. I was sorely disappointed to find that even the Westinghouse ovens are too narrow, so it seems we are going to be stuck with our current EZ-Bake oven after all.

We had dinner Saturday night at our neighborhood 'chaunr' place, which makes great lamb kebabs and other simply-grilled skewers. This time we also decided to order a non-skewer dish, more or less randomly choosing the dish called "rang yang rou" that turned out to be extraordinary--bits of cumin-laced grilled lamb with grilled bread that went really well with the cold beer we were drinking. Yum!

Sunday was even more prosaic--I made a quick visit to the local market in the morning, and then we made stops at IKEA and a new Wal-Mart to pick up some household things. It's amazing how often we find ourselves at IKEA for simple things like storage jars and other small household knick-knacks, but Wal-Mart turned out to be a bit of a disappointment--there are not very many things sold there that cannot be found elsewhere more easily, and the staff are remarkably unfamiliar with where things are.

All in all, a pretty quiet but relaxing weekend. Now I'm ready for another week at the hospital.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Our New Year's Eve

Dec 31 was a work day in China even though it was a Sunday, since the Chinese will get Jan 1-3 off, but the hospital does not follow that policy so we had the weekend off as usual. We decided we would finally take the time to visit a nearby tourist attraction that we never had taken time to see, the Beijing Blue Zoo at the Workers' Stadium across the street from our place. When we got there, we found that a single entry ticket is Y75/person, but a 5-entry ticket is only Y150, so we opted for the latter. We did not have the requisite photos for this kind of ticket, though, but the ticket people told us we could return with our ticket and add the photos later.

The aquarium is not all that bad; it's certainly the first one I have been to that, along with the descriptions of the origins of the animals in the exhibits, and of their behavior, also includes recipes. (OK, that's an exaggeration.) The centerpiece of the aquarium is a 120-meter long underwater tunnel that goes through the main tank, where sharks, tortoises, and other sea creatures share the water with occasional 'mermaids' who seem to be the single most popular aspect of the exhibit, based on the crowds of people taking photos of them.

From the aquarium we walked over to a nearby dimsum place for lunch, stopping along the way at a china shop that, despite its proximity to our apartment, we never knew existed. There we found all sorts of useful things that we'll have to stop by again to pick up, like ramekins for making creme brulee and loads of good gift items.

The dimsum was pretty good, though it was a bit more expensive than other places we've been to; it'll be a good place to take newbie China visitors to, since it's clean, presentable, and there are good bathrooms (logical, since it's in a Comfort Inn). We also visited The Bookworm, a foreign-language bookstore also near our apartment, and visited the Xinyuanli market to pick up the makings of things like chicken paprikas and Vietnamese caramel shrimp for the coming week.

In the evening we headed to Anne & John's place for our NYE party. We had quite a time bringing our two tiramisús, chocolate mousse, two breads and the makings of garlic bread, but we managed it. The caterers came on time and brought with them all the trappings of a party--the food of course, but also plates, silverware, chafing dishes, etc. Very professional. We had no idea how much food we had ordered until we saw it in place--way way way too much. Fortunately, the weather was pretty cold so we could use the patio to store the extra platters, but in the end we could have easily ordered half of what we did and still have leftovers. Fortunately, all was very good, and my desserts and breads were a huge hit.

Towards midnight we turned on the TV to see the Chinese equivalent of Dick Clark and the Times Square Ball, but the only thing on was a pretty lame variety show that broke away near 12 to watch some people countdown fairly unenthusiastically and then ring a big bell. We stuck around till around 2:30 and then figured it was time to head home. Finding a cab was a big challenge, but eventually one showed up and we zipped home along pretty empty streets, that is until we got to our street, which was packed with revellers heading to and from the bars that line our road. Having appropriately marked the arrival of 2007, we let the dogs out, wished them a happy 2007, and headed to bed.

Happy New Year!!