Saturday, October 27, 2007

Christmas Preparations Beginning

As some of you may know, one of my tasks while in the US in September was to bring home to Beijing some of our Christmas decorations. After futile attempts to find a reasonable means of shipping all of them here (there are a LOT), I ended up settling for just a few small (and light) things, all of which arrived in perfect shape within ten days of shipping them!

In recent days, Christmas decorations have started to appear in the shops, with a stall already set up in the Yabaolu Russian district (full of stuff that we would never buy) and even IKEA has their Christmas gear on the shelves already. We plan to make a foray there before long to grab some things before the masses descend.

But the main thing for us is not the decorations but rather the gingerbread house. We did not make a gingerbread house last year--the first year without one since 1997--so this year we're determined to make one. I brought molasses back from the US (it's not sold here to my knowledge) and we now have a decent oven, so all that was missing was the sheet metal that J2 uses to shape the forms that he bakes his components in. In the US we'd just go to Home Depot and buy a roll, but we did not think to ship any over, figuring it should not be hard to find. Well, we were wrong! Our local "Home Depot", a small shop down the street that has hitherto never failed us, no matter what obscure thing we were looking for, had no idea what we were talking about, so we decided to go to the real Home Depot this weekend. Unfortunately, even HD turned out to be a dud, though the staff there seemed to know what I was talking about, and recommended a place not far away that was "sure" to have what we needed. After wandering around that place we again turned up empty-handed, and were about to give up when we spied across the parking lot a shop with metal ductwork that looked like it was made of precisely the metal we needed. A few minutes later we had arranged for 2 square meters of metal to be sent our way, for about the same amount of money we'd have paid for a 30' roll of the stuff in the US. But it is exactly what we need, and J2 is happy.

So, it looks like we will be having a Christmas party this year after all--mark your calendars for December 22!

Friday, October 26, 2007

The Customer is Always Wrong

The other day we went to Dazhong, the big electronics chain, to buy a new TV. Dazhong, like a lot of stores here, appears to have leased space to the various manufacturers who then have their own people sell the stuff so that there is no single person who can advise you on the various features of a range of manufacturers' goods. The result is that you have to stop at the Samsung, Sony, Sanyo etc stalls and check out their specs independently and come to your own conclusions. This is a big PIA and after a while you're just so exhausted that you want to give up.

So when we were looking at the TVs we ended up at the stall of TCL, the largest manufacturer of TVs, apparently, listening to the guy tell us--in rapid-fire Chinese--all the reasons why TCL was the only brand to consider. Among the claims was that they would set it up on arrival, and that it would have an English manual and would be "internationally compatible", with multivoltage and multisystem capabilities.

When the TV came a few days later, the guy who delivered it was completely unfamiliar with the set and clearly would not have been able to install it. It did not come with an English manual (nor was one available for download from their pathetic website), and of course it only accepts 220 volts. The thought occurred to me that I'd rather have had a Samsung or an LG or any other non-Chinese brand, since they would at least have some sort of after-sales service, but of course Dazhong, like most Chinese stores, does not accept returns of any kind, for any reason. That's why IKEA has signs all over their Beijing store touting their 'no questions asked' return policy.

Not only are you stuck with your purchase, you're also expected to know what the price should be, since if the price marked on the product is not the same as what's in the computer when you check out, you cannot expect the store to give you the marked price. You can protest as much as you like that you bought the product on the basis of the marked price, they will not budge an inch. Of course you can refuse to pay at that point, but then you're stuck going back to the stalls to pick out another item and, in the case of Dazhong, filling out a million forms. But this even happens at the grocery store, where the price marked often differs from the system price.

China may be at 11.5% annual economic growth, but consumer rights still have a ways to go.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Help is at Hand (or Elsewhere)


Several of my friends and relatives have voiced reservations about visiting us in China because of their fears over the state of the toilets in the country. While in the old days there were very few 'decent' toilets around, things have improved dramatically, particularly in the major cities, and with the impending Olympics the Beijing authorities have installed a number of nice-looking public toilets in strategic locations (one, complete with a small apartment for the toilet cleaner to live in, is located just a block from our apartment, near the Workers' Gymnasium, where the boxing matches are to be held). However, even many of these new toilets are of the old "Turkish" squat variety, which some foreigners are unwilling or unable to use. But help is at hand! I found this while browsing the internet the other day, and if you don't mind carrying one around with you wherever you travel in China, you will need never fear running across another 'squatty'. Diane, pack your bags!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Cold War: Chinese and Russian Perspectives

Now that the weather is turning cold in Beijing, we are once again about to begin a several-month period of struggling to remain comfortable when out of our apartment. I have never understood the reason for it, but the Chinese seem to have a cultural antipathy to keeping public spaces warm during winter, and it just about makes me crazy.

During the several years that I spent in Russia, one thing was immutable--when the weather turned cold, people did all that they could to maintain the warmth in their homes, offices, cars, wherever. The Russians understand cold. They have among the coldest weather on the planet, and so I think we can agree that they are experts in the effect that cold can have on your body, your psyche, whatever. China is also a pretty cold place, in places, but the Chinese seem to have a completely antithetical view to what's good for you, believing that fresh, circulating air is better for you than warmth.

As evidence of this, take the fact that cab drivers perpetually keep the windows of their cars open even in very cold weather, forcing me to ask them please to close the windows when I get in. Even in our office building, people leave the outside doors and windows open throughout the winter, resulting in the building being perpetually drafty and uncomfortably cold. Even restaurants and shops leave their outside doors open (though some have heavy plastic slats hanging over the doorways to reduce the draftiness a bit), so we often find ourselves shivering through meals.

I don't know what's up with this, but perhaps one of my loyal readers can shed some light?

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Homeless!

When we moved to Beijing in August 2006, we decided to keep our house in Fairfax and rent it out, since we did not know for sure that we would end up liking living in China, and wanted the flexibility to return home. Unfortunately, it took a while to find a renter, leaving the house empty for several months. When a renter finally moved in in December, each month new issues emerged that required our attention, including pinhole leaks in the plumbing, a bat infestation in the attic, and various other assorted equipment failures. Those renters informed us in August that they would move out at the end of September, so we asked our friend (who just came to visit us in Beijing earlier this month) to re-list the house, and she advised us to cover all our bases by listing it for rental, sale, rent-to-buy, and burn down. Within a very short time after listing the house, we had two interested buyers, and just this past Monday we went to settlement to sell the place.

The sale was not without problems, too. During the inspection process we found termite infestations, more on the bats, rotten wood, a failed well, radon, and more defective equipment (luckily, they did not find out about the Indian burial ground that the house was built on). Thus we are now officially “homeless”, and have a pile of money that we need to figure out what to do with. J2 has nixed the idea of a Lamborghini (spoil sport), but until we find another property to buy (over my dead body) we are investing it.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Sichuan Trip--Jiuzhaigou

From Chengdu we flew up to Jiuzhaigou (九寨沟), the natural wonder in the north of Sichuan up in the mountains. You didn't used to be able to fly there--until a few years ago, when the airport was built, you'd face a multi-hour drive through the mountains to get there--but now there are multiple flights every day that take only 40 minutes. Unfortunately, the drive from the airport to the town takes twice as long, and costs almost as much--Y200, the most I have ever spent on a cab in China (that's $25!).

We were a bit unprepared for the temperature in Jiuzhaigou, since at 3400 meters it was only 50 degrees or so, whereas in Chengdu it was in the high 60s and low 70s. Perhaps for this reason the airport is filled with concessions selling down coats.

The travel agent in Beijing booked us into the Sichuan Jiuzhai Villa for our three nights in town, and because of the holiday we had to pay in advance. Had we not paid in advance, we would almost certainly not have stayed there, since the rooms were pretty poor (especially for the price) and our friend's room was downright squalid. In fact, she ended up having to change rooms after one night (and the Chinese couple who were subsequently moved into it also insisted on a change).

But all that is not really important compared with the loveliness of Jiuzhaigou itself. The name means "Nine Village Valley", after the nine Tibetan villages that lie within the valley that is now a UNESCO-recognized biosphere. The alpine landscape within the area of the reserve is among the most beautiful I have seen, with gorgeous lakes of iridescent hues dotted among the pines and bamboo. Typical of Chinese holiday destinations, this one has been a bit over developed, with a plank boardwalk lining the path that you are meant to follow (no straying from the path!) and buses that will cart you around from the entrance up to the top, and among the various scenic sights. We were advised to try to avoid the buses so that we'd get a better view of the scenery, and to some degree we did this, but the volume of visitors during the holiday made even walking around a bit difficult, so the buses became the path of least resistance.

The Chinese propensity for taking enormous numbers of kitschy photos was amply in evidence during the holiday, with the girls making peace-signs at odd angles to their bodies and acting like wannabe Giselle Bundchens while their boyfriends tried to focus their cameras. This meant of course that we were always walking in the middle of people's photographs, since they never got out of the way to take their shots, even though there were thousands of others also trying to get pictures in.

After two days at Jiuzhaigou (each day having to pay the full entry price, since the two day-for-one ticket policy is suspended during Golden Week) we spent our third day at another nearby park, Huanglong (黄龙), or Yellow Dragon. This is a smaller park, a bit less developed, but with stunning calcium-rich pools that have formed along a lengthy river as it makes it way down from the top of a mountain (where there has been built a temple) down to the bottom. You can take a cable car up to the top and then walk the remaining 5+ kilometers back down to the entrance, which we opted to do. Lots of people who decided to be thrifty ended up paying the price in another way, though, since the oxygen was pretty thin up there and we saw several dozens of people taking advantage of the oxygen stations that dot the plankway.

The scenery at both places is beautiful, with colors like you rarely see in nature, but we were disappointed to see very little in the way of wildlife (Jiuzhaigou is home to pandas, apparently), though this may have something to do with the fact that most of the Chinese guests proceeded very loudly through both parks, scaring away any animals that might have been in the area.

We spent our last day in the area visiting a very touristy Tibetan village that we could just as easily have missed, but we had an afternoon flight and nothing else to do. In the end, we were able to change to an earlier flight and get back to Beijing in time for a Taiwanese dinner at a place that we don't go to often enough, but which we always say we should visit more often. Note to self!

Monday, October 08, 2007

Photos Starting to Appear

The photos from our recent trip to Sichuan are making their way slowly onto our Smugmug page. Click here to see them.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Sichuan Trip--Chengdu

Our friend Roe came to visit in late September, and wanted to see more of the country than just Beijing, and we had a few days off for the Chinese National Day Golden Week, so we decided to head to Sichuan for a visit to Chengdu and Jiuzhaigou.

Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, was recently ranked the second-best city to live in in China (not sure what the number one is), and we have always liked it as a laid-back city with great food. Unfortunately, the weather has never been among the city's appeals, and sure enough, it was overcast and rainy the entire time we were there. We had never stayed in a hotel in Chengdu (other than one semi-night during our 16-hour delay flying from Lhasa through Chengdu to Beijing, which does not count) so we had no idea where to try to stay, and more or less randomly just chose a place. We ended up at the Wenjun Mansion hotel (文君宾馆)on Qintai Lu, which is a semi-pedestrianized street relatively close to the center with loads of tourist-oriented things, like restaurants, shops, massage clinics, etc. Unfortunately, we arrived relatively late, and the only restaurants open were hotpot places, and we had had hotpot for dinner the previous dinner in Beijing (what were we thinking?).

We spent our two days in Chengdu visiting Chengdu's more well-known sites, including the Wenshu Temple area, with its old Buddhist temple and Sichuan snack market; the Wuhou Ci Temple area, with its Daoist temple and nostalgic Chinese market street; a Tibetan neighborhood; and, the Tang Dynasty poet, Dufu's, thatched cottage and surrounding park. But our main occupation was eating, since Sichuan food is just about our favorite Chinese cuisine. We managed to find time to eat at several "destination" restaurants, including Huangcheng Laoma (皇城老妈) for hotpot and a show, Chen Mapo Doufu (陈妈婆豆腐) for mapo tofu at the place that invented the dish, and Long Chaoshou Canting (龙抄收餐厅) for excellent dumplings and other snacks.

One of the more exciting stops we made was the Chengdu Panda Research Center where they breed pandas and have dozens on display, ranging in age from a few weeks to several years. You can even pose for photos (for a price of either RMB400 or 1000, depending on whether you hold the panda or not) with a young panda, which Roe opted to do. The pandas are very cute, and you get to see them pretty close up and, unlike Wolong it's only a 40-minute drive from town.

We also visited a couple of tea gardens, one of the things that won Chengdu its high marks on the livability index. One of the fun things you can do in a Chengdu tea garden is to have your ears cleaned by a guy with a bunch of pointy and feathered sticks that he uses to dig around deep inside your ear canal while you demonstrate various comical facial expressions to all those nearby. I decided to give it a try, and found the sensation very odd, to say the least, but most surprising I found that when he was done I could no longer understand French.

On the very same day that I had my ears augured we also went for a foot massage, where they offered us the chance to have our backs cupped. None of us had done it before, and I was curious, so I asked to give it a try to make sure it was not painful. (For those of you not familiar with it, cupping involves applying 10-12 heated glass globes onto your back so that they adhere to your skin by vacuum pressure, pulling your blood to the surface, which somehow is supposed to be good for you.) The first trial cup was completely painless, so I said to go ahead. Turns out that the 'real' cups were put on with much more heat, and thus the pressure was a lot greater. While it was not exactly painful, it sure was uncomfortable, and I had to sit like this for 10 minutes. When it was over, I was left with 10 big circular red marks along both sides of my spine, which remained for the next five days.

We enjoyed our time in Chengdu well enough, but we ended up deciding not to return for another day after Jiuzhaigou, since we had pretty much done all we could think to do there.