Sunday, November 30, 2008

Taiwan Trip

As mentioned in an earlier post, we made plans to go to Taipei to spend Thanksgiving with friends. Now that there are direct flights between the Mainland and Taiwan, we figured this would be an easy thing to do, but in fact there were some challenges. First, the direct flights only leave on Fridays through Mondays, whereas we wanted to fly out on a Wednesday. This meant that we had to fly through somewhere else, so we opted to go for Seoul, since it was the most direct of all the options in front of us. (Even for the direct flight, you cannot fly in a straight line between, say, Taipei and Beijing, instead you have to fly over Hong Kong airspace, apparently to avoid either side mistaking your commercial flight for the advance guard of an invasion force). Second, the price of tickets is surprisingly high, considering the distance involved. But these were easily overcome, and so we made plans to arrive on Wednesday afternoon and stay through Sunday morning.

Our flight into Seoul got in with enough time before our connection to enjoy a quick lunch of Korean mixed rice with vegetables (bibimbap), which we have both developed quite a liking for. Unfortunately, this is not sufficient to allow J2 to count Korea among the countries he has visited. We then flew into Taipei on the Taiwan “national” carrier, which distinguished itself by showing a very (unintentionally) funny video prior to landing on how to tell if you have a traveler’s illness and instructing people to see a doctor for it.

It was pretty easy to navigate the airport and find our way to a bus that would take us to the city near to where our friends live. They are in the shadow of Taipei 101, the world’s tallest building (not for much longer), and before long J2 and I were in their beautiful apartment. Before long Ken and we started out on some errands to pick up the ingredients for the next day’s Thanksgiving dinner. Then Connie got home from work we set off to dinner at a Taiwan-Hunan restaurant (1010) and some shopping at a bookstore. Alpha, our trainer, had given us a list of about six books to buy him on exercise physiology and recuperation, and must of our time in Taiwan would be spent looking for these books.

Thanksgiving was spent largely preparing the dinner, though we did find time to head out to lunch at the food court underneath Taipei 101, a lunch that was punctuated by Ken’s inadvertent spraying of the greasy filling of a Taiwanese beef bun all over Connie’s outfit. It was one of the funniest things J2 and I had seen in some time, since it appeared to happen in slow motion, yet no one was able to do anything to stop it. Schadenfreude is a horrible thing… We also took a quick stroll through a nearby market, where we picked up some things to use during our upcoming Christmas party, including a sort of herbal tea mix that we think will make a nice non-alcoholic (though spike-able) drink to serve our guests.

Our dinner was the occasion for a mini grad school reunion, as one of my classmates, Alison, and I had not seen each other in more than 15 years. She brought her husband and daughter along too, whom I had never met, and despite the years we got right back in the groove of when we were in school together. Also attending were a colleague of Connie and his Mongolian girlfriend and a friend of Alison, each of whom brought something to the dinner.

The menu was the usual fare; turkey with chestnut stuffing; corn pudding; bean casserole; cranberry relish (two kinds!); mashed potatoes; pecan pie; and it was all pretty good. We also started with one of my baked bries with chutney, which was something that Alison was going to make but somehow I ended up taking it over.

We had a great time, and people stayed relatively late, considering that the next day was a workday for most of the guests.
On Friday Connie had to work, so J2 and I started the day by heading to the National Palace Museum, which houses many of the treasures that the people fleeing the Communist takeover of the mainland carried to safety in Taiwan. Unfortunately, the museum is really badly laid out, and there were huge crowds that made it hard to see many of the exhibits. Also, since the quality of museums in the Mainland has improved, and the range of exhibits there is quite good, this museum left us a bit uninspired, other than by the amazing curio boxes that were on display, which evidenced a great deal of ingenuity and playfulness on the part of the craftsmen who produced them. Unfortunately the gift shop had neither replicas nor books about them to bring home with us.

We met Ken and Connie for lunch of noodles near Connie’s office, and then continued with Ken on the search for Alpha’s books, eventually finding all of them and driving with Alison through downtown Taipei. For dinner we joined Alison’s husband at a Sichuan place that was reputed to be among the best in Taipei. When I first came to Taipei, in 1989, there was no question but that the food in Taiwan was far better than what could be had in the Mainland. Apparently that is no longer the case, since while the food here was good, it was not any better than the dive we often go to behind our apartment in Beijing. We ended the night with a visit to the Shilin night market, probably the biggest we have ever visited, with lots of vendors selling foods of all kinds, knick-knacks and pets (we oohed and aahed over the puppies).

We met up with Alison again on Saturday for a drive to the old mining town of Jiufen on the northeast coast of Taiwan. The mines have long since closed down, but the town has become a tourist attraction because of its lovely location overlooking the coast and the range of old buildings that now house loads of traditional shops. We had a blast roaming the streets and sampling the foods that the shops sell, including all sorts of preparations of squid and taro, most of which were very tasty. We had lunch at a tea house in the town that served a pretty nice vegetarian meal overlooking the sea before fighting the hoards (who were not there earlier) to get back to our car for the drive back to Taipei.

Dinner Saturday was with Alison and her family at a typical Taiwan beerhouse called Indian. The name is a bit odd, considering that the place has a definite dinosaur theme, with dinosaur skeletons all over the place. But for a very reasonable price you get all you can drink beer and all you can eat food, so we just had the dishes keep coming, all of which was surprisingly good. I had remembered the beerhouses from my visit in 1989 and wanted to relive the experience, and this did not disappoint at all.

We wound up our visit with a quiet evening at Connie and Ken's, sipping homemade limoncello and just chatting. It's really wonderful to have friends like them, who you can go a few months without seeing (though we are in regular email and Skype contact) and still be able to get back in the groove of our friendship so easily. Maybe one day we'll get to live in the same city for a while and spend more time together!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Mr Benyak Must be Smiling

Throughout my high school career I spent an inordinate amount of time avoiding phys ed. I hated it so much that I just stopped going, earning the nickname "the Phantom" from my gym teacher, Mr Benyak. Thus it was ironic that I wound up going to a college with a phys ed requirement, though I managed to get around that by taking fencing and archery, which were actually relatively fun, but the main thing was that you got to wear lots of clothes while doing them, which was great, since the main reason for avoiding gym class was that I was a fat kid and would get mocked by my classmates in my shorts and athletic shirt.

Fast forward to last year. Though I would occasionally go to a gym I never really knew what I was doing, and I never yielded any real results. But last year we joined a small gym near work to work with a personal trainer, and with her J2 and I started to lose lots of weight. Then, in November of last year, she told us she could no longer safely handle the weight that we would need to use to continue training, so she hired a male trainer, Alpha, to work with us. Together we made huge progress, coming down from body fat percentages in the 35% range down to the mid-teens, necessitating the acquisition of a whole new wardrobe.

Alpha had long wanted to set up his own gym, and the opportunity arose in the summer after he finished working as a trainer for the Olympics. He had the know-how and the connections, but he lacked funding. He had consulted with us about his ideas for a gym throughout our sessions with him, and we shared with him our ideas, and thus it is that, ironic as it is considering my history with the fitness world, we are now partners in DNA Fitness Studio, a one-on-one personal training club that had its grand opening celebration this afternoon.

DNA (the name is short for "Diana and Alpha", Diana being Alpha's wife) is located in central Beijing near the China World Complex and provides personalized training and a small room for judo, Pilates, and yoga classes for groups of up to four people. We have a small range of equipment, but among them is a very cool thing called the Power Plate that has a vibrating platform that can intensify a workout. I used it for the first time today, and it is really something! We'll see in a few weeks whether it has any benefit though.

So, while Mr Benyak was wrong when he said that my inability to do a proper basketball lay-up would keep me out of a top-notch college, I am sure he is smiling now.


We have made plans to go to Taiwan on Wednesday to spend Thanksgiving with our good friends Connie and Ken (whom we visited in Japan last year, you may recall), so originally we had figured we would not bother with a Thanksgiving dinner of our own. However, J2 made it clear that he was not going to be satisfied without having turkey leftovers to snack on, so I figured I would just roast a turkey for ourselves to have. After thinking about that for a bit, though, I realized that one turkey for two people is an awful lot of food, and figured there, in the spirit of Passover, for which you have the festive meal not once, but twice, there was no good reason not to have a second Thanksgiving dinner, too.

I was limited to inviting no more than ten people, since our table only seats 12, and the last time we had more than that we were really scrounging for table space. Pleasantly for me, it was no challenge to find ten willing participants, consisting of some friends from work (Susie, Alan, Digo and Antonio) and friends from the "real world" (Jennifer and her friend Simon, Digo's partner Gil, Melinda and Jay, and Hui). Then it came down to preparing the menu. J2 brought back from his recent trip to the US a copy of the November issue of Gourmet, so I pored through there looking for likely sounding ideas, and lucked upon just the right thing--a section of "over the top" recipes for Thanksgiving! I was not about to make the entire menu, however, picking only a couple of those things that were relatively easy to do given the reality of what is available in Beijing. So, here is the menu:

Foie Gras Toasts with Sauternes Gelée
Roast Turkey with Truffle Butter and White Wine-Truffle Gravy
Wild Mushroom Bundles
Autumn Succotash
Chestnut-Leek-Apple Stuffing
Cranberry-Orange Conserve
Sweet Potatoes with Walnuts (prepared by Jennifer)
Hashed Brussels Sprouts with Lemon
Pecan-Pumpkin Pie
Double-Crust Apple Pie

The foie gras and truffles were clearly the most OTT parts of the menu, or would have been, were we not living in China. In fact, China now produces both those items, and while perhaps they pale in comparison with their French brethren, when you factor in the vastly lower price, you can easily forgive that. I bought a bag of truffles (probably 15 mid-size truffles) for RMB 99 (around $14) and a 600g foie gras for RMB 155 ($23). Turning the foie gras into the terrine that the recipe called for was a bit challenging, since I had never done it before, so I ended up deciding to make a second batch in case the first one did not turn out (they both turned out fine, though, so now I have left over foie gras terrine in the fridge). Also, I had WAY more truffles than I needed, so I used some to make an out of this world truffle risotto for dinner one night. Life is tough here in Beijing!

All the dishes turned out just great, if I do say so myself, even the pies, which I thought were going to be iffy when they first came out of the oven. And for wine I bought six bottles each of the two wines that were served at the cooking demonstration that I went to recently, a 2007 Chenin Blanc from Kleine Zalze of South Africa to go with the foie gras toasts, and a 2007 Gamay from Te Mata in New Zealand to go with the rest of the meal. We drank all of these (!) as well as a few other bottles that I had lying around, so you can tell we had a VERY good time at this party!

We managed also to have only a very modest amount of leftovers of all but the things that J2 really wanted to have for follow-on meals, the turkey and some stuffing. But of course this now means that we will be eating turkey each night this week, and then having it again on Thursday in Taiwan! Luckily, we like turkey...

If you want to see more photos than what is here, go to this link.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

One More Thing Re Genghis

I wrote yesterday to let the good folks at the Centreville Animal Hospital, which took care of Genghis for most of his life, know that he passed away. They responded with this photo of a rock that they decorated with his name and vital dates, which they will add to their memorial walk out in front of their entrance. I also picked up his collar from the vet here in Beijing and will keep that as a memento. We're already thinking about a new puppy, though we won't get one until after our Christmas party, in mid-December.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Genghis: *Moscow 1991-†Beijing 2008

When I was living in Moscow in 1991, I had long planned to visit the Ptichy Rynok, a market near Taganka where people sold pets and pet supplies. The Russians are crazy about dogs, and I had always wanted one, so I figured that would be a good place to get one. Not long after the failed putsch against Gorbachev, in early September 1991, I headed over there to see what sorts of dogs were available. While I had thought I might like a Caucasian Sheepdog, the fact that they are huge and my apartment was small, led me to be open to something smaller, though in my mind I wanted a brown dog with big brown eyes.

When I got to the market area, I could not park very close to the market, so I had a short walk to get to the door. Along the street several unofficial vendors were selling things, and one young woman in particular called out to me, asking if I was interested in a puppy. I figured I would ask her what she had, and what sort of price she was asking for, to prepare me for the negotiation inside the market, and so I stopped. She had two puppies, one black and one brown, and she said that their mother was a Siberian Laika, and their father was Shetland Sheepdog. They were both very cute, but the brown one was really a cutie and I took an instant liking to him. She made a point of making sure I was a foreigner (Russians don't like mixed breed dogs, as a rule) and then asked if I would take the puppy with me to when I left the USSR (as it was still called back then!). When I said yes to both questions, she practically begged me to buy one of her dogs, if not both. All she wanted was 100 rubles (at the time, $3), and he was just so cute, that I agreed to buy him.

As I headed home, I stopped at the Stockmann grocery store to buy some food and other things for him, and when I got home I phoned some friends to come and meet him and have a little puppy party. Then I started to think of a name for him. Eventually I decided to call him Genghis, which I later explained was short for "Genghis Khan, Champion Puppy", which is the same initials (GKChP) as the group that organized the coup against Gorbachev.

Genghis earned a number of nicknames over the years. The first one was given to him by my friends Robert and Katya, who watched him while I went on a business trip to Siberia. Apparently he did nothing but pee the whole time, so they called him "The Puppy Who Pees". My neighbors in Alexandria called him "Short Man" and "Stinky" (though he actually never did smell bad), and J2 called him "Meng Meng". I would sometimes call him "Schmengis" or "Stinker Butt".

He also barked a lot, particularly when I was not around, as my colleagues learned when I brought him to work and left him in the office when I went to a meeting (I never took him to work again after that). When I moved from Moscow to the US, you could hear him barking all through Sheremetyevo Airport until the sedative kicked in, and then I swear you could hear him through the floor of the plane over the Atlantic when it wore off. When we moved to Beijing, we tried to come up with ways to keep him from barking when left alone, but none of them really worked. Did you know that "Laika", the breed that his mother belonged to, means "bark"? Well, neither did I when I bought him.

Genghis was my first dog, and though I have now had three more since I got him, including Leo who is still with us, he has a very special place in my heart. Over the past few years he has been showing his age more and more, though in a lot of ways he still looked remarkable for a dog of so many years. Today however it became obvious that his time was nearing an end, and not wanting him to suffer we took him to the expat-oriented veterinarian to have them look him over and decide what to do. We all decided it was best not to let him suffer any more than he already had, and to be able to remember him as the spunky, lively, dog that he was for so many years. Genghis passed away today, November 16, 2008, aged 17 1/2 years.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Cooking Demonstration

This past Monday I attended a cooking demonstration at the relatively newly-opened Pantry Magic cookware store in Sanlitun. I had never attended one of these things before, but was tempted this time because the chef doing the demonstration, Daniel Urdaneta, has been with some of my favorite restaurants in Beijing, and is currently co-owner of Mosto, where I have eaten twice in the last week or so. He's got quite a following here, so I thought it would be interesting to see what he would show us, and I also thought it would be nice to meet some other people who were interested in such things.

The people at Pantry Magic limited participation to 12 people, so I did not expect to know anyone else there, so imagine my surprise when I found that one of our hospital's dentists was signed up for the session! That was good news for me, since it gave me someone with whom I could easily chat, which would in turn cause other people to want to chat with us, I figured. Indeed we had no trouble mingling with the other people, most of whom were relative newcomers to Beijing (within the past year or so) and a good 75% of whom were not accomplished cooks.

Daniel was going to prepare three dishes for the evening--a salmon ceviche with arugula in balsamic vinaigrette; saffron risotto; and crema catalana. In addition, a wine distributor contributed wines for the evening, a South African Chenin Blanc from Kleine Zalze and a New Zealand Gamay from Te Mata, both of which were outstanding. All the dishes he made were excellent, the ceviche in particular, and the techniques were nothing I did not already know, though there were a few things that I learned, such as not to be too gentle when using a blowtorch when caramelizing the sugar on top of the crema catalana.

The evening was a lot of fun, I met some nice people, including some Australians who seem to be very knowledgeable about where to find obscure ingredients in Beijing, and I hope to be able to go to the next one, some time in December.

Monday, November 10, 2008

How I Spent My Weekend Alone

As I posted before, I was going to be on my own this weekend, since J2 is away in the US at a dental training event in Las Vegas. (Poor thing, he reported by SMS from there that he got himself tickets to Phantom of the Opera and a Cirque du Soleil show; had a fancy dinner at the Venetian (from which he sent photos taken with his iPhone); went shopping at Nordstrom and Macy's; and actually even attended a few of the training sessions he was there for in the first place!) Some of you apparently imagined that I'd be sitting home alone watching TV by myself and eating undefrosted TV dinners or something, but in fact nothing could have been further from the truth.

On Friday night I went with a colleague to the Apple Store to help him get someone at the Genius Bar to work with him to fix his MacBookPro laptop. While there, we learned that his computer was covered under Apple Care, so all the repairs would be free. This got me thinking that I wasn't sure if my Macs were covered, so I had them check and bought Apple Care for my iMac and MacBookAir. I also picked up a speaker system for an iPod so I could listen to music in the kitchen. Then the colleague took me to dinner at a new hamburger place (Let's Burger) that is in one of the myriad new shopping centers that has opened up in our neighborhood in recent months. The burger was great, and the fries were outstanding, though this perhaps is partly due to the fact that we have hardly had anything like a burger and fries in over a year ever since our diet and fitness regimen began.

When I was done with the burger dinner, I got word from two Brazilian friends that they were coming to the same shopping center to have dinner at Mosto, another new restaurant that we ate at the previous weekend, and wanted me to join them. Since they are leaving China in December, I decided to join them, even though I had already eaten. Thus it turned out that I had a second dinner (though this one comprising only appetizers, and healthy ones at that: sea bass ceviche and an eggplant timbale) and my planned early evening turned into a relatively late one.

The reason why I had hoped for an early night on Friday was that I had arranged for a 6am departure from home to go to the Fragrant Hills to take photos of the autumn foliage. I had been warned that there could be crowds of people, which is why I decided to go so early. I also chose to go on Saturday because the entire week had been stunning, with clear blue skies and pleasant temperatures, and I feared that it might not last until Sunday. Well, as it turns out, there were crowds even at 6:30 when I got there (in the dark) and the blue skies of the previous days were nowhere to be seen, having been supplanted by the typical Beijing beige. And not only that, but the crowds were the most obnoxious crowds you can imagine--pushing, playing staticky radios without earphones, and hawking up enormous gobs of phlegm as they trudged up the mountain. Finally, at approximately the half-way point, I had decided I had had enough and decided to make my way back down, stopping only to set up my tripod to take some time exposures to see the throngs of people coming up the mountain.

I was back in town by 10am, plenty of time I thought to take care of my errands for the weekend and still be able to go to the gym. I had promised a friend that I would help her with some IT issues at her house, so started off with her. In the end I figured out what she needed pretty easily and so she invited me to lunch as my consulting fee before heading out to the shops. She took me to a fantastic mushroom hotpot place near her apartment; I had never had mushroom hotpot before, but it was excellent, with a huge range of mushrooms in the broth (I think they said it contained 45 different types) so that the entire restaurant has that woodsy smell of mushrooms throughout, and then we had a plate of assorted mushrooms, in addition to standard hotpot fare like beef, vegetables and tofu, to dip in. Amazing. Since Hui has a driver, it was very easy to get to all the stops we had to make for our errands--the Dazhong appliance store for me (to find out the service center phone number for my washing machine and also to buy a new microwave oven), and the Apple Store for my friend (who incidentally works for Microsoft...) to buy her a laptop, and then the framing shop to pick up a painting that I had framed. By the time we were done it was after 5pm, and I had a party to be at in the evening, so I decided to forego the gym and relax a bit instead.

The party was for the same Brazilians I had seen the previous night, though this time it was to wish one of them a happy birthday. Nice party, though most of the guests were speaking fast-paced Brazilian Portuguese that I found hard to follow completely. But there were several interesting non-Brazilians, too, and it was a very nice party. But having got up at 5:30 and been running around all day, I was knocked out, so I called it an early night and was home by 11.

Sunday was a bit more relaxing; started off with visits to the farmer's market (ordered a turkey, and did my general grocery shopping) and the supermarket, then sorted some of the closets, moving winter clothes in and summer clothes out, and chucked some old clothes that were way too big for me (and that if they were ever to fit again I would kill myself). Then I headed to the Apple Store (again--third day in a row) to return an Apple Care that I realized I did not need, since my iMac already had it. From there I went to another new shopping center, this one called Solana, that is home to Beijing's LL Bean store as well as a Zara (a Spanish-based clothing store that is very popular here). Ended up buying some clothes at both, and then the same Microsoft friend met me for lunch at the Todai buffet restaurant, which was surprisingly much better than the branch of the same chain in Fairfax, VA. Then back home to change into gym clothes and head over to the gym (finally) and from there to the massage place to use up the free massage pass that I got two weeks ago (and that would expire that day). Then finally back home for a quiet dinner at home with the boys, some TV and more tidying and sorting of clothes.

So, all in all, a busy weekend and one that barely gave me time to feel lonely!

Friday, November 07, 2008

Obamamania Can Go Too Far

One (last, perhaps) post on the Obama victory. An appropriate one, too, I think.

Obama Win Causes Obsessive Supporters To Realize How Empty Their Lives Are

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Home Alone

For the first time that I am aware of, J2 has gone on an overseas trip, leaving me home alone for nearly a week. (He's in Las Vegas, attending some sort of dental continuing education course. Sure....) I have of course been home alone before, but always with him in the same time zone, so this is a new thing for me. I have set myself up with a bunch of things to do, including helping two different friends set up their home computer networks (since when am I an expert??), starting to prepare Christmas cookie lists and menus for the party, doing some general errands, going to the gym a few times and having a massage or two. He'll be back on Tuesday, and then life will be back to normal for a little while.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008


I have been following the election very closely, and have to admit that I was not so sure that things would turn out as they did today. I started the day hopeful, yet was not going to do what I did in 2004 again (namely, count on the good sense of the American people). However, I am very pleased to report that good sense seems to have prevailed! Interestingly, a non-American colleague of mine was following the action almost as intently as I was, although she (not knowing the intricacies of the American election system, which meant that you could have a huge swathe of states vote for the other guy and yet still win the election) was actually a bit more nervous than I toward the end.

It was during lunch, as I was getting near minute-by-minute of the results from my CBS News producer friend, Jeff (thanks, Jeff!), that we got the news that McCain had conceded and that Obama was going to make a victory speech. When I got back to the office and read the speech, I have to say that I teared up at Obama's message, and even found McCain's speech very gratifying. Now if only we can keep this level of civility up for the next four (dare I say, eight?) years, maybe we can get the country out of the mess it's in.

Thank you, my fellow Americans, for making what just about everyone in the rest of the world thinks was the right choice!

If the World Could Vote

If any of you out there is undecided, take a look at this. The ENTIRE WORLD (other than the benighted Macedonians, heaven help them) seem to know what only slightly more than 50% of Americans seem to. Check this out and see.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

One Day More

I have been climbing the walls with the election coverage over the past several months (years?) and cannot believe that the Big Day is finally here! I am very hopeful that things will go my way, but in case they do not, I will entertain proposals of marriage from any Canadian readers out there.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

A New Restaurant Find

Last week during my sister's visit we thought we'd go to dimsum for lunch. Unfortunately, our former favorite dimsum restaurant is no longer in business, so we wound up driving way out to someplace east of the fourth ring road to a place that a friend of ours recommended. That place was very good, but it's a bit of a schlep from home, and the setting is rather overly fancy, so that we felt a bit underdressed when we were there.

But a few days ago there was a review in an expat magazine of a Cantonese restaurant that is just one block from our apartment. While they were underwhelmed by the sauteed dishes, they loved the dimsum, so we decided we'd give it a try. As it turns out, the restaurant is right next door to one of our favorite Taoist temples in Beijing (the Dongyuemiao Temple) and when we got there it was pretty busy. Sure enough, the dimsum was excellent, and since they're in trial mode still, they're offering a promotion where all the small, medium and large-size dimsum dishes all cost RMB 5 (as opposed to RMB 6, 8 or 10 as they would normally be). All the things we ordered were great, and the tea (pu'er, as usual for us) was fantastic.

The name of the restaurant is Tang Yuan (唐缘) and it's on Jixiangli (吉祥里).