Monday, November 8, 2010

Nov 7 2010 | Beijing: en masse

I like the sign on this cafe on West Lake in Hangzhou
Here are some final thoughts on the three-week trip along with a few photos that didn't make it into the daily blog.

Overhead light in a car we rode
to/from Hangzhou. I like the idea of
an on/off switch for mood

We departed Beijing Saturday afternoon and arrived home Saturday morning (strange how that works). Forced ourselves to stay up all day Saturday as a preventative jetlag cure, but in the process we were pretty useless Saturday. I'm not sure that is such a good strategy: forcing yourself to have jetlag one day so you can avoid it the next.

Sign for sale in the Silk Street Pearl
Market.Wait, what does it say?

In a taxicab on the elevated highway on the way to the Beijing airport, I could really see the smog, like photos of L.A. in the 1980s. During our week there, we had noticed air quality issues in short bursts: walking past a construction site (which are EVERYWHERE), going down certain streets, etc. But being up there on the highway early in the morning really put things into perspective.

Sign at an especially smelly urinal at
the Temple of Heaven park in Beijing

A lady carrying a beautiful but clearly artificial flower arrangement (very 1960s looking with neon-like circles where the bulbs would be) boarded the plane after we did. Olga remarked that she would be lucky to have the arrangement arrive in one piece (where is she going to stash it)? When we arrived at the boarding area, while waiting for our bags, we noticed the border protection staff - the folks who usually look for meat and plants - inspecting her arrangement very closely. These folks have no sense of humor.

Box of Maos at the Forbidden City park

One thing I miss about Chinese cuisine is they put sesame seeds in everything: street food pancakes, spring rolls, shrimp, drinks, DESSERTS! In the US, I can never get enough sesame seeds. In Beijing, we frequently went to bakeries to load up on breakfast pastries for the next day. When faced with a red bean-filled pastry, a strawberry danish, a chocolate croissant, and a sesame seed crusted morsel, I always went straight for the sesame seeds. Or a little of each. Actually a lot of each.

What you're not allowed to do in front of the new National
Centre for the Performing Arts. What CAN you do???

Friday, November 5, 2010

Nov 5 2010 | Beijing: drinking, smoking, what's next?

Enjoying the brews at Okhotsk
Spent the morning online researching brewpubs, trying to figure out the Beijing microbrew scene. Based on phone calls, defunct websites, and scattered blogosphere reports of closures, we determined that more brewpubs have come and gone in the past 5 years in Beijing than have ever existed in most cities: Hof Brauhaus, Uhland Bier Salon, Great Wall Restaurant, Shuttinger & Tamm, Toper Beer House, Tai Yang Palace, The Brewery Tap, and even the San Francisco Brewing Company to name a few of the deceased brewpubs in Beijing.

Randomly passed by a Russian restaurant
Walking to the post office (which is perhaps the most efficient in all of our global travels), passed one of the famous Chinese smoking babies sitting with his mom on a sidewalk bench. He was puffing away at an unlit cigarette - perhaps she is trying to ween him off it. Old habits die hard.

Made it to what seems to be the only microbrewpub in Beijing (I don't consider Paulaner "micro"): Beijing Okhotsk Beer at Sanyuanqiao subway station. The cuisine was varied with some Japanese and mostly European and American influences. The Hefeweizen and Mild Stout were good, better than I remember having at the two brewpubs in Shanghai.

First Apple Store in Beijing (second
in China) for you Apple fanboys
Subjected ourselves to some torture this afternoon as we returned to the "scene of the crime" (touristy shopping area) to pick up gifts and some requested knock-off goods for a few folks. Took the subway to Dongzhimen and had dinner at an upscale local restaurant - no English signage and no other westerners in the place. The extensive menu offered us modernized traditional Chinese cuisine: perch with pumpkin sauce cooked in aluminum foil, shrimp with kimchee (ok that one was Korean), chocolate-covered yam strips, and the like. After dinner, walked through the Sanlitun bar area, but found it too Western and trendy for our tastes. It's becoming difficult to find any China in China :)

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Nov 4 2010 | Beijing: More than meets the eye

Art installation: Safely-caged dinosaurs
What can I say about a day that was so far off the tourist grid... We took two subways, a bus, and then walked a mile to an area called 798 Art Zone. What started almost 20 years ago as some squatters creating art installations in an abandoned automobile factory has become a vibrant, flourishing artists community complete with studios, gallery space, and of course cafes. The art is so contemporary and illuminating, certainly not what I expected to see in China. There was a pitch-black room with a ring of green laser light that contracts and then expands to immerse you in the installation. There was a flatpanel monitor with a wounded soldier and wounded dog pictured - and a hidden camera that would notice your movement and adjust their eyes to follow you. There was a video exhibit that shows a man golfing on the Windows XP grassy knoll desktop. There was an outdoor exhibit of a giant Transformer that looked hella cool. And this is a tiny drop in the bucket - there were hundreds of galleries and studios in this old factory complex and each one had really intriguing exhibits.

Autobots, roll out!

Without exception, all of the cafes in the 798 area served pizza, and not being one to cause an international incident, we obliged with a "Dances with Wolves" (egg, ham, tomato, pepper, mushroom, onion) pizza, banana split, and a pot of honey lemon tea. Hey, we're going home in two days, it's time to start transitioning to Western food :)

Locals cooking up meat and veggies
on a stick in a hutang (alley)

After hearing about the massages I have received in China, Olga wanted in on the action, so on the walk home we stopped by a foot massage place. This was my second foot massage ever, and instead of a neck rub, they did a "cupping" therapy on our feet. This involves putting an alcohol swab in a glass cup, lighting it on fire, and quickly while it is still ablaze, putting it on the heel of your foot. When the pressure is most intense, they move it to other parts of your sole. The walk back to the hotel felt like walking on pillows :)

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Nov 3 2010 | Beijing: cha-cha-cha

Olga pouring a huge pot of tea!
Every tour book lists the Forbidden City in their one-day must-see-sightseeing list, my friends had already visited it (although they gave up halfway in) when we were relaxing in Hangzhou, so we took it upon ourselves to be immersed in the overwhelming experience of the Forbidden City. The sprawling complex of the last two dynasties (Ming and Qing), the Communist revolution did offer us one thing: opening up access to the previously clamped-down estate in the middle of the city.
deliveries of dried fruits to the local markets
I give my friends credit for trying , it can become monotonous and overwhelming going from outer court to outer greeting hall to outer court to out resting hall to outer court to outer meeting hall before you even get to the heart of the complex. One thing that allowed us to get through it, though, was finding the Palace Cafeteria, which had possibly the best tea we have had in China. Olga and I are both nursing colds (Mom and Bubby: they are very slight, I'm only mentioning it for dramatic effect!) so we tried the Honey Citron tea (which has honey and actual lemons) and Plum Honey tea (you can guess what was floating in that cup). A tasty chocolate-covered soft pretzel allowed us to continue the trek.

Forbidden City antiquities: picking up or dropping off?
Pretty soon we had passed all of the structures and found ourselves in the royal garden. It had many rockeries similar to Prince Gong's, but not as much of the 3D high-road / low-road concept.

Other than the beauty of the complex of palaces and the nature of the garden, probably the most interesting exhibit was about the early life of the last emperor (Pu Yi). It took us from his birth to his ascension to the thrown at age 6 to becoming irrelevant but being allowed to live and study in the back of the palace to being cast off by the Communists (the exhibit ends there but he sounded like an absolutely fascinating man, wonder what happened next). It's all very reminiscent of a film I saw as a kid ;)

evil tree in Forbidden City garden: about
to walk away or kick you in the pants?
We bought tickets to a show at the Laoshe teahouse, and looked nearby for an inexpensive place to eat. Popped into a cafeteria, not knowing how we would know what we were ordering, but we encouraged each other to enter anyway. It turns out they have a menu I would describe as very cute English (which has slightly higher prices, btw).

Olga at sunset: moat and outside of Forbidden City
We over-ordered:
- Fennel pork dumplings (these went into a box for tomorrow's breakfast)
- The rape with garlic hibiscus (that's exactly what it said on the menu - we know from previous experience this is a tasty green)
- Garlic cucumber
- Milk tea with primary taste
- Milk tea with qiaokeliwei taste ("q" is pronounced as "ch" - I believe this was their attempt at spelling chocolatey??)
new National Performing Arts Centre and
its reflecting pool
- Vegetable chicken meatball vegetable soup
- Egg and tomato noodles
The portions were large, the staff friendly and funny (no common language needed), and the MSG flowing.

Back at the Laoshe teahouse, we watched a traditional Chinese variety show:
- woman sang discordant while playing bongo and hung candles on her face to show her breath was even
Kung Fu Fighters
- two men had a comedy routine consisting of them making bird sounds and mechanical noises (trains, planes, automobiles)
- ventriloquist act with human dummy
- women spinning plates
- lots of trivia about tea, including the fact that it "delays decrepitude"
- mask changing trick as seen on China's Got Talent
- kung fu fighters set to the tune of a Soviet march and the operatic theme from Fifth Element.It seemed like a touristy event, but looking around, Westerners were definitely in the minority. 99% of the speaking was in Mandarin. Perhaps it is for locals - or for tourists from around Asia.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Nov 2 2010 | Beijing: Rear Lakes neighborhood

Olga in Prince Gong's garden
For the past two days, we have been sightseeing with a number of my coworkers and families. Travel is difficult, and compromises are always made. Going with such a large group meant hitting the high-points of Beijing, sacrificing a deeper interaction with the local scene. Sadly, most of my group departed this morning, which on the bright side left Olga and me to deeply explore neighborhoods, local scene, and get a sense of how people live in Beijing.

The Rear Lakes (Houhai) area is set against a zigzagging lake, a sort of river that flows through this neighborhood. At first, when you walk along the water, you notice:

Snuck into a plate spinning show at the garden
- Pubs of varying specialty (Mongolian, Michael Jackson, Hoegaarden, Mexican) facing the water
- People repairing motorcycles
- An elderly lady knitting while in a room full of organized, boxed bottles of beer.
- Recycling truck that had about 50 empty water jugs tied to the back of it

Beijing is full of old alleys (Hutang), many which have small local restaurants, shopping, craftsmen, and all walks of life. In the Rear Lakes area, we saw some really elaborate doors and cute little Zen backyards.

boys "sell sex-articles"
In this neighborhood, we walked over to Prince Gong's palace. Unlike Yu Yuen garden in Shanghai, Prince's Gong's has preserved both the palace and the garden. This is the setting of novel Dream of the Red Chamber. After exploring the palatial living quarters, we explored the garden a little deeper. Tried to pop into the back doors of buildings, and one more than one occasion we were kicked out. Caught the end of a plate-spinning show. Saw a tea ceremony and concert being setup.

rundown convenience store in hutang has a website
Had dinner at Dali's courtyard, which was one of the best dinners we have had in all of China. It's a set menu and they bring you all of the Chef's specialties for the week. Gave our name and had to return after an hour to get a good seat inside (it was freezing in the courtyard). It turned out to be much less expensive than some other dinners we'd had with the group. Our group tended to over-order and/or eat at some overpriced places - for example our driver to The Great Wall took us to a "special" place he picked out that was a minute from the wall and where he probably gets a big kickback - but the group mentality was to stay.

pedicab traffic jam!
Walked back to the hotel from the Rear Lakes area. Popped into a few warm places that might serve dessert, trying to warm our bodies and our tummies. First place we walked into had no signage in English whatsoever. They sold 3 different nondescript plastic cups, ranging from 6-9 RMB (about $1). Picked the middle one, turned out to be sweet yogurt. We took it home for the next morning's breakfast. Entered another cafe, looked at the menu, saw they only serve cheesecake and tiramisu, not what we were in the mood for. Entered another cafe.

super touristy but cute - had my
Chinese name carved into a stamp
Dave> Do you have dessert?
Waiter> I don't know what is dessert, maybe you can look around and find it?
Dave> Menu?
Waiter> Look and see
(found more cheesecake and tiramisu)
Dave> Cake? not cheesecake, just cake?
Waiter> Come and see (shows us the dessert fridge)

Olga noticed that the locals seem to eat what we consider breakfast (yogurt) for dessert. And they seem to eat what we consider dessert (pastries) for breakfast. Need to start planning ahead better so we can have the proper food at the appropriate time ;)

Monday, November 1, 2010

Nov 1 2010 | Beijing: The Wall - is this where we came in?

Olga reflecting at The Great Wall in Autumn
This morning our extended group of coworkers and their families met up for breakfast and headed to Mutianyu, a slightly lesser-touristy part of The Great Wall of China. Most of the walkable parts of the wall have been renovated (rebuilt) over the decades, this section being no exception. One thing it does offer, that was most likely not part of the original design, is a ski lift that effortlessly takes you up the mountain, and a toboggan luge that brings you down.

The irony continues to be omnipresent: an ancient army fort has become a tourist trap and a symbol of the outreach of the country.

Toboggan rides!
 Our driver dropped us off at the Temple of Heaven as his shift was ending. There is an ornate 14th century campus of Taoist temples here, but for me the highlight was the "flash mob" style of groups spontaneously engaging in activities. We saw areas with:

Temple of Heaven synchronized dancers

- Loud synchronized calisthenics
- Tai chi
- Choreographed dancing
- Chinese checkers
- Mah jong
- Chinese card games
- Spontaneous song set to ancient Chinese violin
- Flying kites
- Feather-laden hacky sack
- Shirtless joggers
- Musical top on a string

the actual Temple of Heaven
 We ended up having dinner at a Muslim hot pot place. The difference between that and regular hot pot is that they use water instead of oil, charcoal instead of gas, and the only meat we had was lamb. It was delicious! The various mushrooms, cabbage, and sesame peanut sauce were my favorite.

Pigeon brings a whole new meaning to Street Food
Walked back to the hotel by way of a street food market, which included highlights such as live scorpions on a stick and a tray of pigeons.