Sunday, December 14, 2014

Dec 11-14 2014: Beijing serves up an insanely spicy hot pot!

With coworkers at the Water Cube with its constantly
changing colors -- freezing at the Beijing Olympic Grounds

It's tough being away from Olga and Bowie, traveling when he's only 2 weeks old. I hear he's really enjoying taking walks, sleeping longer and deeper afterwards, being so tuckered out. Of course he's not the one doing the walking, but Professor Baby is so curious about the world, every corner turned is a new universe. Every sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste is an explosion of sense.

Hot Pot (mine was the tiny vegetarian pot)

I was discussing this with a Shanghai coworker, he was saying his son falls asleep easily if he has had a chance to go outside during the day. I asked if he ever takes the boy out after work. Oh no, it's not safe. Especially this time of year, December and January, migrant workers are thinking about travel back home for the Chinese New Year, and if they haven't saved up enough, they turn to robbery to get money for travel. It isn't a safe time. Besides, baby boys can't be taken out at night any time. Rural village familiar who had a daughter will buy a kidnapped son so they can pass on the estate. I'm sure this is a nuanced complicated cultural issue I have grossly simplified. But still. Wow.

Rolling out the red carpet for me? You shouldn't have!
This caption really wrote itself...

My Shanghai coworkers have been bugging me for months to sign into a Chinese IM and social network. Friday night, waiting an hour for a table at a super spicy hot pot restaurant, they wore me down. I'm now the proud owner of a WeChat account, with all the silliness, emoji, sightseeing tips, and work project requests that entails. Yes, all of those came through in the first 24 hours :)

WeChat going off while we're having a
SUPER SPICY (aka low-medium) hot pot

Friday my office had one of those "only in China experiences." We are constructing a new office, and the entire floor that was previously occupied from a single company is not being carved into 3 separate suites. We were the first to finish construction last week. Apparently somebody on the floor below ours complained to the building management that too much noise was coming from our floor. This is after we had finished construction, mind you. Suddenly the elevator refused to stop on our floor. And this is mid-day, with about 15 people in the office 23 floors up, without heat or a bathroom (two of those things that have to stay locked up long after construction Needless to say, we had an interesting time pleading our case to the building management of why, after paying rent for two months, and now that we actually finished construction and were trying to settle in, now is not a great time to be disabling the elevator as a weird way of pacifying the downstairs neighbors and keeping us quiet.

Trying to squeeze into the freight elevator with
girders after the regular one was shut down

As my boss often says: In China, nothing is impossible, but everything is difficult. I would add to that "and rarely worth it." When we had our conference room tables rushed, they arrived with a very strong smell of varnish. People in the office started to feel sick. The solution? Open the windows (it's 37 F outside and we currently have no heat) and fill every empty space in the office with plants. The traditional wisdom is that the plants will soak up the fumes and filter the air naturally. Those poor plants!

Oh those poor plants!

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Sept 18-20 2014 in Beijing and Hong Kong

The Beijing half of my trip was just as productive as the Shanghai half, with meetings and venue visits lined up back to back to back. Sometimes I had to set aside an hour to go 3 miles due to the terrible traffic, but I eventually got there.

Cool optical illusion CCTV
office building in Beijing
Which of these is the most appetizing: Ecological big bumper harvest,
Dried loofah tip, Dip a gherkin, Must taste the meat mushroom loose

Thursday night I had plans to meet up with friends for dinner and, you guessed it, go to another Karaoke KTV lounge. I arrived at dinner to find my three male friends, four ladies, and one open seat for me. I had been seated beside a friendly English-speaking lady Callie, a friend of a friend. She couldn't give a straight answer to the question "what do you do for work", which was an immediate tip-off that I was set up for something interesting. The eight of us had an enjoyable dinner, especially picking out entrees from the colorful quirkily translated large photo menu.

KTV Beijing Style!

In the cab on the way over, one of my friends mentioned the Beijing local government cracked down on "the games" played at karaoke places, so it will be more of a proper lounge. When we got to the karaoke lounge, Callie was still with us but she changed into an employee uniform (she had clearly been hired for the evening to "escort" me to dinner). As with other nights, I was given a choice of ladies to sit with during the singing/dancing portion of the evening. I felt weird for a couple minutes choosing another woman over Callie, but as the night went on the bartender also joined in our group, and pretty soon I had the attention of three ladies refilling my wine and tea glasses, serenading me, dancing, and laughing at my silliness.

Super cute dessert rack in a traditional courtyard restaurant

The lack of "games" at Beijing KTV places just opens them up for a different kind of game. There was no lap dance or table dance - instead I was placed in the center of the group of women and had to show off my dance moves for each one. What started with singing and merriment devolved into the bartender tossing peanuts into my mouth from across the room. What started with my consorts becoming fascinated with my arm hair (I guess they haven't seen many Jewish men) disintegrated into my three consorts tearing off my shirt and berating me for my chest hair. The games are reversed, more male humiliation than misogyny.

Friday I caught up with a coworker for lunch - she picked a traditional Beijing restaurant in the courtyard of an old building. We had lots of tasty fish and salads and this adorable rack of bird-shaped cookies and pastries!

Cute little room the airline
booked for just me
View of Hong Kong in the morning -
waking up inside paradise! 

My flight home had two legs: Beijing - Hong Kong, 90 minute layover, Hong Kong - SFO. This would get me home Friday around 9pm for a much-needed weekend of catch-up. As soon as I entered the plane, and the doors were armed for takeoff and crosschecked, a gentle rain and lightning storm commenced right on cue. Apparently the plane wasn't designed for that, because the captain got on the PA and announced that the airport won't allow us to leave until it stops raining. Pretty soon after that, meal service was served, and I knew then and there I'd be spending the night in Hong Kong. A quick internet search on my phone revealed the list of upcoming flights with available seats. I emailed Olga and told her I'd be home a day late.

Hershey Kisses inside a Kiss!

Fishing neighborhood Shau Kei Wan - view of Kowloon behind

When I landed in Hong Kong, the process was really well organized. Four of us had missed our connections, staff with signage was waiting for us at the gate to get us hotels for the night, meal vouchers, walk us through passport control, and provider a paid taxi. I wonder if an officially Atheist nation has an "Act of God" clause.

Wow do people really hang their laundry
to dry on street-level guardrails?

Saturday morning, the first of three Saturdays I was to experience back-to-back, I woke up in the Sha Tin district of Hong Kong, jumped on the MTR metro train, and crisscrossed my way over, under, through the islands to the Shau Kei Wan neighborhood on Hong Kong island. In Shau Kei Wan I hopped on the historic 1904 Tram (aka Ding Ding). It's just like San Francisco's historic Market Street Streetcar, except all of the trams are double-decker like British buses. I read online "It is recommended to ride from as far as Kennedy Town in the west, to as far as Shau Kei Wan in the east, in order to get a strong contrast of 'East meets West' and 'Old meets New'" - after an hour and a half, I had ridden almost the entire route. It's a fantastic experience, getting to ride through the hustle and bustle of a booming city, with views of the water to the north, mountains to the south, and skyscrapers all around.

Panorama of a street market in Shau Kei Wan

I hopped off at the Western Market and backtracked a bit to the Mid-Levels Escalator. The Guinness Book of World Records proclaims it as the longest outdoor covered escalator system. It's an ingenious way to get to the otherwise slightly remote hillside Mid-levels neighborhood. Every block (or sometimes twice every block), the escalator ends/restarts and people can get off to walk down an alley or pop by a restaurant or cafe. Some restaurants and shops seemed to be in the 2nd or 3rd stories of buildings, depending on where the escalator ended and restarted.

Stepping into the old Tram
View from the second floor of the Tram

When I got to Conduit Street at the top of the escalator system, I saw signs for Victoria Peak Tram. Since there is no DOWNWARD escalator (it goes only one way), that seemed as good a destination as any. Walking (more like hiking) the streets of Mid-Levels you get a feel for the multi-level nature of the city: roads passing under other roads under botanical gardens. An extensive footbridge network passing through skyscrapers, over the double-decker trains, along the water.

Heading onto the Mid-Levels escalator
You can get off the escalator at any point and
wander about or pop into a shop

By the time I had walked to the Peak Tram, I found there was a 2.5 hour wait to ride the 1883 historical funicular. A little Googling for tips pointed out you can take a taxi there inexpensively, walk around and enjoy the views, then take the funicular tram down. I found a Chinese tourist couple, we motioned to share a cab, and off we went! The taxi driver dropped us off at the mall at the Peak of Victoria Mountain, and I happily picked up a few Hawaiian shirt at the Tommy Bahama outlet mall :) At this point the sun was setting, the view of Victoria Harbour breathtaking, and the Tram queue about an hour long. Though the views at the top are stunning at night, the tram ride is probably more scenic during the day. Still, I enjoy the engineering of these old trains, so there was plenty to appreciate :)

The escalator / walkway goes right into
the third floor of this 7-11 store
Escher-esque multi-level topography

Running very low on time, I grabbed a cab to the super new brewpub Trafalgar at Brim 28 (28 Harbour Road). The place is only a few weeks old, I was lucky to find it on BeerAdvocate and RateBeer. I had to ask a few times to get a microbrew menu (first they brought the imported drink list then the food menu). I think they weren't expecting somebody to come in demanding their brand new brews. One waitress told me they only make two beers, an IPA (which had sold out) and a Victory Ale. I ordered the Victory Ale, and then another waiter came by to see if I wanted anything to drink. I asked again for the microbrew list, this time he also mentioned their Kiss Me Hardly Coffee Stout. I implored him to stop the bartender from pouring that Victory Ale, I need the coffee stout right away!!

Selfie with the skyline while zooming down
the mountain on the Peak Tram

View of Hong Kong and Victoria Harbour from Victoria Peak

It's an excellent stout, the coffee is subtle but you can tell there's something well-roasted and smokey coming from underneath. I got into a conversation with the brewmaster/owner - he said there's only one other brewpub in Hong Kong and it's small. I asked if he'd been to many of the brewpubs in mainland China (I have!) - he said the quality of brewpubs in mainland China can't be maintained over time because bribery and cost-cutting are so deeply embedded in the culture and trade system. He also gave me a taste of the Wheat beer he's working on next and asked me for tips of what would perfect it.

Trying an unreleased "draft" of a "draught" with
the Brewmaster and Owner of Trafalgar brewpub

The impact of Great Britain after 150 years of rule is immense. The air is breatheable, the water drinkable, the internet free and uncensored. Most signs (street, directional, and shop) are in Chinese, transliterated with Latin letters, and English. Most people I spoke with in various walks of life spoke English. One downside of English language fluency is an almost complete lack of funny "Chinglish" signs. One thing I noticed when getting out of the taxi from the brewpub to the Airport Express train terminal is the lack of a mob of bicyclists, mopeds, pedicabs, and tuk-tuks when you open the car door - and you don't take your life into your own hands when you cross the street.

Each of the 3 banks in Hong Kong print their own currency!

Boarding the plane at 11:30pm Saturday, my second Saturday started, 12 hours of meals, wine, movies, and sleep. Getting home early Saturday evening, going for a walk with Olga to chat and grab some ice cream, that was my third Saturday.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Sept 15-17 2014 in Shanghai

At lunch the first day, my coworkers asked if I'm a Monday vegetarian or a Lunch vegetarian. Apparently some people in China eat vegetarian only on Mondays or during lunches. It's a health/lifestyle thing.

"Deflowering Virgin Costs Love Cheat 30,000 Yuan" (about $5000 USD).

Last time I was in Shanghai, I went with some friends to a KTV karaoke lounge. In
Asia, karaoke has a bit different angle -the bar provides a woman (of your choosing) to be your date for the evening, encourage you to sing and sing, laugh at your jokes, etc. One of my friends took a liking to the young lady I discovered last time, he actually took her out to dinner (I don't want to know what that cost!) My new date for another evening of karaoke (we'll see if my friend tries to take her out too!)

McDonald's in China has their version of the handheld pie - coconut cream filling and chocolatey outside!

Super flamboyant waiters singing and dancing and flirting with me (just the male waiters). I don't know if homosexuality is accepted in China but the Banana Leaf Thai restaurant is pretty cool :) This is just before they started a Conga Line of customers around the restaurant. At checkout, the cashier asked if we used the wetnaps they gave us at the beginning. My coworker said he didn't, they made him go back to the table to return the unopened wetnap to avoid a napkin fee!!

The phones in our office are very complicated. We have one that's on a Chinese phone line and one on a US line. Today I tried for 10 minutes to place a conference call to both the US and China. I tried every combination of numbers, including adding 1's and 0's in front of the country or city code trying to get it to connect. Just as I was about to give up, I heard a loud commotion in the lobby and was asked to come out. Three completely serious police officers were there and it looked like we were getting raided. All the worst thoughts went through my head. The crowd was growing bigger, I saw faces I'd never seen before, there seemed to be more people in our lobby than employees in the company. The officers asked a question and somebody translated it as "Did you call 110?" "Yes." Then everyone (except the police and me) broke out into hysterical laughter. I'm not sure if it was just funny that I dialed the Chinese equivalent of 911 - or that I freely and immediately admitted it. They took a copy of my passport and now, dear readers, somewhere in Shanghai there's a file with my name on it!

100% White Rabbit Creamy Candy... There must be something lost in translation!

Saturday, June 21, 2014

June 16-21 2014 - Helsinki and Tallinn - I ate all of the Frusen Glädjé!

Geese crossing the road during our bike excursion
Our Helsinki friends Ron and Olga
After saying goodbye to 13 friends and family members who had traveled to Helsinki to visit with us, we had a couple of days to explore the town by foot, go shopping for new Nordic-style outfits (everything is brightly colored audacity), and explore the brewpubs of Helsinki. Panimoravintola Bruuveri - located in the modern Kamppi mall - tries really hard to look like a classic Finnish venue with old-looking wooden walls and a basement feel (although it's on the second floor of a modern mall). We tried the Plevna Dry Stout and Smokehouse Porter. Both were very tasty, and after a bit, the taste of smoke drifted from one to the other and I couldn't tell them apart. The Finns have really mastered the smoked porter (along with smoked fish, cheese, and pretty much anything else that will fit into a smoker).

Australian pop heartthrob Cody Simpson
(blonde guy in black hat and shades)
teenage fan club mob at the Helsinki airport
Danya and Olga waiting for the ferry to take off

The next day we took a bike ride around the coast of Helsinki (Seurasaarenselka Sound). It kept threatening to rain during our week here (there were even some reports of snow), so when there was a dry moment, we rented bikes and split for the islands! A few scattered drops attempted to dissuade us, but we knew better than to fall for those old tricks! The ride was a lovely mix of urban cityscape, car-free paved island roads, and off-road rails. Then we treated ourselves to Bryggeri Helsinki and their amazingly refreshing Hefeweizen. I don't know if it's just because of the bike ride, but that beer quenched a serious thirst and deep primal need. The Bryggeri Stout went great with their vegetarian stuffed cabbage. So it turns out there are great vegetarian options in Helsinki!

Tallinn is so photogenic

There's some Disney in Tallinn
and a lot of Tallinn in Disney.

After a few days in Germany, Kostya's girlfriend Danya rejoined us for our final leg: ferry across the Baltic Sea to Tallinn Estonia. The cruise was a short two hours - enough time to have a drink, write a few postcards, and sip emails from the intermittent internet connection as we left Finland and connected with Estonia. The vessel had a ton of amenities: cafeteria, air hockey, casino, and bars loaded with drunk Finns and Russians.

An exhibit on fishing in
Tallinn's Maritime Museum

Stepping into Tallinn's town square

Estonia, occupied sequentially by the Danish, Hanseatic League, Swedes, Russians, Germans, and Russians again, finally gained its independence with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The country and its savvy people pride themselves on their tech savvy (having programmed Skype) and ubiquitous wifi. The old town in Estonia's capital of Tallinn is well-preserved, much like Prague, yet has more of a feel of authenticity with pop-up shops, 'free' donation-based walking tours, and vegetarian hotspots. The cobblestone streets, red roofs, and various museums blend effortlessly into the modern architecture outside the old city wall.

Locomotion - old and new

Architecture - old and new

One thing is curious about Tallinn, though. When checking in to the hotel, they wouldn't give Danya a key to the room because "keys are for adults only" (she is 22). The next night at dinner, she was given a children's menu (it worked out well - the best food was on that menu!). And the following day, Olga was offered a "family ticket" when bringing Danya to The Museum of Occupations. A most fascinating people! Other than this peculiar predilection, the Kalev Spa Hotel & Waterpark was wonderful - I've never stayed at a hotel that has a full indoor waterpark downstairs. Numerous pools, slides, hot tubs, and saunas were there to greet weary travelers after a tiring day of city walking tours, underground bastion tours, and beer tasting.

Cold sobering moment during the Bastion tunnel tour

View of the city during the walking tour

Though a little hokey at times, the underground Bastion tunnel tour did a great job of immersing us in the various occupations and wars Estonia was dragged into. At one point, during a brief film on the Soviets bombing Tallinn during WWII, a little boy on the tour repeatedly asked why the city was being blown up. When the film showed Nazis surveying the damage, he asked if they were the bad guys who bombed the city. No, not those bad guys, the other bad guys. Sometimes you're so popular that all the bad guys want you. He asked "why didn't they think it was a bad idea to blow up the town." That's a question for the ages.

Tunnels: repaired on left,
recently discovered on right
Flower market leading in through the city wall

Tallinn has its share of great breweries too. Hansa Brewery Ōlleklubi in the old town has a sweet sippable live (unfiltered, unpasteurized) honey beer on tap and tangy maroonish live "dark beer" in bottle. By the waterfront in an old salt warehouse, Kochi Aidad serves up their very tasty Ronk stout in generous 0.5L glasses. Three cheers for local brewing in Estonia and everywhere! Terviseks Terviseks Terviseks! Check out Olga's blog for more history and culture of Helsinki and Tallinn!

"Dark Beer" and scallops at Hansa Brewery Ōlleklubi
"Ronk Stout" at Kochi Aidad
A giant wooden krug in the background

Monday, June 16, 2014

June 13-15 2014: A Tail of Three Fishes: Food, Family, and Friends in Helsinki

Kiasma Modern Art Museum exhibit.
Mirror image -- or is it???

Check-in terminal at fully automated attendant-free Omena hostel!

We came to Helsinki to explore the country and culture - and also in the hopes that Olga's family and friends would come visit us from Russia. And visit us they did! At times, it was like herding cats, trying to get as many people as possible to meander together through various parts of the city. Other times, particularly at dinner, everybody came together in spectacular fashion, with 17 people at dinner on Saturday night. Finding eclectic restaurants that could easily accommodate a group as large and diverse as ours wasn't easily. Most nights, we dined on traditional Finnish cuisine in stained-glass and faded wood-walled rooms.

Olga and Masha
Prykmestar Savu (an excellent Finnish
smoked Porter), World Cup, and the boys

Finnish cuisine is a vegan's nightmare. A vast array of dishes are based on pork, beef, lamb, and deer. Vorschmack is a tediously-prepared sort of gefilte meat that reminds a bit of chopped liver. Sausages are popular, as are stews, smoked meats, and cold cuts. Olga's brother Kostya and Danya are strict vegetarians - and avoid eggs too - so there were very few foods they could eat during our Finnish culinary tour. Often, we found them negotiating with the waiter to assemble a dish using a few ingredients from several other dishes. Also, a healthy portion of salad and goat cheese is offered at many restaurants.

'Thumbelina' Masha on a giant lilypad
at the Helsinki Botanical Garden
My name is Maya, don't you forget it!
Thanks to Danya for the cute nametag!

There's a plethora of fish and seafood dishes, which has been my staple during out visit. There is often a mixed fish platter, consisting of herring (sometimes sweet with berries - and always interesting and tasty), salmon (a thick smoked steak - delicious), and whitefish (boneless on the skin). A creamy smoked salmon soup is wonderful, as well as the Toast Skagen: whole grain bread loaded with small shrimps, mayo, and a hard-boiled egg.

Celebrating our friend Olga's birthday
The whole mishpocha at Ravintola N11

A pescetarian will not go hungry as fresh fish is available everywhere! In fact, I think I have gained a couple pounds on this trip as there is much more to eat than just fish. The desserts are hard to pass up: rhubarb crumble with sorbet and Crème brûlée are key. Ice cream is very popular - Finns are proud that their per capita ice cream consumption is the highest in the world despite the cold and soggy climate. And everyone wants to order a round of drinks and toast something.

Our local friend Olga loves Vorschmack (REALLY!)

How are we supposed to eat Korushka fish??
By Sunday morning, we had hugged, kissed, said goodbye to everyone, and saw them off to their trains, cars, planes, and marshrutkas. Our local Russian/Finnish friend Olga (who we also ran into in Bangkok) was having a birthday party, on an island, so we had a chance to get a taste of the archipelago series of islands surrounding Helsinki. When we were in Stockholm Sweden a few years ago, we found the city entirely empty of locals on Midsummer (June 22) as they had all sailed off to the archipelago, so the idea of being invited seemed very dreamy. We had a wonderful "brunch" at 2pm on the tiny former military warehouse island at an outdoor picnic table clad restaurant that had just opened for business the week prior.  Everything was magically perfect - including the weather, the portions of cava/herring/whitefish/salmon/rhubarb/sorbet/coffee, Olga's and Ron's friends, and even the timing as we just made the boat with a minute to spare :)

Do yourself a favor and read more about our experiences in Helsinki on Olga's blog!

The famous mixed fish platter

Herring with black currant, caviar sour cream dip, potatoes, and salad
Toast Skagen fixins in the background