Archive for the ‘China’ Category

The UN via Hospitality Club

March 18, 2007

25 hours is a long time to be on a train, but that is what is required to go from Shanghai to Shenzhen. With my Chinese visa expiring, I didn’t have the opportunity to break up the trip. Shendzhen is on the border of Hong Kong. From there, it was a short walk through immigration and a 20 minute train ride to the Chinese University in Hong Kong where I would be staying with some Hospitality Club members.

I did a bit of wondering, but ultimately met Bonnie, a Hong Kong native who is a student here. She was accompanied by her friends Henrik (a Swede) and Rachel (another HK native). Henrik and Rachel were cooking a dinner of pizza and Swedish apple pie. Sid, a professor from India who also lives at the apartment returned home and whipped up a curry dish. We all sat down to one of the nicest meals I’ve had in months.

A bit later, David (from Switzerland), another guest from Hospitality Club returned from Macau with some Portuguese wine. Macau was a former Portuguese colony located about an hour’s ferry ride from Hong Kong. We shared in some wine before finishing off the evening with a variety of Indian digestive candies.

Before bed, we all exchanged passports (a hospitality club safety measure). Everyone spoke impeccable English, and I find it wonderful that a group of six strangers can get together and enjoy themselves so easily. It was exactly what I needed after an entire day on a train.

Beijing

March 9, 2007

It’s hard picking one thing to write about in Beijing so I’ve decided to give a quick rundown of a variety of things–food, sights, and other experience from the past four or five days.

Pure Lotus Restaurant

Vegetarian food, but with object being to have it taste like meat. It is uncanny how much the “sausage” tasted like sausage. The restaurant, run by monks, is probably the most creative food experience I’ve ever had. The “riblets” used small pieces of sugar cane as the bone. I have my cousin Jimmy and his friend Mike Wester to thank for that experience. Mike runs that’s beijing magazine here in the city and had a wealth of information about life in Beijing.

Peking Duck

I treated myself to a nice night at Quanjude Duck restaurant, where the likes of Pele, Arafat, Bush, and a number of other celebrities and heads of state have eaten the Beijing specialty. It was a tourist trap for sure, but the duck was excellent and Quanjude was the only place I found that served it in a half portion.

Carrefour

I think everyone who visits China should visit a large food retailer. I needed a bathroom and went into the French hypermarket chain. Clean bathrooms, with the added bonus that the supermarket offered samples galore. They actually let you taste the fruit! I could have made a meal out of all the samples. In business news, the Wal-Mart/Carrefour race is heating up in China. Wal-Mart just bought 108 Trust Mart stores, nearly tripling it’s presence in the country.

HanNaShan Korean BBQ
Korean BBQ is a bit lonely by yourself, but fun just the same. I had a great meal that involved lots of meat and grilling my own food. This was about kilometer 70 of my bike ride so it was some much needed sustinence.

Forbidden City
Massive. City is the correct word to describe the area and I was impressed. Unfortunately, the main attraction of the museum is being restored. This was a common theme throughout my stay in Beijing.

The Great Wall
It was bigger than I thought. I know that sounds like a stupid thing to say, but all the pictures I’ve ever seen are usually from up high. I was impressed with the width of the wall. I did a four hour hike where the only other people on the wall was our tour and some Mongolian farmers. It was also the ONLY day the sun even thought about coming out.

Summer Palace

Maybe riding a bike in the drizzle to the site wasn’t the wisest idea, but the palace itself was incredible. Empress Ci’xi was a bad lady who lived extravagantly–Wikipedia her for a little more info and some background on Chinese history

Olympic Village

On the same scale of Dubai in terms of construction. Wow. There is high rise after high rise and crane after crane. I hope they finish in time! This was part of a marathon bike excursion, and I probably hit the Village around kilometer 45.

Temple of Heaven

Maybe my favorite tourist site in Beijing. A beautiful park where you can see Chinese practicing Tai Chi, playing Chinese chess, yelling over cards, and just enjoying life. My one recommendation would be to outlaw the ubiquitous karaoke, but this is Asia after all. There is also a nearly 360 degree echo wall where you can whisper from one end to the next.

HanNaShan Korean Restaurant

Korean BBQ is a bit lonely by yourself, but fun just the same. I had a great meal that involved lots of meat and grilling my own food. This was about kilometer 70 of my bike ride so it was some much needed sustenance.

Forbidden City

Massive. City is the correct word to describe the area and I was impressed. Unfortunately, the main attraction of the museum is being restored. This was a common theme throughout my stay in Beijing.

The Great Wall

It was bigger than I thought. I know that sounds like a stupid thing to say, but all the pictures I’ve ever seen are usually from up high. I was impressed with the width of the wall. I did a four hour hike where the only other people on the wall was our tour and some Mongolian farmers. It was also the ONLY day the sun even thought about coming out.

Summer Palace

Maybe riding a bike in the drizzle to the site wasn’t the wisest idea, but the palace itself was incredible. Empress Ci’xi was a bad lady who lived extravagantly–Wikipedia her for a little more info and some background on Chinese history

Olympic Village

On the same scale of Dubai in terms of construction. Wow. There is high rise after high rise and crane after crane. I hope they finish in time! This was part of a marathon bike excursion, and I probably hit the Village around kilometer 45.

Temple of Heaven

Maybe my favorite tourist site in Beijing. A beautiful park where you can see Chinese practicing Tai Chi, playing Chinese chess, yelling over cards, and just enjoying life. My one recommendation would be to outlaw the ubiquitous karaoke, but this is Asia after all. There is also a nearly 360 degree echo wall where you can whisper from one end to the next.

Split Pants

They are all over China, but nowhere have I noticed it more than in Beijing. The concept, for those unfamiliar, is a split in the back of a child’s pants to enable him or her to go to the bathroom with a simple squat. Chinese site the money saved on diapers as a plus, but it is cold in Beijing–the kids cheeks resemble a sunburn. Additionally, anytime and any place seems to be the motto–I was walking closely behind a mother and her child when suddenly he stopped squatted and let go. That’s enough about that.

Bike Theft

It is a huge problem in Beijing and fortunately I didn’t experience it. I did however, leave 2 bags of gummy bears in my basket while visiting the Summer Palace. Upon my return, they had vanished. If anyone knows the whereabouts of said gummies, there will be a substantial reward.

That’s just about it from Beijing. I had a great time here and I think the city will be a fine host for the 2008 Olympics.

Chinese Medicine

March 4, 2007

In Pingyao, a tour guide named Mr. Liu approached me on the street advertising his tour that included a visit to the Chinese doctor. Since I’m quite interested in different forms of medicine, I decided it would be worth a shot. Additionally, Mr. Liu had a notebook full of testimonies from happy customers and seemed like a genuinely nice man.

We visited a few hold homes, and then went to see the doctor. Apparently this doctor is the most famous in Pingyao. This claim might have some merit considering there were about 15 other people in the office when we arrived, all of whom locked eyes on me the instant I walked through the door.

We were able to leapfrog some of the other patients and soon I was having my pulse taken. The process included one reading on each wrist for about a minute or so. The doctor soon started listing my symptoms. They seemed a bit vague, like a horoscope that works for a large number of people.

“Do you sometimes have headaches?”

“Well, yes”

“And your lips are dry.”

“Yes, but you can tell that by looking at them.”

Just like that I was diagnosed. The cost was about 25 cents for my consultation and it took all of 3 minutes. Mr. Liu looked at me sternly and said, “don’t worry, it isn’t very serious.” That’s a relief I thought, but soon the doctor had scurried off to find my medicine as I protested that I felt fine. After about 10 minutes, he came back a bit disappointed. I was informed that he didn’t have the neccesary medicine for my condition. He said I should avoid sugary foods, and with that we had a photo op, said goodbye and continued on our tour of the cobbled streets of Pingyao.

My visit to the Chinese doctor was more comical than anything else, but it was an interesting glimpse at Chinese medicine. While I was there, “pharmacists” were chopping up a variety of herbs for patients, many of which included five star anise. I don’t doubt that some of these concoctions help people, perhaps more so than cold medicine or aspirin. I guess the true test will be a visit when I’m actually not feeling well.

Happy (Chinese) New Year!

February 24, 2007

My wishes come about a week late, but that is okay because the party is still going strong here in China. I’ve been moving around pretty quickly during the New Year (the Chinese call it Spring Festival) and it has been interesting to see the regional differences and how each place rings in the “year of the pig.” The celebration is quite an event wherever you are, but you can pretty much count on bright neon lights and lots of the noise. Spring Festival is one of the few opportunities the Chinese get to travel and travel they do. There are said to be 4.5 million people taking trains per day during the New Year. I’ve joined in the fun (and chaos) visiting four cities in the past 10 days.

My first experience with the New Year was in Lijiang, a city in the Yunnan province of Southwest China. It is a beautiful old town with cobbled streets and historic architecture. The town is in the process of gentrification and seems to be losing some of its charm to cheesy tourist shops, but it is still a wonderful place to spend a few days especially with the excellent accomodations to be had in the town. I stayed at Mama Naxi’s guesthouse run by none other than Mama Naxi herself. It is organized chaos as Mama runs around referring to herself in the the third person while cooking, booking train tickets, and entertaining the guests. For dinner, the guests of the hostel sit around large tables as Mama brings plate after plate of delicious food. It was great to have other people to share the food with because in China people usually go out to dinner with large groups of people. I was actually denied entrance at a restaurant in Kunming because I was by myself! On the 18th, a special dinner was prepared with traditional foods for the New Year.

Though I appreciated the food at Mama Naxi’s, the noise was another matter. Even the fireworks seem to be louder here. At least they are colorful and fun to look at which is more than I can say for the firecrackers. Turn a corner in broad daylight and BAM! See a couple of innocent looking schoolchildren playing in the street and then BAM! The night of the 18th I felt like I was in a war zone. The firecrackers honestly did not stop; they are said to ward off all of the evil spirits for the upcoming year. I think Lijiang will be safe…

From Lijiang I took my first flight in China to the city of Chengdu in the Sichuan province. Sichuan is known for it’s spicy food, and I was actually introduced to this on my flight. Instead of peanuts, I got fiery hot dried tofu. Interesting was the word that came to mind. The flight was standard enough, but when we hit a little turbulence, the two girls sitting beside me put their head to their knees, closed their eyes, and blocked their ears as hard as they could. I think it was their first flight.

Anyway, Chengdu continued the party, mostly in terms of food. The “civilized tour block–a designated area for ‘good manners’ such as no spitting” had well over 300 food stall vendors selling everything imaginable from the 23 different provinces of China. Some highlights were spicy meat on a stick, a special noodle dish, rice cooked in bamboo, and an ice cream bar in the shape of a Panda. Speaking of Pandas, I saw them in the flesh at the breeding reserve just outside of the city. They are quite cute.

I would’ve liked to spend more time in Chengdu, if only for the hostel. For $3, you get a bed, free internet, free laundry, ping pong, and a movie room with hundreds of DVDs. If you ever make it to Chengdu, stay at Sim’s hostel. He is from Singapore and has a wealth of information about Chengdu and China.

From Chengdu, I boarded another flight to X’ian, a city many of the former dynasties called their capital. X’ian is a huge bustling metropolis. McDonalds, KFC, and Pizza Hut are all here in addition to Louis Vuitton, Versace, and Prada. X’ian’s most famous site is the Terracotta wariors which I found quite impressive. The warriors were discovered in the 70’s by peasants drilling a well, some 2000 years after they were built. X’ian is also noteworthy for its Muslim quarter where food is cheap and delicious. I ate everything, and think my stomach has finally built up an immunity to street food. There is also a mosque which was very interesting. No minarets here; like most things in China, it has been adapted in a decidedly Chinese way.

I now write from Pingyao after a 12 hour train ride. Pingyao is a good stop in the X’ian to Beijing journey and I plan on spending a couple of days here. It is an old city from the Ming Dynasty with all of its walls still intact. It’s more low key than X’ian and I’m looking forward to a day or two of relaxation before starting the big city tour going from Beijing to Hong Kong.

Drinking Tea

February 21, 2007

Tea is serious business in China. In Kunming, the university quarter is a beautiful area lined with cozy cafes. I happened upon an upscale tea shop and decided to pop in armed only with my Mandarin phrasebook. After a brief browse of some very expensive teas, I was soon invited to sit down and sample some of what was on offer.

Two women began to prepare the tea in the most elaborate of manners. The process is all very ceremonius and probably involved well over 10 steps. The first step is to provide the guest with a miniature tea cup and the server must take care not to touch the cup (she used tongs). From there, the cups are first washed with hot water and then washed with tea. The tea must be washed before drinking. Eventually I was able to taste the tea and it was quite good. I took 5 sips and soon learned I should take three. Additionally, the forefinger and middlefinger should be placed under the glass. I learned these things as I failed hopelessly with my phrasebook.

After about about a half hour of tea drinking, my new friend Lingshuntao came to the rescue. He is a chemist by trade and very well versed in tea (and English). He was soon explaining the healing properties of Puer tea, the most sought after tea in Yunnan. Puer tea is a bit like wine, it ferments slowly and becomes better with age. It is starting to catch on all over the world, but the tea all comes from the Yunan province in China.

Another Chinese customer came in who was in the market for some tea and we were able to sample four different qualities. It was interesting to taste the different teas, though I think my palate needs a little bit of work. After about two hours, I said goodbye and “syair, syair” (thank you) and hopped on my bike to return to the hotel after a full day in Kunming, ready to board the overnight train to Dali.

Always Low Prices

February 15, 2007

Yes, that’s right. Walmart. When I saw the familiar sign (and slogan), I couldn’t help but check it out. Soon I was on an upward sloping escalator taking me to the first of four floors in what is the largest Walmart I’ve ever seen. To my left and right on the escalator were product after product in huge bins. There was also a woman with a microphone barking directions about what I presume to be the use of the escalator.

The first floor leads in with a fresh seafood area. The space is huge, complete with a U-shaped ice display and no less than 40 large live fish tanks. Moving out of the seafood area, I found every food imaginable. I laughed as I passed recognizable meat hanging from hooks–I guess Walmart has a different set of rules to play with in China. It was overwhelming how much food I was clueless about, but in true American style there were tasting stations set up for various places.

The second floor proved a bit more familiar with packaged foods. Kraft is everywhere. You can’t go far without seeing an oreo product in this part of the world. There were also displays on cooking popcorn and blending drinks. In China, they have infomercial type personalities armed with a headset and some sort of made for TV product. This isn’t reserved for only Walmart. Take a left down a sidestreet and you may here someone preaching the virtues (and demonstrating them) of a set of new knives.

I made it to the third floor before I began to get that feeling I usually have being in a Walmart. Exotic foods had given way to Procter and Gamble toiletry products and I decided to leave.

I probably spent a couple hours in Walmart, observing the people and picking up a few purchases. You can’t argue with their slogan. I paid a fourth of the price that I usually pay for a bottle of water here in China. It was probably an interesting time to visit as the Chinese New Year is upon us (February 18th).

As much as I don’t enjoy Walmart in the US, I was rather pleased with my experience in China. How did it all end you ask? I shot baskets at an arcade style basketball hoop set up outside of the store. It was plastered with photos of Yao Ming and as my score continued to rise, a growing crowd of Chinese onlookers watched with interest.

Only in China.