Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Our first moments in Xi'an

Our flight out of Beijing was pretty simple and we arrived late in the evening in the Xi'an airport. We wanted to travel overland, but given the brevity of our trip and our inability to sleep on bumpy overnight trains, we opted to fly. The flight gave us the added opportunity of meeting in the airport with our great friend Tom Stader as his flight arrived within 30 minutes of ours. He was just flying back to Xi'an, his home base in China, after giving talks at both a TED conference as well as at the Swiss Pavilion in the World Expo in Shanghai! He has been traveling quite a bit helping to support his ever-growing NGO The Library Project. We've supported them over the years, I designed that logo ;), and it is just amazing to see how well it is doing now and moreover, the great impact it has, but more on The Library Project in a few posts.

Once at the airport, Tom helped us snag a cab for a great price and we headed into town to help fill all of our hungry bellies, kick back, and relax our tired bodies with a few drinks. We grabbed some really fantastic street food cooked by a perfectly surly and shirtless grill master outside of Tom's apartment building. Our meal consisted of spicy yet deeply flavored crawdads, skewered chicken wings, skewered beef slices, pickled cucumber salad which was unreal, marinated tofu disks, and a few bottles of local brew. It was yet another moment when the Chinese street food more than delivered! It was dirt cheap, and I'm salivating just thinking about it now. You had to eat the crawdads with supplied plastic gloves. I should add though, the gloves for the crawdads were great for keeping some of the hot oil from getting all over you, but it was better in concept than practice since the hot oils would just eat through the gloves. By the time you were done cracking your crawdads and pealed off your gloves, your hands would be saturated with the savory oils. You just had to remember: DO NOT TOUCH YOUR EYES until you could really wash your hands. Not just typical China, "damp them in a bucket and then dry them with the old rag" wash them, but soak them and use hard-core soap wash them. Any less and you'd be crying for weeks. I'm sure there is no regulation in the amount of spice they put on those things. They were delicious, but that heat could really really build up.

While we were hanging out at the street stalls, we had our first of the many Xi'an encounters with expats from around the globe. Our friend Tom is very well known in the area, and given the small size of the expat community, it was very frequent that we'd run into some of his fellow compatriots. That night we ran into all sorts of folks, mostly teachers, from South Africa, England, and the US, a few were even from Chicago and Ohio which made for some funny common stories from our younger days in the Midwest.

We wondered all around the North-West corner of town visiting a few hot spots after our food. One had a rocking band with a bassist that outside of that setting would have looked very mild mannered and demure, but with her band and bass, she tore it up. In the last stop of the night we spent some time getting to reconnect with our old friend Tom and to learn more about Eugene, a teacher from South Africa, and Erica from Ohio at a very colorful bar with a rather hilarious drink menu we didn't end up testing. It was a really great way to be welcomed into our new stop in China!

Next up, with the rising of the day's sun, we get our first experience with Xi'an's "fog"!


Friday, September 17, 2010

The World's Best Flea Market? It Just May Be.

Kerry and I love shopping in crazy outdoor markets when we travel. Often we don't buy anything, it's just the atmosphere that is authentic and electric and the possibility that we could find something special that makes it so cool. So when we read about Panjiayuan we knew it was a must-do for our stay in Beijing.

It was impossible to really capture how big and sprawling this place is. Over the ages it's been added to, and it shows. One section will be blanket after blanket, row after row of people hawking various wunderkammer and antiques (although most are fakes). Next to that you might find three stories of row shops housing jade sculpture, or maybe musical instruments. Then rows, and floors of furniture. Then you will find artists by the dozens if not hundreds followed by even more fields of other sundry crafts and antique-this-and-that. But it is the art I need to elaborate on. China, and Beijing more specifically, surprised and impressed us yet again. While there is a lot of calligraphy and ink painting that one would expect to find from Chinese artists in stalls, the oil painters and sculptors were as surprising as they were talented. Much of the subject matter seemed to be split between various communist themes and image studies of China's cultural past including portraits of minority figures and weathered streets. There are some famous and successful artists coming out of Beijing's art world and the most successful of them are in many cases being directly copied by some of the younger or less successful artists. While some were direct copies, others took painting styles and themes and came up with twists all their own which in some cases was absolutely brilliant. We ended up buying a few of those paintings and spent hours going through the hundreds and hundreds of amazing oils which were at prices that made you almost feel guilty of stealing. Here is a quad-shot of our four favorite artists we ran into. The older master had both booth and a shop and in his shop displayed a truly massive stretched oil painting of a Chinese ceremony of some sort which was rendered so well, and was just so beautiful it would have been a show stopper in any museum in the world. We had no idea where we would show such a painting or how to transport it for that matter, but whatever he was charging it was worth ten times more I'm sure.

One curious thing I noticed was that at several of the row end caps people were selling pairs of walnuts. I'm sure you've all seen the "Chinese Health Balls"sold in random shops in the US before. They are usually chrome or enameled with little chimes inside that you roll in your palms for some esoteric benefit. Well, here, those balls are definitely sold, but what seemed to be more popular were these walnuts. They seemed to like the ones that were really round, about the same size, and heavily pitted with very deep pores. They made a very unique grindy-slidy kind of sound as someone walked around rolling them this way and that in a palm as they perused the stalls.

That night we wondered back the 798 district for a nom-tastic dinner at a pseudo-Western cafe filled with local art figures and ex-pats from France and elsewhere. Before calling it a night we wandered with no direction through the galleries and surreal sculptures found everywhere on the grounds tucked in corners, hanging off of buildings and in some cases in your way. Many of them are large fiberglass pieces painted in a solid coat of high-gloss red.

One artist in particular that blew my mind into little bits of happy was the brilliant work from Xian Yang, a Chinese artist living in the US. The solo exhibition was made from sculptural images often including multicolored strings creating transformative outlines connecting one shape to another. The work centered around this gigantic sculpture portraying the interdependence between China and the US.

It was nice to see the 798 district at night because it really came alive. During the day it is a fairly placid place, but at night, there are concerts, art openings, and a lot more foot traffic with people milling about and sitting amongst the sculpture strewn alleys and courtyards.

Finding our Beijing

Kerry and I moved into a hotel that was adjacent to a really surprising neighborhood in Beijing that we felt right at home in. The district is called 798, and it is the epicenter of Beijing's exploding contemporary art scene. The massive district is chock full of galleries, shops, studios, cafes, and the some-still-functioning relics of the districts history as an industrial hub. You'd walk down one street full of pipes with steam leaking up in the air or on the ground, crazy machinery, and then turn the corner into a 40,000 square foot monstrosity of a loft-style gallery filled with a mix of the beautiful, experimental, subversive, and sometimes ugly. It was the subversive that surprised us the most. In a country so controlled and censored, (we haven't even been able to post to our blog, this has been done in proxy thanks to Marc and Lisa, THANKS AGAIN!), it was really surprising and refreshing to see so many artists able and willing to speak out. There was something about it that felt a bit more genuine to to Kerry and me. While you always find artists, particularly student artists, trying to speak out against a governing power in subversive ways, it just seemed more honest and brave here in China's evolving core in Beijing.

We took breaks now and again in one cafe or another soaking in the art-rich atmosphere. It was fun to see even in the walkways, there were tons of fashion photographers with their crew and models posing in front of the galleries and sculptures.

Once evening started to set in, we headed towards the day's real goal which was to go to a very highly regarded restaurant called Da Li Courtyard, a wonderful Yunnan cuisine place in a great old hutong.

With the encouragement and funding from Jon Laws to make us get out and do a really extravagant dinner while we were in China, we eventually picked this place, and we were definitely not disappointed! It would be hard to have a more romantic meal. It was just beautiful, delicious, and charming from beginning to end. There were seven courses that night, (it changes with the chef's whim), and is a prix fix menu only. Our favorite and most surprising dish turned out to be the first. It was strips of tofu skin and mint leaves covered in an utterly confounding to identify light sauce that was just mind-blowingly tasty. Each dish had a great deal of new and bold flavors for us to try often including lemon grass, small portions of some protein, and some spice.

Once we were fat and happy, we lingered for a while with their unique drinks made from Yunnan rice-based spirits, muddled mint, water, sugar, and muddled lemon chunks making for a citrusy mojito-esque glass of awesomesauce. They made for warm glows and happy moods after a nice meal.

Da Li Courtyard is located near a strip of shops and eateries. We then let ourselves float from shop to shop walking off our large meal and had a really lovely time taking in the vibrant night-life of the neighborhood.

As tended to be the case throughout the trip, we ended our day with a harrowing adventure to find a cab home. After about 3:30pm, it is near impossible to get a cab anywhere in China... In the early evening there is usually a shift change as well as a mix between drivers who don't want to pick up Westerners, (the rumor is that they are afraid we are frustrating and angry to deal with so they avoid us), and that they don't want to drive through rush hour which particularly in Beijing, is just ridiculous. Once we did find an empty+willing to work with us+willing to drive through town cab, we then had the challenge of trying to explain where we were going. Showing them an address and a map only worked a small percent of the time. It often had to be augmented with my stilted and limited Mandarin and charades. We found ourselves changing our plans over and over again to do everything we could to avoid the cab-ventures and I'll be incredibly happy to leave that part of China behind. It does get hard sometimes to remember that you must keep a smile on your face to keep from making your chances of reeling in a cab even harder. Taxi travel here is most definitely more complicated and challenging than anywhere else in the world we've visited. All of that being said, the little challenge to find our end-of-day cab did little to squash our high spirits after such a lovely day and night. With the art-district and great meal, we really found our swing in Beijing.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Summer Palace

We woke up fairly early, still feeling residual "wake up early" benefits from jet lag, and after a nice bao ze, (steamed pork bun with vinegar and chilis), we headed toward the summer palace. The summer palace has a very troubled history thanks in no small part to empress dowager Cixi. She spent gobs of China's funds on the place at a time when the money was needed for the navy to help support the nation. She played a huge roll in the downfall of China into a place of deep corruption at that time. All that being said, the place is absolutely gorgeous! :)

Kerry, Mitch, and I strolled around the lush grounds until we found a nice little gazebo with a few old men singing and played a nice leisurely game of Scrabble with the board and tiles Kerry and I had thoughtfully tucked into our packs this trip. That little slice of time, just sitting listening to the birds and singing, gentle breeze, and slow game made for perhaps the best moment in the whole trip up to that point. It was just such a peaceful place to spend time.

After we wrapped up our game, we decided to head upwards toward the "incense tower" which overlooks a nice sized lake some distance below. Along the way we passed a vast collection of older Chinese folks playing instruments and singing in pockets of shade.

Eventually, we meandered up to the summit and began exploring the shrine seated there.

The view from the top was a really nice place to see vast expanses in China's sea of new, the skyscrapers and hazy sky, as well as the clusters of shrines and classically Chinese boats peddling around the waters. Looking up the hills you'd find green on green, and tall pagodas, and in the valley spilling out to the horizon was nothing but modern high-rise after modern high-rise.

After some popsicles, and some chill time from the heat to take in the site, we headed down the slope and finished out the day with a nice boat ride to the center island which housed an informative little museum which gave a fairly detailed account of the last emperor and the above mentioned empress dowager. The summer palace was definitely the most impressive and beautiful historical site in Beijing, and made for a really nice day!

Monday, September 13, 2010

China, Day 3

Our day started with another crazy cheap, super yummy, meal for breakfast. It was a delicious, saucy, crepe-ish kind of savory thing with a sort of crunchy thing inside. It was full of yum, and a totally new flavor/texture experience which is always fun!

We decided to explore some of the hutongs and the surrounding area. The hutongs are the old-China lanes in the heart of Beijing that represent a small little slice of the historic past that "the people" have decided was worth hanging onto. In the heart of the area are two large historic structures left over from the Mongolian occupation of the city, the drum tower and bell tower. They've been updated and evolved with successive emperors. Once we ascended the kinda-epic stairway in the drum tower we were treated with a tremendous view of the city and the serendipity of a drum demonstration! The performance was pretty awe inspiring. It was five drummers on five perhaps two meter tall drum stands who played very complex rhythms and utilized very inventive techniques to make some unusual percussive sounds. I loved it! :D The pain in the butt was the fact that my loner rechargeable batteries from Mitch died moments into the performance, doh?! So I didn't get a very good audio recording of it. My memory and some of the video we took will have to suffice.

After the tower we started wondering around the hutongs. They were quiet, meandering, and full of charm. We snapped away and had a really nice time just soaking up the feel of the place.

The little lanes were full of these little peaks into even smaller little walkways that lead into the individual residences. They almost always had a bike or two, and makeshift boards and wires patching up decades if not centuries of wear and use. It was definitely, at least at that point, the most peaceful area we had explored in China.

We ended our walk at an area called ho hai which is a pretty touristy but still very cute area full of roof decks and views of roofs and the adjacent ponds. We grabbed a beer, took in the breeze pushing around lanterns, and watched the rickshaws peddle around the travelers up and down the lanes.

Our evening found for us yet another special meal, this time in the form of Chinese hot pot. Mitch and LiNa took us to a very popular local spot where you sit and play board games, (Chinese checkers, Chinese chess, or cards), before your table is ready which was pretty awesome. Once we got in, the meal was really delicious and brought with absolutely superb service. The hotpot meal itself consisted of veggies and meats dropped in either a spicy or mild soup that you then dip in various sauces before eating. Also, I found a baijiu (local spirits made from sorghum), that wasn't completely unpalatable, so win! Ha ha.

China Day 2

Our second day in Beijing was also a good one. For breakfast Li Na made corn porridge and we ate left over meat pies from the night before. Then Mitch, Isaac and I headed out to Tian'anmen Square. we took the subway there and although it threatened to rain, it just stayed in that blissfully overcast breezy pre-rain state all day. Tian'anmen itself was interesting to see given the history, but otherwise it's just a large open square. the line to see Mao's tomb stretched over several blocks so we decided not to go in. Mitch said that he's actually never seen it in the 4 years he's lived here; the line is always crazy.
After walking through the square we ended up at the gate for the Forbidden City. we walked through a fair bit of the "city", and it was good to see but quite a bit of it looked the same, and we were pretty much only allowed in the courtyards and gardens rather than inside the rooms. The imperial garden itself was ok but nothing compared to any of the temple gardens in Japan. We actually had a hard time not comparing the aesthetics of the buildings, gates and gardens to those of Japan. In our opinion Japan is much more beautiful, but it was absolutely worth it to see for ourselves what these spaces actually look like, since previously we only had Chinese epic period movies to go by.

Two really funny things that I didn't get photos of: The restroom right outside the Forbidden City had a gigantic gift shop inside of it (didn't feel it was appropriate to take a photo) and the audio guides had a languages available section listed, one of which was Esperanto (didn't think to take a photo until it was too late). One other interesting detail was that there were some groups of Chinese domestic tourists who wanted and in some cases did, take photos either of us, or with us. That happened in Japan too, but it is always fun to observe fascinations with other nationalities and races.

We found a steamed bun place for lunch that was yummy, and once again Mitch saved the day by ordering for us; the menu was all in Chinese with no photos or display food, so it would have been really hard for us to order on our own. The meal for the 3 of us including 6 orders of dumpling plates, a cucumber salad, and 3 bottled waters was just under $3 total. Food in China is cheap!

After lunch Mitch took us to an area with department stores full of items for rich folks, and we had a beer and walked down an alley where several vendors were selling skewers of wriggling scorpions, dead starfish, spider, bugs, etc for grilling. After chilling for awhile we decided to catch a cab to head somewhere else for about an hour before Li Na got home. That's when things got weird.

For the next 1 1/2 hours, we could not get a cab. we saw tons of empty cabs that wouldn't pull over for us, and the 2 that did pull over asked where we were going and then dismissed us when we told them the university district (which was pretty far away, not a tiny fare). We also saw some Chinese people get turned away from cabs, so it didn't appear to be solely because we are foreigners. Mich said that hasn't happened ever before and he was completely baffled. We proceeded to walk (while attempting to hail cabs the entire way) for the 1 1/2 hours until we gave up and found a bus that took us somewhat in the right direction. Of course it was rush our at that point, so it took us almost another hour on the bus. Once we were off the bus we again attempted to hail a cab and had several empty ones pass us before one FINALLY stopped. Crazy! By the time we got home we were all like "what just happened? Is the US at war with China all of the sudden?" Soooooo weird.

The evening was redeemed by a delicious meal of Peking Duck (they call it Beijing duck here, hee hee), along with Sichuan green beans, Kung Pow chicken, Mao's favorite dish of pork belly, and duck soup. we waddled home and went to bed fat and happy. With sore feet.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010


After an uneventful flight we arrived in Beijing on Sunday evening and had dinner at Mitch and Li Na's apartment. They live in the University district which is a really cute neighborhood, and the weather was nice but a bit humid by San Francisco standards (Mitch had told us it was not humid at all, but we found out that was by midwest standards). Anyway, Li Na made a delicious dish of stewed chicken with potatoes and homemade flat bread named laobing. It was yummy! Afterwords we walked around the neighborhood and looked at the night market where the vendors sell fruit and vegetables. Since Mitch was still jetlagged as well we all headed to bed at 8pm.

We woke up super early the next morning and went out for street food breakfast. It was AMAZING. We had fried dough "donuts" without sugar, soup and some pork steamed buns named baozi.

Then we went to the Chinese hospital attached to the university so Mitch could get his bandages changed. Bandages you say? Yep, poor Mitch tripped and put his hand through two, TWO glass windows the day before we arrived. So his right hand needed a bunch of stitches and he has a splint for the tendon in his thumb, and is all covered in bandages for the next 2 weeks or so.

After breakfast Mitch took us to an underpass near his place where senior citizens dance every morning for exercise. It was quite a production with live music and props, and got some fun video and photos of it. It was just ridiculously happy and we all walked away with big smiles.

We then took a bus to the Badaling section of the Great Wall. We got there around 11:30 and the sun was scorching. It was also a bit further away from the ever present pollution in Beijing that looks like fog, so that made the sun feel stronger also. We walked up quiet a few stairs and got a terrific view of the wall. In the photo of the 2 of us you can see an enormous sign on the hillside celebrating the 2008 Olympics. We found it a bit cheesy and would have preferred a photo without it, but they put it in the most scenic spot so that it would be in all of the photos. As Mitch said "Hey, this is the REAL China- it's good to have it in the photo!" hmmmm. He might be right. Anyways, it was a fun day and we had a great time.

After a late lunch of noodle soup we went back to the apartment to cool off and wait for Li Na to get home from work.

For dinner, we had beef filled "pie" from a really nice woman that runs a shop that Mitch and Li Na have been going to forever. The woman was so sweet, she even brought us several free soups to try. For a perfect ending to a great day, we walked around outside near the canals and watched people sing karaoke from portable TV/Audio set ups that some enterprising people run on the sidewalk. It was dark so unfortunately we didn't get any photos of that. You will need to use your imagination for that one.

We got a good nights sleep and we are off to see Tian'anmen Square and the Forbidden City today. Plus, it's supposed to thunderstorm, so things might get interesting today.....
Thanks to Lisa and Marc for posting this, since China has blogspot blocked ;)

[note from Lisa: appologies for the formatting not being as nice as usual, I've never used Blogger before!]