Thursday, January 31, 2008

More China stuff, being back home

I've been back for about five days now, and getting accustomed to the daily routine again. I'm the only one of my travel companions who didn't either get sick on the trip or soon afterwards, and I'm hoping to keep it that way (am popping the Airbourne like crazy). I thought I had managed to escape jetlag, too (it helped that I was the only one of the four of us who had to come back and start a daily work routine right away), but two nights ago I woke up at 3:30 am and couldn't fall back asleep. This morning it was 5 am, which I think is an acceptable time to get up and start the day. All in all, it hasn't been too bad, and I'm looking forward to a normal, fun weekend (go Pats!).

I've uploaded a few new videos from China to Youtube. I have one of people skating and sledding on a lake in the Houhai area in Beijing. In the summer, the lake is full of boats:
But of course not in the winter. I'd never seen these kind of ice sledding before (Grace also blogged about this here). So cool!
Here's the video:

I also have some videos from the Temple of Heaven and the Forbidden City. We were there a week ago! (wow, it was weird to just think that) I was really taken by the Temple of Heaven. The grounds were beautiful, and even though we didn't get there in time to get the full effect of the morning tai chi exercises, there was still a ton going on in the park. We spied this older couple doing what I first thought was dancing, but then realized was a type of paddle ball game. Check it out:

A few more pictures from that day:
From the Imperial Garden in the Forbidden City:
We arrived at the Forbidden City with just an hour and a half before it was closing, so we had a somewhat abbreviated tour. Grace wanted to go to the Imperial Gardens first, because she had some photo research to do for her next book, so she was a gal on a mission, urging us to quickly walk all the way to the back of the grounds, which wasn't a short walk. Here's a video from when we finally can see the Garden:

Grace is still blogging away about China. I'll continue to post some pictures and videos. Let's keep the vacation high going!

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Highlights of the China trip

I just mixed this new animoto video with some highlight pics from our China trip. The pics aren't in order, but I think they give a good taste of what our trip was like! One note I should make--neither Eveline nor I actually ate the big worm we're holding in the picture--Ki-Ki was the only one brave enough. But all of us tried the little worms (except Grace, who is NOT a sheep), and I even tried eating one of the bees. Not too bad. And now I can say that I've eaten a bug on purpose. Not that it was on my list of things to do before I die...

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Another Great Wall video and yesterday's adventures

Here's another video from the Great Wall:

It's freezing cold in Beijing now. We've taken somewhat abbreviated tours because of it. We didn't end up going to the Forbidden City yesterday because Ki-Ki was under the weather and wasn't up for going out. So tomorrow we're planning to do the Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, AND a Peking Duck dinner all in one day. I'm feeling lazy about posting, but here's the rundown:

Yesterday we tried to go to the Beijing Underground City (Beijing Di Xia Cheng), and I was proud of myself for navigating us to the somewhat obscure entrance with relative ease (well, we did have to stop in a bookstore, buy a new map, and spend ten minutes asking one of the workers there for directions...). Unfortunately, for some reason or other we couldn't quite understand, it was closed. So we walked to Tiananmen, took a few pictures of the Mao Tomb and the Gate to the City, then found a Tea House Grace had read about in her tour book: Lao She Cha Guan (Old Tea House?) to warm up. The second floor were quiet and beautiful private rooms, but we decided on the more laid back third floor where a tradional Chinese music ensemble was playing. We had some special blooming tea and small tea cakes. We ended up staying for a few hours and also were treated to a fun Shadow Puppet show.

Then we braved the cold again and headed for the shopping district, Wang Fu Jing.

Shopping, some eating of haw candy (bing tang hu lu), then back to Chi-Chu's on the subway. That night Chi-Chu, Jen, and I had Shichuan food--so spicy and good.

And now I'm off to play ping pong. Today's adventures will have to be told later...

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Great Wall is indeed great, but the Summer Palace is not summery.

The Great Wall lived up to the hype; it was absolutely incredible, breathtaking, awe inspiring.

We went to the Ba Da Ling section of the Wall, which is usually quite crowded, but our tour guide Nicole told us it wouldn't be so bad in January. She gave us the choice of the steeper but less crowded side, or the easier but more crowded side, and we opted for less crowded, and had almost the entire side of the wall to ourselves most of the time--there was just one or two other parties that we saw on the way up.

It was snowing lightly, and at times was quite slippery, but nobody fell, and it made for quite a special experience.

I took a few videos here:

And here:

Then we were off to lunch at a cloisonne factory (the enamel-coated pottery--I had no idea how labored of a process it was to make them), and then the Summer Palace. At this point, it felt like the temperature had dropped ten degrees, probably because of the wind coming off of the frozen lake. Because of this, we couldn't enjoy the grounds as much as we might have--we kept having to dip into the souvenir shops for warmth.

Dinner was a Lao Beijing Zha Jiang Mian Da Wang (Old Beijing Noodle King)--we had asked Nicole to take us to a light dinner, and she suggested special Beijing noodles--homemade noodles that are mixed with a variety of veggies, beans, etc with a special sauce that had small pieces of meat. It was delicious, perfect, an energizing atmosphere, and best of all, CHEAP.

And then it was on to a Kung Fu Show where Eveline joined us. "The Legend of Kung Fu" at the Red Theater. A cross between modern dance, cirque do soleil, and kung fu, it was quite well-done and entertaining, although also startling--most of the speaking was in English, with Chinese subtitles above the stage. But, I guess that's how you cater to the tourist market. I was so tired at that point, though, that I couldn't help nodding off--I have a bad habit of falling asleep in movies, shows, etc--I used to think I was a bit narcoleptic. Who knows.

Today we're heading to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, and shopping.I'm hoping to get on Grace's computer at some point to add photos to all of my posts--she's been busy blogging away herself--but she's still blogging about Shanghai! I wonder if that's odd for you guys who read both of our blogs. What's odd for us is that blogspot is blocked right now in China--for some reason, we can post, but we can't view the blogs--so I can't even see what Grace has posted about the trip! But I guess that will make it a treat to read and revisit the vacation when I get back to the States.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Mellow Sunday and Off to the Summer Palace and the Great Wall...

**Pictures added 1/22**

Yesterday was fairly mellow. We worked out in the morning in the fancy gym in Chi-Chu's condo complex (it seems that only Westerners like to work out, the two times we've been there, there have been no other Chinese-looking people there), and then went to get Hong Kong style dim sum. It was basically the same as what you'd get in NY, but at this restaurant there were no carts being pushed around, you just ordered by checking off a checklist, which would have been really challenging if Chi-Chu hadn't been there, because I couldn't read most of the menu. I did manage to locate Xiao long bao (soup dumplings), but that wouldn't have helped because it turned out that they didn't have them that morning. But Chi-Chu ordered for us, and we stuffed ourselves as usual. Then it was off to pan jia yuan, or as Eveline called it, the Dirt Market. It was basically a huge flea market with antiques, silk, jade, and various other interesting objects, like reverse Chinese characters for a printing press, old Chinese instruments, scary looking ancient weapons, old silk scrolls and robes, etc. I helped Grace bargain for some stuff--it's fun to bargain when it's not my money!

Then we tried three times unsuccessfully to use a payphone to call Chi-Chu--the payphones were fairly decrepit looking, but I found out later that the reason the call wasn't going through was because I was dialing the wrong number. Oh well. Then we went across the street to a McDonald's (or as they say in China: Mai Dang Lao) to warm up with hot chocolate and coffee. I love seeing the different things they have on the menu--we got pineapple pie (they also had taro) and a cup of corn.

The cab driver on our way back to Chi-Chu's place was hilarious. He asked us where we were from and started chatting with us, pointing out buildings, correcting our pronounciation. "Di tie" with a deep 3rd tone on the "tie" (subway). He asked what we were going to see, and I responded "Da Chang" forgetting how to say "Great Wall." "Da Chang" he repeated, perplexed. "Wei shen me?" (Why?) Jen tried to explain in Chinese, and then he said, "Chang Cheng! Bu shi da chang!" and proceeded to make us repeat after him a few times. He told us that he was "Old Beijing" not "New Beijing" and that he had lived here his whole life, that his father and his grandfather were also from Beijing. Beyond that, he didn't know. He told us to all find jobs in China. He was an adorable old man, and at the end of the ride, refused our tip (China is not a tipping culture).

That night, Chi-Chu, Grace, and I went to Ding Tai Fong for dinner to get the xiao long bao we missed at lunch. So good. I loved the one in Taipei (before it got too crowded) and have never had the chance to go to the one in LA. They need to open up one in NY!

Back in Shanghai, we ended up getting a referral for a tour guide here in Beijing, Nicole. She's picking us up around 9 am to take us to the Summer Palace and the Great Wall. The Great Wall is the main reason I wanted to come to Beijing, and I'm excited. I think it'd probably be best if it stopped snowing by the time we got there, though...not sure if we'd fare well with a slippery climb.

To be continued...

Saturday, January 19, 2008

more travel thoughts

I'm about to go to bed, but wanted to write a quick post. I just got back from a club with Eveline and Chi-Chu. Once again, the others were too tired to join. It's not that I'm not tired, too, but I suppose I have a slightly different travel philosophy than the others. I know Jen is exhausted from her intern year and wants this to be a relaxing and rejuvenating break. Grace wants to make sure she has time to blog and keep in touch with friends back home. I think it's also because I'm just used to going out a lot even when I'm tired from living in NY and having so much going on, so many fun things to do. But anyway, when I'm in a foreign land, I want to do everything possible, take advantage of every opportunity. I don't want to exhaust myself, but I want to try to achieve the right balance of tourism, everyday activities, relaxation, and nightlife. I like to experience what life would be to live like a local--take public transportation, walk around, check out grocery stores, hang out at night, etc. One thing I regret from my whirlwind European tour after college is that we hardly experienced any of the nightlife, preferring to see the sights during the day instead. But anyway, so far I've been pretty happy with the level of balance on this China trip so far. Every day is packed and different, but I'm not exhausted. I think I'll return to the States rejuvenated.

It was a really cool club called Yu Gong Yi Shan--I guess it used to be in another location and was much smaller, but has recently moved. There is a lot of live music there normally, but tonight was a fantastic deejay (Eveline knows him--I'll post a video later), and the laser/smoke machine effect was especially cool. Almost everyone there was a Westerner, which really didn't make the experience that different from going out in NY, although it was a good taste of what my life would be like if I lived in Beijing, and what the friendly and large ex-patriot community is like here. (I must say, not unlike Williamsburg, Brooklyn. And not, by the way, that I'm thinking about living in Beijing.) It was fun hanging out with old friends and dancing--I so rarely go dancing anymore, but I always have fun when I do. It was also a bit like worlds colliding, my Taiwan life with my NY life. My trip companions almost represent my whole life, actually--Grace and Ki-Ki being childhood friends (from 5th to 7th grade), Jen from 8th grade up and college, Chi-Chu from my time living in Taiwan after college, and Eveline from work and NY and the Randoms. There has been something very comforting about it all, actually.


One quick note about my Chinese language speaking ability--I've been pretty pleased with how much of my Chinese has come back, and how naturally it flows out. I feel confident that I could navigate this city on my own. However, my problem hasn't been with speaking and being understood, but rather understanding the answer/reply. But it's exciting to know that people can understand what I'm saying. I've started to get into bargaining, too. It seems silly to fight over the equivalent of one or two US dollars, but it's the experience that's interesting, and the challenge that I gain a sense of accomplishment from.

I also feel accomplished when I get the measure words right--different objects have different measure words. For example, if I want to say "three books" I would say "san ben shu," with "ben" being the measure word. If I want to say three tickets, I'd say "san zhang piao" with "zhang" being the measure word. Three tigers would be "san zhi lao hu," with "zhi" the measure word. There's the default measure word "ge," which you use for many things, and also if you're not sure what the correct measure word is, but I've always felt that using the wrong measure word was a sure sign of a non-native speaker. Native speakers just knows what sounds right and use the right word. I don't think I'll ever be considered a native speaker, but I feel that it's the little details that make a big difference.

Anyway, that all for tonight, time for bed. Wan an!

Friday, January 18, 2008

The halfway point...

**Pictures added 1/22**

It's hard to believe our trip is about half over. We leave a week from today. On the one hand, we've done a ton, and each day feels incredibly long and packed, but on the other hand, I feel like we just got here! Maybe it's because we came back to Beijing today, and we really haven't seen any of Beijing yet. Our Shanghai trip was a whirlwind, and Grace has been doing a great job blogging about everything in detail that I'm not sure where to start. I'll just do tidbits:

-Jian bing! Several people (thanks Connie and Audrey!) have told me that I absolutely MUST get this in China, and I dutifully obeyed. Our first morning in China, we ventured out and I found a streetside stand that Chi-Chu had pointed out the night before. I have to say, it was everything I was told it would be. The warm crepe with egg, tangy and spicy sauce, and the cilantro and scallions and crunchy fried thing in the middle that gave it a satisfying crunch. Yum. I got a few similar versions in Shanghai, but none quite as satisfying as that first place. I think I'm going to have to go back a few times this next week.
-the dash to the train to Shanghai was quite stressful. We decided to avoid rush hour traffic by taking the subway, and left early, but didn't quite account for the rush hour crowds on the subway. We had to let two trains pass before we could get on. There were subway workers on hand to help stuff people into the train. Once inside, we were jostled to and fro, and at one point Jen and Grace were lost in the sea of bodies pushing to get out. We made it to the train station with just 15 minutes until our train was to depart. We got through security--they X-rayed (is that a word?) our bag and also our person, but perplexingly wasn't stopping anyone when the X-ray machine beeped. We frantically looked on the board for our train, found the number, but couldn't figure out where to go. Finally I realized there were gate numbers listed, but for our gate it had the Chinese character for Zhong, plus a bunch of other characters I didn't know. "Zhong means center! It must be the main hall" and sure enough we found our gate, expecting to see huge lines, but instead, the gate was closed and locked, and there were just a few people waiting. We realized that we were actually an hour early.

-The sleeper train was COOL, especially after Jen was able to convince the two men in her cabin to switch with Ki-Ki and me so we could all be together. It was close quarters, but cozy, especially since we were sharing it with friends. We couldn't fathom sleeping with strangers in such intimate a setting, though. I took a top bunk, and it reminded me of sleeping in a bunk bed as kid. The beds were fairly comfortable and firm.

-Still jetlagged, some of us were waking up at odd times, and being in the unfamiliar sleeper train probably didn't help. I was awakened that night to a strange rattling sound. Shake shake shake, rattle rattle, crunch crunch crunch. The sound was strangely familiar...and then I realized, Nerds! I cracked an eye open and looked over at Ki-Ki, who was on the other top bunk. "Are you eating Nerds?!" she laughed apologetically.

-Shanghai has a tourist area dubbed "Chinatown" and indeed, it looked similar to American Chinatowns. We had Shanghainese dim sum, complete with several orders of Xiao long bao, which were delicious (although not as juicy as the ones you get at Joe's Shanghai in New York!). One of my favorite things to do while traveling is EAT. And eat we did. Ki-Ki's friend Melody joined us on the tour in Shanghai, and man, that girl can eat. Ki-Ki said that her nickname in college was The Bottomless Pit, and they used to joke that she had a tapeworm. Our tour guide Kevin was astonished by our appetites. "You're hungry?!? Again?!" He would ask periodically.

-I'm used to constant snacking, so I made sure to stock up on Asian snacks from the convenient store next to our hotel: rice crackers, bean curd, and potato chips. I love trying the different potato chip flavors in different countries, like Ketchup in Canada, Roasted Chicken in England, and Thai Curry Crab, Italian Red Meat, and Mexican Tomato Chicken flavors in China--and still many more to sample. I spotted Mango flavored potato chips, but alas will not be trying that one.

-Kevin took Jen and me out on the town Thursday night--the others were too tired (and Grace wanted to blog). We went to the French Concession, an area where a lot of foreigners used to live, and is now a main restaurant and bar drag. We picked a bar with live music--A Filipino band singing English pop songs, like Alicia Keys and Emilia. There was a minimum 400 Yuan charge per table (about $50 US or so), but that got us 4 beers, 3 glasses of wine, a platter of fruit, popcorn, and potato chips. Not too shabby.

-Then around 11 it was on to a club--the first place Kevin tried to take us to was closed, so we went to a place called Babyface. It was similar to any fancy Taipei or New York club--modern, fancy lights, two different rooms with hip hop playing in the smaller room, techno/house in the larger one. There were a lot of Westerners there, lots of smoke and hard alcohol, drunk people, and the main thing I noticed was that people were dressed fairly casually, especially for what seemed to be a fairly chic place. At one point, one of the bartenders stacked glasses up high on the bar, poured some type of alcohol on them and then set the tower on fire, resulting in a glowing blueish light. Then he added something that made it glitter and sparkle. Pretty.

-We ended the night at Karaoke--I had proclaimed my love for Karaoke earlier, and Kevin was excited to take us, even though we were tired at that point. "Can we go to KTV?" I asked. In Taiwan, I was all about the KTV, which was the private rooms where you can order food and drink and sing with just your friends. "You know, Karaoke is different from KTV" Kevin said, "In Shanghai, KTV is mostly for men--the women wear very little" "Oh, like mini skirts and stuff?" Jen asked. "Or sometimes they were nothing," he said. Ohhhh. "Uh, we don't want to go to KTV, then," I said. The next day he explained that KTV was where they entertained a lot of Japanese businessmen. Anyway, I'm not sure if this was really true, but I think I'll just call it Karaoke for the rest of the time I'm in China.

To be continued...we're off to a Hutong this afternoon.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Getting here

I'm in Beijing! What follows is a fairly dry account of our first night in China. I'm jetlagged, and it's all I can muster.

I got to the Newark airport over 3 hours early, just in case. Ran into Grace and Ki-Ki randomly in the food court (I had left Grace a message, but she hadn't turned her phone back on after her Boston to Newark flight) where we hung out for a few hours and read guide books.

I so rarely have companions when I travel, so it was nice to have two friends to travel with this time. The last time I flew internationally (I think to or from Taiwan), my overhead light was broken so I couldn't read. This time, our TVs didn't work, so it was doubly nice to have company. We read, chatted, they knit, I played solitaire on my iPod, napped periodically, ate horrible airplane food including a "beef" and swiss sandwich where the meat was indistinguishable. I longed for the Asian airlines where the midflight snack they serve is ramen.

We waiting about 3 hours in the Beijing airport for Jen's flight to arrive from SF. We found a coffee shop to plant ourselves down and drink coffee and tea. My Chinese was somewhat enough for us to communicate, combined with the waitress's English. At one point, though, I tried to order "bing kai shui" (iced boiled water), which in Taiwan would get us boiled water that is then made cold, but she shook her head and said she couldn't do that, so I just got boiled water instead.

We sketched out a rough itinerary for Beijing. Really, I don't care what we see, I'm just happy to be here (although I must walk on the Great Wall--it's one of the things on my 'To Do Before I Die" list).

I bought a phone card to call Chi-Chu, which was a challenge. Can you believe I forgot how to say local and international? (then again, when Chi-Chu reminded me of the words later, I don't think I had ever learned them, or else had learned them as something else in Taiwan--many words are different here)

Jen arrived on time, and thank goodness her Chinese is more fluent than mine. I was able to answer when asked, "Ji wei?" (how many people), but Jen took over when it came down to figuring out if all of our luggage could fit in the cab, and telling the driver to call Chi-Chu when he couldn't find the address.

Chi-Chu's two-bedroom condo is luxurious, and thankfully has plenty of room for the four of us. He must have been somewhat overwhelmed by the sudden influx of estrogen.

The first order of business was dinner, and we decided on hot pot, and went to a place called Xiao Fei Yang and met Eveline there (Little Fatty Lamb, literally, although I guess their official English name is Little Lamb)--their specialty is lamb, so we got a ton of that, plus veggies, chicken, etc. I love hot pot, and the spicy side was especially yummy. All of the waiters stared at us throughout the meal, confused by our lack of Chinese skills. I got this in Taiwan a lot, too. How can we be Chinese/Taiwanese and not speak the language fluently? It's such a strange thing for the locals to understand. In Taiwan, my white friends would get such sympathy and help when trying to communicate, while us Asian students were treated with impatience.

We walked home in the cold, stopping by a supermarket to pick up some breakfast food, then back home to shower and wind down. Grace blogged last night here, complete with pictures! I'll probably upload all my pics after I get back and add them in later. We're off to Shanghai tonight on the overnight train--I'm looking forward to it!

Friday, January 11, 2008

Two days till China...

Well, it's been a whirlwind since the holidays, and now I'm getting ready to head off to China. For those of you who didn't know, I'm going to Beijing and Shanghai on vacation for two weeks with my friends Jen, Grace Lin, and her sister Ki-Ki. We're staying with my friend Chi-Chu who I've known since I lived in Taiwan, and are also visiting with my friend Eveline who's been living there for about a year and a half now.

I'm hoping to blog while there, but Grace has made a stronger commitment to blogging every day we're there, so check her blog daily to see what we're up to over there! And don't worry, I'll be taking a ton of pictures.

I'm off on day left to pack and prepare. If you have any recommendations on where to go, especially in Beijing (we're only in Shanghai for two nights and are taking a tour), post them in the comments section.

I'll be back in the States on January 26th, and then back in the office on the 28th. So again, if I haven't gotten back to you in a while...I've been a bit preoccupied, but hope things will settle down, at least until I travel again internationally at the end of March!