Monday, January 30, 2006

A few random pics from Beijing:

Hutong wall art...

This was on a sign above a cooking (corking?) school.

The only stripmall you'll ever need: "Beer Hut" right next door to "Sex Shop."

Sunday, January 29, 2006

The next day we went to the Great's pretty great. This part's all fakely restored but it's still tough not to be impressed. It's tough not to be hospitalized, frankly, while walking up the thing. You might think the haze you see in the air is, like, mist or something, but having been there and smelled it and seen the factories we drove past to get to it...well, I don't think it's mist.

This was also the only time Jennifer and I were overtly flirted with while in Beijing. As we were leaving, a boy who worked in a cafe near the bus parking lot blew us kisses from afar. We were so surprised that all we could do was smile and wave. He was cute, though.

More photos...the first one is Wangfujing food street where we ate the bugs on sticks. (Well, one of us did.) The next two are at the Snake Vodka Restaurant. You'll notice they're a little blurry...

So now we're up to Saturday, Jan 7th. We'd sort of planned to check out the Great Wall today, but we didn't really know the bus schedule and didn't quite give ourselves enough time in the morning. Also had a dinner date planned for that evening with Ada and wanted to be sure we got back in time. So instead we ambled slowly toward the bus station to find out when we had to catch the bus the next day. (9am, it turned out.) We went through Tiananmen Square but were too late to see the waxy corpse of Mao. Then we aimed for this famous old market, and on the way there we were swept into a jam-packed warren of silk shops and tea shops and crap shops of all sorts right behind the bus station. It was great, so much to look at. Pretty soon we got hungry, so we stopped for lunch at this place called something like the "Friendly Welcome Restaurant." You walk in the door and all the guys working there yell something, presumably a friendly welcome, and then everyone cheers. (It wasn't just us -- they cheered for every customer.) We had some really great (steamed?) calamari and another enormous bowl of soup noodles in the best broth I've ever tasted in my entire life. (With "beef." Haha!) Under drinks we noticed it said "Snake Vodka." It was well after 10 a.m. by then, so, naturally, we ordered one beer each and a shot of Snake Vodka to share. (They also offered Lizard Vodka, but that looked gross.) They scooped it out of what looked like a failed aquarium, with gravel and dead snakes curled up on the bottom. Tasted pretty good, actually. (It's supposed to be for guys, to increase virility, so the boys working at the restaurant thought we were outrageous. They couldn't decide whether to be amused, disgusted or scandalized but eventually they settled for just giggling a lot.)

Eventually we both had to pee. The "bathroom" outside the back door of the restaurant made both of us kind of wish we'd had bigger shots of snakejuice. Let's just say it was pretty freakin' virile in there.

The rest of the day we wandered in a snake vodka trance through all kinds of random alleys, being regarded with extreme curiosity by everyone we saw. The streets got narrower and grimier and more fascinating the further we walked. I wouldn't say we were lost, exactly... we were exploring.

I might've mentioned this before, but when you walk around in both Beijing and Hong Kong, your nose assumes the end of the world has arrived. It sees its entire life flash before its eyes. Every smell you can imagine and many you'd rather not think about -- the olfactory experience switches from good to bad to GREAT to bad to GAG REFLEX to Pavlovian food-drool and back again, all within about five steps. EVERY five steps. There is not one inch of either city that doesn't smell VERY strongly of something or another. You have to be pretty careful if you're going to walk around while you eat.

We found the historic market we were looking for and went into a crazy antiques shop there. Among the dusty museum pieces for sale were actual human skulls, mostly just the tops, some decorated with silver. We didn't buy one, though. Too hard to pack.

Then it was time for dinner with Ada. The restaurant was unbelievable -- she described it as looking like a Zhang Yimou film set, and it did. We got out of the cab and stepped onto the red carpet. Beautiful hostesses in glimmering silk cheongsams were stacked seven or eight deep on either side of the double doors, smiling and bowing us in. The huge dining room was like an exaggerated version of some decadent Roman palace or something...columns, marble, wooden-doored VIP rooms, massive orange lanterns. Our table was at the very front, by the stage. Oh, yes, there was a stage. The food was spectacular but it had to compete for our attention with the performances. There was a mini Beijing opera, a kung-fu show where a guy broke a metal bar with his head, traditional musicians, and a ten-year-old contortionist girl who balanced about a dozen flaming candelabras in positions that anyone who studied anatomy could tell you are impossible for the human body to assume. Crazy.
Just in case everyone starts to think I've become obsessed with food, here are a couple of poop-related observations instead. Little change of pace.

Most of the narrow alleyways in old Beijing do not have indoor plumbing -- not even close. Our hostel did, but you weren't allowed to throw your toilet paper into the toilet -- it goes in the trash can, just like in Greece. Lucky janitors! You pretty much have to keep tabs on your toilet paper at all times, maybe just stash the whole roll in your purse or something, because the showers are "Stockholm style," ie just a nozzle right over the toilet. There are public bathrooms all over town, and they're free and, well, sort of clean, sometimes, if you don't look too closely. (Sort of like with the "chicken" -- it does what it's supposed to do, so why get all picky?) The public toilets and the ones at the tourist sites and most of the bars and restaurants are the footprint kind. Hole in the floor, ceramic footprints on either side as a clue to the inexperienced. The best piece of travel advice anyone's ever given me is this, years ago from James McQuillen: Make sure, before you drop yr pants and squat above the footprint toilet, that your keys are not in your pocket.

Another hilarious fact about pooping in China has to do with small children. (No surprise there, I guess.) Toddlers in Beijing, once they're old enough to toddle, are dressed in special brightly colored puffy pants with NO CROTCH. Yup. That way, as they're toddling around on the streets and sidewalks of the city, anytime they need to lighten their toddler load they can just squat down and do it right there on the street. No pesky interference from diapers or clothing or pointless inhibitions. I know a couple of boys who would put that style of trousers to excellent use.

More soon,

Friday, January 27, 2006

snake vodka

Since everyone's asking about the snake vodka...I haven't typed that part in yet, but here is a pic of the jar they scooped it out of. Yum! (Snakes on the left, lizards on the right.)

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

It takes ages to load pics to this thing, so I'll just do a few at a time. This is Jennifer about to eat her delicious street snacks.

A random street near Qianmen just south of the Forbidden City.

Me and Mao

Friday, Jan 6, is what Jennifer and I called Weird Food Day, before we realized that given our location the food wasn't all that weird. Breakfast at the hostel was fairly standard, fried eggs and toast and fruit, although it also included a stick of deep-fried chicken. (?) Afterwards, we set out for the big discount-shopping area (if that's not redundant in China), Wangfujing, recommended by Ada. On the way there we meandered along a street called, I think, Meishuguan Houjie, which narrowed into a crazy alley jammed with little shops and people and steamed-dumpling windows. Suddenly there was a traffic jam. Someone had road rage! A bus was trying to turn or get past some parked cars - nothing could move. Considering the size of the streets, this must happen all the time. We'd been told that Chinese people love a good argument, and man, they sure seemed to. Everyone walking, shopping or working on that street, including about a dozen white-jacketed cooks at one restaurant, stopped what they were doing and stood on the sidewalks to watch these two drivers yell at each other. Everyone, including the two guys fighting, appeared to be having a great time. We stood there watching, along with the other hundred people or whatever on this block, for probably fifteen minutes until the argument magically ended and the line of cars snaked its way down the alley. It was such a cool scene, and I wanted to take a picture but was worried I'd look like some kind of evil soul-thief. Now I really wish I had.

Besides arguing loudly, the other thing Beijing people love to do on the streets is spit. Constantly, with vigor and substance. There are NO SPITTING signs all over the place and they're about as effective as the NO SMOKING ones. (The cafe attached to the hostel is gray with smoke at 8 in the morning.) Someone told me everyone smokes in Beijing because at least that way the air is being filtered. The spitting probably has a similar source. It's pretty cool to see a little old beret-wearing dude on a vegetable-laden bicycle from 1957 riding nonchalantly down the street and then suddenly hawk a fat lugey right in front of you. I don't remember seeing any ladies do it, but maybe they keep their spitting more private. Preserve the mystique and all.

Anyway. We went into a tea shop, where we sampled a whole bunch of tea in little dixie cups and bought a couple of packets. Jasmine and Oolong. This was my first glimpse at the Chinese style of commerce, which is to have six or seven employees per potential customer at all times. The second you walk into a shop, and usually well before that, a shop employee quietly attaches herself to your elbow. She doesn't necessarily say anything, she just follows you around, and you cannot ditch her. Those who are less shy or speak more English might try to guide you toward a certain item, but mainly they're just there in case you need anything. The only place this didn't happen was at record/dvd stores. In one shopping center that day we found a DVD shop with all kinds of stuff for ridiculous prices, and lots of things you couldn't even get over here. I bought a copy of "Infernal Affairs" (starring my boyfriend Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) for 13 yuan -- less than two dollars. Of course it might not work -- I haven't checked yet -- but you'd pay more than that for a souvenir coaster in Stockholm.

The main thing you hear while walking down a busy shopping street or any tourist attraction in Beijing, if you look like us, is "Hello lady!" Variations include "Hello haircut," "Hello postcard" and "Hello silk." This is usually followed by "How much" and "Cheaper for you!" If they are old guys and not trying to sell you anything, then it's just "Hello" with a big grin and it's adorable. But we could've had fifteen haircuts that day, given sufficient time. Probably should've.

After some shopping we got hungry, so we strolled down the Wangfujing "food street," this skinny back-alley that's been a pedestrianized snackway forever. I should mention here that Jennifer's main thing is researching food as an expression of culture. So she's automatically curious. After some hemming and hawing we went up to one of the stands that offered -- uh-huh -- bugs on sticks. To eat. There were fat beetly bugs in two sizes (discouraging and really discouraging), plus scorpions, seahorses and assorted guts. Each critter was impaled on a skewer, looking enticing, as you can imagine. We selected a seahorse, a scorpion and one of the slightly-less-fat bugs. The chefs rolled them in spices and slapped 'em on the grill, where they popped and sizzled and had to be squashed frequently with a special squashing tool they had. There was a lot of giggling: us at each other, them at us, passersby at the whole scene. Finally, the "food" was "cooked" so we paid and took it away. Jennifer actually ate some of it, I have photos for proof. I couldn't do it. But we both agreed that if you'd been out drinking, these would make excellent after-bar snacks.

We needed beer right away, especially Jennifer. So we headed to a place we'd seen earlier that said "food court." We ended up eating noodles and drinking gigantic bottles of Yinjiang beer at the mall. Sounds odd but the noodles were incredible, the guy hand-made them in front of us, and they came in a bowl as big as my apartment and cost One Dollar (8 yuan). They were in this delicious broth with some green things and some pieces of "chicken," although each time I picked up a hunk of the chicken I thought, 'I grew up on a farm, and there is no part of a chicken that is shaped like this.' But it tasted great.

Later that night, we wandered down our alleyway and saw a cute boy cooking meat on sticks at an outdoor grill window. Jennifer asked for some grilled beef on a stick. Pretty soon, out came a guy from inside the attached restaurant, carrying her raw beef stick to be grilled. "Wait!" she screeched, suddenly horrified. "That's guts! Organs! Intestines! No, I don't want intestines." They took the rejection pretty well, although they seemed kind of like, 'What's wrong with guts? Everybody else is eating them.' Considering the day she'd had, I can't say I blame her.

We retreated to the Passby for beer and pizza.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

OK. I'm in Hong Kong now, but I finally found an internet place where you can see the page in English, so I'll do some catching up on this stupid pointless blog thing. Bird flu is no longer funny, given the situation in Turkey, so I will abandon that line for now (although I still like the sound of it better than swine flu or some of the other flus).

I did eat pigeon, keeping to the poultry theme, for dinner last night. But that story comes later. For now - Beijing.

I met Jennifer at the airport on Wednesday, Jan 4. ("Yennifer," for those of you who don't know, is a friend of mine from Stockholm and the main reason I'm here - she's studying in HK for a year and had planned to spend a few days in Beijing while her friend Ada, a local, was there to guide us around.) She was with a guy who drove us to the hostel, which was a lucky thing because we'd never have found it. It's right in the middle of downtown, but buried way deep in one of the "hutong" neighborhoods, these little alleyways barely wide enough for a small car but somehow able to accommodate a speeding taxi passing a parked sedan abreast of six bicyclists, a rickshaw cab, an old lady walking a dog in a sweater, a mo-ped, and two backpacking Swedish girls. Our street is called Nanluogu Hutong and is dotted with little bars and cafes. That first night, after our brief subglacial expedition, we went to the Passby Bar, which happened to have a back room lined with Lonely Planet books. I ordered black tea because I thought it would be somehow particularly Chinese, but it was Lipton.

Next morning, we decided to check out some of the main tourist sights. I've been on the LP research schedule so long that I'd forgotten how to travel at a leisurely pace with normal people. So I was ready for breakfast at 7.30, when it opened. Jennifer, however, was (1) not jetlagged, and (2) not a crazed maniac, so she actually slept in, as people do when they're on vacation. We had breakfast around 10 and I promised the uptight little soldier in my head that if it would let me relax for two weeks, I'd let it pick up some restaurant menus and peek into a couple of hotel lobbies. Seemed a fair trade and things were easier after that.

Our hostel, we discovered, was within easy walking distance of the Forbidden City. North of it is a walled garden, Jingshan Park, built to protect the emperors and their eunuchs and concubines from the fierce winds and evil spirits of the north. In the middle of this park is a temple on a hill (made out of the dirt left over from building the moat around the walled city) that offers 360-degree views of the city as far out as you can see. Which isn't very far, through all the brown fuzz in the air. But still, it's a cool view. We saw a Chinese squirrel up there, black with huge tufts on its ears. Always cracks me up to see wildlife in other countries; it's almost the same, but not quite. Also in the park is a memorial pointing out the tree where the last Ming emperor hanged himself before the rebels could do it for him.

A crew of Chinese construction workers walked past us on their way to lunch, and it was exciting to see what they would do when they spotted the two blonde tourists. But all we got were a couple of demure smiles, no cat-calling. I don't think they have cat-calling in China.

By the time we made it through the garden and into the Forbidden City, the temperature had dropped below the ridiculous to become just plain mean. Every time we took a photo we risked losing a finger. We walked around with our audio tourguides for a while, pretending not to be looking for the Starbucks that allegedly sits just inside the forbidden gates. Didn't see it, but we did find a warm little cafe with steamed-up windows and more people inside than out. Never was hot jasmine tea so much appreciated. You could feel it in your toes. After that it was a lot easier to be interested in things like the Palace of Earthly Tranquility, where the empresses slept, and the Palace of Heavenly Purity, the emperor's bedchamber - each night he slept on a different one of nine beds, to fool his enemies. Some of these emperors had over a thousand concubines, fellas - your meagre conquests no longer impress me.

After the tour, feet completely frozen, we tried to walk back to the hostel, which should've been a very simple, straight-ish line to our crooked little alleyway. We almost found it. But we missed the alley entrance (half those little roads don't have signs in English characters, including ours) and ended up walking for about an hour in the wrong direction. (I should mention here that I'd left my trusty LP guidebook and the only map we had at the breakfast table. Heh.) By the time we got back, we were late for a pre-arranged dinner with Jennifer's friend Ada, this adorable 19-year-old Beijing disco queen and future media mogul, at the Peking duck restaurant where her uncle works. (His job is to put Chinese herbal medicine into the food. Hmm.)

On the way to the duck place we got lost again. Sort of. The cabbie dropped us off in front of an abandoned building and gestured vaguely. We followed the gesture, vaguely, and then some girl approached us and offered to "help." I tend to be suspicious but Jennifer is nicer than I am, so we let the girl lead us across the street and down some weird alley to what she said was the restaurant on our note. Surprise! It was her family's (completely different) restaurant! So, back across the street, to where we started, where Ada and her brother were waiting. They were sweet about it.

I can't even describe the Peking duck. They brought it in to our little VIP dining room, where we'd already been eating seven or eight types of amazing little food things. Actual Chinese food, as everyone probably knows, has nothing to do with the glop they call Chinese food in the States. The chef rolled this duck in on a gurney and started slicing little chips of its skin off. We were ordered to eat the crispy skin immediately before it cooled. This was excellent advice. You dip the duck-skin chip in fermented bean paste and eat it, and then your head explodes. I don't usually get weepy over food, but holy crap. That stuff was amazing. The rest of the duck, they chop it up and you make little pancake-burritos out of it with bean paste and onions. Pretty great. Sorry if everyone else knows this, but I'd never had Peking duck before. After the meal, one of the sixteen waiters who attended us brought a card stamped with our particular duck's personal registration number. (It didn't appear to have a name, but I wouldn't be surprised.) The place is called Qianmen Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant, at 32 Qianmen Dajie, if anyone's interested.

Then Ada and her silent brother, who was sweet but spoke no English, took us to "the pub," called Vic's (in the Worker's Stadium, north entrance). It's a chic, minimalist-designy dance place that you would never call a pub if you were not Chinese. They played 50 Cent and some Eminem remixes. Almost exclusively. But drinks were pretty cheap, and it was fun to watch the Beijing hipsters dancing.

And that was day one in Beijing.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

I ate chicken on the airplane but I still feel fine. (Should I have chosen the beef? Does Salisbury steak really come from Salisbury?) The first highlight of the 12-hour plane trip came when they started showing The Dukes of Hazzard, Knoxville version. Worst movie ever. But! Dubbed into Chinese, it's HILARIOUS. I am not kidding.

It was dark when we started flying into Beijing. Total blackness, and then suddenly there was this huge orange glow under the wing, like sunrise at the planetarium. The place is HUGE. It's 20 million people but looks a lot bigger than that from the air. Things were on fire all over the city, just these pedestals of fire placed at random. Maybe they're practicing for the Olympics.

Or maybe they're trying to keep warm. I knew it would be cold, but damn. Been around minus-ten celcius, which translates to f-ing FREEZING Fahrenheit. We tried to explore a bit that night and didn't get too far before we had to duck in to an alley bar for enough warmth to survive the walk back.

More soon!

Monday, January 02, 2006

As far as anyone can tell, I've failed in my attempt to catch "Mad Cow Disease" via my contact-lens solution.

I won't give up - it's the most exotically mundane method of dying I can think of, and I'm headed back to the UK this summer to try again.

In the meantime, though, it's Plan B: a two-week tour of Beijing and Hong Kong. If this doesn't at least get me bird flu, I will be very disappointed.

I leave tomorrow morning and arrive in Beijing sometime Wednesday evening, Jan 4. I'll post here as often as possible during the trip, detailing my overall health, symptoms identified, relevant food items eaten (chicken feet, Peking duck etc) and incidental adventures. I will also take photos but they may have to be added later, depending on technology. Hope you all enjoy it!