Friday, January 02, 2009

A Taste Of Harbin In Harbin

China has no drinking age.

Z and I are always offered beer or wine whenever we go out to dinner with other Chinese people. We usually decline and fill our cups with tea or soda.

In Harbin, though, we heard of a restaurant where they give bowls for you to drink your beer out of. Daddy's Harbin student had said that Harbin beer is much better than the beer in Beijing, so he was ready to try it.

When we got to this local dongbei (northeastern) restaurant and Daddy ordered a bottle of Harbin beer, the waitress brought over the bottle and four bowls...one for each of us! This was Z's and my chance to taste Harbin pijiu.

Ganbei! (Cheers!)

~Julie

A Familiar Taste In A Foreign Land

Today we had the chance to sample some of Harbin's finest dongbei cuisine. We stopped for what was supposed to be a "snack" at Da Fengshou. Advertised in Frommer's as serving China's answer to garlic mashed potatoes, as meat and potato people, we felt compelled to stop by.

After ordering some beverages (more on that in a later post), and the tudouni, we began to try to decipher the all Chinese language menu.

Deciding that we might seem out of place in a restaurant where every patron was eating the American equivalent of Thanksgiving dinner, given the quantity of food at every table, we ordered some delicious pork dumplings. Just then, a dish was delivered to the table next to us. It looked so familiar to us that we just had to inquire about it. "Steve," I said, "Ask them what they're eating!" (I do this in restaurants all the time when I spot an interesting dish go by, so Steve pretty much expects it now.) "Fuwuyuan," Steve said, "Zhe ge cai jiao shenme?" At that point, the waiter pointed to the characters on the menu that coincide with the dish, and Steve said, "Yao yi fen zhe ge." ("We'll take an order!") Today's selection? Stew! Just like my Mom makes (well, almost!). I know you've never seen stew on a Chinese take-out menu...Me neither! All I can say is the Russian influence on Chinese cuisine works for me! Given my Eastern European heritage, what could be finer than this type of fusion on a cold winter's day? Add that to the hong chang we feasted on earlier in the day (which tasted strikingly similar to Grampy's Hungarian kielbasi), and we're talking comfort food.

Some snack, huh? (And all for 104 kuai!)

~Desi

A Slimy Red Piece of Skin In Your Mouth (On Ice?)

I guarantee that almost every single child on Earth has gotten their tongue stuck to ice or a pole...right, Sam?

I guess that, in kids' minds, we all believe that licking is a way to "taste" different places, things, and cultures. Well, Julie and I were in one of those moods today at the ice and snow city in Harbin.

After a quick pit stop at the front gate WC, we headed over to an ice pagoda. I, yet again, was the daredevil. One quick lick of the pagoda wall and we wouldn't stop!

We licked and licked. We even stuck our tongues to some places.

After licking half the city of ice, we come, yet again, to my "unfortunate" event. We were in this one building. There was a maze of ice inside. Julie and I licked. We were in a small cubby at the end of the maze, licking while we waited for Daddy...when it happened.

I decided to get my tongue stuck to the ice. I know she was trying to help, but my tongue wasn't actually stuck. Mom chopped my tongue off the ice, karate-style. Literally! Ask her. That just killed my tongue. It still hurts now, hours later!

~Zoli

A Friendly Warning To Harbin Visitors

Here was the scene as we left the Harbin Ice and Snow World earlier this evening (right after a rousing chorus of fireworks that added even more color to the evening)...

All along the side of the parking lot and road were taxis and private cars, lined up to ferry people back across the river to the city proper. "Great," we thought. "No problem hitching a ride to the hotel."

As we were having this happy thought, we were interrupted by a series of hawkers, presumably owners of those ubiquitous little silver vans, offering to drive us back to town. Duo shao qian, I inquired. Wu shi kuai, came the response. Now, keep in mind that it cost us 22 kuai, in a metered taxi, to get out to the park. So, I didn't even slow down for a second when receiving offers of 50 kuai for the return trip. One persistent driver chased after us and lowered the price down to 40 kuai. At this point, Julie suggested that we just ignore these drivers and hail a cab.

Upon reaching the main road, that's just what I did. The driver rolled down the window and made an offer of 40 kuai. "How about you use the meter?" This inquiry/suggestion was met with laughter. It was a good idea, Julie. It's just that even the taxi drivers are looking to get in on some of the action come ice festival time.

Now, at this point, one driver was still chasing after us, and his price had come down to 30 kuai. Now we were at least in the ballpark. And it was an offer significantly better than what anyone else had come up with. So into the van we jumped.

The only problem? We didn't actually start going anywhere. Instead, the driver began to troll the side of the road for a couple of other passengers. You see, there were still two empty seats, and I guess he was determined to fill them before making the trip into town. At one point, he jumped out of the van altogether, his hunt apparently getting more and more desperate.

We then decided to force the issue a bit. When he was maybe fifty yards down the road, working the crowd at a bus stop, the four of us jumped out and began walking down the road. At that point, he came sprinting back. I yelled out to him in Chinese, "We can get there quicker if we walk!" That seemed to do the trick, and off we went.

The whole first half of the trip, the driver tried to convince me that we had to add money to the 30 kuai price, because we were his only passengers. Then, at one point, I noticed that he seemingly wanted to go in a direction that was not where our hotel is located. My suspicion was that he wanted to find a closer, more central place to unload us, so he didn't have to go all the way out to where we are staying. When I began to point out his "error," he changed tactics yet again. Wo zhidao, he said over and over again. "I know where the hotel is. I know better than those taxi drivers." And sure enough, he got us home lickety split.

His last gambit? As I was paying, he used a really whiny Chinese phrase...xinku. It's kind of like saying, "Oh, this is so bitter. I've taken you all the way out here. Can't you pay just a little bit more for my arduous and earnest effort?" Needless to say, I didn't go for that line. I do, however, have his business card. There is the ride back out to the airport in a couple of days to think about...

~Steve

PS: Speaking of the airport, you may want to negotiate the price to your hotel before jumping into a taxi when you arrive. And always keep an eye out on the meter, to make sure it is working, but not running too fast...

Seriously...The Harbin Ice And Snow World Is Ridiculous!

And here are just a few more pictures to prove it...

~Steve

The Five Senses of China

Part II: Touch

We've been a few places and seen a few things, but in terms of feats in human creativity and effort, this one is going to be tough to beat.

Take your perfect image of winter--snow as white as, well, as snow, glistening ice, and perhaps a one-horse open sleigh--and deposit it on the bank of a frozen river with a pink sunset tickling the horizon as neon lights begin to flicker from one-hundred foot ice replicas of churches, temples, mosques, and, of course, ice slides (right, Z!?). The artistry and workmanship that have gone into creating Harbin's 10th annual Ice and Snow World provides an atmosphere and experience that is both interactive and visually appealing.

Yet perhaps beyond all the sights and sounds of this triumph of humankind (they even have beautiful music piped in, including selections like Bolero), there is a feel to this place that leaves an indelible image on the mind. The feel of the ice beneath our gloves. The feel of the sub-freezing breezes on our cheeks (which left all of our faces as pink as Rianna's party cheeks). The feel of chilly toes and cold bursts of air in our lungs as we sped down bumpy four-story ice slides. The feel of winter's touch on our nose...

You get the "feeling" that this place is like no other. We certainly "feel" that way.

~Desi

The Making Of Snow Sculptures

Here in Harbin, there are two types of sculptures...those made out of ice and those made out of snow. According to the locals, the ice sculptures are best viewed at night, when the lights built into the blocks are illuminated to full effect. As for the snow sculptures, daylight is supposedly prime time, given their lack of internal lighting.

As it turned out, we happened to arrive at the snow sculpture exhibit in the evening. This meant that we had the park to ourselves (a rarity in China, that's for sure!). All to ourselves, that is, with the exception of the workers who were laboring well into the night on the sculptures that were not yet finished.

What a lucky accident! It was way, way cool to see bulldozers pushing away piles of chiseled snow. Making snow sculptures definitely requires a lot of brute force! And it was equally cool to watch teams of artists (there's no other term to describe these craftsmen) carefully scraping the snow into faces and other detailed features that bring the sculptures to life.

The traffic cop says, "Come to life?" And then he swallows his whistle.

Just how by ourselves were we? When we were finally ready to leave, we found a gate leading out of the park. It was closed. (China loves it barriers and blockades!) At the gate, there was a guard house. In the guard house, there was a guard. (China does have 1.4 billion people to put to work!)

The guard rolled away the gate, and we quickly rejoined Harbin's regularly scheduled programming. I have to say, though...The respite was kind of nice! I think the four of us will each have very vivid memories of our evening spent alone, with just the snow sculptures and their makers...

~Steve

What To Wear In Harbin

For the last few days, I've felt like a puffalump. Despite losing a few pounds since arriving in China (no doubt from all the walking...not the lack of food!), in Harbin I wear so many layers that I definitely waddle. Take last night...Since preparation for the sub-freezing temperatures is necessary, I wore the following...

Two pairs of socks.
Heavy boots with "toasty toes" inside.
A pair of fleece-lined long johns.
Yang rong (those long johns with the wool inside).
Ski pants.
An undershirt.
A long johns shirt.
A long-sleeved t-shirt.
Heavy sweat shirt.
Two coats with hoods.
A scarf.
Mask.
Hat.
And two pairs of gloves.


No wonder Steve has to help me get my foot into and out of taxis (a sight in itself!). I can hardly bend my legs, but I am warm and, given our latitude, this line-up is not overkill.

As beautiful as Harbin is (and I'm finding that there is no match for the winter beauty here), I think it would be very stressful to actually live here since just getting dressed is a major undertaking.

~Desi

PS: The Harbin "challenge" consists of getting fully outfitted in all of your gear before you start sweating profusely. (Haven't passed that test yet!)

Delving Into Dongbei Cuisine

There are a ton of things I love about traveling, like visiting famous places, shopping in local shops, and talking to the natives. But, as you probably know, a true way to taste a place is to eat...a lot! So whenever we go on a trip, Daddy asks his students about famous foods that we should try. Luckily, for this trip, one of Daddy's students is a Harbin native...Jackpot! She named the most famous and "most delicious" for us to try.

(1) Dongfang Jiaozi Wang. ("Orient King of Dumplings," or something like that.) Although Shanghai and other places in southern China are said to have the best of the best when it comes to dumplings (a statement I used to agree with), these Harbin dumplings are incredible. No doubt, we will be back for the delicious corn and pine nut jiaozi, or the baicai (white cabbage) flavor, which, for the record, comes either boiled or fried. Not to mention the delicious soup they bring out, which is the water the dumplings were previously cooked in. This is a phenomenon all over China that deserves a blog of its own. The "Dumpling King" sure knows how to fill your stomach.

(2) Bing tang hu lu. A fall and winter treat, these sugar-covered fruits can be seen almost anywhere. They are made with different kinds of fruit, but the most famous are the Chinese apples. We had tried these in Beijing, but were not impressed, since the fruits were small and had pits. When Daddy's student suggested we try the bing tang hu lu in Harbin, and said it was much better with bigger fruits, we were skeptical but tried it anyway. Wow! That is one delicious, pitless treat!

(3) Ice lollies. Yes, we are in below freezing temperatures, but these ice lollies were said to "make you feel so wonderful inside." And they definitely were delicious. They are sold in a very narrow shop on the central avenue pedestrian area. They taste sort of like a Chinese candy you can get in Chinese stores back home. The best part...They don't melt!

(4) Hong chang. Thanks to the Russian influence in Harbin, you sometimes feel and in this case east like you are in Europe. Smoked sausage, anyone?

(5) Dalieba. Now imagine walking into a small bakery and asking for this Russian bread you have heard about. The man walks over to a pile of big brown bags and says to you, ershi kuai si jin. "Twenty yuan for two kilograms." That's about three dollars for four pounds of bread. Now this bread is huge! It is in a big circular loaf and tastes similar to rye or sourdough. It's yummy, but I think you probably could kill someone with it!

More to come later on Harbin specialties...

~Julie

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Feed A Live Chicken To A Siberian Tiger For Only Six Dollars!

This was the opportunity that presented itself to us upon the conclusion of our Siberian tiger safari. The park has this pedestrian walkway that snakes above several large enclosures and fields where dongbei hu roam freely about. Well, actually, many of the tigers hang out in this one area, right below where a guy stands all day with a cage of chickens. You see, for forty kuai, you can purchase a live chicken, which you can throw down to the tigers, to watch them devour in a flurry of feathers and squawking.

Upon reaching this platform, I opened my wallet and pulled out forty kuai to give to Z. I am happy to report that Z passed the test!

I can't say the same thing about this other guy who was passing by at the same time as us. Our attention was attracted by the sounds and sight of this guy, surrounded by his posse, holding a live chicken by its neck. Time and time again, he held the chicken right up against the metal fencing, tantalizing the tigers with the prospect of a fresh meal.

The crowd roared its laughing approval. Actually, there was this other group that kept muttering things like, "Why doesn't he just get it over with?" There was one woman who was moved to tears. For our part, we stood there in stunned silence, with a primal urge to watch as the feeding unfolded. As Desi later put it, it was a pathetic and heartbreaking display of a "man over beast" mentality.

At one point, the man grabbed the chicken by its feet, so it would have the freedom to flap its wings, thereby driving the waiting tigers into an even greater frenzy. As for the "hunt" itself, it was over in a second, in a blur of fighting Siberian tigers.

Let me make it clear. Siberian tigers eat live animals. I, of course, have no problem with that end of things. The rest of the scene, though...Let's just say that it did not bring out the best in any of us...

~Steve

White Tigers, Ligers, and White Lions? Oh, My!

Whenever I teach about genetics, my students routinely inquire about animal rarities. I'll speak about hybrids, like donkey + horse = mule. And they'll ask about ligers. I'll lecture about homozygous recessive traits. And they want to know about white tigers.

Today, I had the opportunity to see both "species" and finally have some fodder, and pictures, for next year's lesson. These two types of animals are uniquely beautiful, but do spark debate amongst the scientific community. Since ligers are formed by the mating of two different species of animals who do not normally breed together in nature, and since white tigers often have many health woes due to their genetic frailty (the National Zoo in Washington, DC has decided that their current white tiger will be their last), it is unlikely that they will ever amount to numbers more than a handful.

Perhaps the unexpected treat of this trip, though, was the pair of white lions that the Siberian tiger park had on exhibit. I had never even heard of white lions before! While they are not pure white like the tigers, their coat definitely has a different look to it. The sheen and highlights have a strange hue. They are truly a sight. And maybe worth a class trip next year...No, I don't think MCPS will go for it either, unfortunately!

~Desi

Our Chinese Safari

It was with a mix of excitement and trepidation that we set out for Dongbei Hu Linyuan, a Siberian tiger park out at the edge of Harbin. Excitement at the prospect of seeing Siberian tigers up close in the region where they once roamed in large numbers. Trepidation at the thought of what a Chinese safari park would actually be like. (Have we ever told you about the time, back in 2004, when we saw a Siberian tiger being kept in a small cage in subtropical southwestern China? The whole idea was that you could go into the cage, sit on his back, and have your picture taken. Which many parents were letting their small children do...) Both of these emotions were definitely experienced over the course of a few hours.

To begin with, after purchasing our tickets, we were waved into a building to wait for our bus number to be called. No big surprise here...The waiting area consisted of a gift shop packed with dongbei hu-inspired memorabilia and trinkets. Somehow, all four of us resisted the urge to have our photo taken and superimposed on a digital image of a Siberian tiger!

When the call went out, we jumped onto our bus, which had cages around windows that slide open. Suitably protected, in past a series of mechanical gates we went. It wasn't long before we began seeing Siberian tigers, walking around, laying down, and playing with each other.

Some of these encounters were of the very close kind. Julie had the window open, and her hand out of a hole in the cage, when an African lion (yes, there are other large predators roaming around the Siberian tiger park!) came up and brushed against our bus...right below Julie's window! (Note to grandparents...She pulled her hand in as the beast approached!) Overall, there indeed was a high level of excitement on the bus, thanks to the size and beauty of the animals.

As for the trepidation, there were the tigers, dozens and dozens of them, pacing and growling in small cages. Even some of the animals in the "open" spaces were walking back and forth along the edges of fences. I kept trying to convince myself that I should be thankful for the park, because without it the Siberian tigers might very well be approaching extinction.

So, yes, I really enjoyed the place. But I don't really have the ambition of going on too many safaris in my lifetime...

~Steve

Sliding...Harbin Style!

Flat, steep, bumpy...you name it! Every single kind of ice slide you can think of is found in Harbin!

If you read other posts from Harbin, you can gather that Harbin is way up north and has an ice and snow festival. Well, the ice festival is awesome! Don't let me spoil it for you. All I want you to know about are the ice slides. Yes, you heard me...ice slides.

The things I have been most interested in (in Harbin) are the ice slides. They were the most advertised thing of all. This one picture I saw somewhere got me started. For this slide, you got to ride a rickety old metal sled down to a frozen river for ten kuai. As it turns out, this slide was just the beginning.

As you might guess, the river not only had that slide, but also horse and dog sleds, skating, and snow mobiles. These were just a few of the other attractions. We only did the slide, but I will definitely go back!

It was dark out, so the next thing on our docket was...ice sculptures! Well, I can't spoil another topic...right, Mom!? All I will say is...WOW!

We walked the ten minute walk to where the ice sculptures are. After buying our outrageous one hundred yuan tickets, we were in.

In this park, I had no idea there would be ice slides. I thought they were all at the ice city...oops! How wrong I was! Once we were deeper into the park, I realized that everywhere you turned there were ice slides. And they were free!

Let's see...I believe there was a total of about ten slides, give or take. My favorites were the two large castle slides and the small fast one.

All of the slides in the park ranged from sleek to bumpy, flat to steep, and curved to straight. The big castle with the two slides--the main attraction--was the overall best and most fun. My personal favorite--the small, sleek one--we stayed at the longest. It was about five feet long. I slid down it in every way I could think of. Sit, stand, stomach, back, head first, feet first...you name it!

Now comes the embarrassing part...I fell! We were on the little slide when I took a big risk. I went down on my feet. Yep...My feet flew out from under me! Next thing you know, I am laughing on the ground with a sore back. (Someone else copied me later and fell, too.) I won't be trying that stunt again...Right, Mom!?

Now, you want to know about the lamest slide. This slide had the second longest line. It was on the Pirates of the Caribbean ship. We waited almost twenty minutes to ride a "one mile an hour" slide. Whew!

I have to say it again, even though it is obvious...this park is awesome! It is a one of a kind. Forget Disney next winter. Go to the Harbin ice festival!

~Zoli

When Fantasy Meets Fact

Most people who really know us know that the Ballas just aren't Disney people. In actuality, we have nothing against the place. In fact, Steve and I started dating during our high school senior trip to Disney! Many of our best friends frequent the place and would probably move into the Polynesian permanently, if given the chance (right, Donna!?). That being said, we've had a few conversations with other families about this topic, and have come to the conclusion that fact wins out over fantasy in our household.

So here we are in real Harbin. It's freezing cold and the ice is thick. We head to Zhaolin Gongyuan for the ice sculpture festival and can see its beauty from blocks away. Huge ice buildings, some as tall as five stories, lit in neon colors, and glistening in the night. We hurry to the ticket gate, and are greeted with this year's theme. You've got it...Disney!

This struck me so funny, given our orientation with respect to Disney. No matter, it was as spectacular as Disney itself (and even included two rounds of fireworks!), with thematic sculptures of characters and scenes, structures like the ship from Pirates of the Caribbean, spaceships from Toy Story, and, of course, Cinderella's castle.

While the Chinese clown band could have been left off the schedule, this was a great opportunity to hang with Mickey and the gang on a New Year's Eve that will be difficult to forget...Fairy tales really can come true!

~Desi

They've Got It Covered

The man/woman power present here in Beijing and beyond never ceases to amaze me. Sometimes it seems like different tasks--tasks that no one anywhere else would even consider taking on--are accomplished overnight. There are many jobs and many people to do them...and they do them well.

Take the latest seemingly impossible task...protecting plant life from winter's chill. Workers have constructed all types of coverings to protect bushes, shrubs, and trees by wrapping them individually, building structures around them, and covering them with tarps or, in the case of large trees, constructing tall wind breaks that block the northwest winds.

While of course not every single plant is given full treatment, the numbers that are are truly impressive. I guess it's a part of this "waste not, want not" mentality. In my mind, I'm looking forward to the spring when all of these "packages" will be unwrapped, revealing the beauty and freshness of new growth.

And I thought putting up all that snow fencing on the National Mall was a big job!

~Desi

You Can't Bike On This City Wall

One of the absolute coolest things we have done here in China is bike the city wall in Xi'an (click here for the story). Beijing too had a city wall dating back many hundreds of years. Notice the use of the word "had." Today, all that remains are a few gates here and there and a stretch of wall in the southeast corner of the city.

What happened to all of those guard towers? Were they destroyed in wars long ago? Well, yes...But then they were subsequently rebuilt and fortified. Were they smashed and burned by the Anglo-French forces? Sure, there were some foreign incursions into the center of old Beijing.

The biggest culprit, though, was not politics, but rather the economy and China's own push toward modernization. At least this is the impression I got when walking through the exhibits inside the Qianmen, the most important remaining piece of Beijing's wall. And how exactly did I get this impression? According to the displays, many of the gates met their demise in the 1960s, which is precisely when, I believe, the second ring road was constructed right over where the wall used to stand. So it seems that China's leaders themselves put out the call to raze the wall.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that the second ring road is an important and useful piece of modern Beijing's transportation system. That said, I can't help but feel a little bit sad that such a grand piece of China's history has been lost forever...

~Steve

Taking The Flag Down

Every night, the flag flying over Tian'anmen Square is taken down with great fanfare. It is one of the few ceremonial rituals we have come across in a country that is surprisingly devoid of routine, ongoing expressions of faith, patriotism, and collective identity.

It's a pretty simply ritual. People gather ahead of time, and the mood at the north end of the square turns pretty subdued as dusk approaches.

Then, from under the ever watchful eye of the Chairman, out comes a procession of People's Liberation Army soldiers. The traffic on Chang'an Jie is stopped while the soldiers make their way into the square. With a series of precise steps and maneuvers, the soldiers bring the flag down and march it back over to the Forbidden City.

It's the kind of communist presence that many outsiders expect to see everywhere upon arriving in China. For us, though, such instances have proven few and far between. That's either a reflection of our law abiding nature, the state of today's China, or, most probably, a little bit of both...

~Steve

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Here's A Bathroom Photograph I Can Show You

A random question for the day...Why do automatic flushers in China's urinals discharge water when you first step up, rather than after you have finished using them?

~Steve

Walking On The Street Under The Great Wall

I can't emphasize strongly enough the mixing of buses, cars, motorbikes, and bicycles that comes into play when walking around many, if not most, places here in China. There just isn't that separation between pedestrians and operators of vehicles that we grow up with in the United States.

At first, this can be disconcerting. Getting the kids to constantly move out of the way. Amazed that you don't see people lying on the ground everywhere.

Then you begin to develop a sixth sense. Now it is Julie herding us to the side of the road. Or it is me looking back to see Z naturally, without consciously thinking of it, move to the side when a car is approaching from behind.

Yep, that is the Badaling section of the Great Wall, crowded even in the dead of winter...

~Steve

Long Underwear For Buildings

When the weather started turning cold back in the fall, I was totally surprised to see these big, heavy green things all of a sudden hanging from doors everywhere, from restaurants to markets and places in between. They are kind of hard and scratchy on the outside, and on the inside as thick as the warmest comforter you've ever slept under (not that you'd ever want to sleep under one of these monsters!).

What these barriers mean is that, to get into or out of a place where they are hanging, you have to push them aside and sort of ram and wiggle your way through. No graceful entrances or exits during Chinese winter! (I did inadvertently use these blockades [As you can tell, I have no idea what to call them!] to cause a bit of a stir in this tiny noodle shop up in Chengde. I kind of stumbled in while at the same moment removing my woolen hat, eliciting an audible wah!...a Chinese expression of stunned approval...from the laoban. Between the blankets and my hat, I had the element of surprise on my side. All of a sudden, without warning, there I was...a waiguoren in a place that probably does not see very much foreign traffic.)

So...And here's the big question I suppose...Do these devices actually work? The key thing to remember is that many little establishments don't have any heat at all, or they do not have thermostats that would enable them to crank up the hot air...if they could afford to, that is. With this in mind, my bottom line is that many places are still pretty darn cold inside, cold enough where I have eaten a number of meals without taking my coat off. My guess, though, is that these joints would be much more at the mercy of Beijing's sometimes whipping winds if it weren't for the ugly contraptions hanging from the doors. As with many things in this country, it's function over style...And that's fine by me!

~Steve

I Eat Lamb, I Wear Lamb...I Am Lamb!

Lamb is one of the defining themes in my life these days.

(Warning!: Here comes a post where I talk about three things that are not at all related, except in the deep recesses of my sometimes hard to fathom mind...)

For one thing, we are on this big time hot pot kick. Desi insists that we go for huo guo twice a week. I think Julie will agree with me when I say that it is more like every other day...not that we're complaining! Hot pot is one of China's true culinary delights. I know I have enjoyed the opportunity to boil up some spicy pieces of lamb meat (that would be the red half of the pot). I've also been known to "accidentally" drop some in for Desi (that would be the milder white side). I haven't had this much lamb since Grampy's Sunday afternoon lamb roasts way back when...

And often when I'm feasting on yang rou, I'm also wearing yang rong. Translation...I'm not only eating lamb meat, I'm wearing lamb's wool as well. (We'll have to save the zhende haishi jiade discussion for another time...That is, is it real lamb's wool?) I came to China not expecting to purchase a single item of clothing. I have the clothes I need, I'm not looking to expand my wardrobe...You get the idea. But there I was, in a local marketplace, haggling with a merchant over the price of these lamb's wool long underwear. I think I was half into it for the sport of jiang jia ("talking price"), and half into it because I was curious about the whole long underwear thing. Well, before I knew it, I was the proud owner of the warmest piece of clothing I have ever had. I wore my yang rong all around Chengde and felt toasty the entire time, even out on the frozen lake (well, maybe toasty is a bit of an exaggeration). And now that we are heading to Harbin this week, Desi and the kids have followed suit and added lamb's wool to their expanding China collections...

In the meantime, with Lunar New Year around the corner, I recently rediscovered my Chinese zodiac sign. (I say rediscovered because, of course, I was aware of this back home from many meals spent studying paper place mats in Chinese restaurants. By the way, those things don't exist here..) So, what is my sign? Yep, you guessed it...I'm a lamb.

Does that make me a cannibal?

~Steve

"It's Time For The Movie, Guys!"

About once every week or two, Julie, Mom, and Dad jump when I shout,"IT'S TIME FOR THE MOVIE, GUYS!" When they hear this, they go into hyper-speed to get ready for the night's movie.

Just for fun, if we have time one night, we will all assemble in the family room/Mom and Dad's bedroom (herded by me) for a movie. Since we moved to China, I have sort of started a movie collection. We now own The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, Enchanted, Wall-E, Zathura, Harry Potter II, Harry Potter III, and, since Christmas, Journey to the Center of the Earth and Veggie Tales: The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything. Also since Christmas, Julie owns The Princess Diaries I and II.

The Set-Up...

We normally set up in Mom and Dad's bedroom. We lay on their bed for the movie. (Tight fit!)
In the center, Dad lays with the computer on his lap. Once I fix up the movie, we begin.

So far, we have watched Enchanted, Wall-E, Zathura, and Journey to the Center of the Earth together. Julie and I sometimes watch the movies by ourselves. We have watched Prince Caspian, Wall-E, Enchanted, Harry Potter II, Harry Potter III, and Zathura. Next on our docket is The Princess Diaries.

Reviews...

Mom: "My favorite movie so far is Journey to the Center of the Earth."
Dad: "My favorite movie was Journey to the Center of the Earth."
Julie: "I don't have a favorite."
Me: "Hard to tell. I can't pick. "

We recently upgraded when Santa got us a DVD player. It is not installed yet, but Dad's students are going to try soon. Stay tuned...

~Zoli

PS: When we watch movies on the computer, it is hard for everyone to see the screen. With the DVD player attached to the TV, the picture will be big enough for us to see without having to adjust the screen every five minutes.

A Balla Christmas Day

So how do you spend Christmas afternoon when you are away from your family, in a country that barely notices what day it is? One option is to spend time with American friends, enjoying a traditional Christmas meal in a Western restaurant. Another possibility is to invite Chinese friends to come over and observe how a Christian family spends the day feasting, resting, and having fun.

While both of these choices were definitely tempting, we opted for "door number three"...A quiet day, just the four of us, enjoying some local sites and food. A stroll in the brisk air through the Summer Palace, and a tasty dinner of hot pot to warm us up. Not a traditional Christmas, that's for sure. But a really enjoyable one, nonetheless...

~Steve