Saturday, August 08, 2009

Security Breach In Tiananmen Square

Have you ever wondered why there is such tight security around the flag that flies high over Tiananmen Square? As this sequence demonstrates, you never can be too prepared. Threats to law and order can come from, shall we say, unanticipated sources...

~Steve

Xiao Fei

One of the most relaxing ways to enjoy the lotus blooms in Yuanmingyuan is to jump on a flat-bottomed boat and get paddled across the lake. Bird's eye views of the lotus. The soft splish splash of the oars.

About half way through the ride, all of this wonderful silence was broken when our driver bent down and asked me, ba xiao fei gei wo, hao ba? ("Can you give me a tip?")

Now, this was a most unusual request, to say the least. Over the past year, about the only places where we have offered tips have been the luxury, western-brand hotels we have had a few chances to stay at.

My sense is that our driver would never have asked this question had the passengers in his boat been of Chinese descent. Certainly, this was a ploy to coax some cash out of this family of laowai. Regardless, I nodded and expressed my willingness to fork over a xiao fei.

Satisfied for the moment, our driver picked up his oars and continued paddling us toward our destination. A few minutes later, though, shifu stopped the boat for a second time, and repeated his query.

"Of course I will give you a tip. As soon as we get to the dock, I'll take care of it."

"No, no," came the reply. "You need to do this right now, before we get in sight of laoban (the boss)."

"Oh! I get it now! Here you go..." I mean, how can you not reward such a crafty, subversive capitalist in the making!?

~Steve

Here's A Post That Will Mean Nothing To Anyone Besides The Four Of Us

All year long, we have fantasized about opening up a western passage into Yuanmingyuan. Say what? Here's what you need to know...

Yuanmingyuan is an absolutely massive complex of gardens and palace ruins. It stretches miles across from east to west and north to south.

We live essentially across the street from the western edge of Yuanmingyuan. (Yuanmingyuan Xi Lu, the nearest main drag to Yan Bei Yuan, translates as "Yuanmingyuan West Street.")

The only three entrances to the park are located way over on the east side of the grounds, a good number of bus stops away from Saoziying.

With all of that in mind, we have continually plotted ways in which we might scale the wall or surrepticiously slide through a worker's gate, as a point of accessing Yuanmingyuan right from our house, using our own eight feet. Luckily, we never did need to rely on such drastic measures.

Just a few weeks ago, we noticed potted plants being assembled, a big banner being hung, and a small kiosk being set up. Curious and hopeful, we took a walk down there one morning, and, yep, it is indeed a new, western entrance into Z's beloved Yuanmingyuan.

Just one of those small victories in everyday life...

~Steve

One More Time With The Beida Gang

You may recall that, last fall, some of my Beida students gave me my Chinese name. Well, things came full circle the other night, when we all went back to the very same fish restaurant where I first became Bai Jun Zhu. This time, it was me on the giving end and my students on the receiving end.

No, I did not give the gang English names...Many of them already have that angle covered. Rather, it was time to offer advice on preparing to attend graduate school in the United States. Maybe the next time we see each other, it will on the other side of the world!

~Steve

Hacking Our Way Across Beijing

One of the popular pastimes in Chinese parks is kicking around a shuttlecock made of feathers. A year ago, we were, truth be told, dreadful, really dreadful. As time has gone by, though, all four of us have developed some skill, not a lot, but enough to keep the bird flying for a few consecutive kicks.

The key? Take a look at Julie's form here...She has just propelled the birdie off the instep of her foot. This is a very reliable approach, much more so than using the top of your foot.

Next time you pay a visit to Matey Road, ask us and we'll pull out a birdie and introduce you to hacking, Chinese style.

~Steve

The Egg

China's national performing arts center is quite the architectural masterpiece or monstrosity, depending on your point of view. Sad to say, we never did make it to a show at the Egg. But, as I like to say, xia ci ba! (Next time!)

~Steve

Liqun Roast Duck

As she will be the first to tell you, Desi was insistent that we not leave Beijing without one more pilgrimage for Peking Duck. This time, our search took us to Liqun Roast Duck, a little place located down in an old hutong. Just follow the ducks painted on the brick walls. You know you've arrived when you see the real ducks hanging in a brick oven.

As you can see (or not see, actually), the duck was excellent. Now, where can we get good Peking Duck in Washington or New York?

~Steve

Blue Line Marathon

Question: What is that blue line you see at tourist spots around Beijing, as well as when you walk across some of the city's wide avenues?

Answer: A year later, this blue line is a remnant of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. The line denotes the path that the marathon followed, from way down south at the Temple of Heaven, up to Beida, where it crosses right in front of my office (recall that I had a bird's eye view of the Paralympic marathon), and finally ending at the Bird's Nest.

We've enjoyed tracking the marathon's path in our journeys around the city. We'd show you all of the pictures, but they are essentially identical to the one you are looking at...Me standing on the blue line...What's in the background is all that varies...

~Steve

How About This Little Empress?

We had a good time just sitting there, looking on...

~Steve

The Five Senses Of China

Part V: Taste

One of the preconceived notions that I had about living in China gets blown out of the wok every day that I live here. You see, before leaving the US, I wondered how I could possibly eat Chinese food every day for a year. After spending my life in a country where Monday's selection is Italian, Tuesday's is Mexican, Indian on Wednesday, etc., I wondered how the people of China could eat the same kind of food day after day.

The errors in my thinking have become tastefully apparent, as I have realized that the entrees that I was considering were actually the American versions of Chinese food. The take-out menu delights, like egg rolls, chicken chow mein, and shrimp egg foo young, don't even really exist here. What I know now is that there's really no such thing as "Chinese food." Rather, given the local tastes of each region, as well as the seasonal selections of produce, you can probably eat a new dish every day for your entire life...No repeats!

Sichuan, Hunan, Yunnan, Mongolian, Dongbei...The menus are varied and delicious. And while you can probably get gong bao ji ding (Kung Pao Chicken) at any type of restaurant, chances are that each region will create its own tasty version.

To choose a favorite dish is impossible. To choose a favorite regional cuisine is equally impossible. So, instead, in this blog, I will honor the wonderful representation of "Chinese food" that has fed us so well this year in Yan Bei Yuan's alleyway restaurants. Not only has the food in these fandian filled our bellies, but also the warm reception that we have received from the laoban, shifu, and fuwuyuan this entire year has filled our hearts.

From the Muslim restaurant's owner, who knows exactly how Z likes his chuanr prepared (and I mean exactly!),

To Hui Min, who knows not only how to tickle our Hunan taste buds, but also how to brighten our day every time we walk into "Restaurant #3" (even if it's just for tea),

To the "13 kuai" place (named as such because of what it costs for three overflowing dishes of mala doufu, tudo si, and rou si chao fan...how can they make any money when they charge so little!?) that we pass by every day and are greeted by a husband and wife whose smiles are the answer to China's energy crisis,

To "Restaurant #1," whose sizzling platters of bao cai, tu duo pianr, and doufu cubes are undoubtedly our favorite trio,

To "Restaurant #2," which we hold near and dear to our hearts, since it was our first ever foray into alleyway dining,

To the corner mala tang place, where we are always served without bags over our bowls (everyone else eats their dinner out of a plastic bag inside a bowl, but, for us, the wife washes the bowls before hand and serves us without the bags), which always makes us feel special,

To the "red restaurant," which always has a party atmosphere, as large groups are always chowing down on Sichuan delights while sharing huge bottles of beer and baijiu,

We will undoubtedly crave these intensely when we leave!

Despite this list, we have not even come close to sampling all the specialties that are right under our noses (literally!). The people who own and operate each one of these fandian have our sincere gratitude, for serving delicious food at unbeatable prices to a family of waiguoren in a way that always makes us feel welcome, comfortable, and, of course, full.

~Desi

And Speaking Of Observing The Unusual...

This is right up Desi's alley...Fighting succession one tuft of grass at a time...

~Steve

PS: This work was going on just a few steps away from the picture-taking couple in white...

Photo Session At The Temple Of Heaven

For some reason, this photo shoot captured my attention while waiting on line inside the echo chamber. I guess it is part of my current project to notice all of those little things that evaded my perception when I first arrived in China and passed through these sites.

~Steve

Morning Exercises

It is well documented how the parks of China are filled with people engaging in all kinds of physical activities, from taijiquan to ballroom dancing to games with paddles and shuttlecocks.

There is, however, a wholly different type of motion that takes place every day. This motion does not occur in parks, but rather in front of restaurants, hotels, hair salons, and other places of business. You see, it is common for the managers of these establishments to line their staff members up, provide them with their daily instructions, and lead them in a vigorous round of calisthenics.

I'd like to see how well that approach would go over in the local Golden Corral...

~Steve

Xiao Didi And The Watermelon Ball

Xiao Didi is a small boy who lives in the alleyway neighborhood of Saoziying. His family, as we have previously written about, operates a small restaurant that is one of our absolute favorite places to eat a meal in either China or the United States.

Over the course of the year, we have discovered a lot about Xiao Didi. For starters, he is a fanatic about cars. It is not uncommon for a family member or friend to walk Xiao Didi out to Yuanmingyuan Xi Lu, the main road that passes in front of our neighborhood, so he can stand there and watch the cars, buses, and sanlunche whiz by.

Armed with knowledge like this, Z has taken to spending more and more of his cash on small gifts for his "little brother." There was the remote-control car he gave to Xiao Didi a few weeks back. And then, when Z became captivated with the watermelon balls you can buy at convenience stores everywhere, it wasn't enough to pick one up for himself.

~Steve

PS: One day, when we were walking buy a little produce stand outside our building, I tried to make a quick switch, by putting down the watermelon ball and walking away with an actual watermelon. This led to a lot of cracking up on the part of the couple that works the stand. I have to say it felt good to be able to kid around like that. It felt natural. It was one of those little moments where I felt like, yeah, I really am part of this little Chinese community. And all because of a watermelon ball...

Selling Corn On The Long Corridor

Back in Beijing, with our time in China beginning to run short, Desi, the kids, and I embarked on a "victory tour" of sorts. We had the aim of paying one final visit to some of our favorite local sites, both famous and known only to us.

Along the way, we tried to look at these beloved places through fresh eyes. And so it was, during a stroll through the Summer Palace, that we decided not to just walk by the man selling ears of corn smack dab in the middle of this centuries-old World Heritage Site. We stopped. We looked. We bought an ear. Man, are we gonna miss little vignettes like this!

~Steve

On The Border

Back in Manzhouli for a few hours before our flight back to Beijing, we decided to go out to the China-Russia border, which is located at the edge of town. Now, this border area is no longer the main crossing point between the two countries. (Apparently, most traffic occurs at a newer, more distant location.) That said, it is the central place where trains, including the Trans-Siberian railroad, go back and forth.

Marked by two enormous gates, which all trains pass under as they negotiate the crossing, this spot struck us as unusual in a couple of respects. For starters, as you walk up to the gates, you are greeted by an old steam train set up in a parking lot. As our driver explained to us, this train is significant because it is the first train Mao Zedong ever rode in (or something to that effect). George Washington slept here!

The border also struck us as weird because there is a gate where you have to by admission tickets. Now, what we were buying admissions for was not exactly clear. Do we get to go closer to Russia? (Presumably, without visas, we would not be able to step into Russia itself.)

No matter. As I walked up to the window, the ticket seller informed me that waiguoren are not allowed to go through. "Really!?" came my startled reply. "Yes, really." I was tempted to ask why, but then I decided it just wasn't worth it. Rather, these four Americans just walked away from the border between China and Russia.

Well, actually, what we did was walk away from the tourist section of the border. We strolled off the beaten path. Down an alley between a couple of empty buildings. Through a marketplace that sells trinkets to Chinese and Russian tourists. Finally to an area where there was double fencing. Ah! A border that we can actually walk right up to! And we didn't even have to pay thirty kuai each!

~Steve

Good Morning!

Here is the sight that greeted Desi and me as we woke up at 4:30 in the morning to watch the sun rise on our last day out in the grasslands. Our camel friend was standing between us and the only running water in our little yurt complex, so we just spoke nicely to him (her?) and made our way on by.

~Steve

Bonfire In The Grasslands

Here is how the newly emerging domestic Chinese tourism industry packages an evening out in the grasslands. After a meal featuring Mongolian style lamb, the crew lights up a bunch of big bonfires and encourages the visitors to dance around in circles.

All the while, our thoughts were with the family we had just spent the day with. What do these real-life villagers think about their lives as they are portrayed to the rest of the Chinese population? As is normally the case, we walked about from this evening with questions, questions we previously didn't even know to ask. We're still waiting on the answers...

~Steve

Monday, August 03, 2009

They Have 1,500 Sheep

Jumping back into the milk truck, this time we had six people instead of five. So you can imagine how much tighter things were for the four of us adults up front!

We bumped our way maybe another ten kilometers out into the grasslands, heading toward a piece of land our hosts described as geng piaoliang ("even more beautiful!").

Our destination, it turned out, was a ranch where much of the herding and other hard farm work takes place on a daily (really, never ending) basis. It was outside this ranch where we saw enormous numbers of sheep being moved from one gigantic fenced field to another. How many sheep were there in all? According to son (as we'll call him), we were looking at a total of about 1,500 sheep. Wow!

Now who is this "son"? This is daughter's older brother. Like daughter, son goes to school in Hohhot, the distant capital of Inner Mongolia. Unlike daughter, son is in college, attending Mengda (Inner Mongolia University). His major is dongwu kexue. Do you want to guess what that is? Perhaps not surprisingly, given his family heritage, son is studying animal science.

As we wandered our way around the ranch and surrounding fields, we encountered visual evidence of all kinds of chores that are part of life on this particular working farm. In this vein, can you guess what that pile way in the background of the bottom picture is made of? Despite the presence of that lone cow standing there, what you are looking at is not cow manure at all...Actually, it's neatly stacked sheep manure. (The cow manure was just as meticulously arranged in a different pile about fifty yards away.)

Eventually, it was time for us to begin the long journey back to our little yurt village, as it was getting to be rather late in the afternoon. Thankfully, driver and daughter graciously agreed to bring us all the way back. Make no mistake...This was no small offer. We were maybe thirty kilometers away, and it takes a long, long time to cover such a distance when the road ahead (and back!) is full of bumps and gullies.

Arriving at our home base, there was one last treat in store for the four of us. You see, driver insisted on taking us all the way up to the front gate of the village, up the long driveway. Now, it just so happened that, at that very moment, dozens and dozens of people were gathered at the gate, engaged in some orchestrated activities. Driver pulled right up into the middle of the group and onto the grassy median (if you can call the side of a dirt road a median!). As you might imagine, there was lots of oohing and aahing when four waiguoren jumped out of a working milk truck, and stood there exchanged goodbyes with a pair of local farmers. Trust us, we really enjoyed the moment. Scratch that. We really enjoyed the whole day, the whole experience, from start to finish. And it was all thanks to one family of Mongolian farmers who didn't mind taking time out of their busy day to entertain their unanticipated guests, their visitors who just showed up unannounced on their doorstep. Wow!

~Steve

Our Mongolian Meal

After those magic words (jin lai ba) had been uttered, we walked onto the property of the family of our new driver friend. As we approached the house, Ma Ma (as we'll call her) came on out and welcomed us to drop our packs and make ourselves at home. In the meantime, driver (as we'll call him) ran out into the fields, where there were seemingly hundreds of cows grazing and, in the distance, even greater numbers of sheep being herded.

As we were getting comfortable, Ma Ma asked us if we were hungry. "Sure!" we answered in unison. "Great," came Ma Ma's reply, "We will all eat some special Mongolian food together."

Are you kidding me!? This is exactly what we were hoping for. The chance to sit down with a Mongolian family, way out in the middle of the grasslands, and just enjoy some time together. It had taken a flight to Manzhouli, a difficult-to-arrange excursion out to an imitation yurt village, and a five-hour hike along a desolate dirt road. It hadn't been easy, but we had finally found what we were looking for!

Before too long, out from the fields came driver, now accompanied by a young woman. It turns out that this was daughter (as we'll call her). Daughter is nineteen years old (by Chinese reckoning), and she is about to enter into her senior year of high school. How does one attend high school when one lives in a village that has a total of about one hundred houses? Well, you get on a bus and ride for something like nine hours to Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia. Daughter, you see, is home for summer vacation. A vacation that entailed, at least on this day, getting up at 4:30 in the morning to milk the cows.

As we all sat around talking, some of the neighbors popped their heads in, most of them too shy to get engaged in the conversation. But that was all right by us. We were just happy to be sitting in the shade, eating some watermelon, and using the facilities. (By the way, the "facilities" are shown in the second picture. This arrangement was no problem for us on a bright blue sunny day. But the winters in the grasslands get downright frigid, with Inner Mongolia being just over the border from Russia and those ferocious Siberian winds. How do you use the facilities when all that snow is happening out there?)

Now what about all of that special Mongolian food? First off, there was fresh lamb, eaten right off the bone. This is a case where the word "fresh" is certainly not being used lightly! Then there were delicious servings of yogurt that came with some kind of small, corn-like kernels floating in our bowls. These were foods that, although vaguely familiar, we had never eaten before, at least not prepared in these particular ways.

And the surroundings themselves were unbeatable. Green fields stretching out into the horizon. Blue blue skies with white white puffy clouds. Cows, horses, and sheep dotting the landscape. So it should come as no surprise as to what our answer was when an offer was made (our bellies satiated) for driver and daughter to take us out even deeper into the grasslands...

~Steve

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Riding In A Milk Truck

So here's where we pick up the narrative. We've been hiking across the grasslands for hours, admiring all of that flora and fauna. We've seen what looks to be a small outpost in the distance, but are still a ways away from making contact. There's no turning back.

At about that moment, a white truck with a big canister in its flatbed rumbles by us. At this point, we're all thinking that hitching a ride to that next village is a winning strategy. But it doesn't look like this particular working vehicle can accommodate all four of us. So we let it pass by without trying to flag it down.

Not far up ahead, though, the truck grinds to a halt, and the driver begins chatting with a man on a horse who has ridden up. We keep plodding along, and soon have left this impromptu grassland meeting in our literal dust. But just as quickly, the conversation ends, the truck fires back up, and then begins to gain ground on us once again. This time, as the truck reaches us, the driver leans out and motions us to jump into the cab with him. When I tell him that there are four of us (I guess he had already noticed that with his own two eyes!), he nods, and pulls forward the passenger seat, revealing a little back seat cubby. Julie and Z quickly jump in, the seat is folded back up, and off the five of us go together.

The driver then asks me where we are going. I tell him that we are making for that little village we keep seeing from the high points on the road. He smiles and informs us that that is his home village and he will be happy to take us there.

Now, although we had just spent hours walking along the dirt road, we hadn't realized just how bumpy and uneven its surface actually is. Why would we? But now that we were tightly packed into a rickety old truck, we had no choice but to get the message loud and clear. For my part, I can report being jostled about as we caromed from one mound of dirt to the next. Julie and Z, though, had the real "rumble seat." With their legs folded and bodies contorted, the two of them kept banging into the truck's side panels, the seats in front of them, and whatever else got in their way. Z especially sustained some bumps and bruises as we covered the last few kilometers out to our long sought destination.

Upon arriving in our driver's village, we uncurled ourselves and climbed down out of the truck. Thinking that this little part of our adventure was over, we got ready to throw our packs on our backs, and go off and wander through the village for a while, to see what trouble we could scare up.

It was at that moment that our driver said the key words of the day...jin lai ba. "Hey, why don't you guys come in!?"

You know already how we responded to that offer...

~Steve

PS: When I asked the driver what has was carrying in his canister, I fully expected his response to be something like oil or gasoline. Shows you how little I know about life out in the grasslands...

Grassland Fauna

Domesticated animals rule the cao yuan...horses, cows, and, of course, sheep. But hidden amongst the greenery are the arthropods...Mosquitoes especially, but other creatures as well. The second photo gives some perspective on a critter (Locust? Cicada? Grasshopper?) that happened to cross our path. For some reason, this giant brought to my mind the ten plagues, as I thought of how quickly the cao yuan would be consumed if these buggers get a little too hungry...

~Desi