Friday, August 31, 2012

Buying Beer Through The Fence

One of my regular evening rituals in Beijing is kicking back at the end of a long day with a big bottle of Yanjing Pijiu, a glorified bottle of water with a little beer thrown in for kicks.

Much better than the warm beer itself, and deep down perhaps the main reason why I persisted in this ritual, was the way in which I had to go about procuring my nightcap.

Those of you who have spent time in China know that it is a land of fences and gates. Access to each particular building and complex is closely controlled, much like things are in the gated communities normally associated with beach resorts and homes of Hollywood actors.

The little shop where I preferred to buy my beer was located just meters from the entrance to our apartment building. But, unfortunately, there was a fence in between me and my beer, as the shop was located in the next apartment complex over. Getting there would have required walking out onto Zhongguancun Lu, heading over to the main gate of that complex, past the security guard, and all the way back around to essentially where I started.

Luckily, the folks manning the shop have an alternate system worked out. All you do is walk up to the gate, belt out a Chinese grunt. (I can perform this grunt for you sometime, if you want to hear it. One day, years ago, after using this grunt, I was complemented on how good my Chinese is.) Upon hearing the grunt, the proprietors grunt back, walk outside, and ask you what you want. They then pass the product through the fence, you hand over your cash, and everyone goes back to their lives on their respective sides of the fence, never to actually cross paths.

Hey, it works!

~Steve

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Chinese Monopoly

One day, while walking on the street in front of our apartment, Z came across a guy with a wooden cart, selling board games and other such fun stuff. Unable to resist (good move!), Z put down something like a buck-fifty to purchase the Chinese version of Monopoly.

This particular Chinese Monopoly is not a version of the game adopted for the streets of Beijing. There is no Zhongguancun Lu, Friendship Hotel, or anything like that. Rather, the board is simply translated from its Atlantic City English directly into Mandarin, and badly at that.

My personal favorite is Park Place. In the original, of course, Park Place is the second most expensive property, a very upscale name that connotes the high life of the rich and famous.

In the Chinese version, however, Park Place is translated as ting che chang...parking lot. Get it..Park Place...the place where you park...ah yes, the parking lot.

~Steve

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Buying A Ladder In Beijing

Here's the story of how the Balla family (well, really I) could turn buying a ladder into a half-day misadventure.

One of the more unusual (for us) ongoing projects we worked on this summer was helping a friend do some renovations on her apartment. (If you've seen our house, you know that home improvement is far from one of our strong suits!)

The catastrophic flooding revealed a significant problem of water seeping into the apartment, so our friend wanted to get up on the roof to take a look and find the root cause of all of this damage. Needing a ladder, and skeptical of the quality of the product one can find in friendly neighborhood Chinese markets, our friend directed us to a British home improvement warehouse called B&G.

This B&G place is located in a corner of Beijing, outside the 5th Ring Road, that we seldom make it to, and none of us knew the precise location. So off we went, taking the subway to the nearest exit...Or so I thought. Turns out, my estimation was many miles off, and so we jumped into a taxi and told the driver the street where we were heading.

We could have saved ourselves hours of wandering if we had been more observant, as the taxi drove right past B&G. In fairness to ourselves and the driver, the warehouse was located back off the street and so was not in our immediate eyesight.

Eventually, a mile or so up the road, we got out of the taxi, and decided to pursue B&G on foot (we must be close!). But first...food! A great lunch of dao shao mian and some liang cai filled our bellies up, and back out into the heat we went.

Having to decide whether to walk north or south, we settled on north. (Of course, south was the right answer!) This path took us out into the hinterlands of an industrial section of nowhere Beijing, where we wandered for well over an hour, asking every other person if they knew where the B&G is. Eventually recognizing the error in our ways, we doubled back, past the place where we had lunch, and back down the road where we had driven several hours earlier. Yes, there was a happy ending, and we suddenly found ourselves transported from the gritty streets of suburban Beijing to what could have been the Home Depot in our neighborhood back in the States. What a crazy place, this Beijing!

Of course, there was one last problem...Finding a taxi driver who would let us bring a ladder into his car. Yes, there were drivers who turned us down once they saw what we were carrying.

In the end, we all got up onto that roof, found the clogged drain, and hopefully there will be no more lou shui (water leaking in front the outside). It was a straightforward mission, but one that turned into yet another lesson in patience and perseverance for Julie and Z (and me!).

~Steve

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Spiritual Nourishment And Food For The Body

We have a long history of biking to eat (kind of gets in the way of that staying in shape thing). For Z and I, the stop of choice on a forty-mile ride through Maryland, DC, and Virginia was a place called Weenie Beenie. I mean, how can you ride past a place with a name like that and not stop?

As a bonus, there is a recitation of the Ten Commandments on the wall, right next to a sign advertising Weenie Beenie's half smokes, the house specialty.

~Steve

The Hat Is In The House!

One of the items that (improbably) made it all the way from Beijing to Silver Spring (as Desi's carry on) is an ornate metal hat that is typically worn by women of one of China's fifty-six minorities (precisely which ethnic group I can't recall...Desi probably knows). Brought back as a gift (you guys know who you are!), it was fun for the crew to search out and bargain for this cool (and uncomfortable looking!) piece of metal at Panjiayuan market.

Anyways, the hat is now enjoying a temporary place of honor in our living room. We'd better get it out of here before everyone in the house becomes too attached!

~Steve

Monday, August 27, 2012

From Flying On Planes To Watching Them Land

A point of emphasis on returning to the US is getting on our bikes and working to stay in shape (well, improve our fitness, actually). And so there were Z and I, not long after flying around the world, watching the planes land at Reagan Airport at Gravelly Point, a park located right at the end of the runway. With views of the Washington Monument, Capitol Building, and other DC landmarks, it has been one of our favorite little places over the years.

In case you were wondering (you weren't), the legs are fine, but the saddles have done a number on our rear ends!

~Steve

Back In The USSR (And In The USA)

Here's one of the planes that carried us from Beijing back to New York, as pictured in the Moscow.

The weeks of radio silence are attributable to Desi arriving in Beijing and all of us enjoying our family reunion, finally being beaten down by slow Internet speeds, travel to the Chinese countryside where there is no such thing as the Internet, and visitors from the countryside who spent day and night on our laptop surfing a web that is normally beyond their reach.

A lot has happened over the past few weeks, many fascinating experiences and observations that we think are at least mildly entertaining. We will be posting the blogs we have written in the weeks to come, interspersed with stories about what is going on here in the USA in real time.

Ah, it sure is nice to post pictures and have them load immediately!

~Steve