One Country, Two Systems

Greetings from the future!

This dispatch comes to you from the financial hub of Asia — Hong Kong. There is so much to say about Hong Kong … where do I start? I know, with the 18-hour train ride from Shanghai that got us here. Up to this point, we’ve been spoiled by China’s high-speed train system — the G-train. It’s super clean, super smooth and super fast, averaging speeds of 124 mph. Sometimes, I found myself even wishing the train ride was a bit longer, like the 32 minute train ride from Suzhou to Shanghai.

Well, not this time. Anticipating the rise in prices that Hong Kong would bring and compensating for big spending nights in Shanghai, Chris and I decided to save a buck and take the slow train …

And boy-oh-boy was it slow … and smoky … and bumpy … and crowded, like six-person sleeper car crowded with entire elaborate family meals taking place on the bottom bunks. I was still recovering from a bad sheng jian bao incident in Shanghai (If you recall the doughy fried dumplings I raved about from Suzhou, I did not have the same love affair with Shanghai’s version, being that they made me violently ill.), so I quietly read my book from the top bunk whereas Chris joined in the festivities down below, feasting on duck, pickled vegetables and soybeans and downing bijou (rice wine). “Ganbei!” was shouted repeatedly, a cheers invoking you to empty your glass. Not surprisingly, the combination of pungent foods, rice wine and dozens of men smoking is not the best thing for a girl who recently reconfigured her digestive track.

Did I mention there was a fight? Before you start to worry, let me assure you we were in no danger. The fight was more theatre than legitimate threat; chest pounding of drunk, middle-aged men, and high pitched yelling from their wives. What went down exactly, we have no idea, but Chris and I, as well as the two American teachers we met (presently teaching in Abu Dhabi), tried our best to hide our laughter. It was a ridiculous and raucous scene.

But enough about the train, let’s talk about Hong Kong!

It’s impossible to describe Hong Kong without incorporating a bit of history. This is usually Chris’ area of expertise, but here’s my brief summary:

You probably know that the Brits ruled Hong Kong for a while, actually 156 years from 1841 – 1997. In 1841, China ceded Hong Kong, a sparsely populated island at the time, to Britain as a means of ending the first Opium War. The conflict had begun in 1839 when the British invaded China after China had attempted to suppress Britain’s opium trade (see Chris’ Shanghai post for more on opium’s influence in China). The British took over Hong Kong as a part of the Treaty of Nanjing, marking the beginning of the era of unequal treaties, a period in the 19th and 20th century where China was forced to handover control of many key territories (Chris wrote about this history previously in the post about Qingdao). As a British colony, Hong Kong thrived as an East-West trade point and epicenter of Western industry in Asia.

In 1898, China leased Hong Kong to the UK for an additional 99 years, and in 1997 rule over Hong Kong was peaceably transferred back to China on the condition that the Chinese communist party would maintain Hong Kong’s capitalist system, allowing Hong Kong to remain the financial center of Asia and thus creating the present status quo between China and Hong Kong as “one country, two systems.”

In short, Hong Kong is a lot like London but with much better weather.

So what does all this mean for our visit to Hong Kong? Western food at its finest! Pizza, pasta, tacos, burgers, fine dining or the best of comfort foods; it’s all here, it’s all good, and it’s all expensive. Our first night out, we gorged ourselves on gourmet pizza and red wine at an Italian restaurant in Lan Kwai Fong, a part of town celebrated for its culinary variety and nightlife. It was delicious and budget-wise comparable to a dinner out on 14th Street in D.C.

The most remarkable thing about Hong Kong is perhaps the very existence of this giant, lit-up metropolis, set smack dab in the middle of a wild, mountainous jungle. There is no other place like it that I’ve seen. We spent our days hiking on miles and miles of trails, and our nights out on the town, underdressed, weaving in and out of crowds of people from all over the world.

You want a suit? Ten men will offer to sell you one within 10 paces. You want a place to stay, this guy over here already has a room for you! Need to exchange money? Of course it’s not counterfeit! How about a watch? It’s fake, and that’s actually a selling point. Bottom line, there isn’t much you’ll want for in Hong Kong. Additionally, it’s a great place to load up on beauty products and over-the-counter medicine, being that they have an English-language pharmacy chain, Watson’s. [Note to female readers: much of the skin products (moisturizer, soap, sun tan lotion, etc.) in China and elsewhere in Asia have whitening agents in them, so this can make shopping for such things difficult if you are unable to read the labels.]

I’ve talked a lot about the Western food available in Hong Kong, but Eastern food shines here as well. Hong Kong is located across from mainland China’s Guangdong province, which was formally known as Canton. The people here speak Cantonese, not Mandarin like most of mainland China. Here is and interesting fact about Cantonese that I learned from Chris’ friend Chi-Kit, Hong Kong native currently living in Guangdong: The Cantonese language has nine tones whereas Mandarin only has five, making Cantonese the more complicated of the two. Chi-Kit took us to dinner one night (Thank you, Chi-Kit!), and he explained some of the nuances of the Cantonese language.

Now, back on the subject of food, Cantonese cuisine is the typical food in Hong Kong and the whole of Guangdong province. The most famous of Cantonese foods, at least in the West, is dim sum. This is China’s answer to Sunday brunch. Swap out eggs benedict for BBQ pork buns and mimosas for hot tea, and you have the same meal of friends and/or family getting together and stuffing their faces early in the day. [Some traditional places actually open as early as 5 a.m. and you can expect an elderly crowd at that hour.] We researched the best dim sum restaurants in Hong Kong and settled upon the restaurant crowned as the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant in the world, Tim Ho Wan. A crowd of people were already waiting outside when we arrived but our wait only lasted a few minutes and soon after being seated the feasting began.

Here are some other interesting things about Hong Kong:

  • Both Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee were born in Hong Kong. Kung Fu is a big deal. There is a statue of Bruce Lee on Hong Kong’s Avenue of Stars, which is comparable to Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. [Side note: We stayed at a hotel called Kung Fu Garden. There was a Kung Fu center on the main floor — no garden, however. Accommodations were not the best — did I mention how expensive Hong Kong is?]
  • Hong Kong is made up of 235 islands. Hong Kong Island is the main one. We stayed on Kowloon, which was just a five-minute ferry ride away. The ferry is cheap and it runs back and forth, non-stop, for most of the day, so you never have to wait long. The ride at night with the lit-up city skyline is magical.
  • There is a famous snake restaurant called She Wong Lam. At Chris’ charge, we set out for this restaurant. When we arrived, a live, caged snake greeted us at the door. Much to Chris’ dismay and my relief, we discovered that the place only serves food in the fall and winter seasons. Right now they just sell snake products purporting a range of medicinal qualities, with a heavy focus on virility. We were in it for the eats, so we left empty handed. I dodged snake for now, but there’s no shortage of snake eating in Southeast Asia, so I’m likely to be faced with this Fear Factor-esque meal again.
  • Hiking and biking is great in Hong Kong. We spent a day hiking the Dragon’s Back trail on Hong Kong Island, ending the hike at Big Wave Bay, where we watched people surf as we rested on the beach.  We spent another day hiking on Lantau Island.
  • You don’t want to miss the view from Victoria Peak. The tram (like an incline) is a fun way to get up to the top but can entail brutal lines, especially on the weekend. You can also take a bus or just hoof it like Chris and I did. We then hiked from the top along the Hong Kong Trail. With all the great trails available, we ended up getting quite a bit of exercise during our stay. Hopefully that will help counteract all the pizza, wine and dim sum!

Check out our photos from Hong Kong:

 

The Poodles of Nanjing

Greetings from the future!

Our next series of tales of tomorrow come to you from Nanjing in the Jiangsu province in eastern China. Chris is preparing our substantive dispatch from this future outpost. In the meantime, I wanted to share a short piece reporting on a furry phenomena here in China.

In the future, people love their pets just as much as we do back home in the present. At all times of day, you’re likely to see dogs being walked and caged birds being fed. Look around and you’ll see pampered pups on every street, strutting along in the height of doggie fashion. Sometimes, owner and pet may even be donning matching outfits. Now that’s love.

From our observance, the most popular breed by far is the poodle. We noticed this soon upon arriving in the future, but poodles are turning out in unparalled numbers in our current locale, Nanjing.

An animal photographer, I am not. Those curlycued canines move too fast for my iPhone shutter. I assure you, for every poodle depicted below there were 10 more that escaped my lens. When close enough to the dog owner to ask permission, Chris would politely express our request in Chinese. I took a simpler approach of pointing at my camera and smiling and nodding frenetically at the owners until they indicated consent. My interest in their dogs seemed to please most.

This goes out to our animal lovers back home. Ladies and gentlemen, I give to you, the poodles of Nanjing!

 

 

Mount Tai: Religious Pilgrimage and Ultimate Glutes Workout in One

Greetings from the future!

Let me start by saying, if I never see a staircase again, it’ll be too soon. If ice were available to me, which it is not, and a bath tub, also not available to me, I’d make an ice bath and immerse me my lower body in it.

This is the aftermath of ascending the estimated 6,660 steps to the top of Mount Tai (Taishan), located in Tai’an city in Shandong province. I learned that “shan” means mountain, so though it’s more commonly called Mount Taishan in English, that’s redundant, like saying Mount Tai mountain.

Travel writing is awash with superlatives. Every site you visit will be either the biggest, oldest, longest, deepest, highest or most something. It’s these qualifications that make places worth visiting, after all. When it comes to Mount Tai, it is the most sacred and most famous of the sacred mountains in China. Here is a description containing another “most” from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization:

Settled by humans as early as the Neolithic (a Dawenkou site is nearby), the mountain has been worshipped continuously throughout the last three millennia. The mountain was an important object of the cult worship of mountains even before 219 BCE, when the Qin Emperor, Huang Di, paid tribute to the mountain in the Fengshan sacrifices to inform the gods of his success in unifying all of China. On the mountain there are 12 historically recorded imperial ceremonies in homage to Heaven and Earth, about 1,800 stone tablets and inscriptions, and 22 temples, which together make Mount Taishan the most important monument in China, a world-renowned treasure house of history and culture.

I’ll add another superlative to the commentary: Mount Tai stands out as the religious pilgrimage with the most butt-kicking lower body workout.

Sure, it’s a tough climb up those nearly 7,000 stairs, but we weren’t in it alone. We struggled along with hundreds of other pilgrims, mostly Chinese, to reach the temples at the top. As I climbed step after step, I marveled at the sights around me: forests thick with evergreens, hawks soaring overhead, tree branches adorned with red ribbons, and perhaps most notably … the startling footwear selection of my fellow climbers.

What are some of these people thinking? Chris and I, like typical American tourists, are fully outfitted in athletic apparel. And I might add, appropriately so. This is no stroll around the block. Yet, many around me are dressed like they came directly from the office and, in some cases, like they’re planning on hitting the dance floor directly after their climb. Maybe they know something about what awaits us at the top that I don’t?

Let’s just say, it’s a humbling experience. Here I am, sucking wind and dripping in sweat, and just then a teenage girl saunters by, perfect hair and heeled boots clicking, as if she could have just as easily been on her way to H&M at the mall but instead decided to make the 3-4 hour climb up Mount Tai. And don’t even get me started on the little old ladies and men out here with us. Whatever their secret is to longevity, we need to figure it out in the West.

I will say that everyone was using walking canes. Chris and I could have purchased a cane or picked one up for free at the hostel, but we didn’t think they would be that helpful. I guess we were wrong.

All said, it took Chris and me nearly three hours to climb up the mountain, which includes time spent checking out the many temples lining the mountainside along our ascent. Once on top, the views were breathtaking and the temples awe-inspiring. We watched as women chanted and people lofted joss sticks and other offerings into a blazing fire pit.

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Though my legs are still in pain, and I have to walk down stairs backwards for the time being, the reward of the view from the top was well worth the climb. My favorite moment of the day occurred on top of Mount Tai while Chris and I gnawed on a cob of corn on a stick … an elderly man approached us, and as we prepared to be asked to pose in a photo with him, as is a common occurrence for laowai (foreigners), he surprised us by saying, “Hello, I am from Taiwan. I am a foreigner too. Here we are brothers.”

Here are our photos from Mount Tai:

 

Sauerkraut in Shandong

Greetings from the Future, Dear Readers!

Human history has numerous examples where disparate cultures bump against one another, intermingle, and inspire changes that people embrace. That said, it doesn’t always work. The brackish waters where African rhythmic time signatures and European stringed instruments swirled around the ears of five teenagers from Liverpool to inspire The Beatles are the same murky marshes that gave the US car market the Yugo. These cultural exchanges are sometimes accepted and sometimes rejected. Every once in a while, a vanilla bean from Madagascar becomes the most commonplace feature of a Dairy Queen in Waco, Texas, other times the French get Euro Disney.

Today, we are talking about a combination of cultural influences that make something curious, but great nonetheless. Not quite “The White Album,” but nothing that would require a mechanic in Philadelphia to read Serbian in order to perform an oil change either. Today, we are eating sauerkraut and drinking pilsner in Shandong.

A quick crash-course history lesson (apologies to actual historians, Asian experts, Chinese citizens, or people that speak Chinese at a level over and above ordering food and train tickets):

China, throughout its history for numerous reasons, has maintained a very cautious relationship with the West. In order to facilitate trade with Western powers hungry for Chinese goods, the Imperial court ceded some exceptions to a blanket policy of being closed off to the West. Territories, through numerous treaties, were leased to different foreign powers.

In 1557 during the Ming Dynasty, Portugal was leased the territory of Macau. In the late 1800s, during the Qing Dynasty, many more European countries acquired treaty ports, known as “concessions.” Many of the most famous Chinese cities have a history of Western involvement. Hong Kong was deeded to the United Kingdom from 1841 to 1997. Shanghai was actually an international settlement, combining concessions ceded to Americans, British, French, Russians and Japanese. Tianjin traded hands, was occupied by, or was shared at one time by Japanese, French, German, British and American occupiers. The former Western powers all left some influence on the area, in architecture, food or language.

(We will go into more detail on the darker sides of some of these concessions, the importance of these areas in the opium trade in the late 1800s, along with how this later influenced the Opium Wars in our post about Shanghai.)

青岛, or Qingdao as we English speakers know it today, was previously written as Tsingtao under the Wade-Giles format of transcribing Chinese to English. While that previous sentence might seem like more information than any of you need, I thought I’d toss that one out for the beer drinkers that have stumbled on an Asian pilsner at their grocery store and thought, “Why are the Chinese making pilsner?”

Germany was leased the Kiautshou Bay Concession from 1897 to 1914, of which Qingdao was the capital. This relatively small administrative city and fishing port was forever changed by the Germans. The most readily apparent evidence of German influence in Qingdao would be the architecture along with the ever-present availability of China’s first mass export to America and China’s #1 commercial export: Tsingtao beer. While one can purchase this beer in every corner shop and restaurant throughout China, along with any Publix in Florida, there’s only one town on the planet that you can imbibe this beverage fresh from the brewery … in a plastic bag with a straw.

We had the pleasure of staying with our friend Dave in Qingdao, which helped to cut down on costs and see the city guided by someone who knows the ropes. Dave was able to point us to some highlights in the town.

Zhan Qiao Pier: For those of you at home, I’ll wait for you to open a bottle of Tsingtao. Once you’ve taken your first sip, turn the bottle and look at the label. The emblem on the logo depicts the pier down the street from Dave’s apartment building. You can actually see his apartment building from there. Wave, say hello! Hey Dave!

The Beach: Qingdao, today, serves as one of the biggest tourist destinations for Chinese. While it was a bit chilly to take a dip, I took a run through town and was able to take in views of the beach. It is gorgeous, with a boardwalk meandering along the beach, which goes from the old German concession area all the way to Lao Shan Mountain, some 15 miles away.

The Old Observatory: Qingdao is divided into two halves with “old town” referring to the German concession, rife with colonial architecture, and “new town,” some seven miles away, boasting futuristic skyscrapers, golf courses and nightclubs catering to the tonier crowds. (Folks from Beijing and monied Western expats.) In the older, German side of town, there is,in fact, an old observatory, which has been converted into a youth hostel. On the roof of this building, where there is still a telescope, one can buy a Tsingtao and take in the views of the old German concession. We are told that this spot has an all-you-can-eat ribs night. While I can’t recommend the burritos, I am willing to return for the view alone.

Old Town Night Market: While many Chinese towns will have their own extensive markets, which operate both at night and early in the morning, Qingdao had a unique setup. Along with the meandering alleys where locals sell fish, lamb, pork, beef and vegetables, Qingdao had all sorts of marine life on offer. Squid anyone? Octopus? Sea cucumber? Anyone? Anyone?

Additionally, we had dinner in the middle of the night market and caught a bit of dinner theater. Comedians (the audience seemed to love it) and a magician (we probably applauded too enthusiastically for the slight-of-hand to make up for not getting any of the earlier jokes.)

While there was a lot more going on in Qingdao that I’m not capturing here, I am getting sleepy, and you all need your Cheerios.

We’ll be back at it just as soon as you all head to bed!

Stay tuned for Qingdao The Movie. For now, here are our photos:

Tales of Tomorrow, Today: Beijing Wrap Up

Greetings from the future!

Oh what marvelous adventures we have had in Beijing, our first stop in this future world where our today is your tomorrow. The sights, sounds, smells and tastes, once foreign to us, are becoming more familiar but our journey has only just begun and many destinations still await our arrival.

If only we had the time, and you the interest, for individual blog posts on each fantastical vision we encounter on our travels, but we must keep moving forward and our time in Beijing is over. We have actually moved on to our second, third and fourth destinations, but before we update you with dispatches from these newest eastern outposts, here is a look back at our adventures in Beijing.

The Summer Palace

On our third day in Beijing, we somewhat casually decided to take the subway out to the Summer Palace. The Summer Palace is perhaps most closely associated with the empress dowager Cixi, a controversial figure in Chinese history. It’s not that we didn’t think it would be a worthwhile sight to see, we just underestimated how taken we would be with its confluence of architecture and landscape design.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Summer Palace boasts an abundance of pavilions, temples, shrines, halls and bridges all set amidst a natural setting of incredible beauty.

I present to you the Summer Palace:

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Lama Temple and Temple of Confucius 

What cathedrals are to Europe and ancient ruins to South America, so are pavilions to China. Pavilions seem to be the mainstay for every site of historical importance: the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, and so it is the case with these two impressive religious sites of worship.

The Lama Temple is said to be the most renowned Buddhist temple outside of Tibet and is still an active site of worship. Chris and I respectfully lit three joss (incense) sticks and presented them before the Hall of Boundless Happiness, which contains the largest wood carved Buddha in the world.

The Temple of Confucius, where people worshipped Confucius during the Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties, was initially built in 1303, according to signage contained within the Temple. Confucius is enshrined in the main structure, Da Cheng Hall.

Photography wasn’t permitted at the Lama Temple, so these are just from the Temple of Confucius:

The 798

Many tourists are drawn to China because of its offerings of antiquity. The Great Wall, centuries old temples, shrines and artifacts dating back to pre-BCE —  touring China provides a passport to the ancient world. That said, part of what makes China so compelling is the juxtaposition of the old with the new. Modernity abounds in China, especially in its urban areas. The country is seemingly on the cutting edge of most things, and the 798 Art District, made famous by artists like Ai Weiwei, is a perfect example of this contrast.

Here is a description from 798district.com:

798 stands for much more than a three digit number: in Beijing these numbers symbolize the country’s cutting edge art movement led by the Chinese vanguard, unchained artistic personalities with alternative life goals. The largest, most influential art district in China – the 798 – hosts world-class international and Chinese exhibitions in the midst of former weapons factories.

And here are our photos from the 798:

Some of the photos (Nikon camera) from the 798 were contributed by guest photographer, Leviathon Murphy.

Enjoy and we’ll talk again soon. Next stop, Qingdao!

 

The Soup Incident

Air quality be damned! Here in the future, exercise is just as valued as in the world we left behind. Despite varying levels of pollution, Chris and I have been starting off our days with a morning run. It’s a great way to cover a lot of ground, sight seeing while getting our heart rates going.

The mornings are great for people watching too. From what we observed, the people of Beijing lead very active lives and enjoy physical activity. Many are out running and walking, swimming in the city lakes, and doing exercises and playing ping pong in public parks.

As an added bonus, running in the morning gives me the opportunity to practice my Chinese, “Zao sheng hao (good morning)!” is warmly received and returned by most, along with the occasional laughter (which can be attributed to Chris’ short running shorts and/or my running tights).

On our runs we also observe the morning commuters making their way to work or school on foot, bicycle, motorbike and car. It’s a busy time of day but not as chaotic as I had expected a city of more than 21 million to be come rush hour. That is because Beijing is an extremely vast city, geographically. Beijing’s population of 21+ million is spread out over 6,487 square miles, making for an estimated population density of about 3,300 people per square mile. Whereas New York City, for example, has more than 8.4 million packed into just 302 square miles, amounting to a population density of more than 27,000 people per square mile according to the United States Census Bureau.

On one morning run, we popped into a local eatery buzzing with morning commuters, mostly solo, quickly grabbing breakfast and heading on their way. The interactions were short and meals were efficiently consumed with little time wasted. No morning papers being read or chit chat exchanged; just order, eat, leave is the way of a busy Beijing commuter.

Undoubtedly, Chris and I were unexpected patrons for this restaurant — foreigners, red faced and sweaty and sporting running clothes — and we bumbled through our exchange with the woman dishing out the food. Chris wanted baozi (steamed buns and a safe bet when it comes to eating local food), but I wanted to try something new.

Along with baozi, soup is a common breakfast food in China. There were a few different options, and I chose one with a hearty looking redish brown broth. We attempted to ask what it was, and the woman said doufu, which means tofu and sounds pretty much the same as it does in English. I’m fond enough of tofu, so I gave the thumbs up. (Note: when you find yourself in a country where you don’t speak the language, you end up giving the thumbs up a lot. This is likely where the perception that Americans are constantly giving the thumbs up comes from.)

I wish I could report that my exploratory order was happily received by yours truly, but I must confess I had my first food regret leading to a mild crisis of weighing rudeness and embarrassment against my distaste for what turned out to be a thick, gelatinous stew of brown syrupy broth and mushy tofu. The white soft tofu was recognizable enough, but the texture of the broth, unnoticeable in its pot prior to being ladled into my bowl, gave me some alarm.

What could this strange dish be?

My mind immediately leapt to my guidebook’s mention of blood soup. Though uncommon in the U.S., many countries’ cuisines use blood as an ingredient in different foods. The Irish and British have their blood (black) pudding and the Chinese have duck blood soup. And now I was concerned I was eating it.

Chris astutely pointed out that there were no ducks in sight so my fear was highly unfounded. Still my mind had made a leap of logic and the irrationality proved hard to dispel.

I turned to my neighbor who was eating the same soup and gestured toward the soup and said the word, jiurou (pork), trying to guess at what this could be. She laughed and said no. I didn’t know the word for blood and even if I had, pointing at soup and uttering, “blood?” to a stranger, if in fact it wasn’t blood, I realized could understandably frighten said stranger. Furthermore, knowing that an open ended question of, “What is this?” would only get me an answer too complicated for either Chris or me to understand, I gave up trying to figure out what it was that my bowl contained and set about finishing as much of it as I could. With Chris’ help, we ate more than half of it. Since we also finished up all 12 or so baozi, we figured this effort would satisfy the restaurant owners and not offend too greatly.

Upon arriving back to the hostel, I promptly showed the English speaking staff a photo of the soup and to my great relief, they told me it was bean curd soup — also called tofu jelly (hence the texture).

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So, no blood. Phew.

Since this incident, I have done a little research into duck blood soup and found that it is a signature street food of the city of Nanjing and is listed as #4 on a list of iconic Nanjing foods to try. Chris and I will be visiting Nanjing in a few weeks and now that I know what goes into the soup, I may be up to trying this local staple. I just wasn’t mentally prepared for spoonfuls of blood quite yet, especially first thing in the morning on an empty stomach. Of course, traveling is all about trying new things, so bring on the duck blood soup please!

 

 

Goodness Gracious, Great Wall of China

Greetings from the future, dear readers!

Descriptions of Beijing are rarely complete without an adjective pointing to size.   “Big,” “very big”, and “huge,” would be appropriate, but many of you at home, in the present, may not be aware of what kind of “super huge,” we are seeking to describe.  China’s capital is large in both population, boasting somewhere north of 20 million people, as well as area.  Walking around most of Beijing (with some exceptions) is a decidedly tamer experience than Manhattan.  Those of you who have travelled to Jacksonville, Florida (the largest city by area in the continental United States) will understand the experience of a 2 hour drive beginning and ending in the same city.

Our trip to The Great Wall of China involved a three hour trip on a bus to Jinshanling from our hostel, one mile north of the Forbidden City.  Jinshanling is in Beijing, on the border of Hebei Province.  The Wall was initially built to keep out the Mongolians, who previously controlled what is now Northern Hebei Province as well as the currrent Chinese province of Inner Mongolia.

There are several places to view The Great Wall near Beijing, with Badaling being the easiest to access and thereby the most popular.  While I was averse to the extra time and money needed to get to Jinshanling, the experience of walking on the Great Wall without thousands of other tourists was well worth it.

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We hiked about four miles in total, from Jinshanling to our pickup point at Simatai.  The above picture shows Maria sporting a red sweater given to her by my Grandmother.  The red sweater, which is a color revered in China, got a lot favorable comments from the locals on the Wall.

We will have more videos moving forward, as we slowly, but surely, figure out how to use iMovie.

For now though, we’re off to have breakfast.

Have a good night!

Here are some more photos from the Wall …

So Ducking Good (Thanks Autocorrect!)

Greetings from the future!

Hello dear readers! It’s just past 11:30 p.m., and I am sleepily writing this dispatch with a belly full of Peking duck. I’ve had Peking duck before in the U.S., but experiencing this famous dish in its namesake city (Beijing used to be called Peking in English before the modern pinyin transliteration) was an unforgettable food-life moment.

From preparation to table side presentation and demonstration, the Peking duck makes for a collaborative and hands-on affair — more than just a meal, it’s an occasion. Here are five steps to ordering and eating Peking duck based on our experience tonight.

1.  Order a whole duck. I don’t care if you’re dining alone. The presentation is lost on a half order, so bring a friend to dinner or make room in your stomach because it’s worth it.

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2.  Not too long after putting in  the order, the chef and his carving station rolled up to our table to deliver the whole, crispy and beautifully browned duck, and without a word he began carving away.

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3.  Once a plate full of meat was ready (there will be several total), the waitress began her demonstration of how to assemble the meal. Peking duck is served with paper thin pancakes to wrap the duck and its fixings. From what I could discern, the fixings included cucumber, pickled radish, scallion, finely minced garlic and the critical fermented bean sauce (like hoisin sauce). Additionally, there were two condiments that I couldn’t identify, but one tasted sweet like a firm piece of strawberry jam and the other was possibly a mushroom type of relish. The waitress wore a clear mouth shield to presumably prevent her from spitting or breathing on our food during the presentation, which was interestingly considerate.

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4.  Chris and I struggled to mimic the waitresses’ graceful finesse but ultimately had to resort to using our hands to get a pancake rolled up and from plate to mouth.

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5.  And don’t forget to try a piece of duck skin dipped in sugar! It’s a flavor combination that pushes the savory/sweet envelope.

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That’s Peking duck in five steps. Oh, and lastly step six: find a bed and give into your duck fat induced coma.

Good night!

A Mouthful of Scorpions

Greetings from the Future!

It is 6:30 a.m. on Tuesday, March 17. Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Instead of shamrocks and leprechauns, I present to you skewered scorpions, starfish, sea horses, silk worm cocoon kebabs and more! These are just a few of the many tasty treats sold in the bustling food market section of Wangfujing Street.

Gluten free and protein rich, could fried scorpions be the next new trendy specialty diet snack? I won’t hold my breath for that to happen. If fact both foreigners and Chinese passers-by seem more apt to snap a photo of the arthropod appetizer than to hand over their yuan and sample it. But there were a brave few who seemed to be enjoying the odd delicacy.

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Here the scorpions are fried and ready to eat. Though squirmming and poisonous before meeting their grilled end, cooking is said to render their sting ineffective. One would hope so!

My guide book, DK Eyewitness Travel Guides: China, provides some insight into the history of food in China:

One of China’s perennial problems has been how can such a large population feed itself (currently a fifth of the world’s people) when less than 10% of its land is arable? The answer lies in centuries of innovation and efficiency in the fields and in the kitchen. The Chinese have developed a “famine cuisine.”

Necessity is the mother of all invention, as the saying goes.

You’ll pass on the scorpions, you say? Well how about a skewered starfish? Or maybe a silkworm cocoon kebab is more your thing? A bit squeamish, not to worry. There are plenty of less intimidating offerings like baozi and grilled squid at the market for the faint of heart (myself included). But be warned, it’s tourist prices you’ll pay. Still, the spike in prices are worth it to be able to sit and enjoy the sights surrounding you.

Since landing on this side of the planet, our days have been full of new sights, sounds, tastes and experiences. Chris, having lived in China before, has been a trustworthy navigator, easing the daily challenges and confidently co-piloting our adventure. We have much more to report from the last few days, so stay tuned. For now, I leave you with some photos from the sensory playground that is the Wangfujing market.

Sitting Pretty in the Forbidden City

Greetings from the Future!

It is just past 12:30 a.m. on Sunday, March 15. Much has transpired since our last dispatch. We traversed the North Pole, Siberia and through time and space and finally arrived at our first destination, Beijing. After breezing through customs and baggage claim, we successfully navigated the airport express train and the Beijing subway system — a feat that I am quite proud of — and arrived at our hostel, the Beijing Downtown Backpackers Accommodation at around 6:30 p.m, Friday night.

We sipped on Tsingtao beers at the bar next door to the hostel and were soon joined by China resident and good friend from back home, David Petito. It was at this point that our plans of having a low key evening — with the goal of simply staying awake until an appropriate bedtime hour in order to get on local time — were dashed.

What ensued was a rollicking night out in Beijing’s Hutong neighborhood featuring beer, burgers and surprisingly good live music at Club Dada. Despite having gone nearly 48 hours without a good night’s sleep, we managed to stay out until nearly 2 a.m. This triumphant effort was effective in conquering our jet lag. We woke up Saturday morning at the appropriate hour of 9 a.m. Unfortunately, the unpleasantness of jet lag was replaced with a biting hangover. But we didn’t let this keep us down.

Unfazed, we attacked the day and the city with a youthful zest that defied my throbbing head and unsettled stomach. The stomach may be due to the fact that I made the bold decision to fast track my GI system’s assimilation by brushing my teeth with tap water — a decision whose consequences will be revealed with time.

Our first day in The People’s Republic of China’s capital city included sight seeing in Tiananmen Square and the  Forbidden City, and was filled with culinary marvels like baozi (steamed buns), meat on sticks, noodles and hot pot.

Photo by Leivianthon Murphy

Here we are eating baozi and enjoying a Chinese Coca Cola. We tried the meat (pork) and veggie varieties, both of which also had cellophane noodles inside as part of the filling. (Photo by Leivianthon Murphy)

I am now back at the hostel about to go to sleep. We have another big day ahead of us, but first, here are some  photos from our adventure so far:

Photos by guest photographer Leviathon Murphy.