Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Signs From Silver Mountain

You know, we really thought it would be great fun to make jokes about these signs, but somehow, the signs themselves were just too difficult to top. Well, except the "CAUTION: Standing in front of houses in this area is dangerous, as gigantic paleolithic arrowheads randomly pop up through the ground; loiter at own risk" sign, of course. We welcome caption suggestions from our readers.

Monday, February 27, 2006

More on Silver Mountain and the Pagodas

The main building (#4 on the map) a the end of the pagodas is no longer there, but you can see their foundation in this next picture. The nearest pagoda in the picture is #9 on the map. We were just about to start our climb when we took this shot.

There was a lot of steep climbing to get up the silver mountain. The picture on the left are some stairs at the beginning of the climb and the ones on the right were the last set that took us to the top of this particular hill.

Cara - The brave adventurer!

This is us about halfway up. (It was very bright just then.)
While the Silver Mountain is apparently not really all that far from us, it turns out we took just about the most circuitous route possible to get to this park. But it was a nice drive and we got to see all sorts of exciting thing - like sheep!

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Silver Pagodas

On Saturday we took our first car trip out of the city. We went to a place called Silver Pagodas. It was lovely to see some really blue skies and hike some stone paths and examine the very old structures.

This was our first viewing of the pagodas. Michael is standing just to the left of the pagoda on the far right.
This is a picture of the pagodas from the top of the climb. What a great hike!
We still have a bunch of pictures to sort through, but we should have them posted soon!

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Similarities and Differences

Over a year, couples are bound to notice details about one another.

For example, neither of us likes mayonnaise, even in tuna fish. And we both like tuna fish. Either one of these is somewhat unusual in the US, but together it makes us sort of uniquely matched.

On the other hand, Cara prefers raw onions and maybe some Italian salad dressing in her tuna fish and Michael prefers Dijon mustard. We feared these might be irreconcilable differences.

But, in an effort to make it to year 2, Cara has now tried the mustard in her tuna fish and declared is ‘pretty good’ and Michael has come to the conclusion that raw yellow onions are probably good for him, so he should keep trying to like them. We feel there is still hope.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Getting Around

Finding a specific place in Beijing is not the same as trying to find it in the States.

For example, let's say you are in New York and you are going to a store you have never been to before but you have the address.
You could
a) Look up the address on some online map program and not only check the directions, but also look at images of the actual streets you need to take. Admittedly, there could be mistakes, but sometimes you can find these by checking different sites.
b) Look on a printed map that you bought somewhere
c) Get in a cab and give the drive the directions and he will figure it out.

Occasionally this will not work and you'll get lost and annoyed, but that is the exception rather than the rule. And if it does happen, you can call the place up and generally they can talk you in.

Now lets look at Beijing.
To start with, there are no maps online or offline for that matter that show all the roads. In addition, many roads are not even named, so there is almost no way to reference them. To make things more interesting, there is construction and destruction going on constantly so there is absolutely no guarantee that landmarks will stay in the same place. (Did I say the 3rd left? Oops. Its now the 2nd left.)

This means that nobody really knows where everything is and that a simple street address is not adequate.
What does 'not adequate' mean? I hear you ask. It means that unless you are going to a very large and well-known landmark (i.e. Tiananmen Square), you need to say, "I am going to store X, it is near the Lidu hotel, off of NuRen street. There should be elephants out front". The address itself is sort of an afterthought for final verification - if the building has a number that is. And in this example, while almost everyone seems to know Lidu, there is still about a 10% chance that your particular driver will not and further instructions will be required.

Maybe you think this is not so unusual, after all, cabbies get lost in other big cities. So here is another example. We're going to restaurant that is outside of our cabbie's knowledge base. But he seems feel he can get there so into his cab we go. (Cabbies do not have to accept any fares they don't want to.) We get to generally the right area of town and now our guy lowers his window, drives slow, and flags down a cab coming towards us. The other driver slows as he pulls along side us and by shouting back and forth we are informed that we are heading the right way. Farther down the road we are beginning to worry we missed our turn, so the cabbie flags down a bicycle rider this time and asks for directions. And so on, and so on. What makes this particularly fun is that it is not unusual to get conflicting answers, especially if we are walking or driving ourselves around instead of being taken by a Beijing native. Finding someplace new is always an adventure.

Once you've been here a while, this doesn't even seem odd, but as a newcomer, it can be very disconcerting. We know of one visitor who was ready to panic when the driver starting asking for directions every few blocks while his American host was confused as what exactly was disturbing her guest. Ahhh, how quickly we forget.

Monday, February 20, 2006

More About Fruits

We are still finishing off some of the items we acquired for dinner the other week. All three of these items were supplied by our guests.

We have now opened the kiwi juice. As so many other drinks here, it is pretty seriously sweetened (mmmm). It sort of tastes like a green apple jolly rancher. I had never realized how much kiwi and green apples tasted the same. Or maybe it is sugar that tastes the same...

This is an unripe, nonastringent type of persimmon. What's that mean? Well, there seem to be 2 major kinds of varieties, astringent and nonastringent. An astringent persimmon must be jelly soft before it is fit to eat. A nonastringent persimmon can be eaten when it is crisp as an apple. Both kinds (I believe) are green at first and then ripen to a variety of orange/red colors. Also, when the fruit is ripe, the pulp softens to a pudding like consistancy. So far we have tried one of our "Sweet Crisp Persimmons" (as labeled on the package. It did not have a strong flavor, but the texture was similar to a slightly unripe plum.

This green star fruit was new to both of us. Yellow star fruit we've seen, but green? In this case, these guys were more sour then sweet, but otherwise very similar to the star fruits back home. It actually had a little bit of a pith down the center, so Cara ended up eating it like an apple. Was much fun.

Shaolin Monks

Saturday night we joined a group of people to see a performance by the Shaolin monks. These are the kung fu fighters that are copied in so many movies, including the ever popular Mortal Kombat.

We had about 12 people seeing the show together and had one of our group called up on stage to try out cool moves (go Julio!)

You can see some of the moves we saw in this movie.

Some show highlights:

Resting on guy on 4 'spear' tips (as seen in the pic)

Top of the head flippy things (see the video)

Having 15 or so of the monks lying side-by-side on the floor like a bunch of logs pushed together. Then one more monk lays down about 3 yards past the last guy in the row and rolls towards all the other monks who are lying there. As the rolling monk approaches each of the monks that were lying there on the floor they somehow jumped straight up into the air with their body still parallel to the floor (in other words, they didn't leap up from a crouched position. They were lying on the ground with their arms by their sides and then they were simply hovering about 3-4 feet off the ground.) Meanwhile, the rolling guy was passing underneath them. The whole thing looked like some amazing human wave.

2 finger (hand?) stands

A lot of jumping to standing from the lying on your back position (like Nero in the Matrix, also in the video above)

Standing full splits where one foot was on the ground and the other was above the monks head from which position they would fall sideways and maintain the full split as they landed on the floor.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

One Year!

It is one year today since we met for the first time. What a difference a year can make and how lucky we are to have found each other!

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Papaya Gnocchi

Finished off the last of the unripe papaya the other night. Found a pumpkin gnocchi recipe and used the papaya instead of pumpkin and added some crushed hazelnuts for good measure. The gnocchi were a little soft but filling and they tasted as they should, i.e. kind of bland but soothing. We couldn't taste the hazelnuts at all - guess we'll need to use more next time. We invented a sauce to go with it using an onion base. The sauce was interesting, but didn't quite fit. Still an interesting experiment.

Juices (and Jam)

These are the coconut, almond, and walnut juices. The Chinese like to make all sorts of things into sweetened drinks which often just makes them sort of weird to our biased Western taste buds. Of these drinks the coconut was okay although the gelatinous bits of coconut pulp were a little disconcerting. The walnut was pretty darn good and we might actually get more of it. It is similar to an afternoon tea that Michael is very fond of. The almond... well... we won't be buying that again.
The chestnut jam tasted a lot like sweetened chestnuts - go figure. It's also an interesting green color. The hawthorne nectar is a sort of sweet, syrupy, slightly sour juice. Natalie and I both mixed it with water about 50/50 to make it drinkable. The kiwi nectar has not yet been opened. Reports will be forthcoming.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

New Fruit

Here were more new foods from the other night. We had 4 guests over who not only brought some of these unusual beasties but were also very useful in identifying them. Natalie, David, Jonathan, and Kim.
1) Looks like a honeydew, but its just a little different. David said that when you go into a Chinese market and ask for a honey melon or a cantaloupe in Chinese, they bring out a fruit that might be a cantaloupe or a honeydew. Then they cut it open and you can see if it is an orange one or a light green one. The guy selling it to you sees no difference, same fruit, different colored flesh - same difference. And there is a third option, which is what we believe melon #1 is. Its rind is rougher than honey melon but smoother than a cantaloupe and the rind is really thin. Its taste is also somewhere between the two fruits. Quite interesting

2) Okay, this one we still don't recognize - at least in part because we haven't eaten it yet

3&4) These are papayas. The yellow one we haven't eaten yet, but the green one is what we substituted for pumpkin in the muffins. When that papaya was peeled and cut open, it looks like this image.

5) Cilantro/Coriander/Chinese Parsley it can be added to all sorts of dishes. We used it as a side with the chili on this particular night.

6) Pummelo. This is sort of giant cross between a grapefruit and an orange. The pulp is very firm, like an over-dried orange. The taste is somewhere in between. Its one of Kim's favorite fruits and below you can see the skill she has when opening it. (That's David to her right.)

Nuts and Berries

In honor of Tu B'Shevat we went to the grocery store and bought fruits and nuts we didn't recognize (and a few old friends).
Here were some of the experiments:
1) Dried kiwi
2) The little ones are hazelnuts and
3) The big ones are dried longans
4) Dried lychees
5) Green olives (no image on this one - you'll just have to figure it out on your own)
6) Thinly sliced candied hawthorne
7) Papaya, hawthorne, and raisin muffin tops
8) Dried jujube
9) Dried candied jujube
10) Candied walnuts (Michael says yum)
11) Pistachio

It turns out that the longans (the things that look like smooth, round, nuts) are actually fruits. The thin outside rind hardens into a thin shell. These are dried longans so the moist fruit had shrunk around the inside pit. The skin could easily be cracked open against another longan and then we popped the shrunken flesh with pit in our mouths. The flesh came off pretty easily and we could spit the pits (which are almost fuzzy) out.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Tu B'Shevat

Today is Tu B'shevat, the Jewish new year for trees. One of the ways to celebrate is to eat a lot of things that come from trees - like fruits and nuts.

In honor of the holiday we went to the store and bought a lot of things we had not tried before - or at least they were foods we didn't recognize. Among these items we bought what turned out to be a green papaya - this means its not ripe. Today, upon further investigation, we have learned that green papayas were picked too early and will never ripen... oops. However they can be used as a winter squash (i.e. a pumpkin). Interesting...

We also still have some of the hawthorn berry sauce that Jenny and Anthony made for Thanksgiving when they realized that cranberries are not available. Its still quite yummy and Cara uses it as the jelly in peanut butter and jelly sandwiches occasionally.

So here's what's happened.
Cara found a recipe for Cranberry Pumpkin Muffins and substituted the Hawthorn berry sauce and some raisins for the frozen cranberries and the green papaya for the pumpkin. This is a pretty big step because Cara usually follows recipes exactly as opposed to Michael who sees them sort of a starting point that can be ignored after they are briefly read. It should also be mentioned that Michael in very proud of the effect he is having on Cara's cooking.

And the even better news? They turned out great! Yay random cooking! (Pictures will be forthcoming.)

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Physical Dangers of Beijing

Beijing is a pretty dry place and dry air encourages static electricity shocks.
Static electricity shocks happen when many electrons jump from one object to another. There are usually electrons moving between objects. When that movement becomes harder, there is more electron build up, until there are so many electrons there is a big jump and we feel a shock. Water in the air allows electrons to move more easily between objects which prevents as much electron build up.
More humidity = more water particles in the air = easier electron transfer = less static electricity build up = less noticable electric shocks. (Yes we are both total geeks. We are also expecting lots of detailed scientific responces explaining why this definition is not adequate.)

The point of all that is that winter in Beijing is really dry so we get shocks constantly around here. So, we hear you thinking, (because we have such amazing hearing - goes across time and oceans) what's the big deal? People get shocked all the time. Its not so bad.


We agree that a shock now and then is nothing to worry about, but imagine if you can what would happen if every single time you went to kiss your partner - every time mind you! - you received a very strong electric shock to the extremely sensitive skin of your lips.

We'll just assure you now this is not so fun.

There are ways around this though it is tougher when you are outside in winter and your only exposed skin is your face. We have developed something we refer to as the 'Beijing kiss' where we touch cheeks before kissing to deal with those situations. But even inside there are problems. Not even touching the door knob always works as on occasion we have kissed, gotten the shock, hugged with a little back scratching while wearing a certain fleece, which was apparently enough to cause a second shock when we went to kiss again.

Why is this such a concern? Becuase through this relentless training we have both developed the Pavlovian response of now flinching just before a kiss.

Somehow that just doesn't seem right in a newly-wed couple.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Kitchens and Cooking

We had people over to cook dinner last night. It was our most interactive meal yet. We ended up eating:
Chicken in a Cashew Nut Sauce (only without the cashews)
Crisp Fried Aubergine (aubergine = eggplant. We used Japanese eggplants because they are not as mushy in the inside as the round variety)
Toor Dal (an oily lentil)
White Rice
and Black Rice Pudding for dessert

The really amazing thing is that out of the 7 people who ate dinner at our place (including Michael and myself) only 1, or maybe 2 people did not have a hand in cooking something. We actually had 4 people working at our little 4 burner stove top at one point.

We should explain that helping with the prep work and cooking was actually part of the deal when these folks agreed to come over. As we have mentioned before, having a real kitchen with burners and an oven is something of a novelty in many apartments here in Beijing, so being invited to an actual kitchen can be a draw.

We are hoping to take advantage our kitchen magnet many more times.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Great Hall of the People

Today, Michael got a behind-the-scenes tour of China's "Great Hall of the People." The first photo is of the southern entrance to the Forbidden City. Michael stood in the center of Tiananmen Square, braving the mid-morning wintery gusts to take this rare photo of a snow-capped Forbidden City. Directly to Michael's left as he took this photo lies the Great Hall of the People, where China's national congress meets to run the country. The second photo is an interior shot of the main theater hall, shown here to give our readers a sense of the epic proportions of the Great Hall; keep in mind that this theater is just one part of the overall building, which houses a massive banquet hall (which dwarfs the theater in volume, if not in human capacity), at least two other large theaters, and a network of grand halls connecting everything. The design is similar to classic bank architecture, where they used massive architecture to dwarf the people entering the building, as part of a grand scheme of psychological intimidation.

Every province has its own set of rooms within the Great Hall, and the third photo in today's posting comes from the Hong Kong/Macao suite of rooms. In the photo's foreground is a foyer, beyond which you can see part of the general meeting hall. The general meeting hall was a grand open space with a rock pool off to one side and a few structures mimicking the traditional bamboo architecture of the region. Sadly, photos did not do that room justice.

All in all, it was an eye-jiggler of an experience, and while it doesn't really belong on any tourist's top ten list of things to check out in Beijing, Michael found it quite worthwhile. He confesses, however, that his favorite aspect of the tour was that - since it was arranged by one of the teachers at the school - Michael and his fellow students weren't on one of the regular tours. On three separate occasions, they walked right past "no admittance" signs and on a fouth occasion had to move aside some barrier ropes to exit the Hunan Province's suite of rooms. Although tourists should have been able to see most everything Michael and his compatriots saw, it was fun to take a route that the tourists could not follow.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Super What?

Apparently there is an important (American) football game going on in the States right now. We had pretty much forgotten about it until we were at a Canadian restaurant yesterday and saw their sign for their 'Superbowl Special'.

To give you a sense of just how oblivious Beijing is to this particular event, there was not even a single potato chip sale at the supermarket. sheesh

New House Guest

This is our newest house guest Spike. We have him for the next 6 months. So far he has been with us 36 hours. This is what we have learned in that time.

- Spike can cry pretty darn loudly at 4:30am when he realizes his owner is missing.
- Though he was raised by Americans, Spike was born on the streets of Hong Kong and therefore, not only does he not understand a lick of English, he speaks Cantonese instead Mandarin, leaving us at a complete loss.*
- Spike likes to hide. 5 hours after his arrival, we needed to leave the apartment and we realized that we had not seen him for about 2 hours. Wanting to make sure he was all right before we left we commenced an apartment wide search... and found nothing. Knowing he had to be around somewhere, we tried again.

Then we saw this.
Can you see the lump in this picture?

Sneaky kitty

*These comments are from Cara and based upon her poor understanding of both Mandarin and Cantonese. Michael in no way endorses these 'facts'.
China has many different languages. Mandarin is the official language of the country but in Hong Kong the predominant language is Cantonese. These languages seem very similar in that they use the same characters, but not only do they pronounce the characters differently, Cantonese has 5 tones as opposed to Mandarin's 4. So just because you speak one does not mean you can understand the other. It seems to be similar to the difference between English and Spanish although Roman letters are pronounced the same and characters are not.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

What a Great Holiday

There are still fireworks going off. There have been huge displays every night for the past week! This is crazy - and very exciting.

About 2 weeks ago management was trying to give everyone a new fire extinguisher for their apartment in exchange for their old one. At the time, we just thought the expiration time had come due. Now though its all coming together.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Danger! Danger Will Robinson!

We tried making Chicken Tikka Masala tonight. This is a new dish for us, one that called for a green chili pepper. Michael took over the dangerous task of preparing the raw chicken (brave Michael) while Cara preped the veggies for the sauce, including the chili pepper.

It all came out just fine, if a little spicy. (Well, maybe a lot spicy.) But quite yummy.

About 3 hours later while washing the dishes in hot water, Cara started to notice that her right hand was beginning to smart. But its pretty dry here in Beijing so chapped and sore hands are nothing special. Then the irritation started to get worse and fingers started to swell a little. um....

Those crazy chilies. As many of you probably already now, chilies contain something called capsaicin that will burn skin. If the skin is already irritated, washing just spreads the stuff. So what do you do?
"In a little bowl add 1 part bleach to 5 parts water and just dip your hands
quickly, but don't soak your hands in this solution or it may irritate your
skin," says Miss Vickie.
Bleach? My mom always told me not to play with bleach and I am pretty sure that sticking my hand in a bowl of it counts as playing. Still, we had to try something. Turns out that it works all right, though if you thought your hands were dry before....

Chicken #3

Spring Festival sort of throws all timing off. It seems to be a week long holiday for many people, much the way Americans take December 24th-January 2nd. With traveling to Harbin the weekend before, we realized we hadn't really cooked in about 2 weeks. This was far too long, so we decided to have a few friends over and get back into the swing of things.

We tried making a loaf as described by The Fresh Loaf. Came out pretty darn well. We are looking forward to trying more of their recipes. Michael is also working on his presentation skills as you can see in his lovely chicken display above.

This is the 'before' picture.

In addition to these 2 items we made Oat Soup which actually has tomatoes, onions, and garlic in addition to the oats.

We had three guests over and two of them were anthropologists! Who would've thought? (For those of you not familiar with his history, Michael was once an anthropologist too.) Cara was delighted to have a chance to watch him interact with his own kind. Our guests kindly helped out with some cookies and a banana loaf which had ingeniously been cooked in a toaster over. Real people size ovens are hard to come by in China. Our kitchen with its full size oven, 4 burners, a full size fridge, a washer and a dryer, is the envy of all our friends.