Friday, April 28, 2006

May Holiday

May 1st is a big holiday time here in China with much of the population traveling somewhere. To help with the mass confusion, we are joining some friends for a trip out to the Xinjiang region of China for about 11 days starting on Saturday.
While preparing for this trip we are getting a little busy and there are going to be no posts at all while we are out of town, so to help tide you over, we will leave you with some cool reading material regarding the province.

Here you can see some good maps of China. We are flying out to the Xinjiang province in the north west. We will be going to the following cities: Urumqi, Kashgar, and Dunhuang. We are taking a 20 hour train ride from Dunhuang back to Beijing. (We are really diggin' those soft sleepers.)

Here are two articles about the region
GoNomad Article: Kashgar, The Market at the Top of the World
NY Times write up (2004): A World Apart on China's Silk Road (though you need to be a registered NY Times reader to see it now.)

You can also check out what Frommer has to say at Kashgar, Urumqi, and Dunhuang.

Happy May holiday!

Thursday, April 27, 2006

We're Done!

Today, at lunch, we finally finished the last of the lamb that we we have been eating every day for the two weeks.

It felt like quite the accomplishment.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Viewer Participation Poll

We are currently mid-point in the process of adopting two Ragdoll kittens - of course, as Michael's Chinese teacher pointed out, the enormous natural physique of these cats relative to other domestic cats makes it seem odd to call them kittens. In fact, she at first thought Michael was showing her a picture of a dog and was mistakenly calling it a cat in his broken Chinese. So here's the equation: take a zygote from the fat boy on the left (King Solomon) and add it to a zygote from the regal cat on the right (Queen Elizabeth), and you get the brown-nosed furball pictured below them.

Then, take a zygote from the young turk on the left (King Arthur) and add it to the lynxy lady on the right (Queen Marie) and you get that "ready-to-rumble" girl in the middle.

While we're both happy as punch to have made our final selection (with much input from the breeder, regarding the personality and temperament of each kitten currently available), we have yet to settle on a set of names for these youngsters. We have narrowed down our list and would like to share it with you for your comments/votes/additions/suggestions:

Heisenberg and Schrödinger (Cara's current favorite)
Narco Polo and Ipso Fatso
Chewbacca and Sasquatch
Karma and Kismet
Cyrano and Roxanne
Beelzebubba and Lucie-Fur
Catilla the Ton and Kublai Kat
Thelonius and Bebop
Faraday and Fermi
Thor and Freya
Hooligan and Hellion
Davita and Goliath
Red Hat and Minix (since they're both names for Eunuchs)
Unarchimedes and Purrsephone
Null and Void
Trial and Error
Throttle and Clutch
Count Napula and Vlad the Inhaler
We look forward to your thoughts!

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Price of Tea in China

We've heard that gas prices in the States are increasing, so we thought we'd share a quick comparison.

Pump price for 93 octane:
  • 4.65 Yuan/Liter
  • 8.011 Yuan/US$
  • 0.264 Gallons/Liter
  • = 2.20 US$/Gallon

To put this in perspective:
The fuels here are much dirtier than the stuff in the States, so a higher octane is required. The three octane options in China are 93, 97, and 98.
17% of the overall price is a Value Added Tax
And finally, the Chinese government heavily subsidizes fuel to maintain current growth of the economy.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Stuffed Elevators

The acceptable level of crowding for a given volume is very differently viewed here in Beijing.

For example, on most buses in the States, once all the seats are full, people will stand in the aisles. Then once the aisles are full, people don't get on the bus. Here, once the seats and aisles are full, people just push in harder so that eventually the inside of the bus is one solid mass of people from just inside the back door, up past the driver, and into the the steps at the front of the bus. I'm hoping to take a really good picture of this someday, but for now you can see a shot here.

This mentality also applies to the subway cars and to elevators. Here is a special little story from Cara:

While going to my language class in the nearby office building, I had a chance to read a sign I had never seen before inside any elevator. I was probably around the 8th person in the elevator and more were coming in as the doors were repeatedly pushed back open. I had plenty of time to look around as I took deep breaths (or at least as deep as possible in the amount of space afforded a single individual) and reminded myself how nice it is to be tall in such an environment. (Yup - 5'4" lets me look over many a crowd if I just lift my chin a little.) I pondered the number of people attempting to enter the elevator and read the stamped sign over the buttons for the various floors:

"10 person, 1000 kg maximum load".

As the doors were finally allowed to close, just below the stamped plate a tansluscent panel I had never noticed before started to causally blink red. The red sign was blinking this message:

"Car overload"

Eventually, after confirming that the elevator car would indeed not move until the load was changed, about 2 or 3 people got off. The doors closed again and with only 14 or so people squashed inside off we went.

Its conforting to know that the elevator designers do not rely on individuals to actually read their signs.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Piracy in China changes Hollywood's pricing model

It turns out that Warner Home Video is convinced that it can sell new-ish releases (such as The Aviator) in China at $1.50 and still make a profit. $1.50, for what it is worth, is about the average price point for movies out here in Beijing if you go to a store to buy it, but the vast majority of these DVDs are pirated copies. On the streets, you can get away with paying much less, but the percentage of poor-quality DVDs is much higher on the street, as there is no accountability on the part of the seller.

While it is probable that some of the markup for which Americans pay when buying movies comes from the increased cost of labor in the US (or the cost of shipping product from countries with cheaper labor, like China), some of it also comes from all the packaging and advertising in the States. Here in China, most movies are sold in simple plastic slipcovers with a cardboard insert containing all the relevant box art, with the DVD tucked into a tiny protective baggie or envelope. And, although American production houses invest millions in TV advertising and movie trailers, movies are not really advertised here in Beijing. At $1.50, they don't need to be. The average person can easily afford to buy a movie on the merits of the cast/director/box art alone.

Anyhow, for those who are interested in reading MSNBC's coverage of this story, click here.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

End of Passover

The Jewish festival of Passover ended a few days ago and we decided to celebrate the last night Moroccan style by borrowing from the festival of Mimouna. Mimouna is a folk-holiday celebrated by Sephardic Jews particularly from Morocco and we felt that it would help us move from the celebration of Passover back into the regular week day.

One of the Mimouna traditions is the baking of mofleta. Mofleta is made from flour and water and rolled very thin so that they almost look like crepes. They are then fried and eaten with sweet toppings like honey and butter. Since the only flour products we had eaten for the past week were matzah crackers, this was quite the treat. We used this recipe and they looked something like the ones being made by the woman in this picture.

As an added step in the right direction, we also baked a challah load for Shabbat this week to really get back in the swing of eating bread.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Chinese Class

These are (most of) the folks in Cara's language class. We had all the food because we were celebrating Kristy's birthday! Kristy is the only other American in the class and is the bottom left had person in the picture. The rest of our class is made up of people from Turkey, Denmark, Germany, Indonesia, and Sweden.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Sandstorms Cometh

We have entered the sandstorm season here in Beijing. So far they have mostly occurred at night which means we can hear the wind whipping around but we can't really see what is going on.

Sunday night there was a storm, but the reason we knew that it was a storm and not just a little wind is that the next morning everything was covered in about 1/8" of red/brown dirt. When Cara went to her language class there was a crew vacuuming the dirt from the 10 foot wide tiled area that surrounds that tower.

As this is being typed, the wind is blowing again. We thought we could see the storm rolling in earlier this evening, but it might have just been smog - its hard to tell sometimes.

Not that we want to be caught out in one of these things, but we are hoping to actually see one eventually. Don't worry, we'll be sure to take photos if we do.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Lamb trials

We should also add one more note about the lamb:

The Passover story contains some info about a roasted lamb. There is even a roasted lamb shank bone on the sedar plate as a reminder of the story.

This was the first Passover sedar that Michael and I had ever hosted together so we wanted to include lamb on the menu and ideally have our very own roasted lamb bone for the sedar plate. Now Michael is not a really big lamb fan, but he did have a dish the other week up in Harbin that he really enjoyed so we decided to try to make it here at home. Please bare in mind that this was going to be our first venture into the lamb cooking arena.

The recipe we decided to use called for 6 lamb shanks. 'All right,' we thought, 'we can do that.' We went to the special butcher shop that is known for its lovely meat products and arrived just in the nick of time before they closed - phew. Michael dashed inside and bought the meat (and the horseradish since they had some.)

Here is where it gets tricky, not only are there a few options on how to define certain words, we are also working with a small language issue. Take for instance the word "shank" and lets pretend you have never looked at a picture of a lamb shank before and just know it has something to do with the leg. So Michael goes in and asks for the lamb shanks. The helpful store worker brings him 6 very, very large pieces of meat.
"6 of these?!?" thinks Michael. "I don't think so."
As a compromise, we bought only 4 and then figured out how to cook all that meat once we got it home.

Here's the punch line for those of you who have not already figured it out. As it turned out we had enough meal in 1 leg to serve all 12 people. (As a reminder - we bought 4.) To understand the difference in these two cuts, see the picture below.

See the large section that reads "fillet end of leg" and the small part underneath that reads "knuckle"? Oops.

Live and learn. At least now we have enough food to feed us for about 3 weeks.

(Just to show there is reason for confusion, you can check out all sorts of definitions of cuts here.)

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Guests Come And Go

Mari made her way back to the States almost a week ago - but what a great time we had while she was here!

Here are some recaps:
* Took her down to the local "dirt market" at PianJiaYuan to check out the mass-produced 'antique' treasures. Mari was a champion bargainer - go Mari!
* Went to Bodhi and received 80-90 minute massages 3 times (All for the low low total cost of less than $30/person - That's right, less than $10 a session!)
* Checked out the insanity at Yaxiu and HongQiao. They are 2 of the famous department-store-like markets that are well known for luring in tourists. The pushy obnoxious vendors weren't so bad, but the stinky fish market in the basement of HongQiao did her in. (We left quickly.)
* Visited many of the must see places around Beijing included the Temple of Heaven (with random people singing and playing instruments),
Tiananmen Square,
Forbidden City,
and the Great Wall.

* We tried many a different restaurant where they might serve you raw meat (the Korean place near our apartment, though the meat may have been smoked) or have you cook it yourself in your own private hot-pot or just bring out massive amounts of strange looking dishes and you just start eating everything you can.

(Hot Pot is one the meals that I have forgotten seemed strange when we first
arrived here. Sometimes there is a big communal pot, but in this case everyone
had their own pot of broth that was adjusted to their personal spiciness
preference. Once the broth is at a boil, you add the food from the various
dished and let it cook. Then you eat and eat and eat. You can see about half of the food we ordered in this picture. We thought we had stuffed ourselves silly and would need to roll out of the place, but that was when the waitress brought us the ice-cream-like popsicles. That's Cindi, one of Anthony and Jenny's friends in the picture with Mari.)

*Kareoke (That's Benson in the picture with Mari
this time. The other friend of Jenny and Anthony's that was visiting that week.)
* Toured around some hutongs (little neighborhoods)
* Rode in a pedicab

Just enjoyed ourselves as much as possible!

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Matzah in Beijing?

It is not as easy to come by kosher for Passover products in Beijing as it is in say Winnipeg. We have yet to find a store that has a Jewish food aisle - though we keep hoping. If we go to the stores that are set up for foreigners we may be able to find some foods that were packaged overseas and therefore have kosher symbols on them, but that is about as far as it goes.

So were did the mazah come from? Well there are 2 major sets of Jewish services held in town. One is by Kehillat (which we usually attend) and the other is Chabad. Chabad is very well organized and, as long as you put in your orders about a month in advance, you could get your Passover foods through their shipment. Admittedly we were not organized enough to think about this a month ago, but luckily other members of our community were and they sent out emails asking for our orders - yay! So that is how we got our matzah and matzah meal (Matzah meal is used as a flour replacement.)

Two other things that were surprisingly hard to find:

Gifilte fish - The homemade variety is the only option and fish grinders are not a standard household item. Well, maybe this wasn't really so surprising as it is a dish that is not so widely appreciated outside of certain, special, small groups of people. Though for a country that has found all sorts of surprising ways to serve food, it seems like gifilte fish ought to be one of the options.

Horseradish - especially if you like the kind with beet juice. One bottle was given to us by a friend who then became the hero of the 1st sedar night and then we were able to find another bottle for the 2nd night in a small butchers shop (also where we picked up our lamb.)

Friday, April 14, 2006

Happy Passover

This has been a busy week for us. Mari was here until Monday and Passover started Wednesday night. We hosted the 2nd night of Passover and had 10 guests share a very enjoyable evening.
This was the first sedar (a specially arranged meal for the Jewish holiday of Pesach) that we spent together. After 3 days of preparation we are both kind of tired though so we will have to post more about the week later.
Hag sameach! (Happy holiday!)

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Karaoke Anyone?

There are lots of karaoke places here in Beijing. Most of them are labeled KTV. (Bet you'll never guess what that stands for. As a hint, they show the lyrics and the music videos that go along with the song on the TV set in the room.) The biggest difference between the places here and the ones back home is that here you are given a private room for just your party so that you only need to embarrass yourself in front of people you know and not in front of total strangers.
We had about 7 of us go last week and it looked something like this.
One of the amusing things (in addition to the singing) are the videos. They often don't have permission to show the actual music video, if there was one. So they create their own. On this particular night, the 2 best were for "Mrs Robinson" and "You're Mama Don't Dance". They are so inappropriate for the songs that words fail me. If I ever come across them on-line I'll add links because everyone should have a chance to share this joke.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

BaDaLing Slide

Remember how we said parts of the wall were a little slippery on Thursday? Here are some more pictures from people trying to get up and down.

Here is the Chinese army attempting to come down.
(Actually these coats were for sale at the wall. It was a good day for those vendors!)

This was our favorite descent - the tricky splayed leg technique. Not terribly effective, but highly amusing.

These people were experiencing some serious upward issues, but luckily there were some more of those Chinese army folks at the top willing to form a chain-of-life to help them up the last few steps.
And our personal favorite - the very safe butt slide. (That's Cara in case you don't recognize her.) You might also notice the helpful Chinese man at the bottom ready to 'catch' Cara as she slides down.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

The Great Wall

From Cara's keyboard

Mari and I went to the great wall at BaDaLing today.

Monday and Tuesday this week were beautiful days - t-shirt weather. Wednesday started off well but had a stiff wind in the evening. So on Thursday morning, as I handed Mari long underwear, I told her we would be best off dressing very warmly because it is often much colder at the wall than in the city even though the wall is only an hour north. Since we were driving we could leave any unnecessary layers in the car. Better safe than sorry - right?

And at 7:30am we left the apartment and headed up.

At 8:20, as we were almost there, ash started to fall. Ash? Well, weird big flakes of something.
...White... big.. flakes....sticking to the windshield. What else could it be?

"Is this a joke?" asked Mari.
But no, alas, it was not. It was in fact snow.



Somewhat unexpected*. By the time we had parked the car at BaDaLing, there was accumulation on the ground. Since we had come all that way and had brought warm hats we decided to venture forth regardless of the weather conditions.


It turns out that Chinese people are also very amused by surprise snow storms and the desire to make snowballs seems to be universal. (Mari had 3 snowballs thrown at her by 3 different strangers, all without her instigating anything.)

The wall at this location (and most of the others for that matter) is quite steep sometimes and it was rather entertaining watching what happens when steep slopes become covered in ice slicks. We stayed at one particular ramp for over 15 minutes watching people (attempt to) go up and down the slide.
The picture to the left is of Mari trying to come up one particularly steep section with the help of the handrail. It might have been easier if she wasn't laughing hysterically at the time.

This icing on the cake was that the crowds didn't even get thick until we were coming off the wall. For those who have not visited the wall, the mass of tourists is overwhelming to say the least and really can not be described adequately to anyone who has not witnessed this particular phenomena.

In total (and even in parts for that matter) we had a fantastic morning!

*Snow was unexpected as it is April. If I lived in Winnipeg, this would not be as surprising, but in Beijing it was rather shocking.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

For a special treat today... straight from Atlanta, Ga, our guest blogger,
That's right ladies and gentlemen, Cara's sister Mari has arrived in Beijing to see what all the fuss is about.

Yesterday, after a light lunch (we went to the restaurant where Cara made her dumplings with the 7 foot tall Chinese man - actually, it turns out she was sitting down in that picture. If you don't know what I'm talking about you can see Baozi lessons), massages (the picture of Cara at the massage parlor is not from yesterday, it's from today.. yeah that's right, twice in two days.. Dare I go again tomorrow?), some couture shopping, and drinks with a friend, it was time to eat again.

We went to a cozy Sichuan restaurant (Cara says it wasn't Sichuan, it's Uighur) that was recommended to us by Maya, who apparently knows of every good place to eat in Beijing.

It was a fixed menu that just kept on coming. In the end we had fish, fried duck, beans, rolled pork (only for Mari), candied nuts, squid, potato shreds, chicken and potatoes, spicy beef, green veggies, pickled veggies, preserved? black eggs and chicken soup. We passed on the rice and noodles.
Oh, and a tasty bowl of watermelon and cherry tomatoes for dessert.

This has been our most expensive meal so far at about $13 USD each.

Then on our walk home, just when I thought the night couldn't get any better, I saw this:

I tried to find one that didn't have dirt - or poo? - smeared on all of their faces, but every one on the block looked just like this one.

Where's Donnie?

Monday, April 03, 2006

MacRitchie Park Wild Animals

One of the best parts of the park/reservoir were all the wild animals.

Wild animals? What wild animals?

The monkeys of course!

According to Michael, this was not one of the best parts, it was the best part - hands down!

There are sign around asking visitors to not feed the little guys, but from the avid way they were eyeing our backpack (otherwise known as the refrigerator) it was clear that they have been fed many times before.
They were very comfortable around us and weren't even phased when about 15 high school students from a nearby rowing club came running down the path and started yelling as soon as they saw the monkeys. In fact, the noise seem to remind the monkeys that students sometimes mean food so all the monkeys ran towards the startling noise - not exactly your standard wild animal response.

There were other critters in the park also. Here is a 2 foot long iguana who had been sunning himself along the path.

We also saw a lot of interesting insects. Here is something that looks like a red dragonfly
and we saw a few of these butterflies in different stages of growth. When they are littler the contrast between the light and dark areas is even more pronounced. There were also a few mosquitoes, but we didn't get many pictures of those.

We have a bunch more pictures from the park. Please check out

Singapore - Land of Green Things

Upon arriving in Singapore, the first thing that struck us was how very green everything was. It is a beautiful, lush country.
Here we are at the top of a look-out tower in MacRitchie Park. (There will be more on this park later.)

There were also these lovely huge trees everywhere. This particular one caught our eye as it is about 10 stories tall. Michael was hoping to bring one home with us, so Cara told him that she was willing to carry it home if he would simply pick it and bring it over to her.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Home Again, Safe and Sound

We are back in Beijing and (mostly) in one piece.

Medical diagnosis:
The MRI results indicated that simple immobilization was the best way to go. As a result, Michael has a new and improved immobilzer on his wrist and is suppose to treat it very gently for the next 2 months. This was the best diagnosis that we could have hoped for since it meant no surgery!