12.27.2012

Cold December

All the birds are heading down south but you're staying up north you say
I've got jackets, blankets, and sheets, it's going to be a cold December
-Matt Costa


Winter here is COLD. I have never been so cold in my life. The last few days I have been battling a vicious cold/flu, which has only exacerbated the feeling like a human icicle. Because I am in the midst of finals week, I have no choice but to leave my cozy apartment and make the cold 15 minute bike ride to work. After the ride through the frigid air, my toes and fingers scream for warmth. Fortunately, the classrooms and office are heated.

According to Weather.com, the average December temperature high and low for Beijing are 37˚F (2.8˚C) and 19˚F (-7.2˚C). Today, the high and low was 23˚F (-5˚C) and 19˚F (-7.2˚C).  That's right, my California friends, the temperature is colder than freezing – ALL THE TIME. Not only is it cold, but it is about 15˚F colder than average for this time of year.

A few weeks ago, Beijing had its second snowfall. Unlike the first wet snow this season, this gentle snowfall inspired snowball fights and building snowmen. The snow transformed the gray drab building into white palaces. Barren tree branches were no longer naked, rather they were clothed in fluffy white snow. The sounds of honking horns muffled into silence. Bizarrely, the cold did not seem so cold.

Chinese Word of the Blog: 十二月 Shí'èr yuè (literally, 12 month)
English translation: December


Snowball fights!
Snowmen!
 

12.16.2012

November Rain

And when your fears subside and shadows still remain, oh yeah
I know that you can love me when there's no one left to blame
So never mind the darkness we still can find a way
Nothin' lasts forever even cold November rain
-Guns N' Roses


This blog comes a little late. We were pretty busy moving, and once we moved, we were without internet at home for two weeks. So here goes the Movember Blog Post. In case you are unfamiliar with Movember slang, the mustache is fondly referred to as Mo.

What is Movember? Wikipedia.com provides the following explanation:

Movember (a portmanteau word from moustache and "November") is an annual, month-long event involving the growing of moustaches during the month of November to raise awareness of prostate cancer and other male cancer and associated charities. The Movember Foundation runs the Movember charity event, housed at Movember.com. The goal of Movember is to "change the face of men's health."

We first encountered Movember in 2009 when our friend Jonathon grew a very admirable Mo. As he is of Italian descent, his upper lip was covered in a voluptuous patch of dark hair. Jonathon's mustache won birdMAN's respect and awe. I think subconsciously men believe that a lush lip coiffure is sign of masculinity and maturity. So once in every man's life, he must ignore any vain notions of hanging onto youth. He must embrace his version of ultimate manhood, a rite of passage— to grow out the hair on his lip like his grandfather.

Once the mustache idea was planted, it festered like a disease. The following spring, we traveled throughout China for three weeks. During that time, birdMAN abstained from shaving. When we returned home, birdMAN shaved his chin saving the hair on his upper lip. Every time I looked at him, I couldn't help but burst into laughter. He bore no resemblance to Burt Reynolds, the king of seductive mustaches. Rather, as his sister pointed out, he looked more like Kip from Napoleon Dynamite. The humiliation was too much. That Mo only lasted about 10 hours.

In 2011, birdMAN made another attempt for a manly Mo, but caved and shaved after only 3 days of growth. Again humiliation overpowered the idea.

Fast forward to November 2012. Beijing has become our home. Ah, finally the best opportunity to display his dream 'stache. No teasing sisters or sister-in-laws curling their lips in disgust. No way-cooler-than-you college students wearing designer jeans and messy-but-cool hair dos to feel stupid around. No physical or hygienic standards to meet (people pick their noses in public here. Why would anyone care if someone grows a mustache?). Here nobody knows us.  And people that don't know us well are way too nice to say their true opinions.

Also, mustaches are rare. Chinese men don't seem to age, having smooth faces like children. Occasionally, a man may have a thin patch of hair growth, which looks more like he missed shaving the same spot for the previous four weeks. Mustaches thus belong to the realm of brawny men of the West- the descendants of Vikings, Spanish conquistadors, and Russian sailors.

November 2012 will go down in history as the month of the birdMAN Mo. Honestly, I much prefer my man clean-shaven. Now if he looked like Burt Reynolds…well, why muse over impossibilities? Thank goodness November ended.

Chinese word of the blog: 胡子 húzǐ
English translation: mustache

12.10.2012

Expensive Tastes

Try silver spoon for size
Harder than a needle 
Through a camels eye
Folks gather around the table find a place
Boys that girl don't have expensive tastes
-Cold War Kids

Searching for an apartment here in Beijing is different than in the United States. In the United States, the apartment hunt-and-find may take months. The prospective renter will search advertisements (i.e. Craigslist), talk to friends, or visit property manager websites. The apartments are not furnished; but a decent landlord will repaint the walls, repair damaged fixtures, and ensure the home is reasonably clean. 

In Beijing, an real estate agent shows the prospective renter several apartments. Conveniently, the apartments are furnished, usually having the bare minimum of a couch, bed, coffee table, television, wardrobe, and refrigerator. Inconveniently, the state of the apartment is the state that it will be rented, even if the floors are disintegrating due to water damage. Nobody cleans it. No repairs are done. 

We commenced our apartment search as most Beijing renters do: by seeking the help of a real estate agent and letting him/her show us apartments. The first day of my apartment search, I met an agent who called himself Patrick. He spoke a little English, and was extremely pushy. He took me to a large apartment that looked like it hadn't been dusted in 10 years. The kitchen was laden with grease and extremely small. The living room had three huge velvet couches that were probably luxurious in 1975. A broken TV and computer from the same era decorated the cupboards. Dusty vases of garish colors donned the shelves. The bedroom mattresses were stained and sunk in the middle. The toilet bowl was black and crusty. I felt like I had walked into an Edgar Allan Poe short story. I walked around and pointed at pretty much everything and said "不要! 不要!" (Don't want this). He repeated over and over, "Are you satisfied with this?" I said no! This place is disgusting.

I have read about this rental tactic. First, an agent will show an apartment in deplorable condition. The second apartment will be in much better condition. The hope is that upon seeing such a nice apartment, the renter will be grateful to the agent and immediately sign a contract. This tactic did not work with us. We like to shop around and explore (or rather, exhaust) our options. Patrick just succeeded in annoying me for wasting my time.

Also different from the United States, agents will show the apartments while the tenants are still living there. They do not notify the tenants to check if the time is convenient. We followed a different agent (much more likable than Patrick) to an apartment on a Friday evening. A Chinese man wearing long underwear with his T-shirt tucked in answered the door. After they exchanged words, the man amiably invited us in to enter his apartment. This place should have been on an episode of TLC's "Hoarders."  Ok, I know he and his wife and baby were moving… I can understand disorganization. But really!!! It was ready to explode with boxes full of clothes, books, furniture and stuff in every corner. And don't get me started on the bathroom. I remind you, there were people—with a baby— living there. The bathroom floor was crusting over with black mold or dust – I am not sure what and I did not want to find out.

So the apartment hunt continued.

The following is the worst of what we saw (all from the same apartment):
  1. The bathroom floor was about a half inch higher than the hallway. The bathrooms here are usually wet bathrooms, having no division between the shower, the sink, and toilet. Obviously, the bathroom floor higher than the rest of the apartment is a big problem. The landlord tried to distract birdMAN from inspecting the extensive water damage by pointing to desk chair, "看看!很好!" ("Look here. So great.")
  2. The one bedroom apartment was actually a studio apartment with a six-foot tall panel wall enclosing a bed. The panel walls were decorated with four ornamental lights, each one a different color- yellow, purple, red, and blue. The landlord turned them on (probably to keep me from noticing that this was not actually a bedroom), and the real estate agent exclaimed," 漂亮!" ("Beautiful!") Those lights reminded me of the Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland.
  3. Opening a kitchen cupboard and seeing a layer of black grime inside. I don't care how cheap this place is. I am definitely not moving here.
Not all the apartments are bad. There are plenty of nice apartments here. Eventually we found an apartment with a large living room, roomy kitchen, and a nice view with minimal furniture. The landlord was friendly. We signed a contract. Since we do not have much, moving was easy—two bicycle rides and a 13 RMB taxi was all it took.  After a few trips to IKEA and some serious cleaning, we feel like we are home.

Sorry no pictures on this blog. We do not have internet at our home yet; therefore no access to our VPN (that is another story). Please anticipate our next blog with a lot of pictures. I would like to add…I love having a functioning kitchen!

Chinese word of the Blog: 太脏 tài zāng
English translation: Too filthy (say it to the agent when you are walking through a filthy apartment that you have no hope of cleaning enough to make it livable)

11.27.2012

Internet Connection

You don't understand me
You don't know my game
I say "whats the malfunction?"
You say "the internet connection!"
I'm down like my internet connection
-M.I.A.

A common complaint among our fellow foreigners is, "I can't get into my email," meaning "I can't access my gmail." The rumor is that China and Google are in a bit of a spat right now.  Thus Google-lovers like me bemoan unreliable access to email and Google.com, and many other U.S. based websites.

So what to do in a world without Google? Sometimes I opt to read a book, but mostly I surf the web using  Baidu.com. Baidu.com is China's most popular search engine, and is great for finding free song downloads and research papers ready for plagiarism.  I ignore most of the poorly written papers, but take full advantage of the free song downloads. I have downloaded songs that I would not buy, but unabashedly enjoy. These guilty pleasures include Rihanna's "Umbrella", Carly Ray Jepson's "Call Me Maybe", Bruno Mars "Marry You", Taio Cruz's "Dynamite", and Fun.'s "We Are Young".

So why is China giving Google the silent treatment? I cannot say for sure, but from observation it seems Google's silence coincides with China's big political meeting a couple weeks ago. While police officers stationed at every street corner and gate are visible evidence of China's increased security measures, newly blocked access to Google and other websites is cyber evidence of increased internet defense. Even taxis have to abide by security measures.  According to the Washington Times, the handles in taxis have been removed to prevent passengers from spreading leaflets(a).

The meeting is now over, and we are eagerly awaiting Google and China to become friends again. Is it too much to ask? I just want to read my email whenever I want.

Chinese word of the blog: 上网 shàngwǎng (literally, on net)
English translation: 1.) to be on the internet 2.) to be netted (of fish)
I love the character, 网. It really looks like a net.


11.17.2012

Saturday Morning

We got a whole big, fat, world to see
Nothings ever gonna happen round here
If we don't make it happen
Sleep away the day if you want to
But I got something that I gotta do
Its Saturday Morning
-The Eels


I have given up many habits and comforts I had in California. Shopping at Anthropologie.com is replaced with haggling at a clothes market. Goodbye Paul Mitchell Extra Body Hair Conditioner and hello Vidal Sassoon 润发乳 purchased from the Beijing Walmart. My flatscreen television sits in silence in my parent’s basement while I stream movies with Chinese captions to my laptop. Tacos are a delicacy (if we can find them) and no longer a quick and easy meal. Instead of Peet’s coffee, I am happy to purchase a cup of instant coffee from KFC.

But on Saturday mornings, we escape China and enter America—uh, I mean, Starbucks. We hear English conversation just above the gentle hum of milk being steamed. We let the sweet aromas of Latin coffee beans intoxicate us while we unconsciously hum to cathartic tunes. After the coffee sufficiently rejuvenates us and we leave to start the day’s activities, we use the bathroom equipped with western-style toilets, toilet paper, and hand soap. Also, since the smoking ban seems to be enforced inside the Starbucks, my lungs suffer no pollution. And the coffee! A strong, pungent punch to my senses. Just like home.

And just like home, Starbucks reminds us that Christmas is just around the corner. The rest of China doesn’t care about Christmas, but Starbucks has decorated its windows with evergreen flora, introduced the Cranberry Bliss Bar for the season, and played “Winter Wonderland”. I had nearly forgotten that December is almost here.

Also just like home, Starbucks coffee is a splurge event. A venti sized coffee sets us back 23 RMB. For comparison, I buy a week’s worth of vegetables, tofu, and eggs for less than 20 RMB.

Chinese Word of the Blog: 星巴克 xīng bā kè (the first character literally means star. The last two characters sounds like “buck”)
English translation: Starbucks


11.04.2012

Winter Wooskie

Who's that girl?
She must be nearly freezing
Who's that girl?
I'll bet all that snow
Makes it hard to see her
Today she waved to me
-Belle & Sebastian




I know I said I was ready for winter, but I am not. No siree. I am not ready for winter.

Yesterday, the grey, foreboding clouds warned us to layer on our rain gear and pack an umbrella before we left for the day. A few hours later, the rain fell steadily. As the day wore on, the temperature gradually dropped and the wind picked up.

birdMAN decided to spend his rainy afternoon apartment hunting. Apartment hunting involves going to a rental agency and explaining in Chinese the amount of rent you would like to pay and how many rooms, etc. The rental agents are eager to showcase the seemingly endless supply of apartments. They usually say, this apartment is so convenient, so comfortable, and so nice. Looking at rentals is a great opportunity to practice speaking Chinese. Since the apartments are not all within walking distance, birdMAN got snuggly on the back of a tiny scooter with the Chinese rental agent. He didn’t mind the intimacy because he was cold.

Afterward, birdMAN hopped on his bicycle and headed home. On the way in the midst of a steady downpour, his bicycle tire went flat. He walked 10 minutes to the street bicycle repair shop to get the tire replaced. Afterward, he happily hopped back on his bike with its brand new tire, and about 20 feet later, the pedal broke off. Back to the bike shop.

Meanwhile, I biked home. I slowly maneuvered through the rain, wind, and deep extended puddles. The problem with puddles is, well, they are full of water. Passing cars splash the brown puddle water on you. Your own bike splashes the puddles on you. At the same time, you  hope no hidden obstruction in the puddle will cause you to put a foot down (in the puddle). Based on the accumulated water in road side gutters even during minor storms; I conclude that the storm drains must be severely under-capacity. The puddles are deep! By the time I got home, my jeans and sneakers were drenched (with both puddle water and rain) and I was really cold.

But it only got colder. That evening, we listened to the rain and wind pound the windows. Sometime during the night, the rain became snow. In the morning, the buildings and trees were soaked with snow. Yes, soaked and laden with snow. Not daintily dusted with light feathery snow that inspires snow fights and building snowmen. Today’s snow was wet. The roads were wet. Trees toppled over blocking the bike lanes. The wind was howling. And I had an important appointment keep.

So I layered on my sweater, sweatshirt, scarf, hat, long underwear, thick socks, and gloves. I got back on my preferred mode of transportation—my trusty bicycle. Obviously, riding a bike during snowfall is preferable over rain. You don’t seem to get as wet. However, combine heavy rain and subsequent snow fall, the result are bike lanes full of wet snowy puddles. If having to choose between riding through the wet, snow clumps or the slushy puddle, the puddle is preferable. Snow is either sticky or slippery, neither ideal for trudging a bike through. Just don’t put a foot down in the sloshy mess.

The ride back home was miserably cold. I had layered on all my winter clothes, and I was frigid-- desperate to wait out the rest of the storm in a heated apartment. birdMAN called me during the ride home to ask if I wanted to eat out. Eating out would require being outside—with my only pair of sneakers that at the moment were wet with snow puddle water. Eating out would require being outside in the wind and snow and increasing my chances for freezing to death. I said no thanks. I needed refuge from the storm. I was just so cold. Did you understand me? I was cold. My California self is just not ready for winter.

I am confident after I buy my winter boots, I will be ready for winter. My New Balance sneakers just will not do.

Chinese words of the blog:

下雨 xiàyǔ (down, rain)
English Translation: raining

下雪 xiàxuě (down, snow)
English Translation: snowing

I love the Chinese characters for rain and snow. Doesn’t 雨 look like rain? Doesn’t 雪 look like snow?

birdMAN in the snow with a winter mustache






11.01.2012

My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion

They tell us autumn's a-comin'
And soon everything around us will die
Only a fool believes that he is
Different from the birds in the sky
-Flaming Lips




Every morning when I wake up, cozy under my down comforter, I use my droid to log onto the Wifi and check Instagram for newly uploaded photos. During the night while I sleep, all my friends and family are awake enjoying their lives. What may seem mundane to them—taking the kids to the store, walking the dog, making a pumpkin pie—is not ordinary to me. I get to enjoy a piece of the life I left at home.

Last week, my mom posted a picture on Instagram of my 5-year old nephew swimming. My sister also posted a picture of him eating frozen yogurt. Another friend posted a picture of herself outside wearing a strapless dress. Ahhh, Autumn in the Sacramento Valley, California. According to Weather.com, the high in Sacramento is 76˚F and the low is 51˚F. Shorts for the day and a sweater for later. Swimming (albeit, a little chilly) when the sun is out and pumpkin pie in the evening.


What! Swimming in California?
For comparison, the Beijing high is 58˚F and the low is 34˚F. I leave the apartment bundled up in my down jacket, hat, and gloves.

We arrived in Beijing with our lives packed into two suitcases. Those suitcases were woefully lacking space for winter clothes. As the weather grew colder, I layered more clothes on, and I began feeling like the hobo lady. Not only did I totally mismatch (I didn’t care, I was cold), but three layers of summer clothes does not equal a winter outfit.

Fortunately, Beijing has loads of shopping malls, from the super nice and expensive (Esprit, Zara, and Uni-qlo) to the cheap and fake brand names (outdoor street market or on the sidewalk). In preparation for the winter, I have bought one thick sweatshirt, one sweater, two knitted scarves, gloves, two winter hats, and two sets of fleece lined tights. I purchased most of these garments from the hodge-podge stalls at the underground clothes market.  Last week, I bought fleece lined athletic pants for the sole purpose of not freezing in my apartment. Xialian gave me full length black down coat (formerly belonging to Bai Milan). My winter wardrobe will be complete once I find good deal on warm boots.  Mentally and wardrobe-wise, I am nearly ready for winter.

Chinese word of the blog: 秋天 qiū tiān (literally, harvest time day)
                                           English translation: Autumn


Autumn is here!



10.19.2012

The Gambler

You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em
Know when to walk away and know when to run
You never count your money when you're sittin' at the table
There'll be time enough for countin' when the dealing's done
-Kenny Rogers




Milk additives that kill children, agricultural crops irrigated with human waste, bathrooms with open trough toilets and no running water –therefore increasing the risk of spreading fecal borne disease. These stories from China make any foreigner shudder, especially one accustomed to the FDA’s regulations and the organic food selections at the co-op supermarket. So foreigners exchange food safety advice – peel fruits and vegetables, don’t eat anything raw from a restaurant, and stay away from food carts. Even so, a foreigner will inevitably suffer stomach woes.

So naturally, a popular conversation topic among foreigners is food poisoning – how many times, what caused it, and how bad was it. Swapping sickness stories always results in good entertainment (but only long after the event). For the last two months, birdMAN and I have proudly proclaimed, “We eat whatever we want – street food, raw foods, unpeeled foods. And we have NOT been sick. We have immune systems like steel. Stomachs of iron.” Hah! That is no longer true.

As mentioned in the previous blog (Octopus’s Garden), we could not wait to eat the seafood in Qingdao. We threw caution to the wind. Clams, crab, oysters, squid, and shrimp all picked from a street-side display, eaten without rice and without restraint.

I fold! The clams win.

The day following our night of seafood gluttony, we planned an excursion to Lao Shan (崂山). Lao Shan, a coastal mountain, is a reputedly a must-see in Qingdao. Along with the droves of people eager to see Lao Shan, we stuffed ourselves onto a packed tour bus. No seats for us. We stood at the front of the bus and found a wall on which to lean. The traffic was so congested that the 1 hour bus ride turned into a 3 hours. As I stood and eventually leaned against the bus wall, I experienced the first signs of stomach distress. A few pangs here and there.

Upon arriving at Lao Shan, we were so tired of the bus (and people). We made our way to the entrance. The first thing we noticed beyond the lines of people entering the gate, not a picturesque trail to stroll up the mountain, but MORE BUSES. An information sign said that the entrance fee was 130 RMB and to protect the environment, visitors will board the bus to the scenic area. We agreed that paying 130 RMB each and stuffing ourselves on another bus was the last thing we wanted to do. My stomach hurt anyway.

As a side note, Lao Shan has the worst bathroom I have ever visited. No privacy with open holes that chute to a ditch outside of the bathroom building (for everyone to see). If you visit, just prepare yourself. After a visit, you may feel like you developed food poisoning. Fortunately, I had no major discharges here.

Instead of getting on the bus, we walked along the highway back towards Qingdao. About 30 minutes later, intense waves of stomach cramps caused me to stop and lean over. After a minute and the pain subsided, I could walk again. I imagined that this is what contractions are like before giving birth. birdMAN flagged down a taxi driving the opposite way. Much to my relief, the taxi U-turned to pick us up. The taxi dropped us off at a beach about a 20 minute walk away from the hostel. We were in Qingdao and hadn’t seen the beach yet, so why not? I thought I could tough it out, but the smells wafting from the squid and hotdogs grilling at snack carts were too much. I found a place with relatively few people and vomited in a bush. The nausea combined with my stomach cramps told me this was going to get ugly.

This is me trying to enjoy the beach
And ugly it did. I will spare you the details, but a few hours later my body had emptied. Stupidly, I had left my stock of gastrointestinal medicine in Beijing. Meanwhile, birdMAN left me in the hostel to explore the nearby area. Why should he suffer with me? That night I felt better, probably because there was nothing left in me. I ate noodles for dinner while birdMAN ate a crab.

That night was pure illness. I felt bad for the people staying in the room next to the women’s bathroom. The next morning, birdMAN learned how to read the characters for pharmacy (药店) and we ventured out of the hostel in search of a cure. I did not make it very far. I will again spare you the details, but I called birdMAN a few minutes after we parted ways and told him to buy some laundry detergent.

birdMAN continued down the street stopping at a few stores to ask “附近哪里买药?” (Nearby where buy medicine?) Each store pointed him the same direction. He knew he reached the right place when he saw this sign:

Every sick traveler's dream come true!
So he went inside. He found himself surrounded by 6 Chinese people in lab coats trying to understand his problem. He said “我的太太... 腹泻” (“My wife…diarrhea”).  They got the point. After about 30 minutes of meeting with the doctor and listening to her instructions, birdMAN walked out of the clinic with a bag of medicine. He had succeeded.

Over the next three days, I took green herbal pills, two different powders mixed with water, a tube of white goop, and some pain medicine. The concoction cured me! But I would have no more seafood during my stay in Qingdao. Our final night in Qingdao I ate a rice bun and birdMAN ate his third crab.

The healing concoction
birdMAN, however, did not escape unscathed. His three nights of unrestrained seafood consumption eventually caught up to him. He didn’t get as sick as me, but for about four days after leaving Qingdao, he needed Pepto-bismol pills and for caution’s sake, to stick close to a bathroom.

What’s the lesson? You have to know when to eat, and when to run. Don’t take any chances. Don’t forget the anti-diarrheal medicine at home. Eat a lot of rice with seafood. And if at all possible, avoid the Lao Shan bathroom.

Chinese word of the blog: 药店    yào diàn (literally, medicine store)
                                          English translation: pharmacy

Inside the Diarrhea Clinic -- Looks so sterile!





10.13.2012

Octopus’s Garden

I’d like to be
Under the sea
In an octopus’s garden
In the shade
-    The Beatles


 

During last week’s National Holiday, we escaped Beijing by fast train and sojourned in Qingdao. Qingdao (青岛) is a hot destination for tourists, called the “City by the Sea” and valued for its temperate climate and abundant seafood. And yes, the seafood was abundant.

Upon arriving last Tuesday evening, the brine-laced breeze welcomed us. We breathed it in—ahh, air cleansed by the sea. As we proceeded up the narrow sloped streets, we passed several restaurant patrons sitting at collapsible tables and small stools. Set before them were plates of clams, fish, and shrimp swimming in garlic, ginger, and spices. The restaurants did not need menus. Instead, the food was displayed in tanks and bins: crab, shrimp, octopus all awaiting their fates. We could barely wait to enjoy Qingdao’s claim to fame—the seafood and beer.

We stayed at Kaiyue International Hostel, in the old district of Qingdao. The hostel was once a church, but now a haven for foreign travelers. The reception and wait staff speaks decent English and the cleaning staff is hyper-vigilant about mopping the entire place over and over again. The hostel has a comfortable lounge with wifi, pool tables, guitars, and a bar. The menu features several European and American dishes, including breakfast baked beans. We had the French toast, and it was delicious. Outside of the hostel, we rarely ran into foreigners (meaning non-Chinese). I think they were all in the lounge (or maybe sleeping), smoking cigarettes, drinking beer, and cursing about who knows what. While we enjoyed spending the late afternoon in the lounge reading our electronic tablets and studying Chinese, we departed once evening fell and the lounge turned into a smoky party/bar.

Kaiyue International Hostel
Sitting room and our room
Enjoying the hostel lounge
 Our room was simple and clean with a shared bathroom. We were at the end of the hall immediately adjacent to the bathroom, so I could hear all the foot traffic headed our way and toilet flushes all night. Throughout the first night, I listened to hacking, gagging, and other sounds of someone who was violently ill (too much seafood?). Despite sharing a bathroom (and hearing toilet flushes), we would definitely stay there again. The hostel is clean and comfortable in a great downtown location, and the price is cheap-- 160 RMB (~$25 USD) per night for two persons in a private room.

The old part of Qingdao features German type architecture, which made us feel like we were in a bizarre version of an old European city. Among the cobble streets and ornate light fixtures were crowds of Chinese people selling vegetables and chickens in small cages on the sidewalk. Near the university, we found very charming coffee houses with picturesque courtyards. We mostly ate at outdoor restaurants that sold cheap beer and had menus entirely in Chinese. Somehow we were able to order food (thank goodness we know how to say rice, vegetables, beer, and ask how much things are). It is very Chinese in Qingdao, meaning nobody spoke English and most the signs are Chinese. I am glad to report our first trip by ourselves was a success, with a few inconvenient setbacks.
An alluring display of seafood
As mentioned earlier, we could not wait to eat the seafood. Many restaurants display the seafood selections on large tables making it easy to point and order. birdMAN eyed a restaurant  with whole crab and decided that crab is what he would eat. Before sitting down, I asked the server how much did a pitcher of beer cost?  I am 99% positive she told me 13 RMB.  Sounds good. So we ate like gluttons enjoying crab, clams, giant clams, shrimp, and squid along with a pitcher of beer.  After we added up what the meal should cost, we asked for the bill. A different server brought the bill and told us we owe over 170 RMB. What? We had calculated closer to 150 RMB. Why? we ask. He told us the price of each item. The price of the beer was 38 RMB. We hesitated. Didn’t the other server tell us 13 RMB? We half-heartedly disagreed, but the server was adamant.  38 RMB. You must pay 38 RMB. Since we were uncomfortable with the language, we paid.

After leaving, I was pretty annoyed. I started asking nearby restaurants how much a pitcher of beer cost. The cost ranged from 8 RMB to 18 RMB. We are pretty positive that the server took advantage of us and overcharged us royally for the beer. In retrospect, I wish I had gone to another table and asked the patrons what they paid. Or demanded to see a price list. I do know the hanzi for beer. But we yielded, and allowed ourselves to get swindled. What’s the lesson? Be pushier and demand foreign and Chinese tourists get equal treatment!

The worst outcome of that meal was not that we overpaid, but that I became horribly ill the next day (more on that later—the subject deserves its own blog).

Afterward, we were much more careful about establishing the costs at restaurants. A few days later while near the famous Qingdao brewery, we were on the hunt for a pitcher of green beer, a specialty beer infused with spirulina. We walked by several restaurants with beckoning servers, “Sit here! We have the best food and the best beer!” We would ask how much is the green beer (绿啤)?  We were told 80 RMB at three restaurants. At the fourth restaurant, the server actually showed us a price list and pointed to the price, 60 RMB. We were sold! So we sat outside, enjoyed the clean air while leisurely sipping green beer. Supposedly the beer is good for health. I found it refreshingly easy to drink. And I admit I was very relaxed afterward.

Qingdao is a quick and easy get-away from Beijing and near the ocean with a number of beaches. The weather is pleasing. The people are nice.  Qingdao self-proclaims it as the “Center of Beer Culture” (I think the Germans might disagree.)  Just confirm the prices and don’t eat too much seafood at once.

Chinese word of the blog: 海鲜    hǎi xiān   (literally ocean tasty)
                                          English translation: seafood

A busy beach during the Mid-Autumn Festival
B ate three crabs in three days (thanks Dad for teaching him how to eat the body!)
Qingdao green beer -- very tasty
B made friends on the beach -- too bad he didn't bring his speedo
Beach gym
Jelly fish for sale! Only 10 RMB





10.09.2012

Blame it on the Trains



Just another five, just another five minutes
The train’s gone and we’re not in it
My heart can’t take the strain
Give me thirty minutes and we’ll blame it on the trains
-Art Brut

The train ticket office AFTER the holiday (no people waiting in line)

The weeks prior to the Mid-Autumn Festival, the train ticket office is swarming with crowds. Tickets often sell out, which is bad news for the someone who desperately wants to eat moon cakes with family in a distant province, or for anyone trying to get out of Beijing. We were the latter group. We wanted to get out of Beijing and spend the holiday in Qingdao, the city by the sea.

Train tickets go on sale ten days before departure. So ten days before we planned to leave for Qingdao, we headed to the train ticket office. Buying a ticket is pretty daunting task. Not only does the train ticket agent not speak English, he/she speaks with a thick Beijing accent in a hurried demeanor.  To save time, birdMAN sometimes is pretty unabashed about asking for help in English.  After all, we do live in an area where most young people speak English very well. On this occasion, birdMAN found a helpful English speaking young lady to act as our translator. Via our impromptu translator, we learned that the train we wanted was sold out, but there was a later one. Great! We were excited to take the train to Qingdao.

As before mentioned, tickets go on sale ten days before departure. So a few days later in the morning, birdMAN headed back to the train ticket office to buy return tickets. He waited in a line for 30 minutes. The ticket agent told him there are no train tickets available right now, but come back after 3 pm. OK, that makes no sense, but we don’t understand China and so we complied. That afternoon, we returned to the ticket office and waited in the line again for 30 minutes. The ticket agent told us there are no trains, but come back tomorrow. OK, so maybe only a limited number of tickets can be sold during a time period? We still don’t know for sure what was happening. birdMAN returned the next morning and waited in the line again. You guessed it, come back in the afternoon. That afternoon, we both returned to the ticket office and waited in the line another 30 minutes. birdMAN showed the ticket agent his carefully written sentence: ”十月五日从青岛到北京.” (October 5 from Qingdao to Beijing). She asked, “早上还是下午?” (Morning or afternoon?)  I said, “早上.” (Morning.) She said, “没有.”  (There isn’t any.) I said, “下午好吗?” (How about afternoon?) She said, “没有.”  (There isn’t any.)  I thought, “Why did you ask what time I want tickets if there are no tickets?” She told us come back the next day. By this time we are getting frustrated/confused, wondering if we should even go to Qingdao. We may not be able to return.

birdMAN asked one of our Chinese friends for help. He went online and checked the availability. Apparently, two return tickets were available, but were first-class and only for the early morning train. For some reason, the ticket agents did not give us that option. We ended up buying plane tickets for the return.

The train ride to Qingdao was extremely comfortable, much more comfortable than a plane ride. No turbulence, plenty of leg room, and roomy, clean bathrooms. The bullet train is our preferred method of travel.

Maybe purchasing train tickets will make more sense in the future when my Chinese is better. What’s the lesson? Bring someone who can speak Chinese and English to the train ticket office with you!

Chinese word of the blog: 火车 Huǒ chē (literally, fire car)
                                          English translation: train

The bullet train travels at speeds up to 300 km/hour

10.01.2012

Bicycle Race



Bicycle races are coming your way
So forget all your duties oh yeah
Fat bottomed girls they'll be riding today
So look out for those beauties oh yeah
On your marks get set go
Bicycle race bicycle race bicycle race
-Queen



This week is China’s National Holiday, the Mid-Autumn Festival or Mooncake Festival. The Mid-Autumn Festival is a pretty important holiday here, an opportunity to travel to one’s hometown, eat mooncakes and take a break from work and school.

I too enjoy a week off from work to relax and eat good food. So when Xialian mentioned a bike ride to the Great Wall during the holiday, I was less than excited. Isn’t the Great Wall really far away? Do I really have to wake up that early? My bike only has three gears. It is not made for climbing hills.

Wait --I know what you are thinking, don’t you love bicycling? Isn’t that your hobby? Yes, I love bicycling, but I am spoiled. I am used to feeling semi-professional on my Dave Scott road bike while donning my Giordana shorts and slick white helmet. But Xialian’s enthusiasm overwhelmed birdMAN and me, and we consented. Her enthusiasm apparently also overwhelmed 8 other friends. They joined the cycling party on commuter bikes complete with rusty chains, squeaky brakes and lopsided baskets. Not a single click in shoe or spandex garment to be found. Their backpacks were brimming with snacks for sharing-- homemade Japanese rice balls stuffed with pickled vegetables, Chinese corn hotdogs (very popular here), fried chicken sandwiches, and of course, mooncakes.  But most importantly, they were genuinely joyful to follow Xialian up the hill to the Great Wall.

This is one tough bunch. Beijing makes us tough. Every day is busy and fraught with potential stress. A lost cell phone. A stolen backpack. Squeezing into an overcrowded bus. The hot water or electricity inexplicably turns off. On bike, we combat vehicular and pedestrian traffic daily. We breathe visibly black exhaust fumes from garbage trucks and nearby smokers. We stand for an hour at a time when traveling by subway. We carry only what we need to avoid getting weighed down – tissue paper, cell phone, wallet, a book or two, and water. All of this we experience while we speak a language different from our mother-tongue.

Riding to the Great Wall and back? Piece of cake!

Xialian had carefully planned the 36 km (one way) ride. We met in north Beijing at about 7:50 am. We were supposed to meet at 7:30 am, but birdMAN and I were unfashionably late. We woke up at the same time we should have left for the 12 km ride to rendezvous point. After a group picture we were off. Once leaving Beijing city traffic, we enjoyed riding the spacious bike lane along a busy highway. Unfortunately, someone’s bike chain broke on the way, and he had to make an emergency stop at a bike repair shop. Otherwise, the ride was relatively smooth and extremely pleasant.

We rode to Juyongguan section of the Great Wall, where we lunched under a shady tree with a panoramic view of the Great Wall. The weather couldn’t have been better – warm, sunny, calm and clear. We watched the crowds of tourists arriving via bus, and then pay the entrance fee to hike the steep sections of the Great Wall. We did no such thing. Just because we were at China’s greatest landmark, we were not about to make the grueling climb in the middle of a long bike ride. Getting there by bike is satisfying enough. Hiking the Great Wall will be saved for another day.

On our way
Break time with Xialian
We can see Great Wall in the distance
View from where we ate lunch
My 3 gear bike
Some friendly children I met on the way
Almost home! Riding on the busy streets of Beijing