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!


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


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


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

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