Jun 28, 2008

Coastal carousing

We did a weekend trip recently out to the coast near Beidaihe to a lesser-known beach in Liaoning province called Jieshi (碣石), which is part of Huludao.

The pluses, compared to Beidaihe, are that it's almost completely free of tourists, cheaper, and cleaner. The negatives are that there's not much infrastructure at all in terms of places to stay, places to eat, entertainment, and the beaches aren't maintained for swimming. Since I'm no fan of huge crowds like there are at Beidaihe, I'd come back to this place again.

We joined up with a group of youths on a craiglist-like Chinese web site where people organize activities and look for people to join in. In total, there were three cars of youths. We'd been out with activities posted on this particular site before. The common feature is that the organizers of these events are in love with walkie-talkies. Every car absolutely must take a transceiver with them and constantly give status updates. The drive out and back was filled with non-stop, repetitious drivel. There were times I had to really fight the urge to chuck the walkie-talkie out the window. Apparently it's impossible to drive a hundred miles on an expressway without being in constant contact with people in other cars.

Now for some pictures.

This is the small offshore rock formation from which Jieshi gets its name. From what I could judge in Google Earth, it's about 800 meters offshore.




These two hairless guys thought it would be a neat idea to row out to the rock formation in a $40 blow up raft from Wal-Mart. I'm happy to say they made it out and back in a little over an hour and a half, no injuries or other loss of life. It's not a trip I would have recommended for them, considering: we had no clue as to what currents or rip tides were lurking 800 meters off shore, the water temperature was cold enough that you'd go hypothermic after a while without a wet suit, no one from the shore can see you once you're 500 meters away since there's so much haze, and last but not least, from what I saw, these two guys could swim 100 meters in a calm indoor pool, let alone 800 meters in open water with waves and currents. Let's just say they're fortunate their sturdy toy boat made it there and back without deflating.




Here's a local woman picking up scraps of seaweed from the beach, either to eat or to sell, I'm not sure. Looks like she done got a big bag o' loot there already.




Here's a pissed off crab I scooped out from the water without him pinching me. Notice the defensive posture and aggressive stance. Don't worry, we released him back into the wild after observing his habits.




Some local youths near the hotel we stayed at, loafing on the remains of an old fishing boat.




A rice paddy with a binjo ditch nearby, about one click from the beach.




A Chinese breakfast at our guesthouse. From left to right:
  • mantou
  • cucumber salad
  • hard boiled eggs
  • red fermented tofu (I think)
  • some other kind of cold salad
  • cold tofu
  • soupy rice porridge (xi fan)
Notice the lack of donuts, Frosted Flakes, Honeycomb, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, grapefruit, bacon, toast, or coffee. Actually, note the absence of any type of beverage. I've learned over the years to pack some instant coffee or tea bags for a breakfast beverage when eating outside of the tier-1 cities in China. Forget to bring that stuff and you're left sucking down the cloudy juice on the surface of your rice porridge, or even worse, soy-milk!




Here's one thing I could definitely have eaten more of. It's a Chinese Jonnycake. The only improvement they could have made would have been to provide some warm syrup to douse it with. The Chinese Jonnycake is much preferred over the essentially flavorless mantou.




Some of the event organizers went to a local seafood market in the afternoon to load up on oysters, crabs, and other assorted goodies. Here's someone roasting huge whole oysters over a makeshift grill. These were pretty good. As basic as the recipe is, I can't say I've had oysters cooked this way before. Not bad at all.




Wider view of the makeshift grill:




Here's the whole gang of Chinese craiglist activity buddies at a pit stop somewhere between Beijing and Huludao.




One of the things I saw on this trip that I didn't take a picture of was at one of the toll stations on the outskirts of Beijing. There was a little hut containing a few paramilitary police with submachine guns searching any cars with non-Beijing license plates. They spent time scrutinizing the identity cards of the drivers. The police also boarded incoming passenger buses and collected all the identity cards of the passengers for analysis before letting the bus go. Pretty neat.

Jun 26, 2008

Filthy hooves on the carpet

Here's an entertaining ABC News segment on how dirty your shoes are. Guests tend to frequently trample your freshly cleaned hardwood floor or carpet in the US. In my opinion, you should always ask the host if it's a shoes on or shoes off house. After seeing the ABC story, you're not going to want to let any guests drag their filthy hooves across your floors anymore.

The shoes off policy tends to be the overwhelming default in China. You'd understand why if you've ever been into a hutong bathroom or a countryside outhouse.

In my opinion, it should be shoes off and no dirty hooves allowed regardless of what country you're in.

Jun 23, 2008

Green Olympics

There used to be a nice little grove of trees near the Wudaokou light rail station. The patch of green trees was a nice contrast to the greyness of the city. I was rather disappointed to walk by recently and see that the city had clearcut the whole bunch of trees down. Take a look:

Before:


After:


Real bummer, isn't it? I can't imagine what was going through the minds of whatever government planning committee is responsible for that particular patch of land. I picture a generic boardroom, filled with anonymous-looking fifty year-old Chinese men, sipping from white ceramic teacups with little white covers, smoking Zhongnanhai brand cigarettes.

I imagine a meeting that probably went something like this:









Some local friends have speculated that the destruction of this patch of trees was a temporary move. They expect that the trees will be replaced soon, after whatever impending construction project is completed. I really hope this is true.

These days, Beijing certainly needs less of some things. It needs less dust, less littering, and less expectorating. However, one thing it doesn't need less of is trees and grass.

[Chinese version of this post]

[Credit: before photo]

Jun 22, 2008

Potstickers

On occasion, most often in the winter, I like to eat at dumpling joints in Beijing. Dumpling houses are a dime-a-dozen in China. There are high end ones and cheap fast food ones. You can generally get a huge variety of fillings ranging from the basic pork-and-cabbage to mushroom to san-xian (three fresh ingredients). Almost always, these dumplings are served boiled or steamed.

Having grown accustomed to a variety of American fried and oily foods, sometimes the boiled type of dumplings just don't cut it for me. More than once, I've gone to a dumpling place, ordered a few types of dumplings, and then requested that rather than boiling them, they pan fry them, pot sticker-style.

The response from the waitress is always the same: "Can't do it". So then I describe to them how to make potstickers:
  • Roll up some dumplings
  • Heat up some oil in a wok
  • Throw the dumplings in, fry them on one side for a few minutes
  • Dump in some water
  • Steam the dumplings, covered for a while
How hard can it be? Why the intense resistance to pot stickers? Is the cooking oil too expensive? Do they not have a wok? I can't figure it out.

It's like going to a steakhouse that serves home fries as a standard side dish, and the waitress tells you, "No, sorry, we can't give you a baked potato. Only home fries."

I've had pot stickers plenty of places in China, and a dumpling house seems like the place that without a doubt should most definitely be capable of making pot stickers.




[Photo from here]

Jun 20, 2008

Straight razor haircut

It's fairly common to see makeshift barber operations set up in parks and near underpasses in Beijing. Usually these outdoor barbers give haircuts using scissors or electric clippers. However, this guy below is getting his head shaved completely bald by a barber using a straight razor.

The customer had about a quarter-inch of growth to start with, and the barber had to pause and strop his razor every few strokes. I thought this whole operation was pretty impressive.




Jun 18, 2008

Ikea shopping madness!

Here's some Beijing Ikea photos from a weekend trip. Enjoy!

Sleepy shoppers sprawled out in one of the furniture display areas:



Sleeping like a baby:




Here's a very low cost, 18-piece dish set for only CNY 29 ($4.21). It's almost free, you could buy a bunch of these suckers and use them like Styrofoam picnic plates. Shit-can them when you're done.

Despite the fact that it's a poorly-made $4.21 plate set, and the plates are going to shatter the first time you ding them in the sink, this guy and gal are squatting on the ground, patiently inspecting each piece of the set they are going to buy.




Here's the end result of so many people pawing their way through boxes of plate sets. Litter and chaos everywhere:

Jun 16, 2008

Telling everyone about your good deeds

A weird cultural difference I pointed out on my Chinese blog is that many, many celebrities have excessively boasted and advertised their good deeds recently. It's been especially apparent with regard to the disastrous earthquake in Sichuan.

Check out this scan of a local magazine I bought and see if you can figure out what I'm talking about:



It lists on the front page of the magazine sixteen major celebrities in China, and how much they've donated to the earthquake relief effort. What every happened to the virtue of modesty?

Donating to a cause and then treating it like a competition, announcing to everyone how much one has given, makes it like a game show. It makes me lose any respect I had for these celebrities. It's unfortunate they've been sucked into this viral game of demonstrating low moral character.

When we give our donations in church each week at mass, do we pull out all the money and wave it around for all the other parishioners to see? Of course not. Everyone is very discrete, and generally you can't tell who's putting how much in the donation basket.

So here's a closer look at the front page of the magazine, where it shows the celebrity names and how much money they've donated so far. Probably the most recognizable ones to Americans are Zhang Ziyi (章子怡 100万) and Gong Li (巩俐 50万). "万" means "ten thousand Chinese yuan", so Zhang Ziyi donated about $145,000 and Gong Li donated about $72,000.





Based on the yearly estimated annual salaries for Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li, the donations amounted to 0.96% of Zhang Ziyi's annual income, and 0.64% of Gong Li's income. If Zhang Ziyi was a Joe Blow income earner in the US making the median annual income of $48,451, she would have donated $467 to the cause. Using the same analogy, Gong Li would have donated $310.

Not bad, I say. But I really don't see the point in entertainers bragging about their charity work. When you meet your maker, your good deeds aren't going to be overlooked. There's no need to tell the whole world about your donations and make a big competition about it. You just end up looking like a horse's ass and losing the respect of the public.

Jun 14, 2008

Wet turban

On a recent airplane trip, I was the fortunate recipient of a "Wet Turban Needless Wash". What is it exactly? Simply a wet napkin. But I love the name.

It makes me think of the scene in Total Recall where Arnold Schwarzenegger has to wrap a wet towel around his head to dampen the signal of the homing device they planted in his skull. It ends up looking like a turban after he's done.



Perhaps that's how the marketing department thought up this creative name.




Jun 11, 2008

Geomorphological spectacles!

I pulled the title for my post from this article in the New York Times that talks about Wulingyuan, which we visited over our recent long weekend here.
"There are well over 3,000 spires, and they make up what the United Nations 15 years ago declared to be one of the most remarkable geomorphological spectacles existing on our planet."
Here's some scenic photos I took.





A small waterfall:



A natural bridge:






Here's one of the many plastic bag-stealing monkeys. This one is not ashamed at all of spreading his legs and showing everyone his junk.




A young monkey waiting for a Chinese tourist to feed him another chocolate-creme Oreo.




Here are a few vertical and horizontal panoramas I used my digital camera's software to combine. They'll look better if you click on them and view the full size images.

Cloudy, foggy weather:



Clear weather:



This pinnacle looks like it would be great for climbing, but I suspect it wouldn't be recommended as it's primarily sandstone.



There were a few opportunities to hire a cane chair litter (I had to look that word up) and get carried either up or down part of the mountain. By my estimation, this activity is not recommended for anyone overweight, obese, severely obese, or morbidly obese. The last thing you want is for that bamboo pole or cane chair to crack, or for the porters to keel over from exhaustion, having you tumble down a stone staircase.

Here's a look at what you're actually sitting in.



This is a driver's eye view of part of the ride while on level ground, before we started to go up or down any stairs. I put a clip of our actual ride on YouTube, you can check it out here.




Here's a curious youngster. When you're visiting the countryside, like Wulingyuan, kids this young don't speak Mandarin at home and they'll mostly just stare at you with a glazed over look when you ask them the standard kid questions like "how old are you?" and "what's your name?".




The entrance fee to the park is pretty steep, around CNY 250 per person for two days. To translate it into American vacation equivalents, a white-collar Chinese family going here for a few days would be impacted as much or more than a middle-class US family flying to Florida for a week-long Disney World vacation.

Despite the higher-than-normal price, Wulingyuan was the most well-managed and maintained natural park that I've been to in China. It's relatively free from litter, there weren't huge crowds, and the overall park infrastructure was excellent.

The admission tickets are high tech. They give you a credit card-looking ticket that they link with your thumb print so you can't transfer it to anyone else.




Supposedly, the best times to go to Wulingyuan are Spring and Fall because the weather is mild, and it doesn't rain much. It rains off and on for a lot of the summer, so the second day we were there you couldn't see much at the top of some parts of the mountains. The clouds and fog tend to make photos convey more of the depth, however. Wulingyuan is one of those natural places, like the Grand Canyon, where you can't convey the depth and size in photos very well, you have to go there in person to appreciate it.

Although we did buy a couple of rain ponchos made of thin plastic bag material, I didn't feel the need to get these plastic shoe booties. The booties were quite a hit with many Chinese tour groups there:




Hanging in a restaurant near the hotel we stayed at by the park entrance was this picture of some Caucasian babies dressed up in adult outfits. It makes me think of a couple episodes on "The Office" where some people have a problem with Angela's creepy posters of babies playing musical instruments.




I didn't try this bee hive candy the villagers were selling on the mountain, but it sounds like it could be worth a try.




Does this branding look similar to American Standard's logo to you? Who would have thought.