Feb 27, 2010

Wanlong ski trip

One of the highlights of our lunar new year vacation was a ski trip to Wanlong ski resort in Hebei province. The place is about a 3-hour ride outside of Beijing, and without question the best skiing you can get in this area. I think the next best thing in China would be Yabuli, which requires a plane ride.

Here's a look at a couple of the runs in the early morning, after a very light snowfall the previous night.

The ski lodge at the base of the mountain is nice. They have a bunch of tables set up you can take a break at. There's a full cafeteria upstairs which even has pizza. It would be nice if the resort could limit the amount of people camping out at the tables all day long, or perhaps add more tables to accommodate this issue. It was hard to find a free table most of the time with all the old ladies and non-skiers hanging out at them.

It requires two chair lifts and around 15 minutes total to reach the top of the mountain. There's a very nice log cabin at the freezing cold, windy peak with a snack bar and espresso machine. Alternatively, you can sit at the tables and drink hot water for free and no one bothers you.

The ski resort at Wanlong is very nice. It's not exactly on par with the resorts in Lake Tahoe or Park City, Utah, but it is very enjoyable. The price is very close to what you'd find at the nicer places in the US.

Outside of the ski resort, lodging and eating is very simple. There is a lot of potential for the little town where the resort is located to expand and become more upscale. We stayed at a hotel that would be considered mid-range for Chongli, the town where the ski resort is.

This is the coal-burning stove the hotel used to heat the reception area:

A hotel worker scraping snow and ice in the morning with a tiny spade:

One advantage of Wanlong being fairly pricey is that it limits the number of people there. The slopes were not empty, but they were also not crazy-crowded, despite the fact that it was a holiday week. The people that were at this resort were for the most part very well-mannered and nice. They seemed to be the mid- to upper-crust of Chinese society. There was none of the stepping-on-the-skis-in-the-lift-line that you see at Nanshan or the other resorts closer to Beijing.

The majority of skiers were in the beginner to intermediate stage of their development, but there were more than a few advanced skiers.

Wanlong is considered the most advanced of the skiing options around Beijing, and I think that keeps some of the crowds away. That being said, the trail ratings are exaggerated by one degree over what they would be in California or Utah. For example:
  • Advanced slope at Wanlong = intermediate slope in Tahoe
  • Intermediate slope at Wanlong = easy slope at Tahoe
There are no back country trails, although you can ski between the trees that separate some of the groomed trails.

If you're planning a trip out to Wanlong, I'd recommend you bring the following:
  • ski goggles (It's very, very windy and cold in Hebei. I thought my nose had frostbite after the first five minutes down one of the runs at the top of the mountain.)
  • balaclava or other mask to deal with the wind (not to be confused with delicious baklava)
  • packets of instant coffee or instant hot cocoa (the resort provides free hot water and paper cups; you'll want to come inside very hour or so to warm up because Wanlong is so insanely cold)
My only other feedback for Wanlong ski resort is they modify their ski trail map. Currently, they don't mark the trail map with blue diamonds, black squares, or whatever according to the trail's degree of difficulty. You have to look at the map, find the name of the trail in Chinese, and then look in legend somewhere else on the map to figure out what the trail is rated as (easy, medium, advanced).

Here's a scan (click to enlarge).

Wanlong management: this here map, from The Canyons in Park City, Utah, shows how a map is supposed to be done. Colorful, useful graphics, easy to use — get yourself a graphic artist for one day and enhance your map.

In conclusion, I'd highly recommend Wanlong if you have some cash and enjoy skiing. Don't expect any sort of night life or high class dining whatsoever while you're there, but the skiing is a lot of fun. Also, ski a little more cautiously than you would otherwise. I'm not sure if I'd want to have a compound fracture set at the clinic in Chongli village, Hebei. In Beijing, you'll have absolutely no problem getting a broken bone set, but in a small podunk town, you never know.

One last observation. It seems like no matter where you are in the world — Lake Tahoe, Park City, Wanlong — one thing is always the same: those darn beginner snowboarders scrape every bit of powder off the slope during the first hour the place is open, and then there's just ice left. Beginner skiers scrape the powder, too, yes, I know, but beginner snowboarders are three times worse.

It drives me nuts. I guess there's no way around it unless you ski the back country or if you've got your own mountain.

Feb 24, 2010

Dogs in a bag

I saw these dogs at the ski resort we visited during the lunar new year holiday, up in the countryside of Hebei province.

Their owner made her own doggie-sleeping bag. Their tiny Chihuahua, along with two other pudgy part-Chihuahua mutts were keeping warm inside.

Here's the Chihuahua and one of the mutts:

In this photo, pudgy mutt #1 is in its owner's lap to the right; pudgy mutt #2 and the runty Chihuahua are in the bag on the left:

Cute dogs!

Feb 23, 2010

Wal-Mart after lunar new year

Beijing Wal-Mart after lunar new year is much calmer than the few days leading up to the holiday. See my previous post if you want the recap. After new years, you can easily push your cart around, just as if you were at a Safeway back in the US.

Unfortunately, the primary reason for the calmness is that the many, many outlanders that reside in Beijing (probably two-thirds of the population) are currently in transit back to the capital. After another few days every place you go will be crowded and uncomfortable again.

Here's a quick photo peek at the delights that await you if you were to pop into the Wal-Mart in Beijing.

Whole ribbon fish on ice in the seafood department. Each one is about 3 feet long. Look at those sharp teeth. Yikes!

Roasted pigeon-kebabs. Lots of bones.

Boxes and boxes of chicken eggs at room temperature, presumably to give as new years gifts. Personally, I would have trouble gobbling down 60 eggs before they go bad, I can tell you that.

The day I was at Wal-Mart, they had samples of Nescafé instant coffee, and little cups of Nestlé cereal. There's also samples of the eggs, if you're up for it:


Feb 21, 2010

Fireworks collection

Here's some highlights of my fireworks collection from this past week's lunar new year.

Most of this loot came from Hebei province via a friend. It's great to have a friend that can help you with getting good fireworks. The fireworks you are allowed to buy in Beijing are tiny, safer, and they cost twice or three times as much since it's a captive market. The firecrackers are smaller, the fuses are longer, and they're overall just not as good as what you can get in Hebei.

Going to Hebei province is, for folks in the US, like when we drive down to Ohio or Kentucky, or one of those other southern states where they have lax fireworks laws, and then you can bring home some good fireworks to have fun on the Fourth of July.

Most of the big boxes in this photo are fancy, prepackaged mini-mortar type fireworks, where it shoots of a dozen or so overhead fireworks over the course of a minute or so. The whole stash was around 500 RMB ($73) and would have easily cost me three times that much were I to try and buy those things in Beijing at retail prices.

Here's a mid-sized mortar. It's about the size of a tennis ball. You can imagine how cool the adult-sized mortars are! The narrow side goes in face-down, since it contains the charge to propel the mortar up overhead. Don't let the cops see you shooting these off in the middle of a busy intersection.

Each 6-pack of mortars includes a reinforced cardboard tube. Tape together three tubes so that your firing rig has some stability. You don't want to use a single tube, and have it fall over sideways before the mortar gets shot out. That could be dangerous!

Here's some super sized double-bang firecrackers. You stand one of these on one end, light the very short fuse, then run away as fast as you can. There's a deafening explosion at ground level and a huge flash of light. Simultaneously, it shoots a smaller explosive up in the air about 30 feet, which explodes a second later. These are pretty economical and a lot of fun.

There's a big string of regular firecrackers underneath this bundle.

Two things I would have loved to have, but just couldn't find this year:
  • Bottle rockets: I didn't see any Chinese people shooting these. Do we still have them in the US?)
  • Airplanes: called "big wasp" (大黄蜂) in Chinese. I saw a few poorly made ones for sale around Beijing, but nothing as good as what I remember from the US.
Anyone have any success finding those two things?

Feb 17, 2010

Chinese cheesey puffs!

Everyone around the world loves cheesey puffs. Doesn't this bowl make your mouth water?

There's a street food in Beijing that's very similar to American cheesey puffs. I'd say that this street food is much healthier than the stuff we eat back home.

There was a cheesey puff vendor near my apartment recently. Check out my video. (Watch for the guy whacking the machine with a mallet towards the end.)

I guess that what he's making should be called corn-puffs, rather than cheesey-puffs, but the guy generously let me taste one, and it was just like a Better Made cheesey puff without the cheese. I suppose I could take a bag of these home and add the own cheese flavor of my choosing.

Some more photos below.

The crowd gathers, salivating in anticipation of the delicious corn puffs to come:

Closer view of the action:

The raw materials — a bowl of dried, partially ground corn:

The vendor pours the corn into his machine:

The machine shits out curl after curl of tasty, puffed corn:

Despite not having any salt, sugar, or cheese flavor added, these corn puffs were surprisingly sweet and tasty. Try this out next time you see it.

Feb 15, 2010

Shanghai Bugatti!

This recent post on chinaSMACK, "White Bugatti Veyron Spotted In Downtown Shanghai", caught my attention. The summary of the article is that someone was driving this expensive new Bugatti car in Shanghai, a blogger took some pictures and put them on the Internet. Wild. Here's one of the pictures:

If I ever see that particular car driving anywhere, I'm positive that I would burst out laughing. I can't stop thinking of that great bit during the final week of The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien, where Conan put ears and whiskers on a Bugatti to be his new guest, the "Bugatti Veyron Mouse". (The premise of the joke was that NBC has to pay for whatever Conan does, and he was getting booted anyway, so why not do some crazy expensive things).

If I every spot one of these Bugatti Veyrons puttering along in the Beijing gridlock, I'll walk over and recommend to the driver that he needs some ears and whiskers for his car, and start blasting "Satisfaction" on the stereo.

Feb 13, 2010

Locals heading off...

I was checking out the events section of The Beijinger for this weekend's line-up of activities, when something caught my eye. They wrote:
Unfortunately, with most locals heading off to see Mum and Dad back in their home towns, live music offerings are thin on the ground for the next few weeks.
What's bizarre with this write up? True "locals" wouldn't be heading out of town for the holiday. If they're local, it would stand to reason that they'd stay in town to gather with their families in Beijing.

If a Chinese person is leaving Beijing to celebrate the lunar new year, you can be almost certain that he's a waidiren, an out-of-towner, a transplant, whatever you want to call it. True locals in Beijing have their roots in Beijing, so they wouldn't be leaving town on the most important of Chinese holidays.

I'm pretty sure that the writers at The Beijinger are native English speakers, but sometimes they could fool me. (And shouldn't it be "Mom and Dad"? Who says "Mum and Dad"? Nobody where I grew up, that's for sure!)

Here's a screen grab of the posting, because the events page gets refreshed each week:

So it looks like there's not going to be much live music or anything wild going on this weekend. Lucky for me I've got a newly purchased fifth of Jim Beam and many pounds of fireworks. Woo-hoo!

Feb 12, 2010

Beijing empties out before lunar new year

In China, lunar new year is like Christmas, Thanksgiving, regular New Year, plus Kwanzaa and Fat Tuesday rolled in to one. Lunar new year eve, the main event, falls this Saturday night.

During the past week, Beijing has gradually become emptier and emptier. It's starting to look like The Langoliers, or like downtown Detroit.

Those familiar with Beijing might say that the reason the city has emptied out is because it is a town of transplants (外地人), like New York and San Francisco are. Most people living in Beijing are not from Beijing. You'd suspect that most migrants and out-of-towners have already left for their new year's train journeys back home.

I made that speculation until I dropped by the local Beijing Wal-Mart after a pretty calm day in the office. I had to pick up some sorghum booze to give as a new year's gift, as well as some grapefruit and German weissbier, so Wal-Mart was the best choice.

It turns out that all the people in Beijing are still around. They're all hanging out at Wal-Mart. The place was a complete madhouse. The population density of Wal-Mart has to be like 2 or 3 people per square yard. No joke. You couldn't do a pirouette without unintentionally whacking someone. Good luck trying to push a shopping cart. (Those in the know stick to the little plastic baskets instead.)

Despite the crowds, everyone I encountered was civil and friendly. I didn't have any problems with items being out of stock, and the checkout lines went quickly. Wal-Mart China seems to have their act well-coordinated.

[Photos from Life]

Feb 11, 2010

Electrical schematic cartoon tigers

The lunar new year is coming up. If you live in China, you'll be able to guess from the abundance of stuffed toys and cartoons all around that upcoming lunar year will the the year of the tiger.

Every shopping mall and store you go to has all sorts of cartoon renditions of tigers pasted on their walls and windows.

You see stuff like this:

And this:

And this:

Now the thing that's been keeping me up lately is this:

Why do the cartoonists insist on drawing electrical ground symbols on the tigers' foreheads? If you're not familiar with schematics, this is what it looks like:

Can you see what I mean? So what's up with these tiger cartoons? I'm thinking, maybe it's the hard economy. Former electrical engineers are drawing cartoons to make money? I find that hard to believe.

There's so many other cool symbols they could use, too. Why stick to the boring ground symbol? They've got all these to pick from:

I'd love to see a tiger that has resistors or inductors for eyebrows, and maybe an XOR gate for a nose. That would show some innovation.

Feb 9, 2010

Stand-up comics in Beijing

Beijing occasionally has decent stand-up talent passing through. It's usually organized by a production company called ChopSchticks. The most recent show was at the Hard Rock Cafe in Beijing, a sizable, fashionable venue, but with very very pricey drinks and food. I think the price for a pint of Beijing Beer was $7. Ouch.

The main act was Steve Byrne. I love his Bruce Lee impersonation. Easy to find on YouTube:

Steve Byrne's set was just about an hour. It was pretty much a collection of the material that he's done already on Comedy Central and other shows, with some observational humor on China thrown in.

Sam Tripoli opened the show with a set that lasted around 35 minutes. I enjoyed his material. It was more on the blue side than Steve Byrne's. Some of his audience interaction and improvisation killed. For some of the America-related cultural and news references, the audience didn't react quite as boisterously as they would in the US. There was a sizeable portion of British people and other English-speaking non-Americans. I get the impression that they're pretty serious about themselves and their sense of humor. The ethnic jokes and cultural references seemed to go over the heads of the British people.

Both of the comics hung out near the exit after the show and shook the hand of anyone that wanted to, not only the hot chicks they wanted to meet up with later on. I though that was a nice classy touch, and something I've not encountered at comedy clubs in LA and New York.

ChopSchticks is about the same price as going to a comedy show back home. You figure, a comedy show at a club in a big city is going to cost you around $20-30 for the cover charge, then they have a two-drink minimum, so with another $10-15 per person, you're at about $30-45 per person total. The Beijing shows are $36-44 per person, no drink minimums. It's not dirt cheap, but it is well worth it.

I thought this most recent pair of comics was great. I hope they can continue the shows in Beijing.

Feb 7, 2010

Family Guy this week

As far as adult cartoons go, I enjoy nothing more than Family Guy and South Park. The jokes in the last episode really pushed it pretty far though. Peter getting sodomized by a "breeding bull" at the rodeo was probably offensive to some viewers. For me, the cut-away joke that went too far was this one below, where Meg is a freshly released convict and has just carjacked Brian the dog:

Meg: You're gonna help me get some money so I can get out of this town.

Really? Where are you gonna go?

I don't know. Somewhere far away. Maybe China. I hear they got NASCAR there now.

[Drivers yell at each other in imitation Chinese]

This Chinese NASCAR gag was way too exaggerated. Those of us that have lived in mainland China can attest that the traffic and driving is not like this at all. The traffic pileup they show in Family Guy is way too exaggerated. In non-cartoon, real life, it's more like this:

And on Friday after work it's like this:

Nothing close to what they'd have you believe on that ridiculous Family Guy episode. Come on, Family Guy writers, show some respect for my PRC kollegi and get things right next time!

Has anyone living in China ever seen a 2D-looking cartoon show on one of the CCTV channels, the one where the animation style and characters look very reminiscient of South Park? I've found myself watching that show for much longer than I should, hoping to hear some South Park style raunchy jokes, only to be bored out of their minds and finally realize that there are no such jokes coming.

Feb 5, 2010

Fleecing the Chinese nouveaux riches

Guess what common grocery item costs 6 times as much in China as it does in the US.

...Häagen-Dazs ice cream!

Here's a quick run through of the math:
  • One 4.23 oz container of vanilla Häagen-Dazs from Safeway in California is $1.00. That works out to $0.24 per ounce.
  • In Beijing, small 81 gram vanilla Häagen-Dazs is around CNY 29. That's $4.25 for 2.86 oz of ice cream, which is $1.49 per ounce.
  • Price difference: 6.29 times more expensive in China

It's amazing what you can overcharge people for if you market it properly. I had thought that stuff was always cheaper in China. Americans pay $30 or more for a pair of jeans at the mall; here you get the same thing for a sixth the price. I've discovered that this concept actually works two ways.

Häagen-Dazs has very successfully marketed their product as a high class luxury item in China, and the well-to-do consumers and loving it. I'm partial to Ben & Jerry's myself. If they every made an entry to the ice cream market in China, I'd consider spending more than normal to enjoy it.

Feb 3, 2010

The cheese and the cashier

After work I stopped by a large grocery store here in Beijing to pick up some shrimp for dinner. After I got the shrimp, I swung by the dairy section to grab some butter and milk. I noticed there was some imported Dutch Edam cheese, around $6 for 8 ounces. It wasn't crazy expensive, I thought, so I threw some in my shopping cart. I can eat that whole piece in one sitting, so it won't go to waste.

At the supermarket checkout, everything was pretty typical. The cashier, a Chinese woman in her late forties, swiped my half dozen items one-by-one, tossing them into a large plastic shopping bag. When she was finished and about to tell me the total, the cashier looked at her computer screen and did a double take.

Suddenly, she became totally distracted and completely forgot about me. Something very bizarre and noteworthy had just happened. She noticed on her computer screen that one of my items was absurdly expensive (six dollars!), and she didn't remember scanning anything that could have been so pricey. No fancy booze, no lobsters, no electronic gadgets.

So the cashier reached over to the side and fished through the plastic bag with her fingers. After a big of rummaging, she finally pulled out my wedge of Edam cheese, shrink-wrapped in plastic. She yanked it out with a dramatic flourish and raised it over her head.

Waving my cheese in the air with one hand, the cashier craned her head backwards to shout at the cashier in the next lane, also a forty-something Chinese lady, "Hey! Guess how much this thing is!"

The other cashier just shrugged back at her. She wasn't interested. My cashier still wanted to share her discovery. My cashier yelled back at her coworker, "This costs 40 yuan! Can you believe that!" (Note: 40 yuan is around $5.80.)

Oblivious to me, my cashier continued to finger and press on my Edam cheese for a few more seconds. I resisted the temptation to grab it back before it got smushed to death. Before I could lose my temper, though, the cashier tossed it back into the bag and got back to work.

As I was paying, the cashier went on — still — talking to herself as though I didn't exist. "Wow. That's expensive. I'm not sure exactly what this is. Never seen it before," she said under her breath, addressed to no one in particular.

I was finally able to pay, and I gave her a friendly smile before going on my way. I'm pretty sure that the story of the Rich Laowai and his Fat Cat Edam Cheese is going to be this cashier's main topic of conversation for the next week, if not the entire month.

Feb 1, 2010

Quick coffee to-go in Beijing

China doesn't yet have the coffee culture we have in America. The environment is catching up, but there is still some ways to go.

Sometimes you just want a decent cup of coffee to-go between meetings, or perhaps on your way to a meeting. Here's my experience of what you can get in Beijing.

Chain coffee shops:
When you want to optimize for quality rather than price, pick one of these.
  • Starbucks: Quick and reliable, but just as expensive as in the US, $2 to $5, depending on what concoction you order. Also, more local areas of Beijing have a lower density of Starbucks, so it's not always a choice.
  • SPR Coffee: The Chinese knock-off version of Starbucks. I have experienced only two kinds of service here: slow and slower. I would not pop in here between meetings for a caffè latte to go.
  • UBC Coffee: Chinese Starbucks knock-off number two. (It could have been the first one for all I know, but who cares). Same experience as at SPR. Although both SPR and UBC do brew a proper cup of coffee, given enough time.
Fast food joints:
If you want quick and cheap, drop by a fast food place.
  • McDonalds: They make brewed coffee at all the McDonald's I've been at in Beijing. It doesn't appear to be sitting around all day and going stale, either. They're making a fresh pots frequently, and there are free refills. Not as tasty as Starbucks coffee of the week, but the best of the fast food places.
  • KFC: Stay away from the coffee here unless you have no other choice. KFC in China serves coffee from one of those little Nescafe machines that dispenses instant coffee and hot water, the result tasting something like cardboard.
  • 7-11: I'm grouping 7-11 under the category of fast food, because it seems like one-third of their space is devoted to ready-made food and beverages. 7-11 in the US has very decent coffee. I find it comparable to Starbucks coffee of the week, but even cheaper. In China, it's completely different. No fresh coffee at all, just some canned, pre-made sweetened coffee in a warming case. Nasty, nasty, nasty.