Sunday, September 27, 2009

New Discovery: Green Tea KitKats

1,000s of years of Japanese culture have culminated in this:

A 6-hour layover in the international terminal of Tokyo's Narita airport = 1 bowl of tempura udon + many, many Green Tea KitKats. I even brought some home for the family as souvenirs, to demonstrate the perfect melding of eastern and western cultures.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

lazy saturday

This Saturday I walked to a giant wholesale market - Wu Ai - with Sandra, and on the way I showed her Madame Bao's (even though that's not the real name now, it will be soon, just wait.) She was suitably impressed and posted the unforgettable experience on her food blog -

This is a picture of the owner's mother and his wife, both of whom work in the shop and are adorable.

Very happy :)

The indoor market was huge, overwhelming, and filled with crap. Sandra managed to find a few interesting Japanese-made souvenirs, and I bought some headbands for 30 cents. It's in a rough area, so we were surprised to see a girl getting a weave in an open stall right outside the market.



Friday, September 18, 2009

Madame Bao

I was walking home from work today eating some really delicious fried shrimp nuggets that I bought at a night market, and I saw this guy cutting window frames on the sidewalk. It looked pretty cool against the background of the pink walls, plus I discovered that you can add in 'soft focus' in Picasa.

Also, last week I was walking home with a coworker down his fave alley and we discovered an *amazing* fried dumpling stand. The dumplings are made with a bready dough, so they're referred to as "bao zi." The inside is filled with greasy delicious ground pork. The genius is in the sweetness of the dough as well as the frying methodology: the machine below allows them to fry the entire round dumpling at once.

The delicious result is below. I literally could barely stop eating it long enough to take this picture. It was also so hot that I burned my tongue, the roof of my mouth, and my hand where the grease spilled, but I couldn't stop to let it cool down. The roof of my mouth is still kind of sensitive.
This is the nice guy who runs the bao zi shop with his family. It's not a chain shop yet, but we're seriously considering investing. I think it should be called Madame Bao's Dumplings.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A Smattering

Yesterday morning I was in a cab on my way to work (I always take a cab, since it only costs about $1.20) and I took this picture of a very, very minor protest a few blocks from the Consulate. There were about five people altogether. According to their banner, they're demanding their salaries for building the new highway.
Also, the weird color is from my editing, not the taxi window's tint.

On Sunday night, I went to the gym a few blocks from my apartment and discovered that a new Revlon ad was being unfurled against the side of a large department store. The workers who were helping to secure the banner were working very high up, supported by thin ropes. Again, I messed with the color slightly.

Over the weekend, Sandra and I took a cab out to the city's outskirts to see the Fuling tombs. I'm still not clear as to who is buried here, or when it was built, or even why it's important, but it was a really nice complex and not too crowded.

Guarding the tomb:

Face mask is de rigour -

Facing one side of a long tunnel:

And looking out at the other side:

those silly foreigners.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Food of Inner Mongolia

Just kidding! Cutest puppy ever though.

I thought that the food we ate in Inner Mongolia was so delicious and diverse that it deserved its own entry.

This picture is from the hot pot restaurant at which we ate on Saturday night in Hohhot. It kind of reminds me of a scene from Lost in Translation, when the pictures on the menu are all of raw meat. At this hot pot restaurant, everyone gets his/her own pot of boiling water, and you place strips of raw meat, vegetables, tofu, mushrooms, etc. into the boiling water. It's cooked in less than one minute, and then you eat it with peanut dipping sauce. Very tasty.

We arrived at the grasslands around noon on Saturday and ate a giant lunch before horseback riding. This is the spread. It includes rice, buns, a few common Chinese dishes, and boiled mutton (in the foreground).

This is a dish with lamb's head meat. It was really spicy, and the head meat was very fatty.

This was absolutely delicious and very hearty lamb and potatoes:

After riding for about two hours, we stopped for tea and snacks. The milk tea is pictured below. It looks just like milk here unfortunately, but it was really tasty. I bought a giant bag of the tea powder for 20 RMB, or about $3, so I'm hoping that it turns out okay when I make it at home.

That night, after we rode horses in the rain for hours, we were treated to a whole roasted lamb. Yup, that's a picture of it below. It was surprisingly tender.

On Monday morning we had these really good sweet fried dough cakes for breakfast:

We then drove to back to Hohhot where we saw a few temples and monasteries and ate at a local restaurant. Apparently, the local speciality is oat noodles, which they prepared several different ways, none of which were particularly tasty.

Fortunately, they also served one of my favorite dishes, which is a smoky tofu. It's a Northeastern speciality, and the tofu is wrapped in a cheesecloth and then somehow smoked. I was never a tofu fan in the U.S., but this is prepared so differently here, that it's a completely different experience. It's served with the brown sauce below, which is salty and tangy, almost like a mix between soy sauce and A.1.

These next pictures are slightly out of order, since we ate these before lunch, but I want to end the post with my favorite meal.
On Monday morning, instead of going to a temple with the rest of the group, Sandra and I wandered around an antiques street and found a delicious pancake stand.
This woman first spreads an egg around this griddle, almost like she's making a crepe. She then adds in cilantro and a little sauce.

Next, she takes a piece of fried dough, crushes it on top of the egg pancake, and then wraps the whole thing up like a burrito.

We barely stopped eating it long enough to snap this picture:


Thursday, September 10, 2009

Weekend in Inner Mongolia

Over the 3-day weekend, I traveled with Sandra, our summer/fall intern, to Inner Mongolia with a tour group organized by Embassy Beijing. We took the train down to Beijing on Friday night and spent the night in the city. Inner Mongolia is the Chinese province that borders the country of Mongolia, so it has more of a Mongolian culture than Han-Chinese culture. Basically, it's Mongolia lite.

This is a view of the gargantuan Beijing train station at night:

After spending the night in a hostel in Beijing, Sandra and I met up with the rest of the 10 or so members of the tour group at the Embassy at 5:30am. We drove to the airport and took a 1-hour flight to Baitou, which is a (relatively) big city in Inner Mongolia. From there, we drove about 1 1/2 hours to the desert, where we were able to ride camels.

'ello, governah!

Sandra, on the camel and wearing the ridiculous-looking but quite useful sand socks:

These next two pictures make the desert look very serene, but it was actually packed with Chinese tourists.

In fact, our caravans were like ships passing in the night. only louder. and friendlier.
They were all very excited to see foreigners, so I think many of them probably have about as many pictures of me as they do of camels.

This was our little caravan's leader -

Sandra desperately wanted her picture taken with this camel, even though he didn't seem like the friendliest choice. I snapped a better picture of her smiling right after this one, but I kind of like this one better :)

These guys were really nice locals, just hanging around. The guy on the left was chatty, but he kept asking me how much money I make. Discussing a person's salary is definitely not as off-limits in China.

The cowboy hats and the sand-dune sledding were also big hits with the tourists.

After we left the desert, we drove for about 5 hours to a temple at the base of a low mountain range. I've been dragged around quite a few temples in China, but this one was actually really, really nice.

It was so out-of-the-way that no one had bothered trying to restore it, which I think added to the charm. Most larger and more popular tourist attractions, like the Forbidden City, are "restored" beyond recognition. In between the fresh paint and the scaffolding, it can be difficult to get a sense of how ancient a place is. Even though this temple almost seemed like it was falling apart, it was a great experience.

The Buddhist temple had these flags hanging up inside.

After spending the night in Hohhot, which is the capital of Inner Mongolia, we drove about 3 hours to the grasslands. I guess the city itself is actually "in" the grasslands, but you have to drive for a bit to get to the less populated areas. The grasslands almost reminded me of the hill country in Texas, in a way. In the hill country, you see lots of ranches one after another, all of them catering to tourists who want to get the 'country' experience for the weekend. In Inner Mongolia, we saw numerous 'yurt hotels' like the one at which we stayed, all of them catering to the Chinese tourists who want the 'Mongolian' experience.
Here we are being greeted at the yurt hotel by the locals, who sang at us and gave us a shot of grain alcohol. Welcome to the grasslands!

This is me and Sandra in front of our 'luxury' yurt. Yes, the doorway was very short, and yes, we banged our heads. A lot.

The inside had tile floors, two twin beds, a bathroom in the back, and a TV. They had a TV, and yet no heating. The temperature was so cold, it couldn't have been more than mid-30s. Also, it rained off and on the entire weekend. We were told to expect fall weather, so I brought a fleece pullover and long pants. I was absolutely freezing. Luckily, they had Chinese army coats available to rent. It smelled like sweat and grain alcohol.

In addition to our group, there was also another group of middle-aged Chinese tourists. This was his first ceremonial drink of the evening. It wasn't his last.

In the afternoon we all went horseback riding for a few hours in the rain. It was just about as miserable as it sounds, especially since none of the horses were well trained and they kept biting each other. We weren't allowed to take pictures while riding, so this is the last shot of the grasslands I took before leaving for the ride.

After about two hours we stopped for some milk tea and snacks in another yurt. For the record, I was wearing the exact same coat as the woman in this picture.

The locals were suspiciously not riding horses. I think riding motorcycles is probably way more fun and convenient.

Ah, the convenience of exploring the not-quite-undiscovered wilderness of Inner Mongolia.

Another view of the yurts in which we stayed. You can get an idea of just how cookie-cutter the place was. I think this was definitely conveniently designed for the weekend traveler from Beijing.

After dinner, the staff members performed traditional Mongolian dances. I'm not sure exactly how traditional it is to wear hot pink satin, but at least it photographed well.

I think my favorite part of the performance was when they turned off the lights and the banquet hall became a dance party. It kind of reminded me of my 6th grade sock hops, in that I've never attended a more awkward social gathering; it was one part Mongolian staff members, one part drunken Chinese tourists, and one part uptight Americans.

Of course, all of the tourists wanted pictures with the blonde. I can't really complain though, since I didn't get photographed nearly as much as another officer's 9-year-old blonde daughter. The eagerness of some of the tourists to take her picture was really creepy. I don't know where you draw the line between being curious about westerners and being inappropriate.

More new friends.

The next morning, we ate breakfast in the same banquet hall. The thermos on the table is very common all over China. You can pour boiling water in it and it stays completely hot for hours. We found a thermos full of hot water outside of our yurt around noon on Sunday, and it was still hot on Monday morning. Amazing.

On Monday morning we drove back to Hohhot and visited two temples. Sandra and I skipped the first temple and instead wandered around a market just around the corner. Most of the shops were fairly touristy, but this antique shop was amazing. It was owned by an older couple and had lots of items dating back to the Qing dynasty, including vases, snuff bottles, and glass lanterns. I found a porcelain blue and white statue of a couple that I liked, and I asked the owner why it was so dirty. She said it was still dirty because it had been dug out of the ground. That's old.

This is an old Chinese typewriter that is still functioning.

Sandra and I on the roof of the second temple. I don't remember much about it, since I had just spent the day before riding a horse in the rain, and spent the night before in a freezing yurt.
The End!