Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Dan in China

My older brother Dan came to China a couple of weeks ago (9/13-9/17) to visit me. Instead of taking him to Shenyang, which I thought might be a bit too intense for his first trip to Asia, I met him in Shanghai. From there, we flew to Guilin and then Yangshuo. We only spent one night in Guilin, since I had heard that it wasn't nearly as nice as Yangshuo. It was a fine city, but it was really just a jumping-off point. However, it had some great food. Here's the restaurant where we ate our only meal in Guilin:

We sat outside and ate the local speciality, beer fish. It was pretty good, but very bony.

From Guilin, we took a 5-hour ferry ride to Yanghsuo down the Li River. The scenery was great, with lots of the famous karst mountains, which you can see on the back of the 20 RMB note:

The bro and I:

Fisherman on the bank of the Li River:

Yanghshuo was a really fun town. It was definitely touristy and accustomed to catering to foreigners, which was not necessarily a bad thing. One of the local shop owners told me that people from other provinces actually come to Yangshou in part to see Westerners. There were also way more options for Western food than in Shenyang, so I made Dan eat burgers for at least a couple meals. I think he was relieved.
After we arrived in Yangshuo on Tuesday, I booked a cooking class for the evening. Before we started cooking, the teacher/chef took us all on a tour of the local market:

Part of the tour included - for those interested - a trip to the far side of the market, where the live animals are butchered. Guess what animal is hanging on the hook...

Yup, that's dog. I actually saw the live dogs in cages, as well as a whole carcass, but I thought that those pictures might be too disturbing. The experience was a little unsettling, but not as depressing as I had imagined. The dogs all looked exactly alike, some kind of anonymous mutt-like breed that was a far cry from a Labrador or golden retriever. Also, as Dan mentioned, not a single one barked. It was weird, but I could also imagine being completely okay with the idea, if I had grown up in a different culture.

More mundane: chickens and ducks!

On Wednesday, we rented bikes and rode out to the countrside around Yangshuo. This is the doorway of a typical house we passed by. Most houses had peanuts drying out on the ground.

More karst mountains:

On Thursdsay, we took a bus to Ping An, which is a small town in the Longji Rice Terraces, about 3 hours outside Yangshuo. The population was overwhelmingly elderly, which probably is indicative of the area's failure to provide competitive employment opportunities. My impression was that the rice terraces would probably have been abandoned several years ago, had they not been sustained by tourism, but who knows.
Several older residents, who were very pleased by the picture when I showed it to them:

The local speciality was rice or meat cooked in bamboo. Neither the rice nor the chicken was particularly delicious, but the whole fish in the background was great:

A resident of Ping An, washing clothes:

Another elderly resident, selling souvenirs:

We hiked for several hours on Thursday and tried to reach another village but got completely lost and ended up reaching a tiny settlement of several houses. This woman thought our predicament was hilarious, but she was very helpful. She was walking outside with her grandson:

Lots of houses had chilis drying outside, which I hadn't expected. I bought some tea leaves from this woman on the hike back to Ping An:

A view of the rice terraces, with Ping An village below:

Just before sunset:

We came upon a more-established lookout point, with a less spectacular view than the pictures above, but which was nevertheless packed with lots of amatuer photographers, who probably came from Beijing and Shanghai. I love that this photographer is taking a picture of a local minority woman drinking an orange soda.

The next morning I got up early with a fellow traveler and we went to watch the sunrise and take some pictures:

We had planned to do more hiking on Friday and fly out to Beijing on Saturday, but I think Dan was ready to head back to civilization. So, we left early Friday morning and were at the Forbidden City by the afternoon:

This photo was taken on the balcony of the south gate of the Forbidden City, overlooking Tiananmen Square. We are just above the portrait of Mao. I liked this couple, because they were clearly visiting from the provinces, and their whole family is with them to document their first trip to the capital:

For lunch, we went to the Noodle Bar at the 1949 Hidden City, which is a new development in the Sanlitun area. It's a great hand-pulled noodle restaurant that only seats about 10 people. All of the chefs are from Lanzhou, which is famous for hand-pulled noodles. They make the noodles to order, right in front of you:

Piping hot noodles on a cold, rainy Beijing day:

Delicious :) We went back to the 1949 Hidden City for dinner, but we went to a more upscale restaurant for Beijing duck, called Duck de Chine. It was amazing, but too nice to take pictures of all of the food!

Of course, we had to visit the pearl market, where Dan bought enough pearls to bathe in.

There were also signs all over city urging people to cooperate with the upcoming national census, which is the first one since 2000. This one was located in an expat area, so it was in English and Chinese. The full text reads "Actively support the population census and cooperate fully to reconcile household and population records." Who knows what the number will be??

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Happy Mid-Autumn Festival!

The Mid-Autumn Festival, or 中秋节, was celebrated today all over China. The traditional gift that is given for the festival is the mooncake, or the 月饼。According to Wikipedia, the mooncakes were first tied to the festival in the 14th century, when a secret message was hidden inside them and distributed among the Han Chinese to spread the word about a revolt against Mongol rule. This early form of espionage was probably the first and last time anyone ever got excited about receiving a mooncake. They are about the size and weight of a hockey puck, and are equally as edible:

The traditional filling is lotus paste, usually paired with a salted duck egg:

There have been several news articles lately about how young people are opting for more unconventional fillings, such as jelly or ice cream, due to the high fat content of traditional fillings, but I personally kind of suspect it's because jelly is just so much better than a salted duck egg. Even just in conversations with coworkers, it seems as though the mooncake is a traditional gift that's more tolerated than enjoyed, like a fruitcake.

Starbucks is trying to get in on this trend by creating its own version of the mooncake. I tried the hazelnut flavor (below left) and the green tea and black sesame paste flavor (below right).

The flavors were tolerable, but the whole cake is just too thick and heavy. I mean, why eat a black sesame bean paste cake when you can eat a cupcake? :)

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Beaches, cupcakes and Chinglish: these are a few of my favorite things

Here are a few pictures taken over the course of the past several months that somehow didn't make it into other posts.

Beth and I made a trip down to Hong Kong for the 4th of July, which was SUCH a good life choice. I dragged her to the beach, and she dragged me to Disneyworld. We have a mutual adoration of HK's movie theaters, so we saw a movie per day during our trip.

I think we went to Shek O Beach, but I'm not sure of the name. We just took the public bus to Stanley Market and got off when we saw sand.
South China Sea!

Hong Kong is like New York City, if it were located in the tropics, with white sand beaches just a $1, 20-minute public bus ride away.

Also, just a short MTR-ride away is Shenzhen, which has some awesome Chinglish. I cannot figure out how to make this stupid picture rotate, so please enjoy it at an angle.

About a month later, when we all visited Shanghai, we saw this amazing warning sign in the airport. I'm so glad I left my halberd and fruit knife at home.

Okay, these next pictures have no relation to China, except as they relate to my tireless efforts to bring baked goods to a heretofore untapped market. For a consular/guard barbeque, I made vanilla cupcakes with purple frosting, dusted with edible gold dust. Recipe was from the Magnolia Bakery cookbook. I bought the edible gold dust online and shipped it to China, which means that my utilization of the diplomatic pouch is wholly limited to edible glitter and Us Weekly.

For Scott's birthday, I made chocolate cupcakes with chocolate frosting, also using recipes from Magnolia Bakery. According to Us Weekly, which is my lifeline to the people and culture that I represent abroad, bacon is making its long-overdue comeback.
Like the supermodels of the early 1980s, bacon is back with a vengeance, permeating facets of our culture that were previously verboten. The nexus of this revival and the genius of Magnolia was fully realized in chocolate bacon cupcakes.
They were just so-so. The smokiness of the bacon was a good accompaniment to the sugary chocolate frosting, but the texture was just too weird. More successful was my attempt to create seasalt, caramel, and chocolate cupcakes. I inserted caramel sauce into the cupcake after baking, and then drizzled more over the frosting, finally adding a light dusting of seasalt. Heavenly. and now I'm hungry.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Grecian Vacation!

So, I didn't update for almost a month because I've been in Greece! Normally, officers in Shenyang are eligible for 2 R&Rs, which means that the State Department will pay for an airplane ticket, almost anywhere in the world, twice per tour. You have to pay for lodging and meals, and you use up annual leave to go, but it's still a good deal. I had already used up my first R&R to go home, so I planned a 2nd R&R to Greece. However, since I'm leaving 4 months early to go to Kabul, I don't qualify for a 2nd R&R. Of course, I discovered this after the flights and hotels were already booked, so I just decided to go anyway. Totally worth it!

This is me, my college roommate Aniva, and Lauren, who is Aniva's friend from high school:

Aniva, hanging out in Athens:

Lauren, climbing to the Acropolis:
Wooooooooooooooo !!!!
Chillin on the Acropolis:

We spent 2 days in Athens and then took a ferry to Santorini, which was gorgeous. The next few pictures are of Oia, Santorini.

We rented ATVs, which were really convenient for traveling around the island, but also super scary to drive.
This is Red Beach, on the south side of the island. Really amazing.

After 3 days in Santorini, we took a ferry to Paros, which is also incredibly beautiful. Unfortunately I didn't take any pictures there, since all we did was lie on the beach :)
Final picture of Greece is appropriately my favorite meal, souvlaki and tzatziki.