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Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Tacoma Blog

It has been almost a year since Mike and I returned from China and we have started a new blog Ruston Farm.  Check it out to hear about our new exploits in Ruston/Tacoma!  Also, if you miss our Chinese adventures, you can visit my work blog Hawthorn Natural Health and keep updated with Chinese medicine tips!


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

So Long Chengdu

The time here has gone quickly!  I remember feeling doubtful that we would find enough to fill the long months stretched out ahead of us, but look at us now: we've been mapping out the few remaining days trying to fit in as much as we can, all the things we wished we'd done sooner.  We've left Chengdu behind, so we offer a quick retrospective.  It's a slow city, ready to take a break at the tea house and relax.  Especially in the hours between lunch and dinner, but really throughout the day, both in tea houses and out on the sidewalk, we would see card tables set up - for cards, for mahjong - for hanging out.  We acclimated readily to this lifestyle, and it was only toward the end of our stay when our friends Joey and Tracy came to visit that we finally learned the Sichuan rules of Mahjong and stayed up late into the night playing.  Lazy though we may have been, we did take plenty of pictures of the city that we briefly lived in.
 Above all there was the food, littered with peppers and the mouth-watering zing of Sichuan peppercorns (hua jiao), covered in oil, garlic, ginger.  We'll try to recreate our favorites at home, but how can we compare?  We were once unsure about the numbing, buzzing feeling in our mouths from the hua jiao, but we quickly grew to love the taste.  Even our favorite green onion pancake came with this local standard, crushed into the dough.

Here is a meal from the end of our trip at one of our first Chengdu restaurant discoveries.  Their dry cooked bitter melon (top of the photo) was the best in the city.  Moving clockwise we've got Pea Vines (qing chao wan dou dian), Pepper Chicken (la zi ji), and Garlic Sauce Eggplant (yu xiang qie zi).  Really cheap and excellent food, something that we found in restaurants all over Chengdu.

Another la zi ji.  So many peppers!

Favorite treat!

Across the street from us there was a small bakery (from a wonderful chain of Chinese bakeries) we would often buy coffee and wonderful treats.  It was there that we perfected our ordering of the Americano (mei shi cafe) and experimented with many baked goods hoping that they didn't contain anything too strange (meat!  dried shredded pork!  little hot dogs!  weird meat sandwiches that Mike actually liked!).  Eventually we ended up with a few favorites including the chocolate treat above and mike's favorite three-pack, his "triumvirate bun".

Got yak butter?
Chengdu is a stepping off point for travels to and from Tibet and as a result they have a wonderful Tibetan neighborhood.  We went once out of curiosity, to browse around the Tibetan stores and see what was going on there, and we loved it!  We found a strange little restaurant, really a tiny place, and although it took awhile we eventually sorted out which foods were palatable and which were not.  This is our favorite tea, which was like a sweet Chai tea - on our first visit we made the mistake of ordering the salty yak butter tea.  What a disaster!  It had a thick layer of butter on every cup we poured, making it incredibly rich with the strange taste of yak.  But the noodle soups with stewed meat in them were wonderful.  I have to admit that the Tibet neighborhood was one of my favorites.


It took a very long time for Mike and I to learn to play Mahjong.  It wasn't until our friends Joey and Tracy came to visit that we managed to learn the game.  That was mainly due to their great hostel owner who was only too happy to show us.  Chengdu Mahjong is much simpler then American Mahjong and we were able to learn quickly.  All four of us spent an entire day drinking tea and playing.  It was a lot of fun.  After Joey and Tracy left Mike and I tried to figure out some two person games, but without as much success.

Greg Vision was one of the prominent landmarks visible from our apartment.  There was always something going on with the building.  First they stripped the building and then started to repaint.  They replaced windows and lights down the sides of the building, each time setting up a platform hanging down from the roof.  Mike and I were fascinated.  Greg Vision was visible from all over our neighborhood, which made it a good landmark to find our apartment early on when we were frequently disoriented, finding our way around on the public buses (also, Ann maintains that the sign actually says "Crec Vison", but this is beside the point).

Modest Panda
The Chengdu pandas are amazing!  We really enjoyed going to see them.  You could get so close!  Also, the panda restaurant served yam leaves, one of our favorite vegetables.  An added bonus for a trip to the panda sanctuary.  We went again with Joey and Tracy, and were just as entranced the second time around.

Here's the view from our window at evening rush hour (there's the Pacific Department Store, which the Greg Vision billboard sits atop).  Traffic was terrible.  Won't miss that.  Though it did make for an exciting scene, watching the cars, pedestrians and scooters moving around down below.

We'll have to come back soon.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Epic Train Ride

We came to the end of our stay in Luoyang and realized we needed to
sort out a way back to Chengdu. We had left the last leg of our trip
open, half for flexibility and half because we hadn't found any
especially cheap way home. We scoured Ctrip for flights from Xi'an to
Chengdu or, even better, from Luoyang to Chengdu. However,
unfortunately (sadly! terribly! woefully!) there was nothing at an
even remotely decent price. We debated flying to Chongqing (for still
more than we wanted to pay), spending the day there, and then taking a
short train home the next day, but that plan was nixed as too
complicated. And this is how the two of us found ourselves
desperately questioning a woman in the Luoyang train station on one
day's notice to find us a pair of beds for the overnight train back to
Chengdu. But our luck (and our trip so far had been lucky!) wasn't
destined to hold. No sleepers. None the night we wanted to leave and
none the night after. Nor were there any a day early, that very
night. What they did have, though, was hard seats. It's not as bad
as it sounds - hard seats still have cushions - they're just the
lowest class seat. And at least it's a level up from standing. None
of this would have even been an issue, but the train ride was over 17
hours and scheduled to leave Luoyang at 12:45 in the middle of the
night. But what options did we have? We snatched up the hard seats.

The Luoyang train station was a palace after the train station in
Xi'an, but filling the hours between dinner and a quarter to one in
the morning with everything already closed was a little tricky. We
were already off to a difficult start. We blinked away sleep sitting
in the crowded train station waiting hall, trying to make sure we
didn't doze off and miss the departure. That would have been
terrible. None of the signs were in English, so we were a little
nervous, but the train numbers were clear enough, and our train was
eventually announced and we went out to wait on the platform only a
few minutes behind schedule. There we stood, anxiously milling about
with 30 other people trying to guess the right place to stand for the
car number on our ticket. Once the train arrived everyone ran for the
car (it was like a cartoon, the whole crowd rushing in unison first
one way then the next - apparently we were all on car 7) and we shoved
our way onto the train. It was packed! It took us a good 20 minutes
to work our way down the car to our seats, waiting for those in front
of us, squeezing by people and the bags filling the aisles. Once
there (should we have known it would be like this?) we found a young
couple in our seats. No, wait, they explained. They had seats 42 and
43. Ours were 40 and 41, the two behind them, occupied by a pair of
grizzly old guys. We waved our tickets at them, but they pulled out a
pair of tickets of their own. Real tickets. For our seats. Our
grasp on the situation had never been strong, but now it looked like
things were slipping away from us. Ann wasn't happy, and I felt more
than a little responsible for our predicament. I had been the vocal
train advocate, and here we were, faced with sleeping in the aisle (as
several people we had already stepped past had been doing). What a
relief when a friendly passenger stepped in to sort through the
confusion. He examined our tickets and handed them back to us. Then
he took a look at the other pair's tickets and started talking to
them. I understood what he was saying: theirs were for the day
before, and it's likely enough that with the train just after midnight
they had thought that they were on the right train. They were pretty
hesitant to move, but our benefactor wouldn't let up until they had
given us the seats. Sadly, their luggage was still on the floor
under our new homestead. We pushed and rotated the bags in the
overhead to make room for our big backpack, but our two smaller bags
would spend the night in our laps. We slept, tried to sleep, cramped
and folded around our bags. The lights on our China train didn't dim,
the whole night through. We were surprised how wakeful everyone was!
The train was noisy with the shouts of passengers hanging out,
chatting away until well after 2 am. Someone had a radio playing much
too cheery music. As the night wore on the talk quieted down, but the
lights stayed on. We were pretty miserable, shifting positions to try
to stay comfortable, sleeping fitfully, regretting our bad decision.

The next morning things on the train started pretty early, even as
many of the passengers dozed away. Food carts started coming through
the aisles at 7 in the morning. I have no idea how they managed to
make it down those aisles with all the people asleep in them.
Actually, people were sleeping anywhere there was an open space. Bags
doubled as beds, pillows, the works. I even saw a guy curled up in
the metal sink! The space at the ends of the car was being slept in,
and between the cars (next to the bathrooms) was the de-facto smoking
area. I always had a hard time sorting out whether or not any of the
eight or ten men standing about smoking was also waiting to use the
bathroom. The food coming up the aisle smelled good, but it was too
dubious to tempt either of us. Instead we had a bit of our own
instant coffee (unlimited hot water at the tap at the back of the
car!) and some buns we'd packed in anticipation of the long journey.
Later an old Jacky Chan movie came up on the television and we watched
a bit. The guys that Mike and I had evicted from their seats were
able to shift to new seats as people got off the train and one of them
ended up across from us. He turned out to be quite friendly and
started chatting with us (he spoke no English at all). He pulled out
his snack bag and offered us each apples and held out his knife.
After I (Mike) bungled peeling the first one (Ann's apple) to general
consensus ("terrible!") from the crowd watching us, we got an
impromptu demonstration of our host's apple peeling skill. The rules
are: don't take off too much apple, don't touch the flesh with your
fingers (he did the whole thing moving his fingers down the
diminishing patch of skin until he held the bare apple by just the two
bits at the top and bottom), and come as close as you can to peeling
the skin in one single, beautiful coil. It was remarkable.

Ann and Mike

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Longmen Caves

Ay! We've been sitting on the wrap up for our long trip (Urumqi,
Lanzhou, Xi'an, Luoyang) for almost two weeks. Ann got in gear and
wrote up a pair of blog entries to finish the trip off, and here I am
editing and adding in my commentary. This will bring us almost up to
speed, and maybe tomorrow we'll finally catch up to where we are now.

After a high speed train ride from Xi'an (90 minutes, 350 kilometers!)
we arrived in Luoyang tired, but feeling adventurous enough to take a
city bus to our hotel. After questioning some ladies at the train
station we found the right bus and got on. Feeling victorious we
chuckled to ourselves as the bus pulled out of the station,
congratulating each other on a job well done: taxi avoided. Luoyang
was off to a great start! But the bus made a turn we couldn't account
for, looking at the map, and didn't get back on track. It seemed to
be going the wrong direction, but we talked it over and felt sure the
ladies had steered us in the right direction. They had, after all,
understood what we were asking, discussed a little, and told us in
easy to understand Chinese which number bus to get on. Though we were
now also having doubts about the bus number, which was wrong if we
went by the yellow number spray painted onto the windshield, but right
if we went by the plastic reader board on the front of the bus. Maybe
we had arrived at the East Train Station instead of the one in the
center of town. But it began to dawn on us that we were in the
Luoyang suburbs. Panic. Mike talked to the driver. We had told him
our street initially, and he seemed confident enough that we were on
the right bus, but now the bus was packed with people and there was
clearly some confusion about what was what. We dejectedly got off the
bus and hailed a cab. Luckily, the cab ride was fairly short and we
managed to find the hotel easily enough (there were three Aviation
Hotels on the same street, but ours was the second we tried). We got
checked in and found ourselves with a room on the top floor! Spacious
room, no funny smells, beautiful views of the city - and it was the
cheapest place we stayed on the whole trip! (actually, Mike was upset
by the tower occupying a big chunk of our view with a huge glowing
television orb atop it playing advertisements and blooming flowers(?!)
through the night). Apparently requesting non-smoking had some perks,
and we were in the best room in the hotel!

All this adventuring had gotten us pretty hungry, so we set out to
find some dinner before going to bed. We managed to find a short run
of restaurants by the hotel and chose one based on the fact that it
appeared busy and looked nice. We were seated, given a pair of
picture-less menus, and quickly realized that we had no hope of
deciphering them. No familiar dishes. Not even categories we knew.
Desperate, we turned to our server for help, but (predictably) the
server spoke no English. We resorted to randomly picked dishes and
crossed our fingers that we wouldn't end up with anything too strange.
Unfortunately, that was not to be. Well, actually it wasn't so bad.
The first course was a bland soup (akin to flour water) with noodles.
Boring! Second was a kind of Da Pan Ji (chicken, peppers, red sauce,
noodles) with a lot of particularly spicy sauce. This was tasty, and
we could see the feet easily enough to steer clear of them. Sometimes
this kind of thing was all gizzards and hearts, but there was plenty
of meat in this one. Mike was mixing his boring-soup noodles in with
the sauce. But then we came to the head. Not even the head. Two
halves of a chicken head. Unsettling. Then there were pickled
veggies served alongside the food. And lastly we were served a giant
bowl of a sweet congee with some kind of delicious berry (Ann says
hawthorn) in it. It was sweet and tart and didn't really fit in with
the rest of the meal, but we liked it.

The next day we took the bus to the Longmen Caves (pictured!). It was
a piece of cake catching the city bus from our hotel all the way
there. We got there in the late afternoon, sunny, warm, a nice breeze
blowing. It was perfect. The walk to the caves was peaceful,
following a path along the river, under a long row of willow trees
(there was a second path from the bus stop, through an equally long
line of souvenir stalls, that we turned down in favor of the river
route). We passed through the North entrance and into the large
valley that makes up the site and started to explore. The caves
varied greatly in size, as did the carved Buddhas within. Some caves
had thousands of tiny carved figures. Some were massive. Stairs were
carved into the hillside, and we climbed about oohing and aahing among
the Chinese tourists (who were particularly friendly here). The day
was wonderfully warm and sunny so we took our time and eventually
caught an evening bus back into town.

Mike and Ann

Friday, November 12, 2010

Journey to the Terracotta Warriors

The day after our adventure around Xi'an's old wall, we slept in and purposefully opted not to take the 8:30 am tour bus that our too-chipper hotel liaison had suggested.  We and our guidebook had better plans.  After getting some much needed rest we headed toward the train station to take the bus to the Terracotta Warriors.  Our spirits and hopes were high with plans for a bakery stop en route.   Ann wanted coffee from the moment she woke up that morning.  I wanted a snack.  But we became increasingly desperate as we got closer to the bus station with no sign of a bakery.  Unfortunately, it appeared to not be in the cards.  Morale was low, but we pressed on.

Then, just as hope was almost lost we found a bakery!  Bakeries in China have been our coffee source (Starbucks is here but it's obnoxious and expensive, in that order) when we aren't drinking instant.  We headed in, purchased the aforementioned coffee and also grabbed some dubious looking baked goods for the road.  The food situation at the site of the Terracotta Warriors was described by the guidebook as "diabolical".  And readers who are worried that I didn't get my snack, fear not:  we made a stop a short while later for pulled noodles.

The Xi'an Train station is crowded, messy, dirty even when compared to other Chinese train stations.  The bathrooms are even worse (and should maybe be described as "diabolical"), hidden below ground among a tangle of what looked like cheap sleeping arrangements for stranded travelers.  We will not speak of this again.

Despite the train station debacle, Mike and I managed to find our way to the bus outpost and (with a little asking around) found the correct bus relatively easily.  It was pretty remarkable.

The first pit with the largest number of warriors.
The museum that houses the terracotta warriors is amazing.  It's a massive hangar stretching out over the statues which are displayed in-place, right where they were discovered and where the excavation still goes on.  The result is that there appears to be continuing work on the site (museums are usually such static things!) as new objects are unearthed and statue fragments are pieced together.  Everything involved is on such a large scale!  The warriors themselves are complex - the bodies were mass produced (well before what I had thought of as the "invention" of interchangeable parts!), and the heads and hands were individually made for each statue.

Although the bases are largely similar, the heads were individually made, each with its own facial features and expression.

Chicken on the street!

Night market

Night market

Bell tower at night

Ann and Mike

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

In Which Ann and Mike Try to Conquer Xi'an and Decide to Survey the City from its Walls Instead.

After cold Lanzhou Ann was very pleased to arrive in a decidedly warmer Xi'an.  Mike thinks the Lanzhou weather was perfect.  Transportation was much easier (although because of traffic, also slower) and the airport shuttle bus served us well.  There was some relatively minor hotel debacle for our first night, but we rose the following morning (relatively) early and with a keen sense of adventure.  We decided to storm the city.

Our hotel liaison cornered us before we could even get out the door.  She not only tried to sell us several expensive tour packages, but was obscenely chipper, and told several bad jokes in English (making fun of how they say "car" is Boston just isn't the same if you already speak heavily accented English).  Despite these serious marks against her, we took her advice and began our attack by heading out to Xi'an's restored wall to survey the city.

The wall is huge.

Really, very large.  We decided to rent bikes and ride around the entire city on top of the wall.  I (Ann) refused to ride a tandem bicycle, so we waited for some single bikes to return from their circuit before setting off on our own.

I think that Mike really enjoyed his bike despite the fact that it was tiny and it was impossible to adjust the seat.

I have to admit that I also loved mine.  It was so nice to travel so quickly!

I refused to leave my bike.  Even for pictures.


Mike found the panorama button on the camera.

From one corner of the wall, facing away from the center of town, onto a moat and a great park!

After our wall adventure (which took an hour and 1/2!  Surprising!) we headed towards Xi'an's Muslim neighborhood.  And delicious food!  Xi'an has a specialty dish that starts with you, the soup eater (drinker?) tearing up a few tough old pieces of bread into a pile of rough bread crumbs.  Then some magic is done, and you get back a soup with beef broth, hunks of meat, vegetables, and all of those bread bits in it!  It was a great meal, but Ann was only moderately impressed.  Her heart (stomach) had been left in Urumqi (and the next night we scoured the Muslim quarter until we found somewhere with pilaf for her).  But after our great soups we walked through a night market that was just ramping up, bought a few little things, and headed back to our hotel.  Overall, a great day.

Next adventure: terracotta warriors.

Ann and Mike


After Urumqi we journeyed to the home of hand pulled noodles: Lanzhou.  Actually, it wasn't quite so simple.  We had an unplanned, very lengthy delay.  We cabbed it to the airport to catch our flight, both horrified and relieved that the regular cab fare was half what we had paid to get taken into town (cabs that don't turn on the meter always turn out badly).  Taxi rides in China are never straightforward.  There is always something unexpected happening, and our not being able to speak Chinese inevitably just makes things more of a mess.  This cabdriver actually hadn't started the meter at first, but about a block in I pointed this out to him and he dutifully flipped it on.  Then halfway to the airport he started chatting with us, and was quite firm about wanting to know when our plane was due to leave.  I still wasn't sure that he wasn't going to try driving us all over town, and at that point we had already passed the landmarks by which I had known we were going in the right direction, so I told him 2:00 (I think we had a 2:45 departure).  He pulled over almost immediately at a gas station off the highway saying he would just be a minute or two.  Maybe he had been explaining this to us the whole time?  Was this what we had been chatting about?  Wasn't the taxi meter running?  Well, it didn't matter in the end - was the gas station closed?  out of gas?  it was noon, after all - neither of these things seemed very likely, but after a quick shouted exchange between the cabdriver and a gas station attendant we drove off without having even fully stopped moving.  The airport, of course, presented more problems.  Though we knew our airline (Air China), we did not know the Chinese for our airline (still don't), and couldn't answer simple questions about which terminal we were flying out of.  We had no idea!  Luckily, the driver was redeeming his non-meter-starting character, and took pity on us.  Between the three of us, we were able to ask around until we made it to the right terminal.  Finally at the right place we checked into our flight only to find that it had been delayed 6 hours.  Boozh!  The Urumqi airport entertainment options are slim to none: one magazine/snack stand and a single coffee shop that looked like it had instant coffee and a jug of hot water.  Chairs?  2.  Occupied.  Uncomfortable window seating?  Also occupied.  We debated our options, and settled on taking the bus back into town for the day.  And the plan worked!  Urumqi was great the second time around!  We had yet another pilaf lunch (our third in three days), and settled in at a coffee shop to wait out the afternoon.  It was on the free coffee shop internet that we discovered that our plane had been delayed yet again, sending us to our favorite night market for dinner (kebabs and noodles) before we nabbed our second cab of the day and, at just before midnight, found ourselves on a plane and headed to Lanzhou.

Unfortunately, the delayed flight meant that our time in Lanzhou would be significantly shortened.  We did manage to find great noodles, another fun night market and a bad Xinjiang restaurant (you can see Ann was missing Urumqi already).

This is the "chocolate" that I (Ann) bought on the way home from our exploration of the Lanzhou night market.  I was mainly attracted to it by the fact that it seemed to represent chocolate (En├Án!) and that it was cheap (3 kuai).  Unfortunately, the texture more closely resembled crumbling cement and I decided that it would probably better serve society structurally.  In a trash pile.

Seeing these pictures I realize that we both look tired.  We can attribute this two causes.  One:  we didn't get to our hotel until 3am the night before.  The airport is over an hour outside of town, and we made this trip in the middle of the night.  Actually, we weren't even the only ones in the hotel lobby when we got there - on the seventh floor of our hotel (and you could hear the music in the elevator as it rolled by) there was a KTV place, and a gaggle of girls fluttered out as we walked in.  But reason Two:  we booked a hotel right next to the train depot.  We knew there were train noises, we had read the hotel reviews mentioning them.  But we foolishly thought that we could sleep through it.  Wrong.  You know that dinging noise that a train crossing makes?  Well, we heard that.  All night.  Along with really loud train horns.  I'm left with a profound respect for the hobos who sleep in train yards or train cars or along train tracks under bridges.  It's a noisy world.

Ann and Mike