Friday, July 30, 2010

CHAI-NA: Parts of Old Beijing Disappear Before our Eyes

is a Chinese character pronounced "CHAI" ...or, for those of you unfamiliar with pinyin: CH, like cheetah, and EYE combined: CH-EYE. The meaning of CHAI is "to take apart or demolish." "CHAI-NA" is an interesting play on words; in cities across China, you frequently come across large piles of rubble where older buildings have been destroyed, as well as construction sites where new buildings are being built.

When most people think of Beijing, the picture that comes to mind (aside from Tiananmen Square and The Forbidden City) are the charming Beijing alleys known as hutongs. I've talked about these hutongs many times in previous posts. They offer amazing glimpses into the lives of Beijingers hundreds of years ago, long before the country began to modernize and skyscrapers that can be found in any city around the world began to pop up all across Beijing.

In the English version of China Daily was an ad for a free tour of a local hutong, known as Daji Lane. This was one of the last opportunities to see Daji Lane somewhat intact, as many areas of the hutong have already been marked for demolition. Daji Lane is home to over 30 hutongs, 300 courtyards and 78 provincial guild halls. To say there is a lot of cultural significance is an understatement. Daji Lane was built sometime during the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234). In some of the alleys, big character posters from the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) can still be seen stuck to the walls. (Thank you to Beijing Today for much of the above information.)

The tour, by 90 Percent Tours (who I highly recommend), was extremely interesting and gave us a glimpse into several competing perspectives: the need for development, the need for preservation, and the needs of the people living in these areas.

Currently inhabited houses

A remnant of a poster leftover from the Cultural Revolution

Chinese characters saying "you are entering a demolition area, please pay attention to your safety."

Piles of rubble from already-demolished buildings on Daji Lane

Houses marked for demolition which bear the character 冤 YUAN, meaning "INJUSTICE."

Another YUAN photo. It is to our understanding that the residents of houses that have been chosen for demolition are fairly compensated. We've also heard that many of them are forced to move further away from the city center, which means more traffic and inconvenient transportation. Others assure us the government compensates them nicely for their hassle.

A banner posted by the government, assuring residents that if they trust a little more, they will receive benefits earlier.

Through the trees: a glimpse of what is in store for Daji Lane

I hope you enjoyed a glimpse into Beijing's fast-disappearing Daji Lane.


Thursday, July 29, 2010

Two Laowais' Adventures in Homemade Dumpling Making

My husband and I attempted to make homemade jiaozi (dumplings) a week or so ago. We happened to randomly pick the day that you are traditionally supposed to eat jiaozi on: what is supposed to be, according to the lunar calendar, the hottest day of the year (but that I can tell you which was nowhere close to the hottest day we've had in Beijing!)

We tried to remember as best we could the instructions we learned from the Hutong Cuisine cooking class that we took. Neither of us took home the recipe... DOH. Majorly kicking ourselves for that!

So, we looked everywhere for the little wooden-stick-thingie (擀面杖 or ganmianzhang in Chinese) that you are supposed to use to roll out the dough (yes we made homemade wrappers and everything!) Unfortunately, we couldn't find one anywhere, so we used some quick thinking and scoured our kitchen for an acceptable replacement. Adapt and overcome, right? Luckily, we found this thing... it goes in a plastic pitcher we have, and you usually freeze it to keep the drinks cold. It also doubles as a decent little-wooden-stick-thingie, as I like to call it!

The hubby rolling out the dough. I'll be honest... about 10 minutes into working with the dough, I decided we were crazy for trying to make our own jiaozi and left the dough-work to my husband. Working with dough is hard, people! Especially when you use the wrong measurements - oops! Silly waiguoren (foreigners).

Our not-yet-cooked, not-quite-visually-appetitizing jiaozi. OK, OK. We need to work on the dough. Some parts were too dry, others too wet - noted! We spoke with our Chinese teachers who gave us some little tricks, which we will definitely try next time.

The next funny part - we decided to steam them. It was only after our decision that we realized we didn't bring our proper steamer with us to China... so, again, we improvised and used a strainer. It worked, except some of the jiaozi "skin" stuck to the bottom of the steamer. Our teacher again gave us a tip - you are supposed to place a thin damp cloth on the bottom of the steamer to ensure the sticking doesn't happen.

And ohhhh... the best part in my opinion - the dipping sauce! I could seriously drink this stuff, people. It was SO good. MMMM. I'm getting hungry just thinking about it! The key is to use good quality Chinese soy sauce and Chinese vinegar. I put a little of each, some fresh crushed garlic... a little bit of fresh ginger - to be honest, I can't really remember if I used ginger or not... but I may have... and a spicy red pepper cut into small pieces. The sauce was out of this world!

Despite our dough mishap... the jiaozi were truly delicious! And well worth the effort. We did a traditional filling of pork & cabbage (with some green onion, garlic and ginger, soy sauce. I've since been told Chinese don't put garlic in the filling. I love me some garlic and the filling came out so good, garlic is definitely going in again next time!)

I'll get another chance to work with dough tonight - we are going to make our own homemade noodles, then stir fry them with veggies and pork. Luckily, I remember the process for the noodles, and this time I'll hopefully get the water to dough ratio right ;)


Friday, July 23, 2010

Taking on Beijing's taxis (& bicyclists!)

Living in China is always an adventure, but I didn't realize that even taking a taxi would sometimes be a challenge. Me and taxis... we don't have that great of a relationship. Not lately at least. Let's just say out of the last 6 times I have taken a cab, I have been kicked out of said cab 3 out of those 6 times. Thats not really a great record... not at all. These 3 recent getting-kicked-out episodes aren't the first time it has happened, but its the first time it has happened so close together and been really noticeable to me - and upsetting! so, let's start from the beginning.

I was meeting a new friend at a local shopping area, so, being my usual self and in no mood for the subway, I opted to take a cab. Absolutely no problem this time - I flagged down a cab, luckily had a nice driver who understood me perfectly and drove me exactly where I wanted to go. By the time we arrived, I was feeling pretty accomplished by this seemingly simple action of taking a taxi.. (sometimes, its the little things) ....paid the driver, opened the taxi door when WHAM!! I opened the door onto a biker rider trying to pass by. Ooops. I felt awful! I shut the door and looked at the taxi driver with big eyes - OMG! I'm so sorry! I said in Chinese, knowing these cabs are usually personally owned by the drivers. Luckily, he was a nice taxi driver, smiled and assured me "mei shi mei shi" ("it's nothing") - I think he felt bad for me. He must have known what was waiting for me!

I stepped out of the taxi and walked over to the bike rider who was just standing near her bike a few feet away from the taxi. Guys - I merely OPENED the door on her. She didn't actually fly right into it, and she wasn't moving very fast, and she didn't even fall. But of course I rushed over, apologized a million times, asked her if she was okay... I must have ruined her entire day because she immediately started cursing at me in a stream of rapid-fire Chinese. After a few minutes of this I realized there was nothing I could do - she wasn't injured, her bike wasn't damaged at all - so I walked away, completely embarrassed & obviously apologetic.

After a few great hours hanging out with my friend, I went over to the taxi queue to catch a ride home. I got into the first cab and told the driver where I wanted to go. "I don't know where it is" he says - and because *I* don't know HOW to get home from there (driving), I'm at a loss, so I shyly step out of the car, feeling like a silly foreigner, completely self conscious and embarrassed. Onto the next cab, I get in, crossing my fingers and hoping with every fiber of my being that this driver would know where I wanted to go. Apparently not. I gave him street names, landmarks such as subway stations, the CCTV television building - he said he doesn't know exactly where it was. so. I got out, the second time in just 3 minutes, completely embarrassed! I mean - this guy is a Beijing taxi driver and he doesn't know where the CCTV building is? FISHY! VERY FISHY!! I don't know if I believe that.

A couple days later I took a taxi and it was flawless, the driver was awesome, he understood me, and when we were stuck in a traffic jam he complained about all the cars and I agreed.... when he realized I spoke Chinese, it was like a floodgate opened and we chatted the whole way back to my apartment. It was like he had been dying to talk to someone! I love that sort of taxi driver!

He restored my faith in taxis, which is why yesterday I felt comfortable flagging down a taxi on the way home from school. The taxi came driving over, I thought "nice!" I had this theory that I'm less likely to be kicked out of a cab if I flag the driver down and he drives over to me - as opposed to seeing a taxi sitting on the side of the road and me going over to him. I figured this way, the taxi driver is making a choice to come over to me and take me somewhere. I was convinced it was fool-proof. Unfortunately, I was proved wrong. I got into the cab, told him where I wanted to go - anticipating the "I don't know where it is" excuse, I threw out all the landmarks and surrounding streets. The taxi driver responded "I'm sorry, blah blah getting off of work blah blah words I don't understand blah other direction blah." so, I got out. His accent was super thick and he was talking really fast, but I'm pretty sure he was getting off from work and was hoping to pick up one last ride - if it was going in the direction he wanted to go.

I decided SCREW TAXIS!! Every time a taxi drove by I immaturely (but very satisfyingly) thought "screw you" as I made my way to the subway. I SHOULD have thought "wow at least he said he is sorry!" The other drivers acted like they couldn't be bothered. At least this one was apologetic! But at the time, it made me feel bad and I fought tears the entire walk to the subway station.

I've taken the subway since then. The good thing is it was a really bad day and I wanted nothing more than to stay inside my house and NOT leave for the rest of the day.... fortunately, I had a hair appointment and was forced to go back out. I'm glad I did because it made me turn my negative day into a positive day, and I had a great time walking to and from the subway station and just enjoyed being outside in Beijing. Plus, my new hair stylist is amazing! Who knew I'd have to come to Beijing for someone who can do a great blonde?!

Lessons learned:
1. Always look before opening a car door!
2. My "call a taxi over to you and you are less likely to get kicked out" theory is completely false.

We are going traveling tomorrow - maybe by the time we get back to Beijing I'll feel like taking my chances on a taxi again. :)


P.S. An update on my homesickness and slight culture shock - I am feeling SO much better! Now that I've made a few friends here and have made myself get out and about, try new things, enjoy travel.... I have been feeling so much more at home and have been able to cherish my time here.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Mongolia Part 3 (final): The Nadaam Festival

We originally chose to go to Mongolia because their biggest festival of the year happened to coincide with the timeframe my tourist visa required me to get out of China, before I could come back in. So, off we went in search of another country to see, and it just so happened it was perfect timing to see their Nadaam Festival.

The Nadaam Festival is awesome - it celebrates Mongolia's Independence from China - and does so through the festival of the three manly sports. So, just what ARE the three manly sports, you might be wondering?

The three manly sports are.... drumroll please..... WRESTLING! ......ARCHERY!! .....and HORSE RACING!!!

Because we were staying in the capital city of Ulaabaatar, we were able to see the biggest festival in the country. Smaller villages hold their own smaller versions of the festival throughout the country - we stopped at one on our way out to the countryside one day. If you go to Mongolia for the Nadaam Festival, I actually highly recommend getting to a smaller village to watch theirs... MUCH less crowded and you get a much better view! It also gives you more of that small, traditional feel I expected, as opposed to the huge event that the festival was in the capital.

See the guy in the all tan outfit, with the hat on towards the middle? He is the President of Mongolia! We got a LOT closer to him than this - we actually walked (accidentally) next to him and his entire entourage as we made our way to the archery show.

My AMAZING view for much of the ceremony, compliments of the jerks in front of me who obviously didn't care that I had spent $600 on a plane ticket to come and see THISFREAKINGFESTIVAL! PFT. People and their umbrellas.




AND..... last but not least... this is the face of a criminal!!! HAHA! She tried to pickpocket my husband not ONCE, but TWICE! He flung her arm away, then she ran and he followed her to get this awesome picture.... haha.

Thats it for our Mongolian adventure! We are going to Inner Mongolia soon, which is part of China, and it will be interesting to compare the differences and similarities between the two places. My husband is sweet and gives me an entire week off before we have to travel again... lol. Once we get back from Inner Mongolia I get another week off before going on a longer 2 week trip!

**If you are interested in the beauty aspect of this blog, be sure to check out the previous post which is a product review!**


Thursday, July 15, 2010

Product Review: The Beauty Blender Sponge

Readers - I know a lot of you read this blog for the travel content, but when I first started this blog it also had a beauty element to it as well - product reviews and things of that nature. Due to being in China, I haven't had the chance to try too many new products (until I started shopping online for some much needed retail therapy!) and alas, my products have arrived, and I have new reviews for all the people who were originally attracted to the beauty element of this blog.

This review is about the makeup sponge applicator called The Beauty Blender. I went back and forth over whether or not I should purchase this sponge - I mean, $19 for a sponge? Really? But, I don't like applying my foundation with brushes, and the more I used crappy CVS sponges the more I realized that I was in serious need of finding another application method!

After reading a ton of reviews on the product, I learned that many people only replace their Beauty Blender Sponge once every 6 months or even once a year, and with that in mind, I figured if I liked the product, I could deal with that sort of monetary investment.

The outcome: pure awesomeness.

My foundation has never looked so smooth or flawlessly applied. You can also use it to apply concealer, as well as creme blush.

The BB sponge is also simple to use. You first wet the sponge, then towel dry it (takes less than 1 minute to do this). Then you dip it in foundation or put the foundation directly on the sponge, and begin to stipple (or bounce the sponge up and down) in order to apply the makeup. Then you just watch in amazement at how smooth your foundation goes on! Awesome! I also used it with concealer to cover any blemishes, and it was simple to do and covered them perfectly, much better than a finger or a brush ever did (in my experience). The shape of the sponge allows you to easily cover hard to reach areas and corners.

This sponge in my opinion does NOT suck up the foundation, which makes me happy because those garbage little suckers from CVS used to waste so much of my $38 foundation.

I chose not to buy the cleaning solution that comes with it - after reading many reviews, I saw that many ladies believed Johnson's Baby Shampoo worked just as well as the Beauty Blender Cleaning Solution, so I opted to stick with that, and have had absolutely no problems - it cleans it great!

At Beauty Blender's own website, you can purchase 1 beauty blender sponge plus 5 packets of cleansers for $15.95. Click here.

My grade for the product: A

(BTW Sonia Kashuk at Target makes a $10 version of this sponge. I also read reviews on that and while most people like it, many said it didn't apply makeup as well as the Beauty Blender Sponge, possibly due to different construction material?... that plus the need to only replace the sponge once or twice a year convinced me to just go ahead and take my chance with the Beauty Blender - and I am so happy I did!)


Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Mongolia part 2 (the BEST part!)

Don't forget to check out my Mongolia: part 1! post. Click here.

Just driving in Mongolia is an adventure - the roads are not well paved and they are extremely bumpy. We also did quite a bit of off-roading! What a blast! On the way, on both our left and our right sides were rolling hills with the occasional ger (yurt - where Mongolian families traditionally live) dotting the landscape. We stopped in a small village to catch of a glimpse of their festival.

Not the best picture because it was taken while we were in the car... we stumbled upon a parade walking to the local village's Nadaam Festival. Although its not the best picture, I love it! The woman looks so beautiful and happy! so proud to be Mongolian!

An hour and a half of bumpy roads later, we arrived in the National Park, did some hiking, ate lunch.

Gorgeous landscape in Terelj!

This is a religious thing.. but, that's all I got.

The highlight of our trip was toward the end of the day. My friend Kimberly was hell-bent on riding a yak in Mongolia. It was her mission. So our guides were completely amazing and found a local family who owns yaks, and spoke to them about letting us ride their yak.

Not only did they let us ride their yak - they invited us into their home! They fed us!
We ate fresh bread, yak milk butter, yak milk yogurt, drank Mongolian vodka - all products they produce themselves, and use to sustain themselves daily. This was an absolutely amazing experience. I can't describe how cool it was to see how these people live their lives - SO drastically different from the way we live our lives in the U.S., hell, in Beijing! About 50% of Mongolia's population is nomadic. They live in gers because they are easy to pack up and move from place to place. They live off the land.

The family we visited was so hospitable towards us, we asked our guides "are these your friends?" ... nope. They had never even met them before, but this sort of friendliness and hospitality is the Mongolian way. You can walk up to any ger and knock on the door and receive this same sort of hospitality.

The inside of a ger/yurt, in case you were wondering what one looked like inside (I was!) Its cool in the summer and stays warm in the winter! You can see the pipe leading out of the ger - they use that coal stove to create warmth, and for cooking, too.

Um, so shortly after we were invited in and sat down, this adorable old shirtless Mongolian man passed his snuff bottle to the husband. These snuff bottles are a cultural thing that dates back hundreds of years - today, politicians use them to indicate respect, power, and welcome. When this man passed his snuff bottle over to my hubby for a snort, how could he say no? The man had just invited us into his home! FED US! Let us ride his yak! You can't say no. Luckily this is a "man thing" and I didn't have to partake. And luckily - snuff is just a form of tobacco.

So here the hubby is, snorting some snuff. Or at least acting like he is. LOL.

Bread, yak butter and yak yogurt.

I'm on a yak and....its going fast and... I've got a Mongolian-themed pashmina afghan.... no, actually, he was really slow, and utterly bored, and if I could have heard his thoughts I am pretty sure he would have been saying "Damn foreigner!"

This was the nicest lady ever. This is some sort of yak cheese curd. It was really tart!

Goat milking time!

She truly got a kick out of us. We were so interested in her just doing her daily chores... so excited to ride a yak... she thought it was hilarious.

Here we are with the entire family - the mom and dad (the guy who gave my husband the snuff!), the daughters and the son. We finished the night by eating dinner inside their yurt, at their own table... what amazing people. OK so I thought I was regaining my Florida tan, until I looked at this picture and see that I am by far the whitest one in the picture. I almost match the ger, ha ha ha!

This goes to show that all women are the same! Our cultures are as different as night and day, but as women, we all worry about how we will look in pictures! We asked for a picture and she was like "oh my gosh! In this old thing?! I'm not picture-ready!" We didn't need to speak Mongolian to understand that! Thats why she grabbed her son and made him stand in front of her.

I was being typical me (lazy), told my husband I didn't want to walk anymore, so he carried me... about 5 steps, acted like he was going to throw me in the river.. then put me down.

I'll never forget some of the things I saw in Mongolia. Horses running free! A herder in traditional Mongolian garb, sitting atop his horse, herding over 50 sheep with the beautiful hills in the background. I didn't get pictures of these sights, and I wish I could share them with you because the stark beauty of them will always remain a memory for me.

Stay tuned for my final post on Mongolia - the reason we went - for the Nadaam Festival!