Archive for March, 2006

Happy Monday.

27 March 06

We had a great weekend in Beijing, as you can read in the following blog entries. As usual, back in Shijiazhuang and back to work, I feel like I need another Sunday to rest from the weekend. I’m not as tired as these guys though,

Have a great week.


A Friday in Beijing

27 March 06

Friday in Beijing we visited the embassy district, to do some business at the US and Spanish embassies. The driver from our school dropped us off a few streets from the embassy, as close as he was allowed to drive. Since we weren’t really sure where we were, we just started walking up a side street. It soon became apparent that we were close to the embassy – all the barbed wire and video cameras gave it away. I felt like I was walking through a DMZ.

At the end of the street, there was a barrier, albeit a very small one. It was just out of view of the guard standing on the corner in front of the US consulate. There was no way around the barrier, except to walk back the way we came – really far. So we did probably one of the dumbest things you could ever possibly do in a militarized zone – we jumped over the barrier. No biggie, though. I think the guard thought we came from a car parked beside it. As usual, it was a big security check at the embassy, quite a contrast to the Spanish consulate, where we just walked right on in, with cell phones and everything!! OOoohhh….

Anyway, at the US embassy I achieved the expat rite of passage that really tells you you’ve been around – I had another 20 pages added to my passport. It seems I completely filled my passport! I love all the stamps and visas. I can’t wait to fill in the new ones! After visiting the US embassy, we took a long leisurely stroll down the tree-lined streets, admiring the embassy buildings and trying to guess each country by its flag.

The Mexicans are particularly proud of their flag, as you can see in the photo below. Quite risky to take photos of the embassies, with so many guards and police standing around, but this had to be seen to be believed!

That’s right, the flag is actually bigger than the embassy.

We took a break at Le Petit Paris, a nice little cafe with a patio facing the street – perfect for people watching. There were so many expats in the neighborhood we could have been in Europe.
Just have a look at the following photo and tell me, Is this place European or WHAT!!??

We had espresso and cheesecake here. Now that is the best way I can think of to spend an afternoon.

Later that night, we ate dinner at an Indian restaurant, The Taj, because after 6 months of eating pretty much only Chinese, you need a break. The food was great and so was the ambience. Afterward, we once again strolled through the neighborhood.

This area is Northwest of the embassy district, almost directly North of the Forbidden City, close to our hotel. It is one of the very few traditional, old-style areas of Beijing that has managed to avoid the wrecking ball. There are very tiny, narrow little streets called Hutongs, and lining the streets are walls and doors. Beyond the doors are the courtyard houses, where anywhere from one to 10 families may be living. I haven’t been inside any, but I am dying to know what they are like. There are a few hotels and guesthouses located inside courtyard houses and I would love to check one out.

One hutong is developing as a sort of hip place to go for dinner and coffee. It is called Nanluogu Xiang Hutong, which means Drum and Gong Alley. We walked up the street, searching for some good coffee and dessert. We were stopped half-way up because a Chinese film crew was making a movie. On their break we were able to pass by. Our first stop resulted in some very disappointing coffee, but at our second stop, Xiao Xin’s, we had some delicious cheesecake (the second of the day!!) and a chocolate and hazlenut milkshake. Yummmy! These businesses along the Hutong are popular because they offer free Wi-fi for those with laptops and a really relaxed, more traditional Chinese style architecture and design. I loved it and I hope I can go back and explore more in the daytime. I don’t have any pics, but here is an article with pictures and descriptions:
Asia and Away – Drum Roamin’
The whole place has a really Bohemian air which is a nice change from the usual touristy bars and restaurants of the Sanlitun area.

The Great Wall Sure is Great

27 March 06

It sure is a great wall. ~Richard Nixon

I’m inclined to agree with the president. The great wall was amazing, truly worthy of its title and its membership in the seven wonders of the world. A big thanks to Ting at Tings Tours for an outstanding tour. Visit the website for some great photos of the wall in the beautiful, lush Spring and Summer. As you can see in my photos, it is definately still Winter!

The Great Wall is enormous, stretching some 600 kilometers across Northern China. There are a few areas, close to Beijing, that have been reconstructed for tourists. I haven’t been to that part, although I’ve heard it is amazing, too, but really crowded with tour groups and souvenir hawkers. We chose to go to a part of the wall that is untouched, unrenovated, practically in ruins. Very few people go there because it is more difficult to get to. I’m not even sure it is officially open. There were only a handful of tourists here, so it was completely peaceful.

It is breathtaking – literally! You must walk up a steep incline, twisting and turning up the hillside to reach the ruins. I thought I was gonna die for a few seconds. (And American T, if you are reading this – you weren’t joking about the incline, it’s ridiculous! I’m sorry we teased you about being out of shape.) But when you emerge, out of the underbrush and trees, and see the spectacular view of the valley below, the clear blue sky overhead and the ruins perched precariously along the summits of the hills and mountains, for as far as you can see into the distance, all you can do is stand there with  your mouth open and say WOW. And then you immediately find a rock to sit on to catch your breath.

The valley below

On our way up to the Great Wall, we drove up a windy little road past many new hotels and resort areas. Seems that this area is very popular among the newly wealthy Beijingers who want to get away to the clean air of the mountains for the weekend. Mostly it is popular among Chinese. The Western tourists are still very rare in this area. We also passed many small villages, which appeared to be quite old. They still had the old courtyard style houses, with gray tile sloping roofs. We saw many old men working in the fields, carrying bundles of sticks, and generally fixing things up after the winter.

What was most incredible to us, after being in Shijiazhuang with smelly, smoky air, was the refreshing quality of the air. It was like clear spring water, you just couldn’t get enough of it. We could see for miles. Several jets past over us, many miles up, but they seemed so close we could reach out and touch them. I could have stayed there all day. Especially since I really didn’t want to descend that slippery little goat path back down!!

Me among the ruins of a guard tower.

That’s the beginning of the trail up to the wall. The boxy thing up top is a guard tower. Doesn’t look that steep or far, right? Yeah, that is what we thought. The blue sign you see in the distance says, “It is everyone’s responsibility to keep the Great Wall clean (or something like that). The Great Wall is closed for reconstruction.” I don’t know if it is closed or not, but it sure welcomed us.

See more photos at Flickr!

Shower From Hell

22 March 06

I know that I just signed off for the weekend, but I’ve just had a shower from hell and I wanted to share the experience with all of you Westerners who luxuriate in beautiful, functioning plumbing everyday. I don’t know if this is typical of Chinese showers, but it is way too common here at the Airport Hotel.

As soon as I turned the water on, the bathroom immediately filled up with so much steam I felt like I was in a fairy tale somewhere in an enchanted forest. Groping for the shower handle, I turned it over to the cold section, only to find that the water was still scalding hot. Turning more to the cold, the water stayed hot. More turning – still hot. Then, suddenly, ice cold. Back to the hot section, about an inch – scalding hot. Back to the cold, a few centimeters – ice cold. Back to the hot a centimeter – scalding hot. Back to cold a nanometer – ice cold. Out of the blue without touching anything – perfect temperature. Great. Get in, suds up, wash hair. In the midst of a rinse – scalding hot water. No matter where I turn the control – scalding hot water. I must have gone through at least 3 or 4 of the ice cold – scalding hot – lukewarm cycles. Is there some crazy Chinese guy downstairs by the hot water control just randomly turning it? Laughing at how all the crazy foreigners are yelling and screaming and jumping around in their showers?

I guess I shouldn’t complain too much seeing as how a few months ago we barely had hot water at all. You could never get any at all before 11PM unless a Russian flight crew happened to have landed and come to stay at the hotel. But you know what, I’m complaining!

Weekly Update

22 March 06

Tomorrow I am going to Beijing. I have been asked to be involved in interviewing potential students for the school. I will be assessing their English level. It should be interesting. And if the students come to the school and can’t speak English, it will be my fault!

I’m looking forward to the trip because I love seeing Beijing and getting new perspectives on this crazy country. We are going to try to make it to the Great Wall this time, and maybe do some shopping at some of the cheap markets. (Cheap only if you do some hard bargaining – something I’m not so great at, but you really have to do it or you’ll end up paying three times as much as a local. Now that I get paid local pay, I can’t afford to pay full price!)

I’m packing right now and watching some HBO. As usual, HBO Asia is in top form, playing some of the worst, weirdest and most random movies ever. Really, you turn on the TV just hoping that they’re not playing the same movie you have seen 10 times already – something really heinous like “Frankenfish” or a somewhat decent movie that you’ve never heard of, like “Hollywood Homicide” that has been in heavy rotation. Tonight, “Vampire in Brooklyn” is on. While a really dumb movie, I’m actually pleased because at least it is a movie that hasn’t been shown 3 times this week.

A few days ago there was quite a shiny trilogy of real gems – “Footloose,” “Top Gun,” and “Inner Space” (You know the one where Dennis Quaid gets miniaturized and injected into Martin Short? And he drives a little spaceship through his blood vessels and organs?) Bizarre. It has been on about 5 times recently. I know because I watched it 3 times. Top Gun was interesting. I used to love that movie back when I was 12. Seeing it now I can’t believe how tacky it is.

BBC got scrambled. I don’t think we are going to get it back. Evidently they were reporting about some sort of protest happening somewhere here in China and the screen just went black and it hasn’t been back up since. Gotta love cen&so#rsh*ip!

Our only other English channel is ESPN. For some reason, this version of ESPN only shows snooker and billiards tournaments and the occasional golf game, with TNA wrestling on weekend nights. Not anything I am particularly interested in, but still, I find myself watching it, holding my breath to see if the champion is going to knock the ball in the pocket or not.

Actually I’d better get back to the other side of the room, seems I am missing some of the plot of the vampire movie and lord knows I don’t wanna do that.

So I WILL be posting on my return to the multi-star fabulous Shijiazhuang International Airport Hotel (uh, actually it has 3 stars and is just called the airport hotel, but it makes me feel uppity.)

Have a great weekend wherever it is you are.

Weather – Again!

16 March 06

I’m starting to feel like one of those old Southern men who gets together every morning with the other old men at the Dairy Queen or local coffee shop to talk about the weather… But WOW! Today the weather is so fantastic I have to blog about it. Besides, I have nothing else to blog about..

It is about 72 F and 22 C right now. The sun is shining, there are no clouds and the sky is blue! I know all you people in Texas and Toronto and other good-weather places are thinking, “yeah?” But you have to understand that good weather days here are to be enjoyed, celebrated, taken advantage of.

Unfortunately, I am feeling way yucky today, possibly from my hideous diet that has recently mostly included fried rice and french fries. I have a feeling that all the Chinese people here at the airport assume that all Western people eat french fries as a standard issue plate at all meals. As for fried rice, I just can’t get enough of it. True, most of the varieties around here include an unhealthy ladle or two of oil, but it just makes me happy to dive into a bowl of rice, egg, ham bits, carrot bits and cucumber bits. I’m actually addicted to the stuff. Still, I understand that a diet of fried rice alone is not enough.

The Mongols, one of my favorite restaurants here, had been closed for a while after we came back from Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) and I feared that that was it for my cheap delicious eats. Turns out they moved to a new location, down the street, that just opened. This time there are no yurts. 😦  Bummer. But, the new spot is really nice, with individual dining rooms, as is a common custom here in China. And the food continues to be delish and cheap, of course. And they don’t even serve rice! So I think it is a great place for me to go. (At least they didn’t used to. They only served noodles. But I’ve been informed that in their new kitchen they do make rice.) They even have a van and they will come to the hotel to pick us up if we call and ask! That is service.

Well I’m going back to bed to feel sorry for myself since I feel so gross. (It’s 3 PM, that is acceptable, right?) Just when you think you have conquered the stomach issues of China, they strike again.

Good Weather Too Good to Be True

10 March 06

I guess the weather has just been too nice and cooperative lately because today was not a nice day at all. There seems to be a layer of dust and sand just hanging over us, so much so that it is actually palpable. Evidently this is the transition to Spring – dust and sand storms. Not very pleasant. I hope it doesn’t last too long. Reminds me of Kuwait.

Anyway, the good news is that almost all of my students passed their English exams. We’ve got  two new classes starting in about a week, so I am still busy planning new lessons.  This teaching business is never ending.

At last it is the weekend and I can relax and sleep in (until 9AM). Our computer has been on the fritz again, mainly because the DH downloaded a virus, but it seems we have got that all sorted out now. I now have internet access at home again.

Morning in the City

4 March 06

What a beautiful day! The sun is shining, it is warm enough to wear a light jacket and it seems that spring is just around the corner. We took the early bus into the city today to do a little shopping and get out of the house, err hotel. The early bus comes at 8AM, which seems ridiculously early for a Saturday morning, but oh well.

On days like this, when there is minimal pollution, and you can see farther than 1 kilometer, I am always amazed how different the countryside seems. Everything is a little bit brighter, a little bit livelier. I, for one, feel a lot more energetic and happy. Must be why all those Northern Europeans are depressed (because of the lack of light, not pollution.) Shijiazhuang also seems a lot different on bright, sunny days. The buildings all seem newer; the streets less shabby, as if the whole place has had a face lift, all because there is less smoke in the air. Amazing.

On bright and sunny days, I also learn something new about my environs. For instance, there is a residential housing area just behind the airport that we pass on the back way to the village. Before I knew about that entrance to the village, I never knew about the residential area – and there must be hundreds of houses there. Why? Because when I would look out my window, towards the village, the houses were usually hidden by a combination of leafy trees and smog. Now that the leaves are all gone from the trees, on non-smoggy days, I can see the housing complex. That housing area is so interesting, and I will tell you more about it later, when I get some photos to accompany the description. Anyway, today was not necessarily the brightest nor the clearest, but you could see the sun, so that means it is a good day.

On the way into the city I love to look out the window to see what is going on in the fields and little villages on the sides of the road. Today, I noticed that there were a few people out tending to the fields – turning the soil by shovel, or forming channels and indentations, as if to ready it for planting. There were also a great deal of fertilizer mounds here and there, waiting to be spread around. Another clue that spring will soon be here.

In the city, our first stop was the post office. I wasn’t sure what to expect, since it was my first time there, and upon entering, I instantly thought I was in a bank. There was a long row of desks with postal workers seated at each one, with a computer and scale, not the familiar counter or row of windows that I grew accustomed to in other places.

I needed an envelope, so I went to a desk where a woman was selling boxes and different sorts of packaging. She wanted to know where I planned to send the envelope, because I guess you need a specific kind of envelope for specific places. When she gave me the envelope, she pointed to a stand with pens and what looked like a bowl full of oatmeal. Turns out that there is no adhesive on the envelope, and you have to paint a strip of glue across the envelope. At the stand I found the bowl was not oatmeal, but paste, with a paintbrush stuck in it. I addressed the envelope, sealed it, and approached the rows of desks, not really sure who I should hand the letter to.

One girl looked up, so I handed her the letter. She looked at the address, typed something in her computer, weighed it, and then handed me a calculator with the price typed in, so I could see how much it cost. 6 RMB. Almost a whole $USD!! Not cheap! She handed me the stamps, and pointed to the stand. Again, I had to apply the glue in order to attach the stamps. Then, I realized that I needed to put the envelope in one of two slots that were cut into the side of the stand. Both being in Chinese, I wasn’t sure which slot was for my envelope, so I turned to the row of desks and just started pointing to one and waiting for the girl’s reaction. I figured out which one to put the envelope in, but the DH and I couldn’t help but laugh and think what if they just told us to put it into the garbage and they are all laughing at us?

After the post office, our next stop was at the chemists. Yes, the chemists. Never heard of a chemists? It is just another name for a drugstore, only the kind of drugstore where you buy soap and shampoo, but not medicine. There is a chain store here called Watson’s Chemist. It might be Australian, I’m not sure, but they have a pretty good selection of western toiletries. I even found a can of Nivea deodorant! I have become one of Nivea’s best customers. I always liked their products, with that soft nice smell, but now I have gone a bit overboard with Nivea face wash, Nivea face cream, Nivea hand cream, Nivea deodorant, and the DH’s Nivea aftershave.

Watson’s is located inside of our big local department store, Beiguo. When we arrived, we were shocked to see a massive crowd waiting outside the doors. Seems they were just opening and they were having some sort of spring promotional. When the doors opened, the crowd surged forth, some running and clapping their hands. Luckily, there is an entrance to Watson’s around the side of the building so we could avoid the mad dash for bargains. Normally I would have been all over a sale like that, but believe me, you don’t want to be in the middle of a mad crowd of Chinese. I have mentioned that they have different ideas about personal space than us North Americans, right?

After the chemists, we were feeling a bit hungry and were in need of some street food. We found a small side street and began walking up it in hopes of finding one of those wagon-carts with a griddle on top. If you see a wagon-cart with a griddle on top, you know they will make you a great Chinese-style breakfast taco, for 1 “kuai” (the local slang for a yuan or RMB)(1 kuai is 1/8th of a dollar). As expected, we did find one, and happily, we also stumbled across a neighborhood market. I was really interested in it because they had all kinds of fresh fruits and vegetables laid out for sell. The vegetables looked as though they had just come out of someone’s garden that morning. There were also tables of meat, which I didn’t want to linger over too long – not too appetizing. One vendor was selling bags of rice, beans, dried peas and other staples like that. I love soups and stews made from dried peas and things.

This is one of the reasons I would like to live in the city. I want to come down from my apartment to a little neighborhood market where I can buy fresh foods to cook, much cheaper than the supermarket. But alas, we have only a toaster oven and in a hotel room it is just not feasible to start cooking up a storm. Needless to say, we were quite the spectacle, eating Chinese tacos in the middle of a residential street looking at fruits and vegetables while all the local people followed us around smiling and pointing at us. I love experiences like that.

Afterward, we began a leisurely walk back towards our bus, crossing through the People’s Park. The park was great because there were so many people out enjoying the morning. Lots of grandparents and grandkids, families and students. Flying kites, running, doing Tai Chi or exercise, playing with balloons and other toys, pointing at the Laowai (Foreigners).

Over the past few weeks my attitude hasn’t been that great and I think it is because I have felt a bit sequestered at the airport. Being in the city, on days like this, restores my sanity a little bit. And now that I’ve hit that milestone – my third decade, I need all the sanity I can get!!