Sunday, March 29, 2009

If you aren't NBA, you don't matter.

Basketball is HUGE in China. And I'm not just talking about Yao.

Most Americans know of Yao Ming. Pretty much everyone in the world does. The guy is gigantic. Its hard to miss him him.

But can you name any other Chinese basketball players? Chinese NBA players? How about cities in China with professional basketball teams?
Probably not.

For shame. All Chinese males under the age of 25 can name (what they believe to be) at least 30 US cities. Which ones? Those with an NBA franchise of course. Chinese people know our 26th biggest city Milwaukee (pop. 602,191) but don't know our 8th, San Diego (pop. 1,266,731) or 10th, San Jose (pop. 939,899). However, I'm sure they also think Toronto is a US state (it basically is) and that Utah, Minnesota, Golden State, Denver and Charlotte are cities (they aren't). For those of you not paying attention, that was a nice little jab at the cities of Charlotte and Denver in the last sentence. Check it out if you missed it and don't forget to tip your waiters.

For the record, there are 18 (ed: fixed) teams in the CBA. Beijing's team is called the Ducks. But DO NOT confuse them with those fruity hockey players in Anaheim or that rag tag group of under achievers led by Uncle Emilio. These ducks are BEASTS. Actually, I haven't seen them play yet.

Oh and there IS another Chinese player in the NBA right now. Yi Jianlian plays for the New Jersey Nets. Two other players were drafted but did not play for more than a few years. All games for both Yi's team and Yao's Housten Rockets are broadcast in their entirety here. As are Lakers games. Even though its just his name that is Japanese, I think Kobe is an honorary Asian.

Basketball magazines on the news-stand provide me with the only black faces I've seen for weeks. Lebron. Kobe. D-ho. All HUGE celebrities over here. I'm pretty sure the only black people the Chinese are aware of are NBA players and Will Smith.

I've also recently learned that Jason Kidd has a shoe deal here. That's right. USA Gold medal Olympian Jason Kidd has left Nike and signed with PEAK, a low cost Chinese shoemaker. He joins Shane Battier as a promoter of the budget brand. If you are lucky, you MIGHT be able to track a pair down at your local K-Mart next to the Starbury line if you are lucky. Ouch, first Charlotte and now Stephon Marbury? No easy target is safe from Marc's biting wit.

This post is my official call to all US college players or role players in the NBA. Come to China! Get yourself a nice contract. Your dollars will go farther here. Give it a year or so and you'll have a footwear deal! If you play for the Ducks, I'll come out and cheer you on. I'll be easy to find. I'll be the one white guy in the crowd.

Friday, March 27, 2009

More Feedback!

my beijing life blogThanks to the magic of Google analytics, I can tell that you are reading this post. Actually I can tell that a LOT of your are. And I can tell WHO you are. Most of you are people I know. Some of you are random people that have found my blathering posts through Google.

To the first group, I thank you.
To the second, I apologize.

Either way, your visitorship works out great for me. When you come, and especially when you click on the ads, I make money for street food. And, we all know how much I like street food.

However, take a moment to be more involved. Comment on my posts. Ask questions. Make snide remarks. Tell me I'm a self-indulgent fool for having a blog. If you have a blog, ask me to link to it and we can be bloggy linky buddies. You'll notice I've linked to several friends blogs at left.

Thank you for your patronage and keep reading.

PS: (If you don't have a blog, you clearly don't know what a bloggy linky buddy is. Don't bother asking.)

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Now you see it. Now you don't.

I'm back in the dark. This blog is once again invisible from within China.

I noticed, this past Monday, that a few sites I regularly frequent were inaccessible. A friend pointed me to this article at CNN International about Youtube and the timing roughly corresponds to when my blog disappeared.

I don't know if/what lead to this, but I can only hope that my ramblings haven't been incendiary enough to raise any red flags.

Or.. other colored flags.. The Chinese REALLY like red flags.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Visiting Thailand #1

One of the best things about Asia, is how relatively inexpensive it can be to travel between countries. Aside from Visa issues, Asia is probably one of the best places to travel in the world. The transit, accommodations, and food cost very little and each country has a personality of its own to explore.

Veronica has been participating in an Eco-City Contest in a different province, so I recently found myself with a free week. With nothing else to do, I decided to book a flight to Thailand. I'd heard good things and luckily an old friend lives in Bangkok, so I didn't even have to worry about finding lodgings! Thanks Caitlin!

bangkok pool hallsGetting Hustled
If you haven't been, Thailand is just as crazy as you've heard. I arrived a little after midnight and we kept the next relatively low key. We only hit up a few bars and played a little bit of pool. I quickly learned that pool is the national sport of Thailand and it was a GOOD thing that gambling is illegal. This is my pool partner Pat. She runs a Mexican restaurant and was clearly the ringer on our team.

thai fishThai Food in Bangkok
Compared to Beijing, Bangkok is a tourist paradise. English is spoken much more commonly and most prices are even cheaper! As a fan of Thai food, I couldn't wait to try it out in its native environment. I wasn't disappointed. On the street, or in restaurants, I was pleasantly surprised. This fish was my first breakfast. I wanted to jump right in.

bangkok water taxiGetting Around Bangkok
Though not as inexpensive as Beijing, Bangkok transportation was straightforward and easy. The Bangkok Transit System consists of two elevated train lines and one subway line. All rely on RFID tickets or tokens. Lines let off at convenient locations, such as the central pier. Much cooler than the BTS is the water taxis. For less than the BTS Sky Train, you can grab a boat down the river to any of a few dozen stops. This was a great way to get around the city. Most of the major tourist attractions were along the water taxi route. I spent my first day on and off the water taxi, visiting Wats and palaces and meeting TONS of Israelis touring after their Army time.

buddha in tree ayuthayaA Lotta Buddha
Out of the three Asian nations I've visited all three claim close ties and devotion to the Buddha and Buddhism. All three have major temples and shrines, each with a slightly different representation of Buddha. Thailand however, where Buddhism enjoys a majority position among its religions, has some of the most amazing. Pretty much every Wat was overflowing with Buddhist imagery, some of which is world famous. To the right you can see me in front of the Buddha in the Tree of Ayuthaya. this is one of the most photographed images of Buddha in the world. I was going for "tourist-douchey". Did I capture the look?

More to come.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Never Trust an Asian Fart

A wise Brit once told me:
"Never trust an Asian fart".

At first I assumed he was referring to the shrewdness with which elderly Asian's bargain in the marketplace. Or perhaps I misheard and he was advising me to avoid taking transportation with an Asian FAR.

But no, there it was again. Never Trust an Asian Fart.

I haven't had any of the encounters to which he was referring, but now I can only imagine he was making reference to the aftereffects of the Asian cuisine and its bodily untrustworthiness.

Bangkok Belly
Chinese Fire Drill
Japanese Kamikaze Bomber

The accidents go by many names, but they all have one thing in common:
Excruciating abdominal pain and hours hunched over (hopefully) your new porcelain friend. I say hopefully, because not all establishments guarantee a western commode.

Luckily, my digestive tract is as strong as an ox and I can eat fermented eggs until the cows come home.
beijing hot pot
And then I can eat the cows too.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Beijing Pollution Myths & Truths

Its hard to keep a city of 12.5 million sparkling fresh, but Beijing does a pretty good job all things considered.

Coming from Philadelphia, I was pleasantly surprised to find city streets that were well-maintained, and almost completely devoid of pot-holes and garbage. It was rare in Philadelphia to walk around the art museum area or manayunk and not come into contact with dozens of dog-made land-mines. In Beijing however, they really seem to have their doggie-litter problem under control.

During certain hours, you can see people with sticks and brooms cleaning the sidewalks or electric street sweepers. I've asked around and it seems that the cleaning crews are part voluntary and part paid. There is a lot of pride here.

Of course, when I mention pollution, most people don't think about the streets. They think about the skies. And they'd be right if they said that Beijing has a bit of an air pollution problem.

Those of you who know me at all are aware that my sinuses were crafted by the devil himself to annoy me and those close to me and my allergies were once on temporary display at the "worst things ever" museum in eastern Manitoba. As such, Beijing's airborne pollutants can lead to some problems.

Since I've been here, I've only had once sinus infection (best I can tell). Interestingly enough, that infection disappeared the moment my plane landed in Bangkok. Coincidence? You be the judge.

Word on the street is that the government, pre and post Olympics is engaging in a handful of regulations to crack down on the pollution and it is actually not as bad as its been in the past. This is probably true and the percent of smog days has been relatively low compared to what I was prepared for.

But to give you all a better idea about what I talk, I am providing you with the simple pollution barometer that Veronica and I use every morning. Each day, we wake up and look out our window at Beijing. Depending on how far we can see, we determine how long we can be outside before needing our lungs replaced. See below.

Beijing is actually fairly close to a mountain range. If we can see the mountains, the day is beautiful and clear.
chinese pollution

However, if we can only see a few hundred meters of high rises, we are probably in for a bit of respiratory troubles.
beijing pollution

I will have to add a picture later, but on some days, we find it difficult to make out the other buildings in our own complex.

Oh, and you can't let a blue sky fool you. The blue sky can soar high above the pollution below. There is an ancient poem about it:

Far below
the blue
of sky
plus coal factories.

Baller Praying Update

1000 Korean WonSo it would appear that I don't have any Korean readers.

When in Thailand this past weekend, I encountered the same mysterious 1000 bill that I saw in the wishing fountain at the Lama Temple of Beijing.

The bill (pictured at left) is actually a Korean bank note worth a hell of a lot less than I originally thought. 1000 Korean Won is worth roughly $0.70, not the original $146 dollars it would have been if it were 1000 Chinese Yuan.

Official apologies have been issued to the Gods as my improper exchange calculations led to the underfunding of seven reincarnations during the second quarter.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Street Food (#1)

One of the things I looked forward to most about coming to China was the food. I was prepared for the worst, but was pleasantly surprised. People had warned of an unrecognizable cuisine, not at all reminiscent of its American counterpart.

For the most part, this wasn't the case. Back in the US, I was lucky to live in a city with a formidable Chinatown that contained a few excellent dim sum places and plenty of authentic eating options. I was also lucky enough to frequent these places enough to have tried many things that I'd later discover while living in Beijing.

That isn't to say that I haven't encountered (and eaten) many things that I never thought I'd see. There will be many posts about those adventures here, but right now I'm going to stick to my favorite thing about Chinese food: the street variety.

Seriously. Walking down the street is like dim sum. Every day is like dim sum at Joy Tsin Lau or Golden Ocean (or Palace or whatever its called). Since my Mandarin is limited to: "I America person", "We go to this place", "that one" *points*, "thank you" and "airplane", my experience with street food has actually been VERY similar to my experience at dim sum!

For those of you that have been to an authentic dim sum in the US, most often employees wheel around carts with different small dishes on it. More often than not, these people have very limited English and non-Chinese patrons are reduced to pointing and hoping.

The same is the case here, except I am the one who doesn't speak the local language. It hasn't really been a problem yet, but I've definitely eaten some new things as a result.

I'll start with some of the more normal stuff and graduate up to the weirder and sometimes more enjoyable.

Foods come in a few categories:
1: Things filled with things (dumplings and buns)
2: Things on Sticks (Kabobs)
3: Noodle Bowls
4: Pastries and fried breads
5: Hand Meats
6: Sweets
7: Novelties

As you quickly learn, there is clearly some overlap between those groupings and I'll do my best to elaborate.

beijing street crepeCase Study 1: Street Crepe
Category: Things filled with things (advanced level) and pastries
Average Cost: 3元 ($0.44)

I'll start with something you've seen before. You've seen the final product, but at left you can see it being created. This delicacy starts out like any other crepe: circle out the batter, crack an egg on, mix it up a little. Then it starts to get awesome. Add scallions and some crunchy greens. Slather with slightly sweet gravy and slightly hot chili sauce. Then it gets really cool. Add a long thing crunchy fried rice paper sheet. Fold crepe edges over crunchy sheet. Crack in a few places to fold the whole crepe up into a 6' by 6' perfect breakfast. Seriously. Every place in the world should offer this treat.

Case Study 1: Street Kabobs
Category: Things on Sticks, Street Meats, Novelties (optional)
Average Cost: Veggie/Tofu 1元 ($0.15), Meat 2元 ($0.30), Novelty 5-10元 ($0.75-1.50)

This basic forms of this item don't take much explaining. Meats or Veggies stuck on skewers and flame grilled or boiled in sauce. Below you can see a wide variety simmering.
beijing street kabobs

The stick is a greatly overlooked vehicle for food delivery. In the US, its relegated to middle eastern restaurants, backyard grilling and, of course, corn dogs. In China, its used to elegantly and gracefully display the most bizarre foods you'll ever see. Below, observe a novelty kabob stand in a touristy market street. This stand is for chinese and international tourist - don't think that this type of fare is regular for anyone.
crazy beijing street food

Not all crazy street food is really that crazy. I tried a bunch of what I thought were squid tentacles on a stick. If I were a betting man, I'm put money on them being squid tentacles. But since I'm not a betting man, I'll just say I THINK they were squid tentacles.

Stay tuned for Street Food (#2).

Thursday, March 12, 2009

I Can See My Blog From Here!

If you've been reading, you'll know that I have been able to POST to this blog, but haven't actually been able to read it. The only way I can see it is by employing a handful of weird and time consuming work-arounds.

I'm happy to announce: It took a week, but my blog is finally available for Chinese consumption.

I'm not exactly sure what limitations on internet use really exist here and I'll avoid certain "buzz words" in this post to make sure that my site doesn't attract any attention. For the most part, there are only a handful of sites I've discovered that I can't actually visit. Most seem to be political in nature, including many from the US. Those of you familiar with the issue also know that there are a few specific topics that are not looked upon too highly here and, as a result, are not accessible.

This whole blog experience has really made me curious about the process of allowing or disallowing a site to be viewed. Best I can figure, the ISPs (internet service providers) are almost all state owned or at least subject to very high regulations. As a result, one thing they do is update their DNS (domain name servers) very slowly. A domain name server is the service that translates a domain name (like into an ip address (the actual numeric location of the website). This delay would theoretically allow whatever manual or automated review of the websites content to take place. If the site passes, its added to the DNS and becomes accessible. If it fails not that many Chinese will be visiting that particular site.

This may not be exactly how it happens. If anyone knows or has a better idea, please enlighten. I'm just happy that I can actually SEE the stuff I'm putting online!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Travel in and around China

The recent and relative boom in the Chinese economy has created a lot of disposable income industries to absorb that income. A new trend among the wealthier Chinese is domestic and regional international air travel.

The Beijing Capital Airport is a sprawling three terminal airfield with two separate metro stops. Each terminal is four stories and they are all interconnected by free trams. While a huge amount of international flights land in PEK, there are an increasingly large amount of domestic flights as well.

Websites like ctrip and elong, in addition to the well-adapted cits have made flights incredibly accessibly and affordable.

For example, right now I am researching flights to Taiyuan, a regional capital in which my friend works as a teacher. The city (of about 3 million people) is a few hours from Beijing by train and a bit over and hour by air. I'm seeing round trip ticket prices ranging from $25 USD to $60 USD from a variety of carriers.

Aside from visiting friends, and as far as domestic (semi-autonomous region) trips are concerned, I'm really curious about:
1: Tibet
2: Macau.

They say Macau is the Vegas of Asia. The pictures I've seen of the architecture seem to support that.

International travel is more expensive but certainly accessible, as many international carriers are opening up new Asian routes every day. You can see at left, most flights are still coming from the Asian sub-continent.

Veronica's mother, Mary, took advantage of the non-stop flight from newark being offered by Continental. My parents are coming into shanghai via Delta and then transferring.

For international travel, people have recommended I deal with a travel agent as they are able to get better deals than the websites. I'm looking into a short trip to one of the following and I'd like any thoughts or advice:
1: Thailand
2: Malaysia
3: Vietnam
4: Korea
5: Japan
6: Anything I'm missing?

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Shopping in Beijing (#1)

beijing apartmentShopping for the Apartment
After living like a poor student in university housing, Veronica (and I) were THRILLED with our new Beijing apartment. If I didn't mention earlier, it is a 19th floor, 2 bedroom, 1 bath unit with wood floors and a few gigantic windows. I took the picture at left at night, and I think it captures the view pretty well. We are surrounded by other high rise apartment buildings for as far as the eyes can see. 

We are pretty much exactly between The Forbidden City (more on that later) and Tsinghua University. Luckily we are a 3 minute walk from a pretty good bus stop and a 15 minute walk from the best metro line (a center city loop). We are able to get pretty much wherever we want to go and have access to a wide variety of options for furnishing our apartment.

I should really start calling the apartment "the compound", because we live in a gated community. These are VERY common in Beijing. You can usually tell them from far away by their names written in large characters on the top of the buildings. Ours is made up of 9 buildings and contains:
a supermarket
a movie theater
a few restaurants
a news stand
a bank
a gym
and a beauty parlor.

Even better news: the supermarket stocks a wide variety of household wares. This was our first stop for setting up our apartment. The basics (dishes), extension cords, and some basic bedding was VERY reasonably priced and we are still amazed at how low the total is when we ring up at the cashier.

beijing ikea
When we realized how cheaply we could equip the flat with low quality merchandise, we decided to take it a step up: Ikea (宜家家居). And, believe it or not, Ikea is even less expensive in China. We were able to fit both bedrooms with quality bedding and stock the kitchen dish cabinets without breaking a sweat. The Ikea had Chinese signage, since Veronica and I have memorized the Ikea catalog, we got by on the Swedish (blorgens, klappnichts, pfaarns, etc).

Later I ventured out to Zhongguancun (中关村), a bargain-priced electronics mall for what I imagine was my first of many trips. I just needed to pick up a wifi router and a digital camera battery and since I had a few hours, I had fun haggling with people.

10x is a pretty standard mark up, especially for a white person, so I always opened with exactly one tenth of the starting price. People usually laughed at me, but since I only would go up in small intervals while they were coming down in much larger ones, I learned what the actual values were pretty quickly.

For example, the first price I was quoted for a Casio Exilm battery was 200元. I responded with 20元. The came down to 100元, I stayed at 20, they came down to 80元, I started to walk away. They came down to 50元, I offered 30元. They came down to 40元 and I walked away. After going to about 10 different vendors, and having all of them stop dropping the price at 40 - I finally bought the batter for 35元. I felt a little silly afterwards, when I realized that I wasted 30 minutes arguing over 5元 ($0.73).

The router was quite an experience, but not as much in the purchasing ($10 for 802.11g). The router's firmware was in Chinese. So the initial setup took about an hour. After I got connectivity, I managed to update the firmware to an english version and now everything works great. It was fun to realize that the battery retails for around $30 in the states ($20 online) and I paid $5.11. (The router retails for around $25 online.)

Ultimately, manufactured goods, depending on the quality seem to run anywhere from 10% - 50% of their cost in the US. The only exception is imported products made in Europe or America. These will definitely cost more. But why bother, when so much of the merchandise we buy in the states is made right here anyway!

I should really spend some more time talking about Zhongguancun. There really isn't ANYTHING like it in the US. I went to one of about six major markets in this small area. This market was contained in a 20+ story building, the first six floors of which were accessible by escalator and had open display areas where you could by pretty much any type of electronics you could imagine. The remaining 14 floors are storerooms and private shopping areas. I ended up in one of these rooms by accident (I was corralled there), but didn't end up purchasing anything. These rooms are where you go if you "know a guy" or if you are a foreigner about to get screwed.  More on Zhongguancun to come.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Getting around Beijing

Devoted readers would remember a passing reference I made to the relative cheapness of Beijing transportation. Perhaps I should restate with the appropriate emphasis:


The bold and all caps should have made my point clear by now, but let me elaborate. I'm no pro and at this point have only take advantage of four of the main Beijing transportation methods:

1: Your own damn self (By Foot)
Clearly the most inexpensive option, Beijing by foot is a daunting task and should only be entertained for relatively short or particularly beautiful distances. Beijing is notoriously smoggy (has been for about half of my time here) and incredibly expansive. Foot travel can get you around the block, to and from jump-off points for other types of travel and, most enjoyably, through the many parks, temples, university campuses (campi?) and other scenic paths. Walking is not advised for long distances unless you like walking along side busy roads for extended periods of time.

2: The Beijing Bus
The bus has two main pros and one gigantic con. The Beijing Bus is great because its INSANELY inexpensive (Most rides are 0.4元 - approximately $0.07) and it goes EVERYWHERE. However, these two pros are outweighed by the complexity of the bus system for a person that can't read Chinese characters:

Buses themselves are equipped with pinyan and character based signs and numbers and many even have a broadcast system that announces stops in Mandarin and English. Bus stops are a different story. Some may boast maps of each bus route - if you see one of these, count yourself among the lucky few. Most bus stops simply have a confusing schedule, completely written in characters - without any indication of where these stops are on a map. I assume a Beijingren would know where the stops are, but based on the number of people I see asking the drivers and consulting the route signs on the bus, this isn't completely true.

Beijing Bus Bonus:
Most Beijing buses are equipped with a "concierge". This person acts as a ticket taker for people that don't have RFID bus passes. You tell this concierge where you are going and pay the fare. Usually the "bus host" will call out stops and yell the route out the window as the bus pulls into a station. It seems this job is being phased out in favor of the more self service, cheaper, "greener" RFID card system. For me however, the bus host is just another person that can laugh at my horrible pronunciation. 

3: The Beijing Metro System
Recently spruced up for the Olympics, kept impeccably clean and consisting of 6-8 lines (depending on how you count), the Beijing Metro Subway System is nothing to scoff at. Though not as ubiquitous as the New York, Paris or London systems, Beijing's rapid underground expansion may soon dwarf them all. Note though, that hordes of people pack into the train cars, so the subway is not the best for claustrophobes. Its not Tokyo crowded, but during rush hours, you may have your personal space violated a bit. 

Fares can be purchased as single rides (2元 or $0.29ish) or en masse as credits on a metro card. If purchased like this, the card can be recharged and the fare slightly decreases. Buying one of these IC cards can be a challenge if you don't speak the language. It took me about 10 minutes the first time around, and I even prepared a written note that said "I buy 2 forever cards". I think the ticket taker thought I was proposing to her.

4: Beijing Taxicabs
Citroen, Hyundai and Volkswagon cabs are EVERYwhere here and, as I mentioned in my initial post, are certainly the way to go if you don't want to deal with finding a metro stop or navigating the bus system. The most expensive cab ride I've seen has been 100元 ($15) and that was 45 minutes long.

The bus and subway lines close relatively early 11pm, because the Chinese aren't notorious partiers, so Westerners are left with only one option for transportation home from the pub: The Bonkers Cheap Cabs. Really. Its BONKERS how cheap these things are.

Other ways to get around Beijing:
1: AutoRickshaw
2: Pedi-Cab / Rickshaw Bike
3: Bicycle
4: Motorized Bicycle
5: Scooter/Motorcycle

I'll try to take advantage of some of these, but don't know that I will. I don't have enough confidence in my motorcycle abilities to drive around this city and due to my proximity to the bus and subway, don't expect to need a bicycle. I did read about a cool bike touring group that takes fun trips - but I think I can just rent a bike for that.

I DO expect to take a rickshaw bike at least once. There is a very western-friendly bar area where all the bars are super close and a rickshaw bike path would take us about half of the way back to our apartment. I don't know what these thins cost - but it would be fun to ride in one for at least part of a trip home from the pubs.

Motorized Bicycles are a new trend that I'm surprised hasn't made it back to the states yet. These wonders of engineering are normal bicycles, fitted with small electric or gas motors. The motors get the bikes up to a healthy 10-20 KM/H speed, but can be switched off and pedaled too. I've seen both old bikes that were retrofitted and new ones that were designed like this. Electric models are visible in our hallway, as people bring them up the elevator and charge the batteries at night. I think this is a GREAT environmentally friendly example of basic technology making a difference. I'll try to remember to snap a photo and post one here.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Why do you have ads on your blog?

Plainly put, I've done the math.  If each website visitor clicks ONE ad during each visit, I get to buy TWO street crepes!  I haven't written much about street food yet - but really guys - is one click per visit THAT much to ask?  Street crepes are AMAZING!  Look for a more detailed post about them soon.
beijing street food