Monday May 12, 2008

ShanXi trip,Chinese only

山西  杂感

Thursday Apr 24, 2008

Crossing the River

Cross posted at http://www.nomadicminds.org

HuangPu River carved the lovely Bund, the prime financial real estate since China leased this area to Britain in 1870s. It slices the city into halves.

ShangHai City started from the west side (PuXi) and expanded east, toward the sea. The river exacted a distance tax to PuDong, or the east of HuangPu river. It accepted to be the lesser part of ShangHai.

No more. Its rural land provided growth space for high-tech industries. The adjacency to the new airport and sea ports makes it a better choice of trade, light manufacturing, and the steel industry. PuDong is now rich, modern, and vibrant. PuXi, however, remains charming, classic, and the choice location for the best restaurants.

The necessity of crossing the river is a daily nightmare. Subway network is not yet mature. Tunnels are frustrating. Bridges are inconvenient detours. Then, I found the lovely alternative: the ferry. I like ferries.

There are two commuter ferry lines (and many tourist ones). The shorter one costs 0.50 RMB and the longer one 2. A short wait beacons the boat and begins the leisure crossing. I soaked in busy river activities and understood the role this river plays to the prosperity of this biggest city of China.

Then the taxi thrusted me back to the mega-city's arteries. <script language="JavaScript"> TagStart() Technorati("China") Technorati("ShangHai") TagEnd() </script>

Thursday Apr 17, 2008

Foot Massage

Cross posted at http://www.nomadicminds.org

"I insist," said a friend. "How can you live in Beijing for almost 3 years without experiencing it." She sounded just like myself when I said to Maggie a couple of years ago, "You grew up in Beijing and never visited the Forbidden City?" So I sheepishly follow them into this dimly lit massage parlor.

Foot massage, that is.

Many Chinese believe in reflexological therapy. The general theories associate vital organs and circulation to areas on one's feet. By stimulating the corresponding areas, one will heal or strengthen the associative organs. You can also diagnose by observing how areas of your feet react to massage actions.

The place is subtly decorated with staff quietly busying around. We were led to a room lined with easy chairs and foot stools. Soon, a waiter came in to confirm our services and take orders for drinks and foods (all complimentary). A few minutes after, 4 masseuses came in each with a wooden bucket of hot liquid. Flower petals float on the slightly colored water. It was scorching hot, yet soothing to soak your feet in. The masseuses then start work on our shoulders and backs. Knots that I did not know exist disappeared and tension from neck loosens. Just when I noticed the water is getting cold, the masseuse took my feet out, wrap them with warm damp towels, and took out the bucket.

They came back and start working on my feet. With lubricant, she pressed, rub, pinched, or rolled pretty much every parts. It hurt a bit, but not too much. Some parts generate unfamiliar sensations that are part itchy, part a bit pain, and part soothing. It was the "good hurt." I found myself getting drowsy and becoming quiet.

Too soon, they stopped and bid us farewell. We stayed to finish our drink and chat. As the conversation ends, we put our shoes back on (I don't want to) and left, very refreshed.

Hmm, I can get used to this... <script language="JavaScript"> TagStart() Technorati("China") Technorati("Foot Massage") Technorati("Reflexology") TagEnd() </script>

Monday Apr 07, 2008

YangZhou

Just wrote an entry, in traditional Chinese, on my recent visit to YangZhou. Check it out

Monday Mar 17, 2008

JiuMen Food Court 九门小吃

Cross posted at: NomadicMinds, Sun English and Chinese blogs. Note that the Chinese and English contents are not quite the exact translation.

到底什么是北京小吃?北京人说豆汁焦圈,但真吃过的没几人。驴打滚,豌豆黄,艾窝窝去哪找?九门小吃把几个百年老字号召齐了,店开在后海北。游人转进孝友胡同,宋庆龄故居西,就看到了。进门先到吧台买卡(俩人百元尽够了,没用完可以找),再端个托盘逛去。爆肚冯、年糕钱、奶酪魏、羊头马、豆腐脑白、德顺斋。看招牌就谗了。贪心每家各买几盘,自己找张桌子(有点费劲)。再去拿筷子,盘子,点饮料。大张朵颐。吃撑了逛后海消化,日丽风和,柳枝拂水。人生不过如此。

许多点心都是名气大的百年字号。吃起来不错,但不能说是人间美味。德顺斋的烧饼及豆腐脑觉得很好。奶酪魏卖完了。羊头马,年糕钱就是地道但熟悉的味道。


I have heard so much of those famous, yet elusive, Beijing snacks. No one under 35 years old really have tasted the foul-smelled DouZhi (fermented soybean milk) and greasy JiaoQuan (fried dough, not even close to doughnut in taste, but similar in shape). Everyone said that someone else is crazy about them. Hmm.. Make you thin.

Since the massive QianMen renovation, many 100+ years snack stands moved to JiuMen Snacks, a food-court in traditional Chinese setting near HouHai district. Turn into this narrow alley, enter the imposing gate, you will be surrounded by Beijingers seeking their childhood comfort foods and snacks.

This are the real Beijing foods. Some could be too alien for out-of-towners, but the experience is definitively memorable.

Sunday Mar 09, 2008

GouBuLi, a new version

Six years ago when I landed in Beijing, I was really excited to see 苟不理 (GouBuLi, a fake brand of the well-known 狗不理 steamed buns, although the pronunciation is the same). I couldn't wait and bought a plate. But it was a big let-down. The greasiness stopped me from even finishing the small plate. My wife repeated the same lesson. We both vowed never again for GouBuLi.

Later, native Beijingers told me, "GouBuLi is a Tianjin specialty. If you want to eat authentic ones, you should go to Tianjin." Coincidently my wife went to Tianjin and found the real GouBuLi steamed buns. "Delicious!" she exclaimed. "And very different from those other ones we ate. Next time let's go to Tianjin together."

That's when I realized the ones we ate were not authentic GouBuLi.

Several years passed. Just last month, my wife was running some errands at DaShiLan (大栅栏). She came across a newly opened GouBuLi restaurant and couldn't help treating herself to a plate. The steamed buns made her really happy because they tasted the same as those in Tianjin. Wondering if they have chain restaurants in Beijing, she searched the Internet and found another one in GuiJie (簋街, a street in Beijing famous for its crowded restaurants) at DongZhiMenNei. A friend of hers was about to go back to the States and this restaurant was chosen as the venue for their farewell dinner. I was so envious of their happy faces afterwards - when can I try the real GouBuLi?

Hal Stern read my blogs on and off for years. When his China trip was confirmed, he was determined to try this famous steamed bun. Yay, finally here comes my chance to try the genuine Tianjin GouBuLi. On the last day of his stay in China, four of us set off for GouBuLi restaurant in GuiJie.

Surprisingly, we found ourselves in a grand, well-decorated touristic restaurant: a pleasant foyer, receptionist, managers, waiters and waitress. Of course they have color-printed menus and wine menu separated too. One steamed bun costs up to 20 yuan — made and steamed right in front of you. Jim Baty had his first bite and said, "It's like champagne." Wow, that good? Everyone grabbed one. Hot, aromatic, and bite-size, each bun has soft shell and moist filling. Fantastic!

Other dishes were just OK; GouBuLi brand BaiJiu (hard liquor) was the exception. We had the stronger type. It tasted smooth and delightful. Compared to other well-known but expensive brands, this is great value. Definitely worth a try.

Monday Mar 03, 2008

DunHuang Grottoes

Cross posted at http://www.nomadicminds.org

The construction of DunHuang Grottoes started around 360AD and lasted over a thousand years. Buddhists transformed hundreds of caves into temples and decorated them lavishly with murals and sculptures. They imported art styles from India and mid-east. They captured ancient Chinese arts not existent anywhere else. They recorded historical customs, fashion, and even music. You can see the transformation of Buddhism from an Indian religion into a Chinese one. You can see the evolution of artistic styles over a century. You can glimpse the working of ancient societies. It is no less than a world-class wonder.

National Art Museum of China (NAMOC, 中国美术馆) is exhibiting some wonderfully made replicates. Do not let the word replicate discourage you. These are replication painstakingly done over 50 years ago by highly skilled artists. It was an once-in-a-lifetime project to replicate those arts. Walking into the exhibit room, you will think you have been transported to the real cave. If you have seen any of the Indiana Jones movies, it is as hair-raising as real.

The exhibit ends on March 21st. Take half a day off to avoid the weekend crowd. Do a bit homework to appreciate them more. It is definitely worth the 20rmb ticket and your time.

Thursday Feb 28, 2008

Beijing Markets

Cross posted at Loud Thoughts.

Foods represent an interesting economic phenomenum in China. The essentially same product may have a range of prices that can be 100 fold: the high end is 100 times more than the low end. It bewilders me that vendors in the entire price range seem to do just fine.

Often the high end market offers services that are valuable to its clientile. The simpliest one is English fluency. Others include home delivery, cleansiness of the store, pre-washing or convenient packaging, etc. Note that I am only comparing those items that are essentially the same in terms of freshness, taste, sizes, and other common food qualities.

Entrance Corridor

We shop from all of them: Jenny Lou, a market for foreigners; CarreFore, western style supermarket; Ito Yokado, Japanese department store with supermarket in the basement; local "free market" that is very similar to the farmer's market in the US; and the convenient store close to where I live. Meat counter

One interesting market we go to is SanYuanLi Market (三源里市场, about half a kilometer west of Hilton, across East 3rd ring). I guess it started out as a free market and evoled into permanent booths with shelter, electricity, and water. Essentially, it is an about 200 meters long cooridor with booths lined up on both side. The opening section are fruit vendors, followed by flour/rice products stores, meat counters, seafoods, and vegetable stands. There are also booths for dry ingredients and household items, cleaning products, etc.

There is no super-market style packaging here. All items are raw and right in front of you. The carcasses at the meat counters can be intimidating. The fishes are sometime live and cleaned on the spot. Vegetables have dirt on them too, particularly carrots or other in root category.

This market is really best for its fruits, in variety, quality, and prices too. They are cheaper than the supermarkets designed for the affluent class and more expensive than the street stands. Local rarely buy fruits here, thinking the mark-ups are not worth it. But they offer one-stop shopping for all fruits. The vendors pre-select the stock and genuinely know their stuff; that is ripe for consumption, this take few more days, and those are great for gifts. They also have this uncanny face memory to recognize you and your preference: green banana, ripe pears, no strawberry, for example.

Vendors here are not camera-shy at all. Foreigners bring out their expensive SLRs and camcorders. TV and movie producers use them as backdrops. They will flash you a nice smile and offer you a fruit. <script language="JavaScript"> TagStart() Technorati("China") Technorati("Markets") TagEnd() </script>

Sunday Feb 10, 2008

Ho Chi Minh City

When we entered the city, seas of motorcycles swallowed the car that I was in. Whenever the car stopped, motorcycles or scooters will surround it and fill spaces between cars like water poured into a porous object.

With snowy and frigid (-4C or 25F) Beijing vivid on my skin, I felt strange in T-shirt and shorts walking out of the hotel. Beijing quickly melted away in a light sweat.

Can't really visit VietNam without having a bowl of Phõ. Right?

Read my complete HoChiMinh City experience here. <script language="JavaScript"> TagStart() Technorati("Ho Chi Minh City") Technorati("VietNam") TagEnd() </script>

Thursday Jan 17, 2008

Calligraphers at the Park

Walk into a park anytime on a good day, you find many active Beijingers. Starting at daybreak, exercising crowd group themselves by activities: folk dancers, martial arts, muscle trainers, Badminton, etc. Afternoon will have duelers attempt their kills on one of those cement ping-pong tables. Of course you will also find dog walkers, baby strollers, or simply people chit-chatting their hearts out loudly enough for you to join in. Evenings are for people dancing waltz, tango, swing, and cha-cha too.

That sunny day I walked into the famous BeiHai park. Live singing distracted my examination on historical relics. I searched the source and found a crowd gathered around this lady, in her early 60s. She had this portable amp on the ground and clicked on a microphone Madonna-style. She sang, danced, acted, and worked her audience. They rewarded her with applauses song after song. Wow, live street performance by true amateurs. What a sight.

Then I realized what I just stepped on.

Several elderlies have been writing on the ground. Their grand-kids will take the long brush, run to a bucket nearby, soak it up with water, and run back to them. They will then write on the ground until the brush is dry. At that moment, a nod will send the grandkid happily for another dipping trip.

What a sight. These are just like side-walk chalk arts but will disappear in minutes. The artists enjoy doing a lot more than being appreciated by speculators. I walked up to the elderly artist, "Sir, these are very good works. You have been practicing long?" "No, just for about 15 years or so after I retired." "I think they are very good. Why don't you do it with ink and paper?" "No, no. These are not good enough to waste paper and ink yet. Beside, this is good exercise for me. Good for my Qi."

He went on writing. I watched and felt his Qi. <script language="JavaScript"> TagStart() Technorati("China") Technorati("BeiHai Park") TagEnd() </script>

Saturday Jan 12, 2008

Blackjack and Craps

I have been fond of gambling through-out my life, intrigued by the odds, pay-out, and strategy. Mathematics dominates this industry and plays key roles in every nuances of every game. Of course, making money with skills, strategy, and luck is addictive too.

I have seen gambling ruin people's lives and break up families. My heart bled when a little girl waits for her mother at the slot machine 10 feet away. She cannot go near since it is against the laws. I stood by someone blaming his crying girl bad luck and asked her to leave the table. I knew mothers that spend all her time on the Mahjongg tables and leave their children unattended.

Gambling exercises self-control. I searched for instincts and toyed those tugs of tension inside of me: mathematics v. intuition, emotion v. judgment, greed v. fear, relax or focus. I often observed people around me during the game: dealers, pit boss, high roller, recreational, drunk, or even apparent gangsters. They are all fascinating, better at a distance too.

Of course, winning money is always fun.

New players fear casinos and hide in the slot machine jungle. I don't blame them. The table games are complicated and intimidating. What is the fun of embarrassing yourself in front of strangers and lost money at the same time? But actually, they are fun (and occasional profitable) once the you've got the basics.

BlackJack

BlackJack is easy, fast paced, and quite fair — if you play correctly. The trick is to learn the so-called basic strategy: when to hit, stand, split, or double. Edward Thorp, an UCLA mathematics professor in the 60s, developed this strategy originally. His famous book hooked me on this game several years ago. Online resources can teach you this strategy. After mastering it, proceed to learn card-counting.

If casino catches you counting cards, you will be escorted out. The simplest card-counting, however, is effective and almost not detectable. Cards of 2, 3, 4, 5 are worth 1 point each and 10, Jack, Queen, and King are negative 1 point. Notice the cards on the table and keep track of cards that show on the table.

Use this only in single-deck games. Bet 1 unit of money when the count is zero or less. Double the bet size if the count is more than 2, quadruple if 4 or higher. For double-deck games, increase the bet only when the count reaches 4 or 8.

Craps

Craps intimidate beginners. The tables are always rowdy. Money flies across the table with incomprehensible instructions. They seem so much fun yet so mysterious.

Lewis taught me a bit and I am still experimenting, at the pace of one visit to the table a year. I now play the "pass line" and its odds, plus the place bets on 6 and 8. Let me explain:

Pay attention to a big button on the table. Enter the game when it is "Off" and put your money on the area said "Pass line." Someone (maybe yourself) will toss two dice across the table. If the dice show 7 or 11, you win. If they are 2, 3, or 12 (called craps), you lose. For everything else, a point is established and the fun begins.

The table staff will turn the button over (On) and put it on the number. This is the time you put additional money behind the pass line next to your original bet. This is so-called "the pass line odds" bet.

Now the game has turned into a race between the established number and 7. If the dice show the number first, you win; 7 you lose. When you win, the part of the money on the pass line pays even. The money behind the pass line pays more than even, depending on which number it was. Don't worry and just take the money.

Round up your bet to even number, give the chips to the table staff and said "place on 6." Do the same for 8. You therefore have 2 units of money on 6 and 8. Now, whenever the dice show 6 or 8, you get 7 to 6 pay-out for the money you bet on those numbers.

This strategy works quite well for me so far. If I found a new and better one, I will share it here. <script language="JavaScript"> TagStart() Technorati("Gambling") Technorati("Blackjack") Technorati("Craps") TagEnd() </script>

Monday Dec 10, 2007

On a Clear Day You Can See ...

Adobe CS3 is an amazing collection of creativity software. I recently acquired them and upgraded my sadly outdated PhotoShop 7. As an amateur, I barely scratched the features, among the first to play is the photo stitching feature. Click to see the hi-res version.
(Johnny, how about porting them to Solaris?)

This is the view from my office, facing north, a nice view on TsingHua Univeristy. The light-brown building on the left of the chimney is the main building. The one closest, on the right corner, is their FIT (Future Internet Technology?) complex: a huge building housing reseach teams and labs. The next generation pure IPv6 is only one of the projects experimented here.

This is from ERI looking west. You can see Summer Palace and part of Peking University. The closer buildings are, I believe, TsingHua's staff residential area. Peking University is right beyond them. The far ranges are West Moutains and Fragrant Hill is part of them.

This is from my apartment looking north. You can see Capital Building on the left, the tallest in Beijing and KunLun hotel with a circular restaurant on top. The trees obscured LiangMa River across. Those red buildings are on the east side of the famouse SanLiTun, the brisk shopping, bar, and restaurant area for expats and local alike. <script language="JavaScript"> TagStart() Technorati("Adobe CS3") Technorati("PhotoShop") TagEnd() </script>

Wednesday Dec 05, 2007

A leisurely city

In this city of more than ten million, I bet half of them thought of the same thing: the Sunday lazy sun is warming the afternoon, how about hanging out in the park, playing Mahjongg over a cup of tea. No wonder the parks are brimming with people. Over 80% are playing games: Mahjongg the most popular one and cards second. The sound of Mahjongg games filled the residential areas and street players are at every corners. What an enviable leisurely city.

Every engineer define the boundaries before engaging a project. Did LI Bing think his shall last longer than 2200 years? Through these centuries, the DuJiangYan Irrigation System failed only once: in 1933 after an 7.5-scale earthquake that dammed up the upstream for 45 days and it was partially destroyed by the ensuing flood. To tour DuJiangYan, hire a guide to explain how things work: sands sediment there and water goes there; deal with drought this way and flood that way; automate this but do that manually. To sum it up: it was a near perfect engineering work.

Since I didn't have time to visit the famous SanXingDui Museum, I visited the newly opened JinSha Site Museum in the city. They did a good job designing the flow. A quick tour takes about an hour; a deeper appreciation requires about half a day. JinSha is a 3000-year-old mystery. The stone kneeling figurine had his hands bond behind and shows an intense expression. Was it a statuette of a criminal or a sacrificial doll? Did JinSha embody a collapsed ancient culture or the origin of Shu culture?

WuHou Temple appears to be the only one commemorating both the king and his prime minister (ZhuGe Liang), and named after that latter's posthumous title. ZhuGe Liang is one of the most prominent and highly respected figures in Chinese history. A stone stellae inscribed two essays authored by ZhuGe Liang and caligraphed by Yue Fei: two poignant heroes failed by their eras and leaders. So powerful. I was almost moved to tears.

Throughout China, fairs go with temples. Near WuHou Temple is the Ancient JinLi Street teemed with shops and restaurants. ChunXi Road, downtown Chengdu city, is a contrasting modern shopping area alike those in Beijing and Shanghai, only a little smaller.

In Sichuan, must see Sichuan Opera and eat Sichuan cuisine. We went to "Fu Rong Guo Cui" in JinJiang Theater. The performance is good and priced at "tourist grade." "Changing Faces" shows are common in Beijing, but ChengDu's version featured a puppet doing it! One performer can even change backward. Honestly, it has become old watching these shows. How many times can you be amazed at the same, albeit very skilled, trick?

Sichuan restaurants in SiChuan must meet the impossibly high expectations: innovative yet traditionally authentic. Tourists really should not expect both. Just choose.

The Sichuan dialect bring back childhood nostalgia. ChungDu's pace is just right; the weather is mildly pleasant. That's why Sichuan is known as "the heavenly land." I did not have enough time to visit many famed spots, guess there must be a next time. <script language="JavaScript"> TagStart() Technorati("China") Technorati("Sichuan") Technorati("Chengdu") TagEnd() </script>

Monday Nov 12, 2007

Duck Blood Rice Noodle Soup

The Confucius Temple (夫子庙) area reminds me of ShangHai's City God's Temple (城隍庙). It stands, non-participatorily aloof amidst the touristic crowd, on the banks of QinHuai river (秦淮河): the entertainment center of the capital for hundreds of years. This area is known for great foods, hedonistic music and dances, drunken social elites, and, of course, beauties who sank rich into rags. Confucius would hardly approve.

The long queues at the stinky tofu (臭豆腐) stand got me curious. I have always been a big fan of stinky tofu and naturally cannot resist. Well, they are not that, eh, aromatic. But fried to perfection: crispy on the outside, tender and piping hot inside. I had two orders.

Every corners has a big sign saying they have the best duck blood rice noodle soup (鸭血粉丝汤). I hestitated and eventually dared one. I can see it as a comfort food for local, but not something for tourists to remember the trip for.

ZhongShan area (钟山风景区) is a must-go. Ming Xiao Ling (明孝陵) buries the founding emperor of Ming dynasty, the last dynasty by Han people. Zhong Shan Ling (中山陵) is the tomb of Dr. SUN Yet-Sat: the one who ended China's monarchy. There is also LingGu Temple (灵谷寺) that has a very interesting, and rare, brick building. In additonal to historical signficance, these are among the finest monumentary archtectural designs. I found Parasol trees (梧桐) romantically autumn; acres of Osmanthus (桂花) gave a pleasant sweet aroma — a surprise.

NanJing feels calmer than Beijing that has been caught in the renovation and modernization frenzy. People here seem to long for the ShangHai-style glory and growth. I found them lovely and friendly, foods very agreeable, and rivers attractively charming. The city's history also gives it the cultural depth.

Maybe the economy is not everything a city needs? <script language="JavaScript"> TagStart() Technorati("China") Technorati("NanJing") TagEnd() </script>

Friday Oct 05, 2007

Drums of War Started at YuYang

It's national holiday for the whole week. My plan was simple: sleep. I have crossed pacific too many times this year. I need to get to know my bed better. For the 1st two day, it worked. I will doze off few times during the day. I can feel the sleep deficit being paid back. I really needed this holiday.

Qing Tombs

When a friend called for a day-trip to the Qing tombs, I was just about to get bored. I jumped on it immediately and was quite glad that I did. Qing's emperors chose to have their tombs about 150 kilometers east of Beijing. (Ming's emperors picked a site north of Beijing along the route to a famous Great Wall spot.) The trip organizer decided to visit a buddasm temple, DuLe temple (独乐寺) on our way. It was a great choice. DuLe temple is a thousand-year old historical site and an active temple. We studied the architecture and marvelled at the artifacts. The temple is at Ji county in TianJin City (天津市,蓟县: There is no mistake here. TianJin city has a Province level status.) As we walked around the town, we realized that Ji county used to be called YuYang (渔阳) few hundred years ago. Waves of memory swept over me and I was thrown back to teenage years. This is the city I dreamt about so many times. Cool, cool, cool!

About 1300 years ago, Tang (唐) dynasty ruled the middle kingdom. It was glorious time. But warlord AnLuShan (安禄山: 703~757) wanted more. He started his coup right here from this city of YuYang. When he was stationed here, he read a line from Confucius that the happiness of many is better than one and named the temple accordingly. The literal interpretation would be "The Temple of Solitary Happiness." The general interpretation is that he would rather not share.

Few decades later, poet BAI JuYi (白居易) wrote a long poem about a beautiful girl, the emperor, and Mr. AnLuShan. Every generation re-read the poem and all got enchanted by the sadness and the intensity of the story.

Time warped to 1930s, musician HUANG Zi (黄自) captured the story and turned it into a master-piece choir. My high-school class, in my junior year, picked it to enter a choir competition. We practiced hard, won at school level, entered a tournament, and won again. That was many months of intense practice, focus, camaraderie, and hardwork. It was one of the best times of my life.

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