Wednesday, August 31, 2011

birthday project

I have a ridiculous backlog of inspiring bits and pieces from while I've been away - but with my birthday a little over two weeks away, I couldn't resist sharing this adorable DIY from Jenny at Hank & Hunt posted over on The Sweetest Occasion. Super simple, all you need are plastic animals, candle holders, a drill bit and some spray paint. I would love to make a full menagerie. 

Adorable, right? All photos from Hank + Hunt.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Beijing part 4


Our first week has flown by, and when our true reason for being in Beijing arrives on Wednesday, the rest will be a blur. Monday brings walk thrus, followed by a trip to the Drum and Bell Tower. Both constructed for ceremonial time-keeping, the bell sounds at night, the drums in the day.


Each tower contains an impressively steep staircase and provides what would be an incredible vista of the city- if it wasn't for the smog. We willingly fall prey to the tourist-trap tea house on the bottom level. The tea ceremony includes four kinds of tea (each delicious) and a ceramic figurine of a boy that pees when hot water is poured over his head. We left the gift shop with plenty of tea and a peeing boy apiece.


Our time in the towers is followed by an excellent local restaurant discovery and a walk through another fantastic hutong. Back just in time for meetings and wishful thinking about a dumpling dinner. Too short on time, we end up sticking close to the hotel with pizza and french fries at Mississippi in between calls to upgrade our seats on the return flight home. Later on, an elaborate prank phone call keeps us laughing for the rest of the trip.


The following day, we convince the rest of our team to join us for a closer look at the local restaurant - the most gastronomically threatening meal yet. Probably the largest group of westerners to ever drop in for lunch- our presence does not go unnoticed. K has a long chat with the woman behind the counter, who insists that we will not like the food, which seems intestinally focused.


A large steamer of dumplings huddled in the corner looks like a viable option along with a local noodle dish served cold. Our standing in the dining room seems threatening, so we are banished to the upstairs, where we eat our choices with a little trepidation. We spend more time strolling the hutongs while monitoring our vital signs for the next several hours.


One final stop at the Confucious temple and college, where we stroll through serenely shaded courtyards filled with little open air temples housing large dragons. We return with just enough time for a foot massage before our meeting, my best one yet. Indulgence continues with another round at Duck de Chine -less people, more duck and a party bus for transportation make for a perfect conclusion to what will be our last duck in Beijing.


Game day arrives, a mornig trip to Yashow for yet another visit to Wendy. A guilty lunch at TGI Fridays for the best hamburger I have ever eaten. Seating charts, diagrams and then out to the site of this evening's Georgetown/China basketball game. Tension, access issues ridiculous security - just a taste of what the next few days will bring. We leave at half time, Georgetown up.

Although I wish I could share in excruciating detail the challenges we face for the rest of the visit, I won't. We'll save the specifics for storytelling over several drinks...

By Friday, things are slowing down. We spend dinner across Ritan park for a meal at what we have dubbed "famous Chinese restaurant." Sweet and sour pork, caramelized eggplant and fried rice taste familiar - a new selection: braised chicken, brings with it a startling array of parts, feet and heads.

Dinner is followed by dancing at the less than subtle bar/brothel, "Maggie's" around the south side of the park. The girls all wear name tags, the clientele is largely old, white and western and the Filipino cover band is something else.

Saturday finds us eating pizza with the ambassador's family at an authentic pizza place - much better than Mississippi's tostino's-style offerings - then waving goodbye from the tarmac as the plane flies on to Chengdu. Wheels up in Sanlitun, drinks and Thai food followed inevitably by more dancing at Maggie's until early Sunday morning.

One final Din Tai Fung and we're fighting traffic to the airport in motor pool vehicles now stuffed with our additional luggage. Now an overly-air conditioned airplane cabin and thirteen hours of flight time to make sense of a half of a month spent on the other side of the world. 

Goodbye Beijing!

Monday, August 29, 2011

Beijing part 3

By day four, brushing my teeth with bottled water seems almost natural, and the breakfast buffet looks very familiar. Today we're headed out to the fourth ring of a city divided by concentric circles falling along the lines of the ancient city walls. First the Summer Palace, once the destination for emperors seeking to escape the sweltering heat of the city, and now the same for a large portion of Being's locals.

The lake with its stone bridges, surrounding hills and cascading tiled roofs of the temples seemed like something out of a storybook. Low-lying mist/haze heightens the scenery as we begin our long walk around the lake. Families picnic and carry chubby babies, wearing the aforementioned split pants. We walk and walk under sweltering heat. A headdress is purchased, pictures are taken, but time is running short so we have to turn back before making it to the main palace structure.


In a desperate attempt to cool down, we peruse the Chinese popsicle flavor offerings. Something that looks like green peas, sugar water, apple and my selection; corn. Fearing that inside the wrapper I will find an actual corn cob- I'm pleasantly surprised when it appears to be a strange ice cream cone type of pastry filled with corn-flavored ice cream. While everyone else finds my choice a little suspect, I find it delicious.

More motor pool, more Beijing traffic and we are at the site of the 2008 Olympics, The Bird's Nest and adjacent Cube - aquatic center home to Michael Phelp's many wins. Aside from a handful of tourists, eager vendors hawking strings of paper kites and a strangely misplaced Mickey Mouse posing for photos, the Olympic compound is desolate, an empty shell. Inside the intricate stadium, segways race around the track while more vendors offer tourist photos in Chinese athletic gear.


Dumplings from Ding Tai Fung make a delicious lunch as we slurp our way through several dozen. Pea shoots sautéed in butter and garlic along with cold sliced cucumbers in chili oil are the perfect accompaniments.


For dessert; a monstrous-looking mountain of shaved ice topped with red beans, green beans, sweetened condensed milk, mochi and tapioca. Oddly satisfying. We eat ourselves silly and head back to our regular evening meeting and free hotel bar happy hour.


Over-eating continues at dinner - a visit to Da Dong duck palace for the famous local dish - Beijing or Peking Duck. Before dinner is served we have our first experience with Chinese taxis. Many drivers can't read, don't know their way around the city and, as half of our team discovered, throw you out at random intersections. Finally reunited we enjoyed plate after plate of crispy duck wrapped in paper-thin pancakes and doused with a sweet hoisin sauce. The taxi situation did not improve as the evening went on and we tried to hail a cab back to the hotel. A walk through the Sanlitun bar area provided plenty of distractions - more tsingtao and a Filipino guitar player. Eventually we made our way back via racing rickshaws - one of the favorite trip experiences of all.


If you come down to breakfast too late, the wonton soup gets a little oily. This alone makes it worth getting up a little earlier.


This is a lazy day, we return to Yashow for more bargains and more Wendy clothes- then walk around the adjacent mall where we eat Vietnamese food for lunch while exchanging every Pho joke we can think of. Back at the hotel we probably get another massage or pedicures in matching Dim Sum Plum, before departing for the cultural event of the evening - Chinese Acrobats. An odd theater with a mid century space-age exterior and a high school auditorium interior fills up as tour bus after tour bus unloads out front. A projection on the curtain declares this production "Treasure," which in some ways it certainly was - at least as fodder for one-liners for the rest of our trip. A miserable clown with his trampy clown lady-friend stroll the theater, her with go go boots, a backpack and some sort of braided weave; him with a whistle, his only method of communication. Incessant whistling, some mediocre balloon animals and the show finally begins. One could surmise that the narrative is something along the lines of our inherently intolerable clown searching for the treasure while being confronted by a series of contortionists, jugglers and acrobats. The conclusion involves over a dozen girls riding one bicycle. At the same time.


After this grand finale - we head out to Wang Fu Jing - sort of the Times Square of Beijing, if Times Square was made up of low rises split by a wide slate pedestrian walkway/street. Off to one side is "snack alley" where lanterns hang low across the narrow passageway filled with vendors selling a little bit of everything, often on a stick.


Scorpions and millipedes squirm on skewers, baby pigeons roasted red are lined up on a tray. Other oddities from land and sea are out on display alongside dumplings, pancakes and boiling pots of who knows what- all adding to the smells of the street. We buy Tsingtao in big green bottles and drink as we walk along. A group of Chinese teenagers ask for a picture with us. Back in cabs we head to Mississippi for some safer food options. I successfully say "excuse me" in Chinese.

The days are blurring together, our chopstick skills are improving.

A different market the next day - home to the pearl vendor who makes several visits to the hotel. Called "Sharon's Store" we find "Sharon Stone" a more humorous alternative. This is a dangerous stop. Sharon's stones are very pretty and we each walk away with several necklaces and some bonus earrings.


Motor pool continues on to the Beijing arts district - sort of the Brooklyn of Beijing, converted factories and warehouses are home to trendy contemporary galleries, studio spaces and shops. We walk around, I eat another corn popsicle and T predicts a massive rainstorm five minutes before the first drop falls. A little soggy we board our vehicles back to the hotel before our dinner out.


Tonight it's a much more swish duck joint - Duck de Chine. I wear my Sharon stones for the occasion. The duck here is dark, crispy and fatty - its arrival announced by a gong. Too many hungry people and not enough duck results in the giant lazy susan that graces every Chinese table constantly spinning. Some sort of duck roulette.

Post- duck, Wendy the tailor meets us at the hotel for our first fitting. The suits look sharp, and we enjoy beers purchased at the 7-11 across the street while performing our own version of the acrobatics show from the night before.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Beijing part 2

Running out of time before our scheduled departure, pad Thai for all was ordered before we even sat down- quickly consumed, final bites taken half-standing then sprinting back out the door.

Next stop the Forbidden City, home to emperors and the center of Beijing. Layer upon layer of massive red buildings with gold tiled roofs surrounded interior courtyards. We walked deeper and deeper into the center, sweating under the sun and swarming crowds of people. With more time we would have peeked into the many buildings and rooms wrapping around each courtyard, but another brisk walk kept us on the exterior, finishing up in a garden overwhelmed by crowds before boarding our vehicles back to the hotel.


Meetings and dinner across the street - unremarkable, but enough for our heat-exhausted team.

Morning means more dumplings and now the addition of wonton noodle soup and warm soy milk with a piece of fried dough that I deem the Chinese churro.  Our next destination: Temple of Heaven, the site of twice-yearly ceremonies and sacrifices by the emperor. Layered gates and expansive grounds lead to blue tiled round temples. Crowds were less touristy and more local, including large groups of senior citizens line dancing and old men painting an endlessly evaporating string of Chinese characters with water on the slate tiles. Our animated guide told stories of dragons and snakes and pointed out places in the courtyard where claps and whispers resulted in echoes in varying numbers. She is delighted when we ask her to join our group photo.


Lunch brought us to a Szechuan hotel - site of the province's Beijing offices. All provinces have these local offices- the larger ones also boast hotels and restaurants offering regional favorites. Food was spicy and unusual - the first meal we had that didn't have an obvious American/Chinese takeout counterpart. Our favorite was a cold chicken dish soaking in a spicy oil, called "saliva chicken" a sort of mistranslation of "mouth-watering," which it absolutely was. Cold noodles (also spicy), mashed potatoes with an oniony edge and an essentially inedible platter of  deep fried chicken bones and dried chiles termed "chainsaw chicken" rounded out the meal. Everything was flavored with litlle grey-green nubby Szechuan peppercorns - supposedly illegal in the US for their potentially hallucinogenic properties. They left our mouths tingling with a numbing heat more anesthetic than spicy.


Following lunch we headed to Yashow Market one of Beijing's many "silk markets" specializing in counterfeit goods of every brand and description, booths hawking strings of colorful beads, fans and chopsticks and the custom tailor, Wendy, who we had been told to seek out. Wendy's booth was stacked high with suiting fabrics, cashmeres, silks and wools with pictures of Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush (other satisfied customers) smiling down at us from the walls. Our team swarmed around picking fabrics and handing off favorite jackets to be copied while Wendy's staff snapped around measuring tapes, clipped swatches and quickly sketched our desired garments.

There were plenty of other booths deserving our attention as we bartered for headphones and sunglasses, necklaces and tea, sometimes rather dramatically. Bargains bagged- we headed back for more meetings then a late dinner at the next door diner we coined "Denny's" - horribly disappointing to the point of sickening - we hurried instead to the American-themed bar across the street "Mississippi," complete with pizza, deer heads on the wall and plenty of country music.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Beijing Beginnings


My first impression of Beijing is a highway flanked by low-lying buildings with flashy neon signs wilting under oppressive humidity. A mix of space age and Stalinist architecture all wide and heavy - any sense of height dwarfed by the ten-lane motorways that run through the city.

This is the Beijing we experienced last night as we hiked the three miles down to Tiananmen Square in a dense haze of smog that made the street lamps go blurry. Even after 9 pm on a Monday the massive concrete expanse was swarming with people and as we took a team picture in front of Mao's famous portrait, we found ourselves to be a far larger attraction to those with cameras cruising the square.

Today's Beijing was something different all together. We had a similar start with a motor pool ride back to the square for a visit to then Great Hall - a massive block of a building filled with swaths of plush red carpet, gilt chandeliers and preposterously large easy chairs set with microphones for official meetings. From there we quickly explored the new Chinese National Museum - just across the square. In a building that rivals the Louvre in size, the number of antiquities was remarkably sparse.


Following this, we hopped in vehicles again to battle Beijing traffic as we made our way to an authentic or at least convincingly restored hutong - or alley. Rusty bicycles and off-odors filled the tiny alleyways where ancient traditional courtyard dwellings (now multiple-family homes) mix with corner shops and windows selling all kinds of edible goods. Bowls of fish scales, the results of split pants* and all kinds of laundry dotted the alleyways adding to the olafactory experience. I took close to 200 photos in the 20 or so minutes that we speed walked through.


Our brisk walk put us back to the motor pool for a quick ride to a noodle shop across town while we tried to air out our sweat-soaked clothing under the air conditioning vents.


Our high expectations for the noodle joint were unfortunately met by an assortment of mediocre mystery meats and a few noodle dishes that lacked any flavor at all despite heaping helpings of chili sauce.


Back to the hotel for much needed showers - a few meetings and a trip across the street for a famous foot massage. For $25 and 75 minutes six of us sat enjoying the most ridiculous bliss in massage form. Shoulders and neck- feet and legs - occasionally excruciating but mostly just incredible. We will return to that army of masseuses again (and probably again after that). Another meeting and some late-night noodle soup followed by local beers at the hotel bar closed our evening.

Up again on day three for more dumplings, pancakes (Chinese) and watermelon juice before our caravan took us to the Great Wall. As we drove out of the city under the bluest sky we've had since arriving - the urban buildings and warehouses gave way to countryside, mountains and a fake Disneyland (yes even that's counterfeit here) that was closed because according to our driver, they ran out of money - I think ABC tells a different story.


Eventually the Wall came into view on both sides of the highway stretching up into the mountains as far as we could see, and with the Wall came the people, also extending infinitely in all directions each with an umbrella to block the sun and poke out your eyeball.


After 30 minutes and only a few flights of stairs we were saturated again under the merciless heat - a quick set of jumping photos and then back into the vehicles to a stop slightly farther away- Badaling.

A massive visitors center had signs indicating the added attraction of "Safarl World" or "Satari World" nearby -  the billboards featuring tigers, deer and small bears superimposed over the Great Wall was the closest we got to experiencing this gem. Instead more hiking up a crazy incline which resulted in more sweating and plenty of pictures.

Already thirty minutes behind schedule - we zoomed back into the city for a quick lunch for what we'd hoped would be dumplings- but with K's favorite shop closed, we quickly dashed through a mall food court filled with several visually and olfactory terrifying options before settling on Thai...

Back from Beijing


I'm back from an incredible two weeks in China - still reeling from the jet lag, but with plenty of stories to share from my trip. I'll be posting my travel log, along with some pictures starting this afternoon. It was an amazing experience - so I'm hoping you'll indulge a few lengthy posts...

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Me No Speak

Another travel-inspired post today, because I couldn't resist sharing this gem that will hopefully be the saving grace for my upcoming trip. As someone whose international travels have only taken her as far as Europe- where enough Spanish and French combined can get you by (or result in an odd hodge-podge language that evokes sympathy in even the stodgiest locals) - I'm feeling a little intimidated by a language that I lack the basic tools for understanding.

And so I give you "Me No Speak" a pocket-size picture book that will ensure I'm dining on dumplings not dog and that I don't have to try to memorize hundreds of characters, because so far, all I've got is "noodles" - and that's only because it looks like a house full of noodles. 

Just find your picture and point! So here's to eating plenty of noodles - and anything else pictured in my new book.
All pictures from MeNoSpeak