Hello Uncle Foreigner

Jan 24, 2012

Happy New Year: I ate goat and rabbit tonight

Spring Festival with friends

An healthy spread for Chinese New Year
More pictures of our New Year’s celebration!

Our neighbors Xi Xi and Wendy invited us to dinner tonight with their family - during Spring Festival (that’s what they call Chinese New Year), family members take turns hosting parties for their whole clan. Peter has been fighting a cold for the past few weeks, and it has not been responding well to travelling, going out and staying up late, so he’s trying out staying home and resting. But I’m not sick, so I went along.

It was a lot of fun. Wendy’s sister-in-law is also an English teacher, and everyone there spoke at least a little bit of English, so I had someone to talk to all night. Like usual, there were many toasts, and everyone was excited to try out their English on me.

The issue that’s a silly issue for me is that the Chinese eat a lot of meat, and they’re much more OK with whole-animal eating that Americans-in-general and me-specifically are comfortable with. I guess you could describe my diet as “very picky,” and it’s a different kind of thing to negotiate than Peter’s vegetarianism. There are some things that I don’t feel bad about turning down outright; offal, poultry feet (once, someone offered me “duck’s paw”) or anything super cartilage-y, brains … But other than that, I do feel obligated to try everything that’s offered. Which is part of the experience; I’ve had to choke down some meat of a texture I didn’t really enjoy (according to a Christmas-present Sichuan cookbook [thanks Lizzy and Jesse!], the local cuisine is all about textures that are pretty foreign to the American palate), but I’ve also tried some stuff that I really enjoyed. As the heading says, I ate rabbit tonight, and that’s something I’m getting to really like. The goat … it wasn’t baaaaad, but it’s not my favorite.

But, regardless, the night was a lot of fun, and it’s such a great privilege to be invited to a family gathering for such an important holiday.

Jan 23, 2012

Chengdu: Renmin Park

Tea by the lake

We’ve got a large album of photos from Renmin Park right here.

Renmin Park — or, the People’s Park — is a large park close to the center of the city. Popular with locals and tourists alike, even on the cold January day that we were there, it was a bustling scene.

Where we entered the park, there was a pretty cool amusement park area called Kids’ Paradise. In our wanders, we also saw the lake where they were renting out paddle boats, several tea houses and a monument to the Railway Protection Movement. In every free corner, there were groups of people dancing, doing tai chi, watching live music performances or just watching the world go by.

We sat for a bit by the lake to enjoy some tea, which is served loose in small cups with a lid to keep it warm. It also comes with a thermos of hot water so that you can refill your cup as much as you like. Lingering is encouraged and expected.

While we were sitting, we were approached by a local man who has been running tours for foreigners for the past 22 years. His speciality is taking tourists “off the beaten path.” We chatted about what we do, where we’re from, etc., and he gave us some good suggestions of places to visit. He also tried to sell us tickets to the Sichuan Opera, but he was OK with it when we said no.

Jan 23, 2012

The Nian Will Not Come Tonight

Happy Spring Festival!

01 Xin Nian Hao

(This is not camera noise in the video above. There are so many people setting off stuff that it’s just that loud.)

So, tonight is New Year’s Eve. From what we can gather, the entire holiday is observed for 15 days, but the real heavy lifting is done in the first three days.

We went to the grocery store this afternoon in the mind of buying three days’ worth of food, and we were glad we did. There was almost an end-of-the-world feel, or at least a battening of the hatches.

At about 6 pm, the fireworks started. These were not city-organised; we passed by several stores that had been specially converted for the season to sell crackers and heavier to anyone who wanted. We bought a pack of snappers for the equivalent of 20 cents.

As midnight approached, it got loud. According to wikipedia, the celebration of New Year’s started with frightening off a beast called the Nian with loud noise and the color red. I think we achieved our mission this year.

02 Xin Nian Hao

Jan 21, 2012

Chengdu: Kuanzhai Xiangzi

The wide and narrow alleys

Shopping in the wide and narrow alleys of Chengdu
Check out our photo album of the Wide and Narrow Alleys here.

A few blocks from our hostel was a pedestrian area called Kuanzhai Xiangzi - which literally translates to “Wide and Narrow Alleys.” It was an apt description.

These wide and narrow alleys were lined with restaurants, tea houses, bars and tourist shops, and the architecture was meant to mimic the style of Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). We found out from some friends we made that this area was just built a few years ago - which makes sense; nothing about the area looks remotely historical.

The area was naturally filled with tourists. It was a funny little walk - you could have an overpriced (I presume) version of cuisine you could find for much cheaper around the corner, we found a Qing-style Starbucks, and, I had a Brooklyn Lager at a German Beer Hall! Now that’s fusion.

Jan 20, 2012

Chengdu: Taco Night at The Lazy Pug

With guacamole and cheese

Tacos and Nachos, Oh my!

In our research of Chengdu, a bar called The Lazy Pug kept coming up over and over as a popular hangout for Western ex-pats. That in itself wasn’t super enticing to us; we didn’t move to China to surround ourselves with other Americans. But. Thursday nights are Taco Night!

The bar is run by an American couple, and is pretty authentic in its Western-ness. It was easy to pretend that we were at home in New York while we were there - which isn’t something we want to do often, but every once in a while it’s comforting.

So, much like our visit to Hong Kong, this was a great place to assuage a little homesickness. Unlike our tacos in Hong Kong (which were good enough for being overseas), the Pug’s tacos were excellent. The meat was seasoned well and they understood what vegetarian meant, so both I and Peter were pleased. In fact, on our way out, we told the female half of the ownership couple that these were the most authentic tacos we’d had in this hemisphere. Her response was that she and her husband were taking a month off soon to travel and figure out how to make their own corn tortillas to make the tacos even better!

Jan 20, 2012

Chengdu: Bad taxidermy

It’s cold, but creepy

Like I mentioned, we spent two hours at the Chengdu Panda Base checking out the pandas. Thing was, we had three hours to spend in the park before the van was due to take us back into the city. So we had an hour to while away … and we were getting cold.

There was a panda museum on the grounds, so we decided to check that out, if only to warm up a little. Unfortunately, this being Sichuan, the museum was open to the outside and there was no heat. So warming up was out. But! They had some terrible taxidermy on display!

OK, so not really an upside. But we got some great pictures out of it. (FYI: We spent the rest of that hour in the park’s coffee shop, which was also open to the cold, but was at least serving hot beverages.)

This taxidermy is bad.
More bad taxidermy!

Jan 20, 2012

Chengdu: And now … 49 Pictures of Pandas

Yeah, that’s right

Jan 19, 2012

Chengdu: Panda Park Preview

Show us the pandas already

A preview of the panda park

Our first order of business in Chengdu was to visit the Chengdu Panda Base, just outside the city. And our hostel, conveniently, organized an 8-passenger van to take us there and back. Scheduled departure from the hostel was 7:20 am, which would get us there well in time for the mid-morning feeding, when the pandas were at their most active.

It’s possible I don’t have to tell you, but this was really early for us. We blundered downstairs, bleary-eyed at 7 am, which gave us enough time to run out to the convenience store for drinks. (Chengdu is modern enough to have a ton of 7-11-like stores, and, in fact, some actual 7-11s.) It was still dark out, and most of the city seemed to still be asleep. We got back to the hostel with time to spare.

And then, our driver was half an hour late. And then …

We had to stop for gas for what seemed like another half an hour. And then, we had to stop to get the tires pumped up. Which was a good thing, because then, we had to drive over the most pot-hole filled road for ages. Where were we going?!

Our confidence in our journey was not bolstered by the Panda Base parking lot, which looked like it had been neglected for nearly a decade. But when we finally entered the Base, we found a beautiful park. The staff wasn’t quite open for business yet, but our driver grabbed us some maps from the tourist center and sent us on our way.

The thing about travelling to temperate climates during the winter is that you often get the tourist spots all to yourselves. There was our little group of 8 and a few others from other hostels, but it felt like the park was completely ours. We spent about two hours wandering from panda habitat to panda habitat. Birthing time was in August, so we saw some rambunctious cubs, as well as some adolescents and adults. (Newborn pandas are kind of gross looking anyway.) They also had a small population of red pandas, an animal that seems to get the shaft, attention-wise.

The grounds themselves were gorgeous, especially in contrast with the overgrown and crumbling parking lot. Each habitat was spacious and well-cared-for, and the surrounding parkland was beautifully landscaped with fantastic trees and, of course, bamboo. (Fun fact: Because pandas eat so much bamboo, the plants grown on the almost 300-acre base are supplementary to the supply they truck in from the surrounding countryside.) Being that the base is a non-profit rescue organization, it was nice to see that most of the money goes back into giving the pandas a nice place to live. Check it out:

Walking out of the mist, and into the park
Look around the park with our photo album.

Jan 19, 2012

Chengdu: The Loft

Hey, China gets funky

The view from the Loft
Check out our album of photos from the Loft.

Part of what we instantly loved right away about the city was our hostel: The Loft. It’s an old renovated printing factory and they have some connection with a local artist collective that maintains a giant studio space on the third floor. The place is just overall funky. It (and the surrounding neighborhood; more on that later) had a very Bushwick/Williamsburg-20-years-ago feel, and it was awesome to find such a vibe here in China.

Our room was huge and fantastic - and there was a framed copy of a Sade album on our wall! We had a king-sized bed with an electric blanket, which was fabulous when we came in from the cold; as modern as this place was, they still weren’t super into indoor heating.

The downstairs café was incredibly cool as well. The walls were covered with original artwork, presumably done by the artists upstairs. I particularly liked a series of portraits that reminded me of Lucian Freud. Peter’s favorite was a wall-sized mural in black and brown that was done in a comic book/graffiti style. (Unfortunately, we can’t show you because they had signs posted everywhere asking you not to take photos.)

We spent a lot of time in that café, either enjoying a leisurely breakfast or an after-dinner drink. They service an international crowd, so they serve a pretty decent Western menu: eggs, burgers, sandwiches, real beers. Interestingly, we noticed that a lot of the patrons of the café were Chinese, enjoying some foreign cuisine.

Jan 18, 2012

Chengdu: The city to the north

Slideshow time

A street scene in Chengdu
The Chengdu photo album is here.

After a false attempt in October, we finally made it to Chengdu last week. And we were pretty much in love with it from the minute we got there. It’s a much bigger city than Luzhou (“very modern” all our students say about it), with a much more cosmopolitan flair. In fact, it’s known throughout China for its love of mixing of international styles. We could (and did) find everything from tacos to Indian food to spaghetti to cool local street snacks. And these were enjoyed equally by locals and ex-pats alike. (OK, the tacos were at a total ex-pat hang.)

It’s not actually that nice looking of a city; everything’s all grey and concrete, and modernization here tends to equal giant, sprawling highways and shopping complexes. But the spirit of the city has little to do with the horrible architecture.

It’s a city for relaxing and hanging out - almost a cafe culture, but with walls and chairs optional. Anywhere there is space to, people gather with friends to drink tea and chat or play cards and what have you. They do this in bars and restaurants, in the park, at little noodle stalls, on their front stoops, anywhere. It’s all about straight chillin’. And, from glasses of wine in the book store to cups of tea in the park, we loved it.