Sep 17, 2012

Summer vacation: A week at the beach

Qingdao: The Hamptons of Northeast China?

To Qingdao

In guidebooks aimed at western travelers, the suggested time to “do” Qingdao is about 2-3 days, but this small coastal city is a popular beach retreat for Chinese tourists. Taking a more Chinese approach, our plan was to laze about the city for a week.

  • Qingdao was part of the German concession in the late 1800s. While they were here, the Germans set up the Tsingtao Brewery.
  • Tsingtao still brews today, and beer is a huge deal in the city. Tsingtao is also the most popular beer in China.
  • The city is spread out along the coast of the Yellow Sea, with the old town (and all the historical sites) in the west, and the modern business district (and all the trendy restaurants and clubs) in the east.
  • The sailing events in the 2008 Olympics took place in Qingdao.

Next, getting some rest, and a dirty martini …

Sep 16, 2012

Summer vacation: A pizza hunt

Ending up in a familiar place

Dinner at Pizza Hut
Shapingba District is not the city center, but it is a city center — and much more convenient to our hostel.

We were too tired to get into the main city center for dinner, but there was another center, Shapingba, that was a short bus ride away. So we researched a pizza place on the internet (we’re always on the lookout for good pizza in China) and hopped on the bus.

After much searching and a very long walk, we never found the internet pizza place … but we did stumble upon a Pizza Hut!

And I can report that Pizza Hut pizza tastes exactly the same in China as it does in America. It really brought me back to those days of grabbing a Personal Pan at Penn Station on my way out to visit my parents on Long Island. But for Chinese people, Pizza Hut represents a really fancy night out. It’s expensive (relative to a normal Chinese dinner), for one thing. And we saw many dressed up couples out for a date.

The menu, much like many of the Western restaurants in Luzhou, is about 20 pages long. In addition to pizza, they offer salads, pasta, rice dishes, fried snacks … pretty much any kind of stereotypical western food. We tried a garden salad and onion rings. They weren’t very good. But the iced tea we got was pretty tasty.

Next stop, Qingdao …

Sep 15, 2012

Summer vacation: Shopping in Ciqikou

And don’t forget the snacks

The streets of Ciqikou

Ciqikou has existed as a neighborhood for more than 1,000 years, but most of what’s there today is touristy shops and food stalls. So, in our afternoon walk around the neighborhood, we bought some trinkets and ate some snacks.

There is some beautiful souvenir shopping to be doneRoti!

This past year in Luzhou we haven’t done that much shopping, because we don’t often see too much that we want to buy. Often, cheap stuff is cheap and junky, and expensive stuff is expensive and junky. Oddly enough, though, in this little touristy district there were a ton of cute, covetable objects.

I found a scarf at a store that specialized in World Traveler wear — that special style that blends motifs from Tibet, Africa, SE Asia, etc. Peter and I both recalled that there was a store like that in each of our college towns. Other stores offered: your name in calligraphy made to look like an animal, fun jewelery, paper fans, etc. One place sold vintage clocks that would sell like hotcakes in any hipster neighborhood. It was an interesting mix of merchandise.

On the snack front, there were a bunch of noodle and hot pot restaurants; the usual suspects. But we opted for pancakes from the Indian roti stall! We were really excited to find it. China is rightly proud of its cuisine, but we’re still surprised at how little fusion goes on with other nearby cultures. I mean, India is right there! Couldn’t we get some dosas up in here, every once in a while?

For dinner, we have a taste of modern Chongqing …

Sep 14, 2012

Summer vacation: En route to cool breezes

Chongqing: Home of a big airport

Here's Chongqing

All summer, people had been warning us that Luzhou is as hot as Hades in August. Like, busting 100 degrees daily hot. So our plan for August: leave the city.

Our ultimate destination was Qingdao, on the northeast coast of the country, but we had a brief stopover in Chongqing — because the airport there serves more destinations that Luzhou Lantian Airport.

Some basic information:

  • Chongqing is about 2 and a half hours from Luzhou by bus.
  • It used to be a part of Sichuan Province, but in 1997 the municipality struck out on its own as a separate governmental entity.
  • There’s still a very Sichuan flavor about the place, specifically the spicy flavor of hot pot!
  • The city population is about 5 million.

Some non-basic information coming up …

Sep 14, 2012

Summer vacation: One night by the river

Chongqing: Perfect Time Youth Hostel

Our room overlooked this scene on the river.
The view from our hostel window.
Perfect Time's perfect entrance

Chongqing is supposed to be a really fun city, and we actually do have designs to spend significant tourist time there, but in August, it’s even hotter than Luzhou. So our time there was little more than a drive-by.

Our crashpad for the night was the Perfect Time Youth Hostel. Which is both adorable and really far from the center of the city. It’s located in the Ciqikou district, a fake old-timey neighborhood similar to Chengdu’s Kuanzhai Xiangzi. Our room was pretty big, and it overlooked a riverfront bustling with tourists and seafood restaurants.

There was a cute little bar downstairs that had a good looking food menu, though our waitress informed us, when we tried to get an afternoon snack, that the cook was not there. It wasn’t clear if she meant for the day or ever.

When we visit Chongqing in earnest, I don’t think we’ll stay here again. But only because the location is inconvenient for real tourism in the city. The hostel itself was charming and comfortable, and it did us well for our brief layover.

The bedsWhat a cute sink!Play pool in the common area

Tomorrow, find out what happens when we actually leave the hostel …

Jul 1, 2012

Replace your passport: Thinking of home

The western afternoon

A bustling market in Chengdu

☆ Side Quest: Western Chengdu

Objective: Find the West in the East

Once we made our realization in the Subway, we decided to embrace our longing for home and have a totally western afternoon.

Level 1: Grocery shopping

The first thing we needed was supplies. The Pug owners told us about the item shop, Carrefour, that might stock what we were looking for. We got a tip that it was to the southeast of our Inn, aka the Loft, so we took a bus in that direction and then wandered a bit.

I joke sometimes that I don’t just have a bad sense of direction, I have the wrong sense of direction. And sure enough, I was a millisecond away from saying, “Peter, I don’t think this is the right way,” when we spotted the little red, white and blue logo.

Welcome to Carrefour. Here you can buy items that will heal you and your party, and satisfy your desire for western products. What do you want to buy?

All of our goodies
Carrefour appeared as a mirage on the horizon and beckoned us to spend our money …
  • Wasabi
  • Dijon mustard
  • 100% Tomato juice
  • Ground black pepper
  • 2 American mustard
  • Pickled gherkins
  • Tobasco
  • Twinings Earl Grey
  • Rosemary sliced
  • Basil chopped
  • Prosciutto
  • Red wine (from France!)
  • Brie
  • Parmesan cheese

You may notice that something is missing from the list; they were out of olives the day we were there!

Level 2: Relax

After hauling our treasures back to the inn, we were in need of some chill time.

Have a rest

Level 3: Impulse shopping

I bought a new dress and purse

One thing that we missed at Carrefour was a good loaf of bread. They had some, we just thought we could get some closer to home (breaking Rule of Chinese Acquisition No. 5: If you see it, buy it because you may never see its like again). But when we scoured the area near the Loft, we found no good bread. Bright side: I did see a dress that was so cute I had to have it RIGHT NOW.

I have excuses for what happened, but they’re not good, so I’ll skip it and just admit I bought the dress one size too small. I had a bad feeling about it, so I tried it on again back in our room, and, yup, I couldn’t raise my arms above my head.

But! We went back first thing the next day, with 交流 written in my translation notebook. No worries, they gave me the bigger size. They even made me try it on again, and I think the woman said to me something like, “I tried to tell you that you needed the XL last night!” But it was totally no hassle! I’d shop there all the time if I lived in Chengdu.

Level 4: Hors D’oeuvres for dinner in the room

Our western-style hotel feast

Back in Brooklyn, one of our favorite meals was something we called “party dinner”: veggies, dip, cheese, crackers, pickles, olives, etc. So it was great to re-create it with our supplies from Carrefour. It was as delicious as ever — more so, actually, for its rarity.

The pickles, specifically, were so good that we even considered bringing the brine home in a thermos so that we could pickle more stuff in it. (We didn’t follow through, which I kind of regret.)

But wait! There’s more …

Feb 8, 2012

Luzhou: The Jiucheng Hotel

Luxury at home

A liquor store near the hotel
Take a tour of the Jiucheng Hotel in our photo album.

We live down the road from one of Luzhou’s swankiest 5-star hotels, and during our vacation, we decided to pretend we were fancy-pants and spend a night there.

And, as you can see from the pictures, it was totally luxe! (The first photo is me buying a real bottle of wine — it’s not always readily available and it is expensive, but it was a special occasion.) The lobby was huge and decked out in marble, and our room was maybe bigger than our apartment in Brooklyn. We stayed on the Executive Floor, so our room even came with a full office kitted out with a computer and a fax machine.

For dinner, we dressed up in our finest and went down to the hotel’s Korean restaurant. We didn’t have huge expectations; foreign food just isn’t that big here, so I’m pretty sure most of that stuff is pre-packaged and microwaved to order. Here, however, that wasn’t the case. The food was pretty good. It also was not Korean, which was a little disappointing, but we tried some new dishes and had a good meal.

It wasn’t a terribly wild night and we were just down the street from our apartment, but it really did feel like we were on a vacation.

Feb 2, 2012

Chengdu: Xiao Tong Alley

Where the hipsters are

Hanging out at a funky bar on Xiao Tong Alley
Here’s an album of photos from Xiao Tong Alley.

I’ll wrap up the story of our stay in Chengdu with a little bit about the area where our hostel was. (As I mentioned before, it was funky!)

We were on a street called Xiao Tong Alley (remember, “Xi” is pronounced “shə”), which we learned was a newish neighborhood that sprang up in the past year. It’s attracted a really young, vibrant, artsy crowd; I joked to Peter that we had found the Bushwick of China.

Whereas in the southern part of the city everything was huge and stark and modern and neon (the generally desired aesthetic of modernizing China), here everything was small-scale, home-made, rustic and, our favorite, artist-run. These places were decorated by someone who had an eye; we found edgy murals and distressed French-countryside chic - stark contrast to most of what we’d seen up to this point: the two dominant stylistic modes seem to be sidewalk roughness or super-sterile luxury. It was really cool to find “Alterna-hip.”

We spent a good chunk of each night somewhere on the street, and everywhere we went, we found someone who wanted to talk to us - and, importantly, who we wanted to talk to. From the bartender from Luzhou who was excited to jam out some Clash tunes with us, to the London-educated finance grad who now works with a bar-owning artists’ group, we mingled with some really interesting people who belong to the emerging creative class of China.

It was a Paris-in-the-’30s/Soho-in-the-’70s vibe that we weren’t sure that we’d find in China, but were supremely glad to do so.

Jan 27, 2012

Chengdu: Return to the Bookworm

Reading and wine are so divine

Learning goes good with wine

We liked the Bookworm so much, that we went back again the next afternoon. Also, on our first night there, we missed the new books! The bulk of their stock is second-hand, and the new books are tucked on a few racks into a corner in the second room, which we didn’t enter the night before.

But, new books! We browsed for a good while and then Peter and I bought one book each: “Mother Night,” by Kurt Vonnegut (who I’ve always meant to read more of) and “Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present,” by Peter Hessler (obviously a relevant subject to us). We also bought a set of Chinese-English flashcards.

Once we had made our purchases, we sat down for lunch and some afternoon wine. (We really don’t drink as much as these vacation stories seem to indicate, I swear! We just don’t have access to much in Luzhou.) While we waited for our food, I pulled out the flashcards and we started to look them over, each sharing gleaned tidbits of knowledge and educated guesses about how characters function in the Chinese language.

Here's Tony

The guy sitting at the table next to us (we actually caught him in a photo of the book store, left) overheard us talking about learning Chinese and asked us if we had tried Rosetta Stone. (Answer: Not yet. But it’s on our radar.) This morphed into a long discussion about China and U.S. international relations - he had spent long stretches of his life in the U.S. and Canada, though his parents were still in Sichuan. We listened more than we spoke (both out of old journalistic habits and because it’s good ex-pat practice here), but it was interesting to hear his perspective on world events. He spoke pretty candidly with us, and I think that was partially because we were obviously already interested in China and Chinese culture, given the flash cards, and when he learned we were English teachers in a pretty small city … well, I think that really impresses people here.

Jan 26, 2012

Chengdu: International Night

America, India, Ireland ... in China

Peter, eating Indian food at Namaste
Check out more pictures from International Night.

On the fourth section of Renmin Road - Chengdu’s main street - we found a cluster of different establishments catering to different foreign tastes. So we made a night of it. An international night!

We started off at The Bookworm, an English-language lending library/bookshop/bar-restaurant. (Why has no one done this in America?) We lingered over a plate of hummus and a couple of cocktails reading second-hand travel books; our table was right next to the travel section.

Our second stop was Namaste, one of a few Indian restaurants in the city. Indian food might be second only to Mexican in terms of cuisine that we miss. The restaurant was empty when we arrived, which we found puzzling as it was a Friday night. But the restaurant got pretty good reviews online, so we sat down anyway. And while we were waiting, an Indian family came in and sat down, which we thought was a good sign of the restaurant’s authenticity. (That, or they read the same reviews we did.) And it was pretty good. It definitely filled our need for naan.

Our next and last International stop was the Shamrock Bar, which we had seen mentioned on all the Chengdu ex-pat boards. It definitely did the Irish super-pub thing well, and it did play host to an interestingly diverse group of people, both nationality and age-wise. I have to say, however, that it wasn’t really the bar for us. It was loud and smoky, and there was just a real fratty vibe that we weren’t into. Also, it was expensive, which we really weren’t into. So we had one drink each, watched bemusedly while a drunk guy danced to the Michael Jackson tunes the DJ was spinning (yup, there was a DJ), and went back north to what we were now thinking of as “our neighborhood.”