it's hard to find a decent drink

Sep 18, 2012

Summer vacation: At the Old Church

Qingdao: Kaiyue International Youth Hostel

Our room
The Kaiyue International Youth HostelA delicious western dinner
The hallways were quite eerie
In the hallways we could hear: Redrum, redrum …

Kaiyue is located in the heart of Qingdao’s old town, and occupies a structure that used to be a church. In fact, its well-appointed bar/cafe is named The Old Church Lounge in the building’s honor.

Our room was spacious and cute. We especially liked the bathroom, which looked like it came out of a luxury cruise ship. But our favorite aspect of Kaiyue, by far, was the lounge. We went down there for breakfast, pre-dinner drinks, sometimes dinner, post-revelry nightcaps … The waitstaff saw a lot of us. Jason, one of the servers (who was actually from Chengdu!), laughed every time he saw us. “You’re here again!” he would say.

Part of the appeal was their western menu. Also, in a land where good bartending just isn’t a thing, our favorite bartender at the Old Church had gone to school for his trade. (Which meant real dirty martinis for us!) But we just really enjoyed the laid back atmosphere of the place. There aren’t a lot of places where you can just sit back an sip a beer in China — people who drink here tend to pursue it as a contact sport. At the Old Church, however, low key was the order of the day … or night.

Let’s go see the city …

Jul 1, 2012

Replace your passport: Cocktail hour

Take a break with some bloody Marys on the patio

Drinks are on us

After dinner, we retired to the patio for a round of Bloody Marys.

Jun 27, 2012

Replace your passport: Return to Chengdu

More eating

☆ Side Quest: The Sultan and The Shamrock

Objective: Eat something delicious

The Sultan front doorA delicious Middle Eastern meal

Back at Bookworm, we had picked up a flier for a Middle Eastern restaurant called The Sultan. They prominently touted their vegetarian options, and the word online was good, so we figured it was worth a try.

And it was delicious. In an attempt to try everything on the menu, we ordered way too much food. Beautiful hummus, felafel, shawarma (for the meat eater), peppers stuffed with homemade cottage cheese, Turkish naan (made with real butter!) … It was too good to leave anything behind, so we ate it all with the intention of walking it off.

Rolling up on the ShamrockDrinks

Along our walk, we passed by The Shamrock, an Irish bar that we had checked out in the winter. We actually didn’t really like it in the wintertime - it was smokey and they played horrible music really loudly - but they had an outdoor area that looked palatable, for one drink, at least.

And it was pleasant. Some European soccer tournament was on, so all the seats facing the TVs were taken. But as non-sports fans we were happy to sit at an obstructed-view table. The place still had kind of an impersonal super-pub vibe, but a martini under the stars provides its own atmosphere.

And, green olives! Back in the fall, when there was no sign of them in the grocery stores in Luzhou, I tried to order some from an ex-pat grocery delivery service. They told me that to deliver to our small city would cost around $200, so, dead end. Occasionally we see “martinis” on a bar menu, but they’re usually served with black olives, which isn’t quite the same. We’d came to accept that living in southern Sichuan meant no green olives. Which is really not a bad trade-off for everything wonderful that we’ve experienced.

But, at Shamrock, these magnificent libations had our precious green olives. We were so psyched we even briefly considered buying a jar or two from the bar. (Though we both realized that that was the gin talking.)

The world tour continues …

May 10, 2012

Cold beer

It’s very refreshing

A nice cold beer on a hot day

The temperature is in the 90s already, and it’s soooo humid. And, as the summer tends to do, it’s only going to get hotter. Our head teacher is very concerned that we have never experienced a Luzhou summer before, and she’s looking out for us. In fact, at our request, she found us some teaching work for July and because it’s going to be so hot, she’s making them pay us more. Even though the classrooms will be air conditioned. I am not complaining about either fact.

Tonight, we figured out something that should make the hot, hot heat a little more enjoyable: I figured out how to ask for cold beer! We’ve been getting served room-temperature beer no matter the room temperature since we arrived, and we figured that would continue forever. But, last night at sticks, when we asked for another beer about halfway into our meal (you generally order all the beers you’re going to drink at the start of the meal), our waitress said something like “Ping-ah” to which I said yes. And then she brought us a refrigerated beer!

So tonight at sticks … well, first: Because we’re regulars they just bring us three beers and the vinegar Peter likes without us asking. So tonight, before they brought anything out, I said “Pijiu, bing-ah.” (The word stuck in my head mostly because the second part sounds like “Ahhhh!”) And this resulted in three deliciously cold beers. What a happy ending!

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.

Oct 23, 2011

A surprise trip to the Old Cellar

We’re, like, supermodels, or something

Luzhou Laojiao

This morning we were awakened by a phone call from one of our bosses: “A photographer who works with our school wants to take photos of you. Can you meet him in half an hour?”

I managed to buy us a whole hour, and we jumped in the shower and made ourselves presentable for what was explained to us as a “3-4 minute photo shoot.”

The disembodied drinker

We met the photographer at the gate of the school, along with two students - Cindy and Alice - who were to be our translators. We followed them, not to a photography studio, but the Old Cellar. This factory, which is right in our backyard, produces a liquor called Luzhou Laojiao. The locals call it wine, but it’s a white spirit brewed from sorghum, and it tastes INTENSE. This liquor has been brewed here for nearly 2,000 years, and it’s the pride of the city. Cindy told us our students receive two small bottles of it as a traditional gift upon high school graduation. She says she doesn’t drink it, because it’s too strong. (She’s about 16, I think, but there is no drinking age here.)

We were met at the factory by another photographer and a tour guide, Angie. It was very surreal. Angie gave us a private tour of the factory - which we had actually been intending to visit one of these days - with English help from the two students. Meanwhile the two photographers were snapping away. They posed us in front of everything. They even took pictures of Peter taking pictures of me. (Peter, fortuitously, thought to grab our camera on the way out the door.)

A bottle of Luzhou Laojiao

The tour itself was pretty simple; because of the language difference, a lot of it boiled down to, “this is a thing.” Having toured wineries and breweries before, I’ve seen how alcohol is made, and it was much the same here; take a grain, heat it up, store it away. It did take about an hour, though, because we had to keep stopping to pose for photos. The photographers snapped us listening to the tour guide, looking at stuff, reading plaques, joking with the kids, sitting on benches …

At the end of the tour, we had a small sample of the liquor in the ceremonial hall. It was about 11 in the morning, but why not? They sat us at this large wooden table with beautiful chairs and served us a small shot in a traditionally shaped porcelain glass. Much like a wine tasting, there’s an elaborate process to sipping the spirit, involving sniffing, sipping and inhaling. They even had us rub a little on our skin, although I don’t think that’s a traditional part of the ceremony.

And that was that. We went back out front, where the photographers had Peter and I kiss in front of the giant rock at the entrance. And then, our modeling job was over.

We exchanged phone numbers with Angie for possible language exchange, which would actually be pretty cool. She was very nice, and we’re definitely in the market for new friends here. But no explanation was offered for what we had just done, or why. Though we did get a nice private tour out of it in English. Check it out for yourself:

>An early-morning tour of a liquor showroom
Check out the full album of our tour.

This city is really serious about the liquor. Luzhou Laojiao is known throughout all of China. You can buy it EVERYWHERE here. There are liquor stores next to liquor stores, all selling those red boxes. Here’s just a small sample of shops that we’ve seen around town:

Stores selling baijiu
So many liquor stores!

Oct 13, 2011

In Chengdu

Our short trip to Chengdu wasn’t quite what we were expecting.

We were housed in an industrial-looking hotel on the very outskirts of the city, and had to have some complex negotiations even to go outside for a walk. We were basically ordered to have room service for dinner via phone, a command which was enforced by our Chinese-only speaking minder. I know that the motive behind it was kind, “we need to help out these crazy kids who only speak English,” but I would have much rather fended for ourselves - this is pretty much true of the whole trip.

But anyway, after we ate to the satisfaction of our guy, we negotiated a release. The neighborhood was far from the hip, young Chengdu we were expecting, but we’re still in a stage where crossing the street is an adventure. So we did just that, and crossed the street to the East Chengdu Rail Station.

It was huge, and pristine. It was about 8 p.m., and there weren’t many trains leaving that night so it wasn’t that crowded, but there was still a guard making sure people didn’t lay down on the seats. We found a western restaurant that served Coronas and Johnnie Walker! The Walker isn’t quite rare, but it isn’t super common either, so we were excited to have some real Scotch. It took a while to be served after we ordered - but then we noticed that someone actually had to run out to somewhere else to get a bottle. We enjoyed a few drinks before our 10 p.m. sustenance curfew (we were having physicals the next morning, and they said no food or drink after 10) and then headed back to the room.

We took the long way, wandering through the apartment complex where our hotel was located. They had a large courtyard, and they were showing a movie in the middle of it. We stopped to watch for a bit, and ran into our waiter from the restaurant!

The next morning, we woke up early and were taken to the International Hospital for our physicals. This was in Chengdu proper, and we did get a good glimpse of the city. It looks cool! Now this physical we got is mandatory for: foreigners staying in China for one year or more, Chinese who are going abroad for more than three months, and Chinese who work aboard international vessels or handle food and water in a port that services international vessels. You can only get the physical done in certain accredited establishments. So, this place was processing a lot of people at once. But they’ve got a system down.

1. You come in and register. They give you the appropriate paperwork for what you’re having done and the bill. In China, you always pay up front for healthcare.

2. You enter the assembly line: First you stop at the window for the urine cups, fill it (in the restroom, thankfully) and drop it off at the appropriate tray. The technician sticks one of your barcodes on it (your paperwork includes a sheet of barcodes that will get stuck to your various fluids and measurements). The technician also marks off on your sheet that you’ve hit this station, which everyone else will do too.

3. Blood sample. There’s another window which you stick your arm through, kind of like at the bank, but you give them your arm (and some barcodes) instead of money. They take your blood while the people on line behind you wait, sometimes very closely behind you. (An aside: We had heard before coming that the Chinese don’t really do queues - instead of lining up, everyone just amasses near the goal. We actually haven’t found this to be true - at checkouts and things, people are pretty orderly. Mostly. Our conjecture is that this is a recent development, and some people still do things the old way. I left a little space in front of me on line at the grocery store once, and this woman just fit herself right into it. This doesn’t happen often, but you do have to be a little more aggressive not to lose your place.)

4. Next is a series of different rooms with doctors taking your height and weight, ECG, ultrasound of your organs and chest x-ray. There’s no chit-chat and everyone is very efficient.

5. Finally, you sign out at the front desk where they give you a receipt and a juicebox of milk (a milkbox?). It was all over in about 15 minutes. Having come from the states, where this same exact physical took Peter and I two hours (not even counting the trip to another location for our chest x-rays), it was a bizarre experience. For what it was, I’m glad it was brisk and businesslike, but if I needed a real consultation … well, I miss the “care” part of healthcare.

So then, we made a few stops to drop off some other paperwork relating to our residence permits - Chengdu is where all the government offices are for Sichuan Province. And then our guy took us to McDonalds for lunch. Chinese McDonalds is a little different from American McDonalds - they have a few different items to cater to the local palate. And the quality of chicken in my sandwich was the best-quality fast food chicken I’ve ever had; McDs is comparatively expensive here - for the cost of the large fries, Peter and I can make a whole meal for two of us - so I think the meat has to be better quality than they can get away with in the states. There are chickens running around the streets everywhere; if you’re going to serve it, it better be good. That’s my opinion after a sample of one sandwich, anyway. (Another aside: Most people are pretty skinny here, but I’m noticing a few chubby kids in some of my classes. No one’s obese, but a couple are out-and-out fat. This is just what I was thinking about in McDonalds.)

It wasn’t the greatest night away, but it did give us a taste for traveling. The bus ride isn’t terrible - about 4 hours, but the buses are really clean and comfortable. And we had legroom for miles. I seriously couldn’t even reach the footrest on our trip home. When we got home, right away we started looking up day- and weekend trips that we can take from here. We still want to do a little more work on the apartment this weekend, but we’re hoping to get right back on that bus to Chengdu quite soon.

Oct 9, 2011

That Luzhou smell

Ganbei!

It's strong stuff, be careful

Luzhou is actually a pretty clean city. There really isn’t much pollution, which is a pleasant surprise; I think that it’s mostly the eastern cities that have the smog. But there is something in the air here: Luzhou Laojiao. This is a kind of white liquor that the city is famous for. Some translate it as wine, but it’s really more of a digestif-type thing, like ouzo or a punch in the throat. I think it’s distilled from rice or sorghum, and the Sichuanese have been making it since the Ming Dynasty in the 1500s.

We live right near the main brewery (which is a popular tourist destination we’re hoping to hit soon). You can definitely smell when the liquor is in production, and it doesn’t smell great. Kind of like rancid salami. But the taste? Nothing like salami. Not really like anything good, but not salami. We’ve only had pretty low-end stuff, but I’m not optimistic about the good stuff. Peter actually likes it OK, mixed with mango juice - which is not traditional.

So, come quaff with us! It’ll help us forget the smell.