Friday, October 30, 2009

Hazy Morning

The air has been a little thicker than usual in the last few days, probably because it hasn't rained in at least a week, so the haze is getting a chance to build up. This is a shot of the sun at 7:00 this morning from our bedroom window. It's trying so hard to break through!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Xiǎolóngbāo: It's What's for Dinner.

Here's a picture of part of our dinner tonight. These are xiǎolóngbāo, a type of dumpling popular in eastern China (especially Shanghai.) They each contain a bit of meat and soup broth. To eat them, scoop one up with chopsticks, dip it in vinegar, hold it over a soup spoon, bite a small piece off of the dumpling skin (to release some of the steam), and suck out some of the broth before popping the rest into your mouth. It's hard to describe how delicious they are, expect to say that I have started getting regular cravings for them (on par with chocolate, even.)

This pictures shows a double order (6 dumplings per order) served in the bamboo basket that they are steamed in. This was at a restaurant a short walk south of campus. We also got some great veggie dishes to go with these.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Day trip to Suzhou

Yesterday, we went with our friends Ron and Juni to the city of Suzhou, about a 40 minute high-speed train ride out of Shanghai (the train went up to 205 km/hour at some points.) We started the day with street food breakfast before taking the metro up to the North Railway Station. From there, we enjoyed our first class train seats to Suzhou. (First class cost us about 70 cents more per ticket, so we decided it was worth it for the big, comfy seats.) Once we got into the city, our first stop was the Suzhou Silk Museum. Suzhou has over 4,000 years of history in silk production and has been considered China's leading silk-producer. The highlight of the museum were the live silkworms, chewing away on mulberry leaves and spinning cocoons.

Next, we headed to Shiquan Jie, a road lined with shops and restaurants, for lunch before heading to the "Garden of the Master of the Nets," one of several gardens in Suzhou listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. This one dates back to the 12th century and was a great spot for wondering and soaking in the beautiful weather. We spent the rest of the day exploring town, experimenting with street food, and taking in some more sights (several pagodas, bridges and canals, hairy crabs - it's hairy crab season, and a mobile pet shop on the back of a bike among them.)

We ended the night on a street teeming with street food vendors. We choose one who was especially friendly - in fact he and his wife took a break to sit down with us for a while. For 37rmb (about $6), we had three incredible (and spicy!) entrees and four (large!) beers. A perfect ending to a great day. Pictures here:

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Ticket to ride

Last night, we went to the Shanghai Railway Station (there are two - this is the older and larger one) to buy tickets to go to Suzhou today. It was craziness - crowded with people heading out of the city for the weekend. But, we were successful in getting first class tickets (we're not sure what that means, other than we think that guarantees us a seat.) However, round trip tickets aren't sold, so we'll need to go through this process again once we get to Suzhou. Should be worth it, though. Suzhou is about 40 minutes outside of Shanghai and is famous for its historic gardens, canals, and silk production.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Home cookin'

Because eating out is so incredibly easy to do here (financially and physically), we don't cook at home as much as we used to. But, when we do, it always feels like a bit of an adventure. Our "kitchen" doesn't have a stove or an oven. (We both miss baking and I especially miss Jeff's homemade bread!) What we have instead are two hot plates - one from each of our apartments. They get hot really quickly, so it's taken a few pots boiling over to get used to keeping a close eye on them. Tonight, we made pasta with delicious fresh veggies and herbs. Other successful meals have included green curry, omelettes, and several variations of experimental Chinese cooking. It's fun to try out local ingredients. I'm sure that, as the weather gets colder, we'll be inclined to stay in more often - stay tuned for the inevitable stories about soup!

Monday, October 19, 2009

City lights

This is an incredible city, ripe with contrasts and disparities. While many things remind me of a developing nation, other things remind me that we're in the middle of one of the most rapidly modernizing metropolises in the world (for better or worse.) Here's a snapshot of the latter - Xujaihui (pronounced "shoe-jah-hweh") at night. This was taken from a pedestrian bridge and looks out over some of the shopping areas - among other things, this area is known for being an electronics district (home to both "Best Buy" and the lesser known "Buy Now.") The globe on the left contains a huge shopping mall, complete with stores, restaurants, and KTV (karaoke.) This is only three metro stops from us, so a convenient spot to run errands.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

St. Nicholas Church

While out and about today, we strolled through Xiangyang Park and then popped over to see this church, both in the French Concession. Beyond having striking architecture, it has an interesting history: built in 1933 as a Russian Orthodox church, it was turned into a washing machine factory by the Communists, was spared destruction during the Cultural Revolution thanks to a portrait of Mao hung from its dome, and was, most recently, a fancy nightclub until Shanghai's Russian population complained. It's currently vacant, but still leaves quite an impression.

Holiday Inn Mall Party

Malls are huge here. Both literally and figuratively. This city has more malls that I could begin to count - even our metro station has an underground mall attached to it. And, most malls are enormous - 6, 7, 8... stories or more. There is definitely a consumerist mindset here (from locals and expats alike, I think) and people seem to love to spend time in malls. Promotions are also big here - supermarkets have countless employees dressed in a variety of uniforms/costumes handing out samples and speaking into microphones about their great "product of the day." Yesterday, we felt like we were at the epicenter of this culture: the "Super Brand Mall," an 8-story mega complex where I went to get a hair cut (at a Korean salon - that's another story.) While there, we were ushered through a huge display about soup broth, with samples and a live demonstration. But, my favorite promotion in recent memory was this one: the Holiday Inn's. Besides this band, which did Norah Jones and Smooth Operator covers while we were there, there was a display bed, complete with a display model in silk pajamas, available for picture taking and a sample lounge. Never a dull moment...

Saturday, October 17, 2009


After a long week of work, Carrie and I were excited to get out and have a relaxing night away.  We decided to check out Xintiandi, a car-free shopping, eating, and entertainment district in the French Concession.  It's made up of restored traditional shikumen ("stone gate") houses on narrow alleys, some adjoining houses which now serve as book stores, cafes and restaurants, and shopping malls. Xintiandi means "New Heaven and Earth" and is considered one of the first "lifestyle centers" in China.  Our night included: an iced coffee at the most popular Starbucks in Shanghai; a free drink at a bar/club that was way too cool, and too incredibly awkward for us to ever visit again (we were way under-dressed and were there so early in the night that there were at least five employees for each customer - about ten to welcome and escort us in and then another thirty or so inside the club, standing alertly in each section, making us nervous - it felt like a bad kung fu movie); a wonderful stroll around the neighborhood, the shops, the dreamy back alleys; and, finally, a glass of Vietnamese wine with a delicious mango/vegetable spring roll that was truly delicious. Check out the pictures here:

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Xi'an photos

Time for our last (and largest) set of holiday photos: Xi'an (pronounced "shee-an.") We spent the last three days of our break there, where we took enjoyed history, culture, and street food (equally.) On our first day, we traveled about an hour out of the city to visit the Terracotta Warriors, a massive army of over 8,000 life-sized soldiers and horses built for the tomb of the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty, dating back to 210 BC. Much of the site is still being excavated, but what we could see what impressive. The sheer quantity and level of detail of the army was incredible, making it easy to believe the estimate that over 750,000 workers took part in its construction.

On our second day in Xi'an, we walked around the city on its city walls (40 feet high and 8 miles in length!) Xi'an is one of the only cities in China with its walls still intact and it was pretty amazing to take in the views from on tops. On our last day, we visited The Great Mosque, one of the largest mosques in China. Xi'an is home to a large Muslim population, so we also enjoyed the Muslim Quarter surrounding the Mosque, complete with delicious street food and no shortage of sights, sounds, and smells to take in.

While there, we also were able to see the Bell Tower and Drum Tower, two large landmarks in the center of town, and take in a fountain and light show at the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, which was built in 652, during the Tang Dynasty. Between exploring the sights (and to escape the rainy weather), we enjoyed spending time at our hostel, too, which had multiple interior courtyards and a great restaurant.

More pictures here:

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Yangshuo photos

Following our rafting journey, we spent two days in Yangshuo, a smaller town about 60km south of Guilin. Yangshuo is famous for being a "backpacker's paradise," and has an abundance of Western restaurants, mostly centralized on "West Street." We enjoyed relaxing there and haggling with vendors set up along the street. We stayed at a small hostel, which felt more like a homestay, as the owner and his family live there and put a lot of work into hosting guests (including nightly multi-course dinners.) It was tucked away toward the edge of town and from our balcony we had great views of the local neighborhood and surrounding peaks. There, we enjoyed conversations around the dinner table, with at least 8 nationalities and nearly as many languages represented.
On our only full day in town, we rented a tandem bike and headed into the countryside - a "must-do" for any visitors to Yangshuo. The scenery was breath-taking and we felt adventurous, making our way with a small map and a lot of help from friendly locals (one pictured here.) We also stopped at the "Moon Hill Cafe" for lunch and a great view. That night, we headed to the river, where we had enjoyed an impromptu fireworks show the night before and where, this time, we were able to get up-close-and-personal with cormorant fishermen and their birds. (There is a long tradition of fishing using cormorant birds in this area. The birds are trained and are loyal to their owners. When they go out, they dive for fish, but have a rope tied loosely around their neck to prevent them from swallowing any. We were told, though, that the birds are given every seventh fish they catch, in order to keep them loyal.)
We caught a public bus to head back to the Guilin airport, but were too late to get a seat. Instead, we were told to sit in the aisle on inverted buckets for the 1 1/2-hour ride. This, plus the bike ride, made for a lot of looking at the back of Jeff's head for me on this trip! You may notice that in these pictures:

Friday, October 9, 2009

Li River photos

Part II of our trip photos comes from our rafting trip down the Li River. We booked this through our Guilin hostel and, despite a series of mishaps, it was probably one of my favorite China experiences so far. We had arranged to be picked up at 10:00 a.m. from the hostel to be bussed partly down the river to begin our rafting journey (to the "most beautiful" section of the river.) Around 9:00 a.m., though, we were told that the driver would come to get us at 9:30 instead and when he showed up at 9:20, I had to retrieve Jeff from the bathroom so that we could keep up with him. From there, we were corralled, along with 10 other people from the hostel, through a series of alleyways to a small van that took us through incredible scenery to the river. That leg of the trip was relatively uneventful, though the driver did abruptly decide to blast rave music about three-quarters of the way into it. When we got the rafts, there was some confusion about how many we were supposed to have, and it took some time for a fourth raft to be summoned (by cell phone, no less, even in the middle of a river in the middle of China.) The raft itself was comfortable, though instead of being made of bamboo, the bottom was constructed out of recycled PVC-pipes and had a small motor attached. We rode with a couple from Denmark and had a blast taking in the incredible scenery (with pictures to prove it!) The river was full of other rafts and larger tour boats, so we exchanged many a "hello" and "ni hao!" on our way along. Midway through the journey, we stopped in a tiny village for lunch, where we were treated to a feast overlooking the river. Once we got to our final stop on the river, we were corralled again through a small town and onto what felt like a large golf cart, 12 people, luggage and all, which took us to the bus stop. There, we waited for a bus, which finally pulled up, but we were beaten by a mob of people who sprinted in front of us to catch it. We were pushed on (literally) anyway, with Jeff standing in the doorway, until the driver had us all get back off and wait for another bus. Finally, though, we made it to Yangshuo, and would surely do it all again if we had the chance!

Pictures (lots of them!) here:

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Guilin photos

We're safely back in Shanghai, trying to prepare ourselves to jump back into work mode. (Yup, we have to teach on the Friday and Saturday following break...)

As a fun distraction, though, we've begun to wade through our pictures from our trip. As you can imagine, we took A LOT - close to 1,000! (Thank goodness for the extra memory card for our camera!) We'll post them here in separate albums, so stay tuned. Also, I'm trying out Shutterfly's photo sharing site (see our new site there:, as it seems more user-friendly than what we have been using. Hope it seems that way to you.
Anyway, the first album is of Guilin. To re-cap, Guilin is located in Guangxi Province, in southern China, about 250 miles from Vietnam. It is most famous for its limestone karst peaks (the subjects of many traditional Chinese paintings.) We climbed one, the Solitary Beauty Peak, in the center of the city for an awesome view of the city and its outlying areas. But, we found that Guilin had a lot more to offer than that. Other highlights included: its enormous night market; two large lakes in the middle of town; the Reed Flute Cave (large enough to serve as an air-raid shelter for over 1,000 people during WWII); people lighting and sending skyward fire lanterns to celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival; and, maybe most of all, its regional rice noodle dish, guilin mifen, spicy deliciousness sold by street vendors everywhere you turn for 3rmb (about 40 cents.) We did a lot of walking in Guilin (over 15 miles on one day) and treated ourselves to a traditional foot bath and massage that night. The picture of Jeff's feet soaking is of the bath part - our feet were soaked in a mixture of herbs and spices before being massaged. They came out smelling like Christmas cookies and feeling soft as a baby's bottom.
Here's the link to the pictures: Stay tuned for Part II!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Great Wall... of Xi'an

Aftter the beautiful landscapes of Guilin and Yangshuo, we've been enjoying all of the history that Xi'an has to offer. Yesterday, we took an hour-long bus ride out to visit the Terracotta Army. It was truly incredible to see something so elaborate from so long ago (200 BC!) Today, we walked on top of the old city walls (Xi'an is one of the only cities in China with still-intact city walls.) It was an 8-mile walk on top of 40-foot high (and very wide) walls. Pretty awesome, despite the rainy weather. Tonight, we're headed back to the Muslim Quarter for delicious street food and a look at the Great Mosque. Then, on to the Big Goose Pagoda for an evening fountain and light show. Tomorrow, back to Shanghai!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Adventures in Yangshuo

We are continuing to have an incredible time on our trip. Yesterday, we floated down the Li River on a bamboo raft and today we biked around the countryside on a tandem bike. (We would have taken two bikes, but the woman we rented them from wanted me to try them out first and then got scared - and so did I - by my lack of biking prowess. So, she talked us into a bicycle built for two, insisting that "the man can sit in front and do the work. You can just put your feet up. Don't do anything!") Embarrassment of having several Chinese spectators critique my biking skills aside, we ended up having a great day. We biked along rice paddies and between the many karst peaks dotting the area, making our way with a map printed in Chinese and several helpful people along the way. Our hostel - the Yangshuo Culture House is wonderful. Clean, bright, and homey, with all of our meals included. Last night, for dinner, there must have been at least ten different dishes, all served family style. Yum!

Tomorrow, on to Xi'an!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Guilin: Done and done!

We got in safely last night and had an incredibly full day today. According to Jeff's trusty pedometer, we walked over 15 miles (for a total of over 30,000 steps), and had the adventures to prove it along the way. They included climbing the city's highest peak for a great view;exploring the Reed Flute Cave, a huge cave that acted as an air raid shelter during WWII; making our way through Guilin's enormous night market; and, eating and drinking several treats along the way. (Those included freshly squeezed watermelon juice, the region's local noodle dish speciality, and some other tasty goodies.)

Tomorrow, we're on to Yangshuo via a bamboo raft. We'll be bussed part-way down the river, where we'll pick up our raft (guide included!) for a two-hour ride. Should be memorable!
We'll post pictures when we're back in Shanghai.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Away we go!

And we're off for our week-long journey to Guilin, Yangshuo, and Xi'an. Very excited to see more of the country. We're not bringing a computer, so will be at the mercy of Internet cafes. But, we promise to update with stories and pictures once we get back.

The picture is of the lobby in the hostel we'll be staying in tonight and tomorrow in Guilin. If it's half as nice as it looks, we'll be happy campers!