Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Weekend in Xi'an: Terra-Cotta Warriors, baby!

If you live in China, one thing you must do is always carry a package of moist towelettes. 
Another thing you must do is visit the Army of Terra-Cotta Warriors. 

This past weekend, Curtis and I hopped on a high-speed train (it traveled around 300 km/h) with a couple of friends to visit Xi'an, the city closest to the Terra-Cotta army. It also happens to be the city which marks the beginning of the Silk Road. 

The city of Xi'an itself is surprisingly modern and bustling with a population of about 8.5 million. Back in the 10th century, this was supposedly The Place To Be, and there are still areas and sights that hint at its ancientness and former glory days.  We spent our first day checking a few of these out...

The Muslim Quarter 
It was fascinating to wander through the narrow streets filled with vendors selling all kinds of snacks and souvenirs. We sampled some peanut candy and dried persimmons because my guidebook told us to. They were pretty good. Then we stopped for lunch at a Muslim restaurant, and dined on a variety of seasoned veggies, cold noodles with spicy sesame sauce, and flatbread stuffed with beef. Only later did it occur to us that the beef sandwiches were probably purchased off the street and served to us. I spent half of that night lying in bed, wondering how grumpy my stomach would be about this. Happily, my belly was a total trooper and did not object at all to its first encounter with street meat. 

The Great Mosque
Tucked away in the Muslim Quarter is one of the largest mosques in China. Founded in the 8th century, it's a beautiful blend of Chinese and Islamic architecture. We snapped a whole bunch of photos and soaked in the peacefulness behind its walls. 

The City Wall
One thing China seems to do exceptionally well is build really impressive walls. We had a hard time finding our way onto the wall, and by the time we did, it was almost dark. However, we were in for a grand surprise because they lit everything up when the sun went down, which made for an extra gorgeous two-hour stroll. Oh. And that bottom left pic is us pretending to bang on a drum at the bottom of the wall. Because it was there. 

The next day was Terra-Cotta Warrior day and we could not wait! After all, these 2200-year-old warriors have been featured a gazillion times in places like Time, Smithsonian, and National Geographic magazines. They are the freakin' supermodel rock stars of ancient relics.

Here are the pics to prove we were there. Or that we're really good at Photoshop. Kidding! We were totally there. 

Not surprisingly, the story behind this army of warriors is incredibly interesting. It's the tomb of Qin Shi Huang Di, China's first emperor who died in 210 B.C. Apparently this army of 6000 soldiers (in addition to horses, musicians, acrobats etc.) was created to protect him in the afterlife. It is believed to have taken 700,000 men 36 years to build the grave, and each of the warrior's faces is unique. While Emperor Qin Shi Huang did a heckuva lot to advance China, he was not known for being the nicest guy. After work on the tomb was completed, the artisans and laborers were essentially buried alive so they wouldn't tell anyone about where it was or what was inside. Then grass and trees were planted on the mound to make it look like a regular ol' hill. All I can say is that I am very thankful to my last employer who just had me sign non-disclosure forms when they didn't want me spilling any secrets. Jeebus. 

Before catching our train back to Beijing, we tried to visit the Wild Goose Pagoda. It's a Buddhist pagoda in southern Xi'an known for it's height and square shape. We meandered outside the gates before realizing that we were running out of time, so we took a few pics and went to hail us a taxi! 

By the way, you should know that pretty much all the taxis in Xi'an take a half hour break at around 4pm. They love this break and will not take you anywhere if there is even a possibility it will make them late for their break. They do not care about you almost missing your train at all. 

You should definitely remember this for the next time you are in Xi'an.  

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Belly Aches & Blind Massages

"Into each traveler's journey, some intestinal discomfort must fall."

That's how the saying goes, right?

We were warned early on that eventually, it would happen to us. 

Careful as we've been to eat at only trust-worthy looking restaurants, stay far away from street food, and wash all our fruits and veggies in filtered water, the Woo-Jay household had a rather... um... explosive past few days. 

I heart Western meds.

We are still not exactly sure what caused it. 

For some reason, Curtis has been wanting to blame my poor, innocent Cheerios (and the milk they were in). I am more inclined to point the finger at some dubious-looking spinach we were served the other day. (There was too much sauce on that spinach. It was obviously hiding something.) 

All I know for sure is that I am still recovering.

And I am now afraid to sneeze. 

The worst was finally over by Sunday morning, so we decided to treat our tortured bodies to a massage. But not just any massage. Oh no. We booked two blind massages.

I've been intrigued with the concept of blind massage ever since I read about it in a guide book a couple of years ago. The theory behind it is that the visually impaired masseuse's other senses are heightened in such a way that they are better able to locate and ease tense muscles and problem areas. 

Also, it was only going to be $17 for a one-hour massage, so heck to the yes we were doing this! 

The $17 storefront to go with the $17 massage.

Once we arrived, we were guided into a sparsely decorated room that smelled (not unpleasantly) of baby oil, with two basic massage tables. 

Curtis hopped on one table, and was quickly tended to by a young, lanky, friendly fella who was very evidently visually-impaired. 

I climbed onto the other table and was greeted by a cheery, older, round guy who I thought was maybe the towel-bringer, but who turned out to be my masseuse. Based on all the looking-at-each-other-and-smiling we were doing, I am not so convinced my guy was even close to blind. Maybe he used bifocals once in a while? 

I have learned that when in China, sometimes you cannot be too picky.

Our massages commenced and I immediately did not have high hopes. 

I could hear a tv blaring what sounded like Chinese action movies from the next room, and when that was muted, someone upstairs decided it was the most perfect time ever to start hammering the floor above my head. 

But then my guy started working his masseuse-y magic and nothing else mattered. He got all kinds of spots in my neck, shoulders, and back, some of which I didn't even know were tense until he started working on 'em. Those same quick, strong, kneading motions were unfortunately tickle-y torture on my legs. I burst into a giggling fit, which prompted Curtis's masseuse to turn around and earnestly ask, "Are you having a very fun time?" 

Speaking of Curtis's masseuse. Right away, he asked Curtis if he knew he "had a little hunchback." This made me chuckle not only because it was so direct, but also because it sounded weirdly adorable. Apparently the rest of Curtis's massage involved stretching, twisting, cracking, and elbowing this "little hunchback" into submission. Poor little hunchback.

Overall, I have to say that I was pretty impressed with the thoroughness and intensity of my blind(ish) massage. At one point, my foot started cramping badly, and my masseuse sprung to action and pushed really hard on a specific point on my foot, which relaxed it entirely. I later found out (from my super-smart pal, Google), that the point he applied pressure to was the reflexology spot for my small intestine. 

What I'm trying to say is, on top of the great massage, his magical, blind-masseuse-intuition powers obviously told him I was recovering from food poisoning, and he knew just what to do to help relieve my agony. 

So would I go back? 

Why yes, yes I would. 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Food! Food! Food!

There's one thing that moving to China hasn't changed a bit: 
My inability (or umm... lack of desire) to cook. 

There are many reasons for this, but right now I'm going to blame it on the fact that we only have butter knives in our kitchen. We cannot find a good knife anywhere! I cut up an enormous, juicy mango with a butter knife just yesterday, and it was not pretty at all. 

For the record, that mango deserved better. 

Thankfully, Beijing has about 10,000 restaurants. That is not an exaggeration. Restaurants are EVERYWHERE, and Curtis and I have decided to make it our personal mission to try as many of them as we can. 

I am no chef, but I absolutely love to eat. 
Eating's my favorite. 

Here are a few of me and the husby's most stand-out Beijing dining experiences so far...

Vietnamese at Susu
This place is ahh-may-zing. The restaurant is in a beautifully restored old Chinese home. They serve up some of the best Vietnamese food I've ever had-- and I've been to Vietnam! Our favorites included the tangy Susu shrimp salad (top left), the rare beef pho served in a rich broth with wide, flat noodles (left middle), and the deep fried spring rolls that were so delicately fried, the wrapper was still a little chewy (right middle). Everything was so fresh, seasoned perfectly, and presented beautifully. Oh em gee I cannot wait to go back!

Chinese-Muslim at Xinjiang Crescent Moon Uyghur Muslim Restaurant (Yeah. Curtis and I just call it "The Tasty Lamb Place")
This is supposedly the best place in Beijing to get the kind of food you might expect whilst traveling the Silk Road. "What does that even mean?" you ask. It means delicious yumminess everywhere. The lamb kebabs seasoned with chili and cumin came out piping hot on metal skewers, and the fried flatbread with lamb was can't-stop-eating-it good. The eggplant was tender and smothered in a thick, sweet-ish sauce, while the green beans were stir-fried with dried chilis until they were crisp on the outside and puffy on the inside. We were also served bowls of smooth and creamy homemade yogurt that I sweetened with sugar and devoured for dessert! 

Thai at Thai Express
This is one of our neighborhood go-to spots. The spicy seafood salad (on the left) was vinegary, refreshing, and flavorful like a green papaya salad, but had a big kick to it that had our eyes watering after a few bites. Top right looks a little weird, but it's just steamed mixed veggies with a very light coconut sauce, which was mild and scrumptious. Bottom right is one of my favorite desserts in the world-- fresh mango with sticky rice, topped with sweet coconut cream. Mmm...

Drinks at Flamme
I know, I know... drinks don't technically count as a meal. But the (Australian) bartender here is kind of a creative genius and mixed us up a few cocktails that were truly memorable. One of the drinks I ordered was served as a mini chemistry set that I got to mix myself! Hooray for fun! Curtis's favorite was the Passionate American (tee hee) which was bourbon, passion fruit, and bitters served with half a passion fruit in the glass (top right). My favorite was the Sichuan Beauty (next to the Passionate American). It had Sichuan peppercorn infused vodka, house-made passion fruit syrup, and fresh lemon juice. I could drink that all summer long...

Korean at a random place we meandered into for lunch
Being half Korean, it is pretty much mandatory for me to love Korean food. And I do! I always order the Bi Bim Bap, which is rice topped with a whole slew of seasoned veggies and a little bit of meat, which is then topped with an egg (bottom left). The corn pancake thing on the bottom right was the winner of this meal. It was like a thick crepe with sweet corn in it, and it came with a sesame seed and soy dipping sauce. That was not a great description. It tasted better than it looks or sounds (according to my bad description). 

Hot Pot at Haidilao Hot Pot
I think this is a perfect meal for friends to share 'cause you're all cooking your food together in one big pot at your table. We thought we'd introduce this experience to John Keeling (fellow Hallmark alum!) and his partner, Colin, during their recent visit to Beijing. We ordered the heaven and hell hot pot (half mild, half spicy) and a bunch of meats and veggies that would be thrown into the soup to be cooked. Everyone's favorite was the Noodle Dance, in which a very energetic guy does an impressive dance while hand-pulling the noodles (what's not to love about this?). I did not capture this well with my photos because I was too busy squealing and clapping with joy. I could not get enough of this dance. (Possible new life dream: To spend the rest of my time in China learning how to be a professional Noodle Dancer!!! Yessss!)  

So there you have it-- a sampling of some of the wonderful food we've been enjoying. 

Fear not, though, our cute little kitchen isn't completely going to waste. Sometimes Curtis feels like whipping up a good ol' American breakfast. 

And that is (still) one of my most favorite things of all. 

Monday, April 7, 2014

Day trip to Chuandixia

Curtis and I learned a very important lesson over the weekend:
When in China, don't even try to do anything during a Chinese holiday. This is because no matter what the holiday is, you essentially have 1.3 billion people trying to be somewhere other than wherever they are at the moment.

Naturally, mayhem ensues.

This past weekend was the nationally celebrated Qingming Festival, a.k.a. Tomb Sweeping Day in China. Since this was not noted in the Office Max calendar I purchased in Kansas City before we left, I only found this out when Curtis came home from work on Friday and told me one of his co-workers mentioned it in passing. "It has something to do with people showing respect to their ancestors... I think they go and tend to grave sites or something like that."

This was great news! After all, we had a big weekend planned of going to Ikea to get more essentials for our apartment, and we had scheduled our first day trip to a nearby village. Now we would obviously have everything to ourselves because the 25-35 million people with whom we share this city would all be dusting tombstones!

Isn't it so amazing when your new country conspires to make your weekend even better than you had planned???

On Saturday we learned that apparently another way of showing respect to one's ancestors is by having a shopping day at Ikea. All of Beijing was at Ikea when we got there. We had to literally push and shove our way through a sea of people in order to get our mixing bowls, coasters, and Swedish meatballs. Thank gawd they also have wine.

After such a stressful shopping trip we could not wait to get out of the city center for our day trip to the village of Chuandixia. We woke up at the very crack of dawn on Sunday with big smiles and lots of cheerfulness. Let me tell you that nothing can wipe a smile off of my face quicker than a packed subway car at 7am on a Sunday. I was squished in on all sides by people who smelled like their last meal had been garlic soaked in garlic. No bueno.

Thankfully, this longish story has a mostly happy ending.

I will fast forward (through the horrifically horrifying traffic we endured) to say that Chuandixia is a charming, old-timey little village nestled in the mountains with stone-paved streets, steep and narrow stairways, and courtyard homes. It was founded during the Ming Dynasty (i.e. a really long time ago) by the Han family, and is currently home-sweet-home to about 93 full-time residents. Curtis and I met some really nice people, did some hiking, breathed some fresh air, and ate a lovely meal.

Here are the pictures to prove that Tomb Sweeping Day did not completely ruin our weekend:
Gotta love the warning sign. Although we cherish our lives, we did end up choosing to climb some of the wild mountains that surround this village. And we even lived to tell of it!

We enjoyed a lunch of locally-grown food before spending a few hours exploring and hiking. There are a bunch of tiny temples around town and that is me standing awkwardly in front of one.

Cool details everywhere! The top right photo is the inside of what was once home to the wealthiest person in the village. The bottom-right photo is some rooftop weeds that were being kind of show-offy with their prettiness.

 This is us on our climb up the wild mountains to get a better look at the village. The guy with the broken ankle did great on his first post-surgery hike!

 These were some of the friendly people we day-tripped with. Curtis could not resist having a post-hike street food snack. The smell of roasting corn and sweet potatoes was amazing!

I would like to add that we did pass by several cemeteries on the road to and from Chuandixia and they were all pretty much empty. Clearly everyone in China needs to get on Wikipedia (like I did!) to find out where they're supposed to be on Tomb Sweeping Day.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Tour de Our Beijing Home

Great news alert! 
Curtis and I have officially moved into our Beijing apartment!

Ta-da! This is our building.

After three months of living out of suitcases (two months in KC while Curtis's ankle healed and one month here in a hotel), we are unpacking everything! We have found our extra toothpaste! We know exactly where all of our clean undies are! 

It is a dream come true!

Now let me tell you that finding our little abode was quite an interesting experience. Curtis made an appointment with a realtor almost immediately after we arrived, and we soon learned what our budget would get us here in Beijing. 

The short story here is: Less than we thought.

The first few places we went to were dumpity dumps. Some of them were filthy, with great big pieces of paint or wallpaper missing. Others reeked of cigarette smoke. Apartments come furnished, and several of the ones we saw looked like they had been decorated by intoxicated three-year-olds. I'm talkin' hot pink sofas with gold fringe curtains. One of them did not have a "shower box." There was just a drain in the middle of the bathroom, and when you shower, water gets everywhere. Our realtor walked out of there shaking her head and muttering, "No shower box. Foreigners love shower boxes." It's true! We do. 

Here you have an example of a box-less shower.

Even after upping our budget, we soon realized there were certain things we would just have to get used to. Like hallways that have sound-activated lights, so when you get off the elevator, you have to stomp around in the dark until they go on. Also, no one really maintains the common areas in many buildings, so until you step into an apartment, you sometimes think maybe you're in a falling-apart haunted house. And most kitchens don't have ovens. Also, no clothes dryers, so everything must be hung. In certain buildings, hot water is not available 24/7, and in most buildings, heating is controlled. It goes on in mid-November and gets turned off in mid-March. If it's still freezing outside? Get a good blanket! Oh and another thing. There are mailboxes, but you will probably never get a mailbox key because people just don't use 'em. The mailman will come directly to your door and if you're not home then I don't know what. 

Big sigh.

When Curtis and I first started our apartment search, we were like giddy schoolgirls dreaming of The Perfect Guy. We were all, "Stainless steel appliances! Granite countertops! Hardwood floors!" Then we went on a bunch of bad dates and were all like, "Ummm... something with painted walls and a shower box would be nice." 

We really thought we would have to settle for something less than love, and we were not so thrilled about this at all. 

Then we found it.

Hardwood floors? Check! Shower box? Check!!!

From the moment we walked in, we knew this apartment was different. It felt cozy, the decor was simple but modern, it was spacious and bright, we could get hot water whenever we wanted it, and best of all, it was so clean! Our realtor also pointed out that it was on the 9th floor, which is a number that signifies harmony in Chinese culture. Bonus! It also faces south, which apparently is good feng shui. Nice! We called our realtor later that day and told her we would take it! 

So last night was our very first night here. I got to make our bed with our new Ikea bedding! I got to do a whole bunch of laundry in our little washing machine! I got to put our pictures up in the living room!

Our bedroom! We have a second bedroom, too, because we just know you cannot wait to visit.

I also found out that our (government subsidized) utilities don't cost very much at all (the last couple who lived here said electricity cost them about $15/month), everyone from nearby restaurants to the dry cleaner to our local grocer will deliver, and we can have a housekeeper come once a week for about $10. How amazing is that? Very! There's even a 7-11 right across the street that serves up some pretty dang good kung pao chicken for a little over $1.

Here is our little kitchen that I will barely use because of the aforementioned kung pao chicken.

So there you have the tour of our apartment where we will be living for the next year. I think the feels-like-we're-just-on-vacation phase of our journey has officially come to an end!