A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: zzlangerhans

Rocky Mountain Highs: Denver


View Colorado 2019 on zzlangerhans's travel map.

Perhaps it's just a reflection of my own native bias, but I find the United States to be one of the most interesting countries to travel in. There's a stark difference between the United States and Europe. In the US most of the regional differences are best appreciated in large cities while in Europe it's the small towns that exemplify the regional character. There are very few countries that can boast the kind of difference in culture seen between Miami and San Francisco, New Orleans and New York City. However, it can be difficult to find distinguishing characteristics between small towns in Arizona or South Carolina, on opposite ends of the country. For that reason, my favorite way to travel in the US is to fly to a major city and build a road trip around it that hopefully encompasses other large cities. That's an easier task on the coasts and the upper Midwest, but out in the large western states major cities are few and far between. That's why most of the remaining major cities I haven't seen in the US are out west: Denver, Phoenix, and Santa Fe to be exact. Of all of these, Denver seemed like the most glaring omission so when I felt the time was right to take my family on their first real winter vacation I focused on ski resorts in Colorado. It was quite easy to choose from the countless ski towns because I was determined not to expose us to any risk of altitude sickness. Coming from Miami at an elevation of zero, the adjustment couldn't be any worse. Almost all the Colorado slopes have base elevations well over 7000 feet with some rising as high as 13000 feet. The only town that was even close to 7000 feet was Steamboat Springs so that made our choice pretty easy.

It's possibly, but unlikely, to feel ill from altitude even at 7000 feet so I gave us three days in Denver to acclimate at 5000 feet before pressing onward into the Rocky Mountains. As it turned out, three days was more than enough time for us to check out everything that we could do in Denver in the middle of winter. We took an evening flight from Miami and were at the rental car counter by ten o'clock, benefiting from the two hour time change. I had taken a substantial risk by renting a front-wheel drive car instead of spending three times as much for an SUV. What settled me on the car was the rental company's refusal to guarantee that even the SUV would be four-wheel drive. I have no idea what percentage of their SUV's were two-wheel drive, but I wasn't about to pay triple and end up with essentially the same wheels. I did make sure to check that our ride's wheels had the mud-snow rating. American airport car rental agencies are usually super-efficient but there was a hiccup this time as our agent suddenly determined that the car our children and luggage had been packed into had not actually been released. In return for transferring all our kids and bags into another car in the frigid winter air we were given a free tank of gas. By the time we arrived at our Airbnb in the Jefferson Park neighborhood west of Downtown it was way too late for anything except pizza delivery.

large_9052b000-5eae-11ea-aa20-cd1b778b4e22.png
One unusual wrinkle about this trip is that we were joined by a small family that Mei Ling is friendly with in Miami, consisting of a four year old boy, his aunt, and her mother. In the morning we met up and began our downtown exploration at Denver Union Station. Denver's original railway station underwent a very successful restoration and redevelopment in the first half of this decade and now evokes memories of the great train stations of the early 20th century. A warm and welcoming waiting area is surrounded by coffee shops, lunch restaurants, and bookstores. The building is still a major transportation hub with a commuter rail station and an underground bus terminal.
large_IMG_3847.JPGlarge_IMG_3847c.JPG

One thing I noticed right away was the very upbeat atmosphere among everyone at Union Station, both employees and patrons. One patron at the bookstore where we were browsing suddenly turned to me and made a joke about the cover of a book. That doesn't happen in most cities. Was it a Denver thing? We ate at Snooze, a popular Denver breakfast chain, which was pleasant but not remarkable. The staff there was likewise cheerful and laid back, despite the hectic atmosphere. I wondered if everyone's positivity was somehow related to the wide availability of legal cannabis. Were they just stoned 24/7? People seemed to be eating as if they were. Walking around afterwards we discovered Mercantile Dining & Provision, a beautiful restaurant with an open kitchen attached to a gourmet market. I regretted not having explored the whole building before breakfast, but at least our meal had been very satisfying.
large_e02f0c70-3bc4-11ea-9925-5178adb7c9fb.JPGlarge_dfa20eb0-3bc4-11ea-9925-5178adb7c9fb.JPG

Next door to Union Station we spotted a very cute Chinese cafe called Zoe Ma Ma and went in to check it out. They had just opened and were getting dumplings and pancakes ready for lunch. It was a very authentic place owned and staffed by Taiwanese immigrants and they were pretty happy to meet Mei Ling and the kids.
large_IMG_3855.JPGlarge_694ba5f0-3c5a-11ea-8f44-99206f4eb61b.JPGlarge_IMG_3855c.JPG

Our next stop was the Colorado Convention Center to see a modern landmark, the Big Blue Bear. I love these kinds of whimsical installations that help to give cities a memorable and unique profile, and I knew the kids would get a kick out of the statue. The enormous sculpture was even more imposing than I had expected, and worth every penny of the half million dollars the city paid for it.
large_IMG_3860.JPG

The bear is just two blocks from downtown's main thoroughfare, the 16th Street Mall. Although the Mall appears pedestrianized, pedestrians would be wise to keep a watchful eye on the large shuttle buses that careen up and down the street with alarming speed and regularity. Despite the stately and ornate buildings that lined the Mall, most of the ground level businesses were convenience stores and low end eating establishments and we didn't find much reason to hesitate as we walked southward.
large_IMG_3864d.jpglarge_IMG_3864e.jpg

At the end of the Mall we encountered Civic Center Park, which was dominated by the imposing Colorado State Capitol Building. The grayish-white granite exterior was impressively pristine in the bright winter sun and the golden dome gleamed cheerfully.
large_34cb92a0-3cc2-11ea-ac4c-8f93e9dd4815.JPGlarge_IMG_3868d.JPGlarge_IMG_3868c.JPG

In the plaza at center of the park there were so many people in small groups that at first we thought we'd stumbled on a farmer's market in the dead of winter. It turned out to be something less salutary, a large encampment of homeless people many of whom had carts piled high with their belongings. At the north end of the park we passed through the Voorhies Memorial, a neoclassical monument with a pleasing semicircular design and a fountain in front. Our tour of the neighborhood had ended almost as quickly as it had begun. I was somewhat nonplussed at how small and bland the downtown area had been compared to other American cities of similar size such as Boston or Minneapolis. Thus far Denver seemed more on a level with smaller cities like Buffalo or Orlando, not that there was necessarily anything wrong with that.
large_IMG_3875.JPGlarge_IMG_3876j.jpg

Once we'd finished with Downtown, it wasn't easy to choose another destination to visit. I hadn't found any particularly interesting neighborhoods in my research, and certainly no ethnic neighborhoods. There wasn't much in the way of eclectic stores or markets like we'd found in other cities either. Eventually we decided to visit the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, which seemed to be the best choice for young kids among Denver's museums. We spent more than an hour wandering among the wildlife dioramas on the second floor before realizing that there was a much more interesting area called Discovery Zone on the ground level. We gave the kids another hour here because they enjoyed the interactive displays much more than the static exhibits upstairs. As we left the sun was setting over the large expanse of City Park.
large_IMG_3886.JPGlarge_IMG_3882.JPGlarge_IMG_3887.JPG

Denver was a little light on activities in the winter months but one area where the city seemed to be very competitive was food halls. There were several sizable ones in the central city and some other good ones in the suburbs. For our first dinner in Denver we chose The Source, a former iron foundry in a neighborhood called Five Points adjacent to Downtown. It wasn't a typical food hall in that several of the spaces were occupied by retail boutiques. The few restaurants were mostly of the sit-down variety and there was very little in the way of common area to combine purchases from different vendors. The division of the development into two disconnected spaces made each section seem somewhat threadbare and inert. We had drinks in the small central bar called Isabel while we perused the appealing menu of a restaurant called Acorn, which fortunately was just opening and permitted us a large table on the condition that we be out in less than two hours. No problem there. The food was prepared in that contemporary, farm-to-table American bistro style that's often attempted but rarely well-executed. In this case it was done very, very well and we were very pleased with our first real restaurant in Denver. I noted ruefully that we would probably have to try ten new restaurants in Miami to expect to find one meal that good. Afterwards we went to the adjoining market hall which is attached to a boutique hotel. Here we found a barbecue restaurant and some cool eclectic art. On the roof of the hotel was a stylish bar with great views over Downtown.
large_IMG_3888.JPGlarge_IMG_3888b.JPGlarge_IMG_3888c.JPG

During the night something pretty awesome happened. It snowed. To a lot of people reading this that might seem fairly mundane, but none of my kids have ever seen snow falling or freshly fallen snow. The closest they've come has been old patches of spring snow in Andorra and Norway that were dotted with sheep dung. When they woke up and saw what was going on out the window they were incredulous. It had been fifteen years for me since my last snowfall and I have to admit it looked pretty sweet. There were several inches on the ground and the snow was still coming down. It was light, powdery stuff that melted quickly when it touched our skin. For the kids the snow was pure excitement but I had other things to worry about. I'd decided not to pay threefold the price to rent an SUV after the rental company refused to guarantee me a four-wheel drive, so we had a regular front-wheel drive full size car. At least we had the mud-snow rated tires, but I felt a little guilty about having chosen the cheaper and somewhat riskier option. The car was perched atop a very steep driveway that had been easy to negotiate before, but now I had to reverse it down into the street. I carefully made sure that there weren't any cars coming our way before I backed it down, and fortunately the car didn't slip. The roads hadn't been plowed but the snow on the asphalt had already largely been churned to slush by morning traffic. It was still unnerving driving in snow again after so long. Funnily enough, I'd driven through much worse countless times in Boston during my residency with a light front-wheel drive Nissan sports car which didn't even have snow tires. I rarely thought about it being dangerous even though I'd had to dig myself out of the middle of the street more than once. Having a wife and three little kids in the car changes one's perspective on these things rather dramatically.

Asian-Mexican fusion Onefold proved to be an excellent choice for Sunday brunch. All eight of us were delighted with the delicious and creative food and returned to the outdoors warmed and satiated. We browsed a gourmet food store called Marczyk Fine Foods for a while and then drove around Belcaro, which seemed to be the wealthiest residential neighborhood within the city limits. It was nice, but didn't have the same wow factor as the high end neighborhoods in other cities.
large_IMG_3889d.jpglarge_IMG_3894.JPG

It was barely noon and I was completely out of ideas for what to do in Denver. All I had left was my list of food halls. We decided to drive half an hour south to the small town of Castle Rock which had a small food hall called Ecclesia Market. As we exited the highway we passed the distinctive butte that gave the town its name. The enormous caprock at the summit evoked the ruined castles we've seen atop similar hills in Italy and Spain, but the town itself was classic Americana. Inside the market were a specialty foods store and a couple of small restaurants that didn't really tempt us. There was a also a fish market which didn't have much fish but incongruously sold fresh coconuts which were quite delicious. The very friendly guys working there entertained the kids with a fake spider in a box.
large_IMG_3895.JPGlarge_0cb0f860-53d7-11ea-bbc3-836044878e24.JPGlarge_IMG_3896e.JPG

Down the street from Ecclesia was a large crafts market and variety store where we browsed for about an hour and bought some toys for the kids. Our first stop back in Denver was the closest thing we could find to an ethnic neighborhood, a mixed Mexican and Vietnamese section of Federal Boulevard in the southwestern part of the city. We stocked up on noodles at Vietnamese supermarket and then chose a Vietnamese-Cajun crawfish restaurant called The Crawling Crab for lunch. Vietnamese-Cajun? Yes, it's a thing. Apparently it was started by Vietnamese who had been displaced to Houston by Hurricane Katrina in 2009 and spread back to New Orleans and then all over the country. We even have one in Miami and it's the best crawfish I know of here. It turns out a couple of big bags of messy, spicy crawfish and a couple of dozen freshly-shucked oysters were all that we needed.
large_IMG_20191228_175121_1.jpg

We drove back downtown with the idea that we could spend a couple of hours giving the kids their first experience with bowling at Lucky Strike Denver, but when we arrived we learned there was a four hour waiting list. Instead we bought tickets for the huge video game arcade which suited the kids just fine, although watching them flail on the complex racing games made me wince. On the way to dinner we passed by an outdoor carousel and Larimer Square, both of which were beautifully lighted.
large_IMG_20191228_201848.jpglarge_IMG_20191228_203626.jpg

Our choice for the evening food hall was Denver Milk Market, also downtown and not far from Union Station. This was a fairly large food hall that was pleasantly energetic and crowded, but the food choices were fairly banal. It felt like someone had created a list of the most popular fast foods across all the food halls in the United States and then put them all in one place. As it turned out, one restaurateur was behind all sixteen vendors so perhaps this was exactly the concept he was looking for. The one exception was a cheese shop where we put together a platter of whatever cheeses and salumi took our fancy. Cleo also loved the carpet of pennies in front of the counter. On the way out we stopped for a brief chat with a blue Lego man who was sitting morosely on a bench.
large_IMG_3902.JPG

large_IMG_3902b.jpg

On our last morning in Denver we dressed the kids up in the color-coded fleece underwear I'd carefully selected before the trip. It had been surprisingly temperate in Denver but I knew it would be a lot colder once we got into the mountains. I decided to take a shot at a brunch reservation at Root Down, one of the most celebrated restaurants in Denver, and surprisingly got a table for the eight of us. We arrived a little early, ten minutes before the restaurant opened, which meant we could fulfill another of the kids' dreams. Their first snowball fight! There was a small park right across the street from the playground that had several inches of pristine day-old snow. The kids never really got the hang of packing snowballs. They were in too much of a hurry, and most of their attempts disintegrated as soon as the snow left their hands. I took it pretty easy on them, but I still made sure they each got to experience the unique sensation of getting nailed by a snowball.
large_IMG_3904.JPGlarge_IMG_20191229_115118.jpg

Root Down had solid American food, although the menu was small and not very adventurous. It was definitely no competition to the brunch we had at Onefold the previous day. The kids were entertained by the display of colorful rotary dial telephones, whose purpose they had trouble identifying. Close to Root Down, we stopped at another small food hall called Avanti Food & Beverage although we didn't have any inclination to keep eating. It looked decent although there weren't many customers on a Sunday morning.
large_IMG_3909.JPGlarge_IMG_3912.JPG

We were an hour ahead of schedule for snow tubing in the mountains so we made one last stop at an amazing used bookstore called West Side Books. The place reminded me of the bookstores I used to frequent as a college student in Boston. It's too bad that our hometown of Miami doesn't seem to have any worth visiting. The kids all got a kick out of it and we found several books to keep them away from their iPads for a while as we drove into the Rockies.
large_IMG_20191229_141807.jpglarge_IMG_20191229_141807a.JPG

Posted by zzlangerhans 01:38 Archived in USA Tagged travel denver blog tony friedman Comments (0)

East Asian Immersion: Zunhua and Tangshan


View China/Japan 2019 on zzlangerhans's travel map.

Once we were done with Tianjin we didn't have any great ideas for the remaining five days of our vacation. Beijing was about 100 degrees and hadn't been as fun as we'd expected anyway. I couldn't face another flight just for a few days in another part of China. I studied the map and the only other major city I saw within easy train distance was Tangshan, which I knew very little about. However, a city of more than two million people was certainly going to have markets, good restaurants, and some kind of attractions. When I asked Mei Ling about Tangshan, she told me that one of her close friends from Miami was there for the summer and that sealed the deal. Tangshan would be our final stop of the trip.

Tangshan is one of the largest cities in Hebei, a horseshoe-shaped province that surrounds the municipalities of Beijing and Tianjin. Hebei doesn't have any defining characteristics because it's an artificial province that was carved from different areas around the capital. If anything, Hebei is known for manufacturing and mining which is the reason for its dubious distinction as China's most polluted province. One mysterious chunk of Hebei floats between Beijing and Tianjin but is completely separated from the rest of the province. This exclave contains the cities of Sanhe, Dachang, and Xianghe and has a large population of Hui Muslims. There's virtually nothing in the English language internet that describes this region, except for a couple of stubs on Wikipedia. It may be that there's absolutely nothing in this area worthy of discussion, but I find the complete absence of any information somewhat odd.
large_0ef405a0-1641-11ea-86f8-0b54b24ccf61.png

Mei Ling's friend insisted on sending a driver all the way to Tianjin to pick us up. I followed our progress using my Google Maps GPS and soon realized that we weren't on a course to Tangshan at all, but rather headed far north of the city. That's when Mei Ling told me that we were actually going to a smaller town called Zunhua about 50 miles north of Tangshan. That's not Tangshan, I told her. It's in Tangshan prefecture, she answered. That's kind of how things go when we're in China. I didn't have high expectations for Zunhua, but the city was even worse than I expected. If Mei Ling's hometown of Mudanjiang is the Cleveland of China, Zunhua is Newark. A thick haze of pollution hung over the entire city, which seemed to be entirely composed of grim blocks of Soviet-style housing. At least the hotel that we'd been put up in was comfortable and relatively modern.
large_IMG_3072.JPGlarge_IMG_3025.JPG

Mei Ling's friends treated us to yet another banquet which ended in another birthday party for Spenser. One of the more unusual dishes was a Barbie dressed in a flowing kimono of raw meat for the hot pot. As usual every effort was made to get me drunk on the grain liquor baijiu which I raised cheerfully to my lips but didn't imbibe. In China it's a big thing to get the guest of honor wasted at dinner, but unfortunately for my hosts I haven't let myself get intoxicated for many, many years and I wasn't about to start now in front of my three kids for the sake of politeness.
large_IMG_20190720_130527.jpglarge_IMG_3031.JPGlarge_IMG_3024.JPG

Across the street from our hotel was the community market which was fairly small and lacked any unusual items, but it was better than nothing. There were some live chickens and rabbits and a salad bar. By this point I'd learned to stop the salad lady from dumping the heaping spoonful of salt onto my selections before she tossed it.
large_IMG_3027.JPGlarge_IMG_3029.JPG

Our hosts did a good job of keeping the kids entertained despite the paucity of attractions in Zunhua. We spent one day at a hot spring and another at a creek where the kids caught tiny little minnows in nets. Evenings were occupied with multiple course dinners that lasted for hours. It was a very laid back and easy lifestyle with all our needs being attended to, but I missed the excitement of our stops in Dalian and Osaka. Most of us were starting to get coughs and runny noses after the first day as well, and I wondered if it was just a cold or something to do with the relentless grey smog that hovered permanently over the city.
large_IMG_3035.JPG

We did make it to Tangshan for one day which for me was the highlight of our visit to Hebei. On the outskirts of town we visited an enormous food hall and conference center that was something of a domestic tourist trap. On the ground floor there were numerous food preparation stations selling various regional dishes. Upstairs was an Escheresque labyrinth of chambers containing exhibits, private dining areas, conference rooms, and even craft stations. The kids had a messy blast making clay figurines. The koi pond on the ground floor was packed with colorful and ravenous fish which allowed me another shot at fulfilling my fantasy of feeding them with chopsticks.
large_IMG_3042.JPGlarge_IMG_3048.JPGlarge_IMG_20190721_150137.jpg

There's not much for travelers to see in Tangshan except for a grim memorial to the devastating earthquake of 1976 which killed a quarter of a million people. Instead we spent the evening at a large street market which was mostly dedicated to clothes and household goods but also contained a sizable and variegated food court. I realized this was my last chance to buy a Chinglish T-shirt on this trip and began to search all the vendors for one with the most random and inappropriate messages. The vendors were confused when I immediately rejected all the T-shirts they suggested for me because they weren't silly enough. The best one I'd seen the whole trip was a girl in Dalian whose shirt said "I've got stupid wrhen all over my face" but I wasn't lucky enough to find anything like that. I settled for one that claimed the brand "Burbeery" and had some incoherent nonsense about "Londineblamb" inscribed underneath.
large_IMG_3056.JPG

Our trip came to an end on an anticlimactic note, but it had still been a remarkable experience particularly with respect to Dalian and Osaka. Trying to base ourselves in Beijing had been a mistake - I had some notion that we would leave the bulk of our luggage behind and travel light to other cities but that proved impractical. On our next trip to China in 2021 we're hoping to spend five or six days in each of four southern provinces that we've never visited: Szechuan, Hunan, Guangxi, and Yunnan. Hopefully we'll be able to combine that with a two week stay in northern Vietnam. Of course, there's still a lot of time for those plans to change but I'm really looking forward to experiencing a different side of China with incredible mountains and landscape, mouthwatering cuisine, and diverse ethnic groups.

Posted by zzlangerhans 03:26 Archived in China Comments (2)

East Asian Immersion: Tianjin


View China/Japan 2019 on zzlangerhans's travel map.

Once we were finished with Shanghai we only had nine days left to fill in our itinerary. We still wanted to spend a few days in Beijing at the end so we chose Tianjin to fill the gap since it was the largest city in eastern China we hadn't visited. In fact, Tianjin is the third largest city in China although it receives much less attention from travelers than Beijing, Shanghai, and many smaller cities. Internet searches didn't produce a long list of things to do in Tianjin, but we were confident that we could stay busy for three days in such a large city.

We arrived on a late flight from Shanghai and didn't get into our Airbnb until close to midnight. As usual, we were on an upper floor of a tall condo building. The dilapidated lobby and elevator weren't encouraging, but the apartment itself was clean, modern, and spacious. It was also furnished rather ostentatiously with matching faux Victorian living room and bedroom sets. China is never short of surprises.
large_IMG_2881.JPG

large_8767b530-112e-11ea-ab03-33bcb0a5d7f9.png
By the time we got ourselves out of the apartment the next morning, the heat and humidity had already become oppressive. Our apartment complex was a typical Chinese block of modern high-rises amidst a mostly flat expanse of enormous boulevards. We had a noodle breakfast and took a short walk around our immediate neighborhood. I found an unusual pair of sandals with a drawstring-type closure and we built our own salad at a small produce market. Unfortunately when the salad bar owner tossed our selections with seasonings I was too late to stop her from throwing a huge spoonful of salt into the mix, which rendered the final product virtually inedible.
large_IMG_2885.JPGlarge_IMG_2884.JPG

Across the street from our apartment complex is Tianjin's Ancient Culture Street, which is a very touristy rendition of an old commercial street with early 20th century styled buildings which now house various retail establishments. While much of it was schlock, there were enough stores devoted to genuine local artisanry to keep us entertained for a couple of hours.
large_IMG_2886.JPGlarge_IMG_2892.JPG

I wandered into one small shop whose proprietor was serving various alcoholic drinks in small clay saucers. He demonstrated that once I drank the contents of the saucer, I should heave it against the far wall of the shop. Indeed, there was a huge pile of broken saucers at the bottom of the wall. Mei Ling joined me and we selected some rice-derived moonshine for ourselves and plum juice for the kids, and we all took a turn at heaving our saucers at the wall except for Ian who managed to drop his on the floor immediately.
large_IMG_2891.JPG

Our last adventure on Ancient Cultural Street was trying nitro puffs for the first time. I'm not sure how liquid nitrogen became a part of ancient Chinese culture but it was a fun experience for everyone.

We walked back east and soon found ourselves at the western bank of the Hai River, a wide channel that flows through the center of Tianjin before emptying into Bohai Bay. The other side of the river looked to have the most activity so we set across the bridge that stretched out in front of us. The bridge was lined with snack vendors who were cooking with rickety-appearing propane tanks. To the north we could see the red arch of the Jingang Bridge and behind that the huge Ferris wheel called Tianjin Eye. On the south side of the bridge locals were diving acrobatically into the river from a concrete esplanade.
large_IMG_2904a.jpglarge_IMG_2905.JPGlarge_IMG_2909.JPG

We walked south along the esplanade which was an excellent way to see the mixture of classical buildings and modern skyscrapers that Tianjin had to offer. The beauty and variety of styles of the many bridges was reminiscent of Bilbao.
large_IMG_2920.JPGlarge_IMG_2917.JPGlarge_IMG_2922.JPGlarge_IMG_2922b.jpg

The esplanade seemed to be a beloved place for locals to walk, ride bicycles, and enjoy amateur street performances. In the space of an hour we encountered a saxophone player, an operatic dance, and groups of middle aged locals dancing and marching for exercise. Our kids were thrilled to be able to join in the last of these activities. The best part is that nothing felt like it was manufactured for tourism, mainly because there were hardly any tourists there except for other Chinese. It was just people getting outside on a pleasant summer evening to relax and do the things they loved.

As Tianjin slipped into darkness the river promenade remained brightly illuminated by streetlamps and strategically-placed floodlights. Buildings and bridges acquired an unearthly and beautiful glow. The skyscrapers to the south were also artfully highlighted, their geometric outlines encased in rectangles and parabolas of light. It was as though the entire city had been engineered to create a nocturnal spectacle.
large_IMG_2942b.jpglarge_IMG_2937.JPGlarge_IMG_2942.JPG

Our evening's journey ended at the Italian Style Street, a touristy development at the site of the former Italian concession. The area was renovated into its current form and opened to the public in 2008 to coincide with the Beijing Olympics. Contrary to its name, the area is actually a small cluster of cobblestone streets with a few older buildings but nothing that struck me as particularly Italian in character. Of the many international restaurants on the main pedestrian street, only a few were Italian. We ultimately settled on a French restaurant called La Seine which proved to be extraordinarily good. It's hard to compare French with Chinese cuisine, but it was certainly one of the more enjoyable meals of our six week trip.
large_IMG_2944b.jpglarge_IMG_2944d.jpglarge_IMG_2946.JPGlarge_IMG_2944e.jpg

We had barely noticed how far we had walked to our final destination but the prospect of returning on foot after our huge was very unappealing. Mei Ling hailed a cab with her Chinese ridesharing app and we returned to the apartment very satisfied with our first evening in Tianjin. Despite the city's lack of international recognition, the walk along the Hai River had been one of the most interesting and pleasurable experiences of the trip so far.

I wish I could say that our first evening in Tianjin was just a taste of what the city had in store for us the next two days, but it turned out to be the high point of our three day stay. The next morning we took a long taxi ride to the southern part of the city to hunt for a seafood market I had read about on a travel blog. In general there was a surprising absence of food markets in central Tianjin and this was my only lead after extensive searching. When we finally arrived after much driver confusion we found a wholesale market that had only a few vendors among an array of deserted warehouses, and no retail customers in sight. It was a complete wash, and it took quite a while for Mei Ling to find a driver on her Chinese app to get us out of there. The driver took us to a seafood restaurant which was somewhat a fish market in its own right, so we were able to get the food we wanted if not the experience.
large_IMG_2958a.jpglarge_IMG_2957.JPGlarge_IMG_2958.JPG

One of China's special qualities is that it has some of the most beautiful city parks I've ever visited. I love discovering the creative landscaping, secluded paths, and serene lakes of these urban oases. The parks in Dalian and Beijing had been particularly awesome. Tianjin's largest park is called Water Park because most of the surface area is comprised of two enormous lakes separated by a chain of islands connected by bridges. On the way to the park I saw an unfinished skyscraper from the window of the taxi. There were no other buildings around it which made it hard to judge it's height but it seemed gigantic. The taxi driver told Mei Ling that it was the Goldin Finance 117 tower and it had been under construction since 2008. It was originally supposed to be completed in 2014 but construction has been suspended multiple times due to lack of financing. If the building is completed as scheduled in 2020, it will be the fifth tallest in the world at 1959 feet. My photo from the taxi window through the smog doesn't do the building justice so I stole an aerial picture from this awesome skyscraper message board.
large_IMG_2950.JPGlarge_NieDMyK.jpg

When we arrived at Water Park we took a wrong entrance and ended up at the adjacent Zhou Enlai Memorial. Zhou is revered in China for his role in the Chinese Civil War and his position as the first premier of the People's Republic of China. It wasn't really our kind of place but the kids got a kick out of touring the airplane that Zhou received as a gift from Stalin.
large_IMG_2960b.jpglarge_IMG_2960.JPG

Once we figured out how to get to Water Park, it did not disappoint. At the northern end of the park was a Bonsai Garden with a classical Chinese pavilion. The kids were amazed by the miniature trees and Cleo was very skeptical when I told her they were regular trees that had been trimmed very carefully over years.
large_IMG_2966.JPGlarge_IMG_2968.JPG

The trail over boardwalks and bridges from the north to the south side of the park was truly remarkable. We were surrounded on every side by tranquil lakes and lush vegetation, yet on the other side of the water was the imposing urban landscape of Tianjin. The park wasn't as meticulously maintained as People's Park in Dalian, but it was just as beautiful in its own way.
large_IMG_2970.JPGlarge_IMG_2973.JPGlarge_IMG_2975.JPGlarge_IMG_2977b.jpg

On the way back to the center of town we drove around the Tianjin Radio and Television Tower, which is the eighth tallest freestanding tower in the world. For a city that is barely on the tourism radar, Tianjin has a surprising number of visually arresting sights.
large_3d39c010-10a3-11ea-be4c-a966e53dd837.JPG

Tianjin is another city that has largely lost its night markets, if it ever had any. Our research uncovered a couple of food streets, but they proved to be a pale imitation of true night markets. They were more similar to Ancient Cultural Street with lonely vendors selling traditional snacks in a largely deserted cavernous building.
large_IMG_2979.JPGlarge_IMG_2981.JPG

It was dark by the time we arrived at Minyuan Stadium, a former sports arena which is now a multipurpose space for artistic performances, boutiques, and restaurants. In front of the Neoclassical entrance arch was a sports monument that had a large installation of illuminated piano keys arranged around it. Dozens of kids were jumping on the keys which caused them to blink and change colors. Inside the stadium people were congregated on the concrete bleachers even though there was nothing happening on the small stage at the center except for a few kids skateboarding. Inside the covered archways was a somewhat sterile but crowded night market devoted to crafts and artisanal foods. As we left the stadium we encountered a crowd watching middle-aged Chinese women dancing to Irish-sounding music being played by Chinese men with harmonica and bongo drums. China seems to have become one of the world's foremost cultural melting pots even without having much of a foreign community. We had dinner at a steakhouse in Minyuan Stadium but couldn't recreate the magic from the previous night at the French restaurant. The steaks were tough and greasy despite the Western prices.

large_IMG_2983a.jpglarge_IMG_2983b.jpg

We started our last day in Tianjin with a walk up the Western bank of the Hai to the Yongle Bridge, where we bought tickets for an evening ride on the Tianjin Eye. On the way we noticed that many of the trees had what looked like a large open insect cocoon nailed to their trunks. We were unable to think of a reason why anyone would do this, nor could I find out anything online afterwards.
large_IMG_2986.JPGlarge_IMG_2990.JPG

We spent most of the day in the Heping District of central Tianjin. The Porcelain House is a large mansion in the French Concession area whose current owner has decorated it with thousands of porcelain jars and porcelain vases. It reminded me a lot of the Dickeyville Grotto in Wisconsin, an odd convergence of Eastern and Western aesthetics. It was quite an interesting and beautiful structure, but it was also a quite expensive tourist trap so we took photos outside and moved on.
large_a3de9d30-1176-11ea-9c16-118a5ad1bde7.JPG

We took a long walk southeast towards another Tianjin landmark, St. Joseph's Cathedral. On the way we encountered a large shopping mall with several food courts which had much better offerings than the touristy official food streets. With full stomachs we pressed onward to the cathedral, which turned out to be a pleasantly symmetric red and white-striped confection. The hundred-year-old Roman Catholic church was constructed from bricks shipped from France and seemed quite incongruous against a backdrop of drab modern highrises.
large_IMG_2997.JPG

At this point we were relatively close to Minyuan Stadium so we decided to take another look during the day time. On the way we passed a barbershop and all three of us boys got our hair cut under the watchful eye of Mei Ling.
large_IMG_3005.JPG

The area around Minyuan Stadium is called Wu Da Dao, or Five Great Avenues. The area is known for its many Western style buildings that were built during the concession era in the early 20th century. During the day we found the stadium and surroundings to be almost completely deserted. We walked around the immediate area and didn't see any buildings that were particularly remarkable. Tourists were being loaded into horse-drawn carriages for tours of the area but we decided we'd already seen enough Western style buildings at Badaguan in Qingdao.
large_cf454980-11ec-11ea-8d85-f34aab5acdf2.JPG

The time had come for us to return to the Tianjin Eye for our scheduled ride. The enormous Ferris Wheel was already illuminated in the gathering dusk. There was a long line of people who already had tickets but Mei Ling was somehow able to negotiate with a security guard to get us past the bulk of it. Even so we had to wait on a very slow moving line for more than an hour after our ride was supposed to have begun. Eventually we got on the wheel which also turned excruciating slowly. It took forty minutes to complete the revolution by which time the kids were totally bored and jumping around the small cabin. Thanks to the many tall condo buildings in the area, the view from the top wasn't that much better than it had been from the ground. Of all the things we had done in Tianjin, riding the Eye had certainly been the least worthwhile.
large_IMG_3010.JPGlarge_IMG_3012.JPG
large_a129dd70-1176-11ea-9c16-118a5ad1bde7.JPG

For our last dinner in Tianjin I had a lead on a place called Shiyue Food Street in the Hebei District on the east side of the river. I'd only found one mention of it so I wasn't sure it really existed, but fortunately our taxi driver knew exactly where it was. There weren't many restaurants open on the street but at least it was outdoors and crowded. It was the only authentic night market we found in Tianjin.
large_IMG_3021.JPG

We had now been to the five largest cities in China and Tianjin was by far the least impressive, which explains why Tianjin is barely a blip on the tourist radar. I was still happy we'd visited, mainly for the experience of walking alongside the Hai River and eating at the Italian Style Town. However, there was nothing else about Tianjin that particularly stood out even when compared to smaller cities like Dalian or Shenyang. I think Tianjin is best visited as an overnight trip from Beijing so that the evening can be enjoyed on the river and perhaps a visit to Ancient Cultural Street or Water Park in the morning before returning. And definitely, for sure, skip the Tianjin Eye.

Posted by zzlangerhans 04:07 Archived in China Tagged travel market china blog tianjin tony friedman Comments (2)

East Asian Immersion: Chongming Island


View China/Japan 2019 on zzlangerhans's travel map.

With a couple more days before we were due in Tianjin, we made an impromptu decision to spend the weekend with Mei Ling's friends at their family home on Chongming Island. Chongming is the largest of a group of islands that occupy the wide mouth of the mighty Yangtze River.
large_afb0c0a0-0d2c-11ea-b69c-2f3f9250e8ef.png

We took the metro from my brother's house almost an hour to get to the bus station in Pudong, from where we had a ninety minute bus trip to Chongming Island. We stayed in a very basic, local hotel which the kids loved because they had an old-fashioned miniature arcade game.
large_IMG_2838.JPG

Almost all of Chongming Island is criss-crossed by wide canals. We walked alongside one to the center of town where the main market was still in progress in late afternoon. Unsurprisingly, much of the market was devoted to seafood although there was a sizable section for produce. One fisherman incongruously dressed in a sport jacket was gutting eels that were held in place on a long board by a nail through the head. A cheerful woman showed off her fish that was so fresh that the decapitated head was still gasping on the counter.
large_IMG_2856.JPGlarge_IMG_2843.JPGlarge_IMG_2841.JPG

One of my favorite Chinese dishes that is impossible to find anywhere else is drunken shrimp. In fact, it's only popular in the areas directly to the west of Shanghai like Suzhou and Hangzhou. Live shrimp are marinated in wine and soy sauce to make them sluggish and then eaten alive. The strength of the wine determines how much the shrimp are moving when they are eaten. The first time I had drunken shrimp in Hangzhou the shrimp were so active that one actually jumped out of the bowl. The dish isn't just enjoyable for its bizarreness. The fresh taste and crunchiness of the small freshwater shrimp are complemented by the wine and the spices in the marinade. When we came across a basket of the shrimp at the market I decided the next best thing to a bowl of drunken shrimp was to try a raw shrimp without any seasoning at all. The texture was there but the flavor was very bland without the wine, so I decided to wait to find the dish in a restaurant rather than finish the basket.

As rural as it may seem, most of the residents of Chongming Island are quite wealthy. The homes are roomy and modern, and there are quite a number of elaborate mansions scattered around. Many of the homes come with a plot of farmland nearby that can be used to grow corn or watermelon, among other crops. Some take their farming more seriously than others. After the market we walked along the canal to check on Mei Ling's friends' watermelon crop. Almost all the watermelons were over-ripe so the watermelon harvesting trip turned into a watermelon-smashing trip.
large_IMG_2862.JPGlarge_IMG_2853.JPG

On the way back we checked some of the traps that people leave in the canals to catch small aquatic creatures. We didn't find much in there except tiny crabs and minnows, but it was interesting to see how the locals use every tool they can to increase the variety of their food supply.
large_4a718f10-0b8a-11ea-bb7a-f72e843f37a3.JPG

We did finally have drunken shrimp that evening at the banquet Mei Ling's friends threw for us, but the shrimp were so sluggish they would hardly twitch no matter how much Ian poked at them. More fun was to be had from digging tiny snails out of their shells with toothpicks. The bathroom decor was also interesting. The walk home was quite long but the kids got to ride on the scooter as Mei Ling's friend walked it back.

large_IMG_2858.JPGlarge_IMG_2861.JPGlarge_IMG_2859.JPG

In the morning we went back to the community market to see it operating at full steam. There were more stalls open around the market now, including vendors making delicious breads and pancakes. The seafood section was decidedly more energetic as well.
large_IMG_2865.JPG

large_IMG_2864.JPG

We still had plenty of time before returning to Shanghai so we drove to Chongming Dongtan Birds National Nature Reserve. We hiked across wooden bridges and through some interesting wetlands for a couple of hours until the heat became too much for us. We had a long afternoon and evening of travel ahead of us before we could rest again in Tianjin.
large_IMG_2873.JPGlarge_IMG_2873b.jpglarge_IMG_2870.JPG

Posted by zzlangerhans 05:19 Archived in China Comments (0)

East Asian Immersion: Shanghai


View China/Japan 2019 on zzlangerhans's travel map.

When we left the last two weeks of our itinerary empty, we had no intention of visiting Shanghai despite the fact that my brother lives there with his two sons. I had been to Shanghai three times before and although it’s one of my favorite cities I was intent on covering new ground. Our hope was that my brother would find time to meet us in one of the other cities we were visiting, but unfortunately he wasn’t able to get the time off work so we flew from Osaka to Shanghai instead of back to Beijing.

Michael has been living in Shanghai for twenty years. He’s divorced and currently lives in a three story townhouse well to the west of central Shanghai with his sons, his girlfriend, a nanny, and an ayi. Although the location wasn’t convenient, we stayed with him to maximize the amount of time our kids could spend with their cousins. The townhouse was in a large complex of neoclassical buildings that could have been quite beautiful if they weren't so grimy and dilapidated. The three rooms on each level were arranged around a central winding staircase whose banister railings were far enough apart that any of our kids could have fallen through them easily. I spent most of our waking hours at the apartment making sure that the kids stayed in my nephews' bedroom to play rather than chasing each other up and down the stairs.
large_IMG_2738c.jpg

Being far from the center was an opportunity to see the modern, residential side of Shanghai. About half a mile away was a commercial area with enormous malls, restaurants, and supermarkets. For our first dinner in Shanghai we chose a supermarket where we could buy live seafood from tanks and have it cooked to order. Even though we had more adults around to keep things in check, it was still a daunting task to keep the critical mass of five ebullient kids from knocking over the displays.
large_IMG_2738a.jpglarge_IMG_2738b.jpg

The next day we never made it out of the local area. Mei Ling's brother took a train up from Hangzhou with his fiancee and we spent most of the afternoon in the local mall. The big event was an appearance by a Hong Kong actor named Andy Lau, who I'd never heard of but is apparently one of the biggest stars of Chinese language movies ever. Every balcony of the multilevel mall was packed with people awaiting the actor's appearance, which finally took place about ninety minutes after it was scheduled and lasted about two minutes. None of us even caught a glimpse of him from where we were standing. Afterwards we took turns on the virtual reality rides which were thankfully a lot less expensive than they had been in Qingdao.
large_IMG_2741e.jpglarge_e8c9e910-0058-11ea-8a67-691b3bddbfa2.JPGlarge_IMG_2747.JPG

By the time we left the mall a torrential downpour was competing with the colorful hourly fountain show in the plaza. We hurried to a local restaurant where the food was cooked at the table with an enormous blowtorch that ignited the cooking oil into a mass of flames. Not a good place to be wearing hairspray.

large_IMG_2750.JPG

The next day we finally used Shanghai's world class metro. The Chinglish signs warning against jumping onto the tracks that I remembered from 2011 were gone. Now there were European-style barriers between the platform and the train, a welcome sight given that we had five kids to keep track of. We met up with one of Mei Ling's Chinese friends from Miami at the Shanghai Natural History Museum. I wasn't too enthusiastic about the choice because I'd just taken Ian and Cleo to the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan a year earlier and they hadn't clicked with it at all. Sure enough, the six kids seemed more interested in tussling with each other and scattering in every direction than they were in any of the exhibits. Before long the adults were all exhausted with corralling their offspring and we decided to search for a more interesting location. Before hitting the road we spent a few minutes appreciating the sculpture park in the plaza outside the museum.
large_IMG_2754.JPGlarge_IMG_2754c.jpg

Most of what is interesting to travelers in Shanghai is concentrated in a relatively small area between the North-South Expressway and the Huangpu River. The museum was just outside that area so we had a long but not unpleasant walk to Nanjing Road, Shanghai's main pedestrian thoroughfare. Along the way Mei Ling's friend rented a city bike and the kids alternated riding on it as they grew tired of walking. Along the way we passed by People's Park and got a close-up look at Tomorrow Square, a futuristic skyscraper that looks like a rocket-propelled grenade.
large_IMG_2762.JPGlarge_IMG_2766.JPG

Nanjing Road was satisfyingly hectic and lined with a mix of classically elegant buildings and eclectic skyscapers, but it was decidedly more modern and Western-appearing than I remembered. Most of the sidewalk vendors that used to clog the area were gone with the exception of one small side street. We bought a cool little car from a kiosk where the demonstration model was driving straight up and down walls using suction, but once we got it back to the apartment it didn't even turn on. When we took it apart we found that it was missing the lithium battery. It was kind of hard to understand the point of selling a defective version of a toy that only cost twelve bucks, but my brother insisted that the battery was two thirds of the value of the entire car.
large_IMG_2787.JPGlarge_IMG_2790.JPGlarge_IMG_2780.JPGlarge_IMG_2775.JPG

We continued moving east towards the river and soon encountered older neighborhoods that were riddled with narrow pedestrian alleys. We dived into these areas whenever we found them and found an excellent restaurant to squeeze into for an early dinner.
large_IMG_2792.JPGlarge_IMG_2796.JPG

By the time we'd left the second restaurant of the evening darkness and fallen and we had reached The Bund, the historic western bank of the Huangpu that hosts the majestic remnants of Shanghai's colonial era. Although our experience thus far in Shanghai had been fairly sedate, here we found a huge mixed crowd of locals, Chinese tourists, and Westerners. Across the river was the brightly illuminated and futuristic skyline of Pudong, Shanghai's hypermodern expansion with huge international hotels and financial skyscrapers. We let the kids feed off the energetic atmosphere for a while and then returned to the metro for the long trip back home.
large_IMG_2797.JPGlarge_IMG_2805.JPGlarge_IMG_2800.JPG

Friday morning we took the metro to a rather nondescript area in northwestern Shanghai for the weekly Muslim Market next to the Huxi Mosque. In the face of China's apparent homogeneity it is easy to forget that the country has a sizable Muslim minority. The most visible Muslim population is the Uighurs who have migrated from their home region of Xinjiang into practically every Chinese metropolis, often as providers of the highly coveted barbecued skewer street food. The Hui Muslims number more than the Uighurs but are less well-known because of the extent to which they have assimilated into mainstream Han Chinese culture. There are currently about 80000 Muslims living in Shanghai, but of course the market also serves many non-Muslim locals who enjoy Uighur food as well as Westerners. Aside from the omnipresent lamb skewers, there were enormous lamb shanks and mouthwatering deep fried chickens on display.
large_IMG_2810.JPGlarge_IMG_2811.JPGlarge_IMG_2813.JPG

Ignoring the drizzle, we feasted on skewers that were better quality than the usual late night street food fare. I couldn't resist the temptation to buy a huge, meaty lamb haunch. I rounded up the kids and we took turns ripping hunks of meat from the leg with our teeth as other marketgoers looked on in amusement.

Stuffed to the brim with lamb, we were energized to press on to Yuyuan. On my last visit to Shanghai I was amazed how the huge koi in the pond at this historic garden aggressively piled on top of each other when they were being fed by visitors, sometimes until they were practically out of the water entirely. I thought to myself that I could even put food into their mouths directly with chopsticks. I got kind of obsessed with this idea and eventually resolved that on my next trip to Shanghai I would feed koi rice with chopsticks. It was still raining when we arrived at Yuyuan but the touristy bazaar around the garden was jam-packed. Despite the plethora of fast-food kiosks we couldn't find a single one that was selling steamed rice and eventually we had to settle for a loaf of crumbly bread.

The garden was also more crowded than I remembered from our last visit, probably because we were there at the peak of the summer tourist season. Despite the intermittent drizzle it was quite enjoyable to walk along the paths among the ponds and pagodas, admiring the artful rock walls and graceful trees. The bridge across the pond with all the koi was much narrower than I remembered, and as soon as the kids saw I was going to feed the fish they all rushed over and I couldn't convince them to go back. Not only did I have to grasp chunks of crumbly bread with the chopsticks instead of sticky lumps of rice, but I had to keep one eye on the kids as they jostled each other on the rain-slicked and crowded concrete path. Feeding the fish with chopsticks wasn't quite the experience I had imagined but it was still very entertaining, especially when a couple of enterprising snapping turtles made an appearance and dominated the session.
large_IMG_2821a.jpglarge_IMG_2817.JPGlarge_IMG_2821c.jpg

The area around the Yu Garden contains many of Shanghai's most beautiful traditional buildings as well as one of its most famous tea houses. We spent some time hunting for an amazing street market we remembered from our last trip without success. Eventually a security guard told Mei Ling that the market had been disbanded, just like our beloved street markets in Beijing. It was yet another unwelcome change from the China we remembered. We consoled ourselves by exploring a few alleys of the old town where we found a seafood store that allowed the kids to play with their live shrimp.
large_IMG_2821.JPGlarge_IMG_2827.JPGlarge_93ee6d10-0609-11ea-a985-a30e298fa2ce.JPGlarge_IMG_2832.JPG

Around this time the skies opened and we were drenched with a torrential downpour that our raincoats were no match for. We'd also lost track of the metro station and had to ask other people on the street for directions. Predictably enough, we had to trot for almost half a mile before we finally found the metro to take us back to my brother's suburb. Still damp and bedraggled, we had to dash through rain and puddles one more time to meet my brother and his crew at the hotpot restaurant where we would have an early birthday celebration for Spenser. This might have been the last time we would be able to pass off a dinner with a cake at the end as his birthday party. By next summer he'll probably have to have his own party at home after we come back just like his older siblings.

Posted by zzlangerhans 02:30 Archived in China Comments (0)

(Entries 1 - 5 of 154) Page [1] 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 .. »