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China

East Asian Immersion: Beijing part II


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On Saturday morning we visited the tiny market in front of our apartment building. In China things get going pretty early, so it was remarkable that the last two mornings we had left the house before the market opened. Despite the small size we were able to put together a good breakfast of bread, bananas, tomatoes, and cucumbers. It was also my first time since we arrived that I saw our lovely apartment building by the light of day.
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We had two more markets to see that morning, both in the far north of Beijing outside of the fifth ring road. This is the outermost of the four concentric main roads that surround the center of Beijing (the original first ring road has been consumed by redevelopment). Although we weren't staying in a touristy area, here we might as well have been in China a century ago in terms of how many Westerners were present. Even so far from the center it was amazing how many enormous complexes of towering apartment buildings were present. I calculated that each building could hold close to a thousand people, and they often appeared in groups of ten or more. It seemed I could see enough housing for a hundred thousand people just from where I was standing, and I wondered how Beijing could be populated by only ten million people if the outskirts of the city were this densely populated.
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The Beiyuan market wasn't particularly remarkable, given that it was already the fifth market we had visited in Beijing. Even so, the sights and sounds and smells of a produce market are a great way to begin a day of travel. We also got to watch the process of making green onion pancakes at a popular food stall in the market.
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Taxis were hard to come by at Beiyuan market but we did come across a lady with a three-wheeled vehicle. Our next destination wasn't terribly far away so all five of us squeezed in and held on for dear life as the rickety transport careened through the busy avenues. The driver abruptly stopped well short of our destination, claiming she wasn't allowed to cross the bridge ahead. Mei Ling argued and docked the fare, but we had no choice but to cross the Lishui Bridge over the Qinghe River on foot. I put Spenser on my back for the long walk to Lishuiqiao seafood market, but the older kids weren't too happy about the trek.

Fortunately the seafood market was a good experience, thanks to a restaurant right next to the tanks that specialized in cooking their customers' fresh purchases. One of our favorite things about China is that in the markets we aren't limited to looking at the food and thinking how great it would taste on the plate. Most of the time we can buy what interests us the most and find someone to cook it for us. We bought clams and crabs and had our best meal in China up to that point.
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In the afternoon we met up with Cleo's online music teacher near our Airbnb. Cleo has been taking lessons for several months on Skype with an instructor who lives in Beijing, and she was very excited to meet him in person. Our destination was Ghost Street, one of Beijing's most famous food streets which was just a five minute walk from our Airbnb. Despite the spooky name, there's nothing scary about Ghost Street unless the sight of enormous piles of crawfish fills you with trepidation. Many of the restaurants are open 24 hours and display a festive mix of neon and traditional Chinese ornamentation.
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From Ghost Street we took a detour down an interesting alley and found ourselves in an area of peaceful hutongs and siheyuan walled courtyards. This style of housing was typical of Chinese cities for thousands of years but has been in drastic decline since the Communist revolution in the mid 20th century. Only recently has the government taken an interest in preserving the remaining courtyards. We were fortunate to stumble across one with open doors and were greeted cordially by one of the residents, who turned out to be the owner of the courtyard. The owner told Mei Ling the value of the property was a billion yuan, or about 140 million US dollars. I had some trouble believing that this pleasant but fairly plain courtyard on the ground level close to a busy commercial area could command a higher price than the most desirable New York City skyscraper penthouses, but Mei Ling insisted that the real estate market in Beijing had indeed ascended to such lofty levels.
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Dinner was most memorable for some of the interesting translations on the English version of the menu. I didn't have the courage to try either of these dishes.
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Afterwards we took the metro to another food street called Niujie, which proved to be a disappointment. Once again this was just a street with several restaurants, rather than actual street food. Many of the restaurants were closed, and a local advised us that this was more of a day time experience. Niujie is known for Uighur Muslim specialties, which usually means lamb skewers. Indeed, the large restaurant we eventually ate at offered a proliferation of skewers. I'm not particularly a fan of the lamb used to make these, which generally consists of tiny scraps of fatty and gristly meat. Furthermore, skewers have become so popular around Beijing that it's easy to find them anywhere so the long trek to Niujie had largely been a waste of time.

On the last morning of our first stay in Beijing we met up with another of Mei Ling's friends at a mall in the eastern suburb of Tong Zhou. It was a fairly typical mall except for the workers making sweet cakes inside a Plexiglas enclosure. We let the kids entertain themselves in the play zone while we explored the mall. Afterwards we had lunch at a restaurant where the kids could pull their own noodles from strips of dough and cook them in the hot pot.
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After a few hours more of letting our kids and Mei Ling's friend's kids play together at her apartment, we took a long metro ride back to the center of Beijing. The kids hadn't slept and both Spenser and Ian conked out on the first train. I was able to carry Spenser in the mei tai but Mei Ling had to carry Ian in her arms through two metro changes which was very painful. At least it was the final aftereffect of the jetlag that we had to deal with on the trip. We eventually surfaced in central Beijing adjacent to Beihai Park, one of the places I had enjoyed most in my previous visit to Beijing. Unfortunately once we arrived the sun was setting rapidly and it was clear we weren't going to be able to enjoy the park. The lakes north of Beihai Park and the surrounding neighborhoods are known as Shichahai, an area filled with restaurants and nightlife. We walked along the west side of Qianhai Lake, looking for a restaurant with an appetizing menu and a view of the lake. We didn't find what we were looking for by the water, but the brightly lit restaurants and their lakeside reflections were beautiful. We came across a street vendor who was making candy animals out of blown sugar and he let the kids help construct their own purchases.

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We walked as far as the bridge that crosses the narrow strait where Qianhai Lake joins Houhai Lake. On the eastern bank of the lake we finally found a place to eat and then loaded our exhausted family into a taxi for our last night in Dongzhimen. In the morning we caught the Airport Express from Dongzhimen which took us right to our departure terminal. We got a great spot in the front with a view of the track ahead. It was almost like riding through a forest except for the high-rises behind the trees. Our departure from Beijing was uneventful except for the unfortunate restroom signage at our gate.

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Posted by zzlangerhans 10:21 Archived in China Tagged travel china blog tony beihai_park shichahai friedman beiyuan lishuiqiao guijie niujie Comments (0)

East Asian Immersion: Beijing part I


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Every country we visit has its own unique attributes that make it virtually impossible to say that any one is intrinsically better than all the others. However, there's one country we have a special relationship with because it's Mei Ling's birthplace and the place she lived until her early twenties. Traveling to China is like going back home for her and has begun to feel that way for me as well. There's no other country where we can communicate and interact with the local population and integrate into the native culture as easily as we can in China. China is also the country most like the United States in terms of size and diversity, perhaps even more so. China's regions and large cities each have their own individual qualities that make every visit different. This was my ninth visit to China and I've realized that I would probably need fifty trips to begin to feel like I'd seen everything a traveler needed to in the country. For these reasons Mei Ling and I are on the same page when it comes to China - the only thing that stops us from going more is the number of other places we still haven't visited at all.

Mei Ling and I have traveled together to her hometown region of Heilongjiang and to Shanghai several times as well as Guangdong province. However, while I've visited Beijing on my own before and Mei Ling lived there for two years, we've never experienced that amazing and crucially important city together. That made it a natural choice for the location to base ourselves in for this six week exploration of the central eastern coastal area of China and the Kansai region of Japan. We decided that to reduce the stress of migrating around with all our belongings and three small kids to manage, we would base ourselves in Beijing and take a three shorter trips to different areas of interest. We changed our plans somewhat along the way in order to see more cities and spend less time sweltering in a Beijing heat wave.
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The worst thing about the flight from the US to Beijing was that there weren't any good red eye options so the kids were awake most of the way. That meant incessant requests of assistance with headphones, changing movies, drinks and snacks, and bathroom trips. Normally even though I almost never sleep on flights I get at least a couple of hours of being zoned out but that wasn't the case this time. When we finally arrived in Beijing in the early afternoon my brain felt like it had been pickled in brine, and it was another two hours before we finally arrived at our Airbnb. The Airbnb was a basic apartment on the 13th floor of a nondescript apartment building in the Dongzhimen area of central Beijing, not far from the Sanlitun embassy area popular with expats.
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It was still afternoon and going to sleep right away would have been a disaster with respect to getting on the right day/night schedule. Instead we took a five minute walk to a busy restaurant block where we had a huge hotpot meal. This was enough of an accomplishment that we didn't feel we had wasted the day completely and burned a couple of hours. At home we wearily unpacked and crashed into bed around seven.
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I have no doubt that I would have slept through until morning and been perfectly on schedule by day two. I was in the Marianas Trench of deep sleep when forty pounds of affection dropped onto my back. I probably would have had a heart attack if it hadn't happened countless times before. Cleo had woken up and decided she wanted to cuddle. I grasped as tightly as I could to whatever wisps of slumber hadn't floated away and prayed that she would fall back asleep, but within a minute a full-blown wrestling match was taking place on my back. Ian had woken up as well and was trying to share the real estate. After a few minutes of this I knew they were awake for real and my only chance at peace was the iPads. My phone informed me it wasn't even one in the morning. I tossed them their tablets and spent the next couple of hours in a semi-conscious fugue state trying to block out the alternating giggling and squabbling from the other half of the bed. At one point, Mei Ling opened our door and tossed in Spenser who was similarly wide awake and I gave up my attempts to catch up on REM. It's funny how all our kids of different ages, all sleeping different amounts on the plane, all woke up at the same excruciating moment in the middle of the night while the adults were on their way to complete recovery.
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In the end it worked out fine because China starts at five in the morning and we were ready for it bright and early. Our first stop was Chaowai Morning Market in the central neighborhood of Chaoyang, a short cab ride from our Airbnb. Within seconds of entering the market we were reminded of why the brutal flight and all the other inconveniences of traveling to China are more than worthwhile. The very first stall had an enormous heap of yang mei, one of my favorite fruits which is virtually unobtainable outside of China. Most Westerners are completely unfamiliar with it and the fruit doesn't even have a generally accepted English name, although it is sometimes called Chinese bayberry or yumberry. It is about the size of a small plum with a pit in the middle, but otherwise it is completely unlike any other fruit in taste and texture. The surface is rough and a little rubbery, kind of like a Koosh ball. The meat varies from sour to sweet depending on the ripeness of the fruit and possesses a faint fermented taste with strengthens as the fruit ripens. One of the reasons that yang mei is rarely exported is its extreme perishability. The fermented taste of the fruit becomes stronger over the course of the day after it is bought, and that process is accelerated dramatically if it is handled roughly. Just putting a bag of yang mei down on a table is enough to bruise the fruit. That's usually not a problem as I would have a hard time letting yang mei get through a day without being eaten. It was gratifying to see our kids all enjoyed the yang mei as much as I did, although Cleo seemed to be the one with the most passion for them.
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After buying our yang mei we slowly perused the rest of the market, which was dominated by fruits and vegetables. We also bought some amazingly huge and sweet mulberries which stained all our fingers purple. At he back of the market we found the food court where savory tripe and noodle soups were being served at very basic stalls. We all ate ravenously in this most local and authentic of all the places we could have chosen for breakfast.
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We took another cab to Shengfu Xiaoguan Market, a more upscale but no less authentic produce market to the northeast of our Airbnb. This market was inside an enormous warehouse and had a large meat and seafood area as well as fruits and vegetables. Here we bought cherries and several varieties of grapes, some of them as large and shiny as plums. I took the kids by the seafood stalls where live shrimp would frantically launch themselves out of their bins onto the floor of the market. We would probably have hunted for another food court but I could tell the kids were starting to sag. Cabs were completely unavailable at this point due to the morning rush hour but we were able to figure out which bus would get us close to our Airbnb. All three kids were asleep as soon as their heads hit the pillows. It was still just nine in the morning.
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We let the kids sleep until late afternoon while we worked on logistics, which was probably a mistake. We went straight from the Airbnb to dinner in Sanlitun, which has historically been a popular locale for Western expats. I had been in Sanlitun on my previous visit to Beijing in 2008 and I didn't recognize the environs at all. Previously it had been a collection of high end bars and clubs mixed with numerous less salutary establishments, but now the area was filled with skyscrapers and high end malls. Mei Ling had found a promotion for a seafood restaurant which allowed us to feast on an enormous platter of fruit and shellfish for a surprisingly affordable price. Afterwards we followed a narrow waterfall down the center of a staircase which turned into a stream that coursed along the lower level of the outdoor mall. Despite the late hour we could see a lot of people sweating furiously in a high impact aerobics studio with glass walls. Those less fitness-inclined had a wide selection of restaurants and cafes they could patronize. I realized that a lot had changed in Beijing in just a short time, and Mei Ling confirmed that the government was actively modernizing and gentrifying the larger cities. Cleaning out the cheap entertainment and the street markets was one prong of a larger effort to reduce the migration of Chinese from rural areas to the major cities, which were becoming unsustainably overpopulated. While there were certainly benefits to this approach, we would find that some of the changes were destroying what made Beijing so unique and interesting. The new Sanlitun was certainly a pleasant place to eat and shop, but it was now much like any high end shopping neighborhood in Korea or Taiwan.
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The kids hadn't make much progress on their jetlag, thanks to sleeping most of the previous day, so we had another early arousal the following morning. That allowed us to hit two more morning markets. Xinmin vegetable market is located just north of the second ring road, adjacent to one of Beijing's many canals. I'm always amazed by the sheer size of the stacks of fruits and vegetables in Chinese markets. The kids had fun getting splashed by the frantic carp in the live fish tanks.
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Back near Dongzhimen, Sanyuanli Market has a reputation for produce that is so high in quality that restaurant chefs shop there. We didn't have the facilities or the energy to cook our own meals at home, but we saw some of the most beautiful and colorful seafood that we've ever come across in a market.
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In the afternoon some local friends of Mei Ling's Chinese friends in Miami took us out to a Beijing duck restaurant near the historic center of the city. Apparently it was a very famous restaurant but I was so exhausted from dealing with the kids since three in the morning that I can barely remember the meal. Fortunately it seems I took a couple of pictures.
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After a long afternoon nap it was time to go out on the town again. Beijing may have lost their street markets, but they still have several somewhat pedestrianized areas that they call food streets. Nanluoguxiang is a narrow road in an area of the city center which has preserved its old-fashioned character. Most of these small streets, or hutongs, have disappeared during the modernization of Beijing and the remaining ones have subsequently become something of a tourist attraction in their own right. Nanluoguxiang has been developed into a combined shopping street and food street, but the street food was limited to a couple of stinky tofu and skewer vendors. Most of the shops lining the streets were selling souvenirs, clothes, and contemporary fast food. The scene definitely didn't lessen my nostalgia for the clamorous Beijing street markets that had all disappeared.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 14:55 Archived in China Tagged travel china beijing blog tony sanlitun friedman dongzhimen nanluoguxiang sanyuanli Comments (0)

Around the World 2017: Shenyang


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We arrived in Shenyang early in the morning on the overnight train from Mudanjiang. We had wangled a private sleeping cabin by switching with other passengers so we had all managed to get some sleep, although Mei Ling had to share her bed with Spenser. Mei Ling's mother was with us as well, since we were primarily in Shenyang to get her travel visa from the US consulate, and her father and brother-in-law had come along for the ride as well. I didn't know much about Shenyang, but I was thrilled to be spending part of our China stay anywhere except Mudanjiang. My research had provided a couple of interesting prospects: a daytime market called Wu Ai and the Xingshun night market, reputed to be one of Asia's largest. Aside from that, there was the usual assortment of palaces and parks common to larger Chinese cities. As we left the rail station, I was immediately struck by a much more impressive skyline than that of Mudanjiang.
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The hotel Mei Ling had chosen turned out to be a little downscale even for her family's taste, so she located a more international level place a few blocks away that was practically across the street from the US Consulate. We loaded all our belongings onto a bicycle pushcart and walked beside the cart to the hotel.
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Once settled, we didn't waste any time putting our boots on the ground for the long walk to the Wu Ai market. The half hour walk was longer than I expected from the map, but I enjoyed experiencing the new city's Saturday morning vitality. The market itself proved slightly disappointing, as it was entirely for clothes and dry goods in which we had little interest. At the top floor was a large food court with diverse offerings of noodle soups and dumplings where we got a decent lunch.
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The sidewalk outside the market was lined with pushcart vendors of jewelry, clothing, and brightly colored candies. By this time the kids were awake and even though they hadn't eaten much lunch it was hard to deny them such beautiful candy.
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We were able to find a taxi outside of Wu Ai willing to take all four adults and three kids, but two blocks south we suddenly came across a busy produce market and decided to jump out. Rain cut this visit short but I was able to get a decent video with my iVUE Horizon video sunglasses.
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On the way back to the hotel, we ran into a cluster of outdoor restaurants that were gearing up for the evening with tantalizing lamb legs, trays of fresh shellfish, and pork offal. We weren't ready to eat but resolved to return.
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A few hours later we left the boys with their grandmother and found the restaurants were already quite busy. The lamb legs were twisting on spits over mini grills on each table, and every table had its own tank of ice cold beer with a spigot for rapid refilling of empty glasses. Paired with such delicacies as sauteed clams and silkworms, it was the kind of delicious and satisfying meal that makes me look forward to every trip to China. large_IMG_1925.jpgIMG_1924.jpgIMG_1922.jpg

The next morning Mei Ling, her brother-in-law, the boys and I took a taxi to Shenyang's central pedestrian zone. Cleo decided to hang out with her beloved grandparents and her beloved iPad at the hotel. As soon as we got out of the taxi, we saw there was some kind of food expo on Taiyuan Pedestrian Street with stalls lining either side of the street as far as we could see.
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There was a large variety of street food including stinky tofu, dumplings, and fried seafood. We were thrilled to have randomly stumbled onto a great food event like this.
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We could probably have spent most of the day just hanging out at the food expo, but inevitably we lost interest once our stomachs were overfilled. At the intersection of Taiyuan Street with busy Bei'er Road was a long staircase headed down to a tunnel under the road. It looked a lot like the entrance to a metro station, but there was no metro in that area. I figured it was just an underpass but Mei Ling went down for a closer look and beckoned us to join her, so we carried the strollers all the way downstairs. What I saw down there really amazed me. We were at the entrance of a huge, crowded, multilevel mall that was entirely underground. The first thing we encountered was an awesome food court we surely would have sampled if we weren't already stuffed from the food expo.

For the next hour or so we lost ourselves in the narrow hallways of the mall, walking the equivalent of several blocks underground. Among the things we encountered were juice bars, exotic pet stores, and the complete skeleton of a Tyrannosaur.
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We eventually found an elevator and surfaced some distance away from where we had begun our underground odyssey. We were on the ground floor of a mall of a more conventional type, which we decided to explore as well. Some of the more unusual things we encountered were a local band covering a Bon Jovi song, a restaurant with cloth boobs on every table, and a Lego wall.

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On the top level there was a transparent floor over the central atrium, which Ian found a little perturbing.
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Having done enough mall-walking for one day, we decided to explore the surrounding area a little. In nearby Zhongshan Square we found the well-known statue called Long Live the Victory of Mao Zedong Thought. It's one of the few Cultural Revolution monuments not to have been removed in later years. Outside a bank we encountered a replica of Wall Street's charging bull, so Mei Ling did her impression of Fearless Girl.
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Our next destination was the Mukden Palace, a former residence of the Qing emperors. In the end, we walked around the pedestrianised area surrounding the palace and never actually went inside. The appearance and atmosphere were just too reminiscent of Beijing's Forbidden City which had bored me to tears a decade previously. The most interesting thing we ended up seeing there was a collection of elongated pushcarts laden with pretty but overpriced fruit.
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We went back to the hotel and exchanged the boys for Cleo, then found another taxi to take us to our most anticipated attraction in Shenyang. Xingshun night market had opened just two years earlier so there was very little information about it on the internet, but I knew that it was large and exotic. We made sure we arrived not long after the 5:30 opening time. When we got out of the taxi, there was a sensation of electricity in the air. It was similar to the feeling of arriving at a huge rave in the West. The market wasn't along a street as I expected, but rather in a large enclosed area. We walked past shops selling cheap trinkets and some carnival rides and then found ourselves in an open area the size of a couple of football fields. I could see row after row of kiosks with food on grills and skewers. Initially we tried to walk around the entire market before buying anything to eat, but we soon realized that we might not be able to find our way back to the offerings we liked most so we just decided to eat as we went.

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There were too many amazing and exotic snacks to count, let alone consume, but probably the most impressive were the stalls devoted to reptiles and bugs. The last video reminds me of how much I've evolved in terms of food courage in the ten years since I met Mei Ling. I don't think I could have imagined myself eating tarantulas and centipedes before, but now I have a hard time imagining anything I wouldn't at least try. For me, it's a badge of honor to see the locals giving me horrified looks as I bite chunks out of the assorted creepy crawlies.
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Our last day in Shenyang was going to be cut short by our evening departure, so we had to think carefully about what we wanted to do since we might never be returning. Shenyang had exceeded our expectations, but there have to be at least fifty more Chinese cities of a similar size that we've never seen. We always prioritize the unknown, unless it's NYC or London where every visit is as novel as the first. We decided to get lunch at the street market which we'd been driven from by rain two days earlier, and then spend the afternoon at Beiling Park before heading to the airport. We found the market in full swing on a Monday morning, with plenty of appetizing food options.
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We knew we weren't likely to find the best stuff at one of the few small restaurants in the market, so we decided to buy our favorite foods and then bring them to the restaurant to be cooked. We've had good success with that stunt in both Asia and Latin America. Soon afterwards, we were chowing down on steamed shellfish and roasted chicken and washing it down with plenty of cold beer. It was our fourth great meal in Shenyang in four attempts.
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Beiling Park is the largest park in Shenyang and well-known for its beautiful lake and gardens. Soon after we arrived we encountered a fairly large jump rope demonstration or competition. Mei Ling immediately joined in and did quite well, although I'm still not sure if she won anything.

We only had another half hour so we walked as far as the lake, which was quite large and pretty. There were paddleboats and some kids' games but we didn't want to take any chances with getting to the airport on time.
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We had our most brutal travel schedule of the trip that night. First we had to fly to Beijing, and then take another flight onward to Copenhagen with a layover in Moscow. We found a solid Russian meal at a restaurant in the Moscow airport (not the one pictured), and the kids got to blow off some energy playing a game of our own invention involving cylindrical seat cushions. Still, we were very weary of flying once we finally arrived at Copenhagen. Fortunately, for the next three weeks we wouldn't have to worry about any travel except for driving and a ferry.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 12:39 Archived in China Tagged shenyang xingshun Comments (0)

Around the World 2017: Mudanjiang


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This was my second time in Mudanjiang, a city I've not so fondly described as the "Cleveland of China". This might be unfair to Cleveland, considering I've never been there and I'm often pleasantly surprised by unheralded mid-sized American cities. It's more because Mudanjiang calls to mind the popular conception of Cleveland as a colorless, industrial city with a distinct lack of culture and fun things to do. Why Mudanjiang instead of one of the countless amazing and beautiful cities in China? Because that's where Mei Ling's sister, brother-in-law, and nephew live. Her parents come over from Jixi, a couple of hours away by train, when we visit.

If China was drawn as a chicken, Mudanjiang would be its forehead. Didn't know that China looks like a chicken? Here you go.
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Another similarity to Cleveland is the climate. Mudanjiang is located in the northeasternmost province of Heilongjiang in close proximity to Siberia and North Korea. Illustrious neighbors. Even in June, the mornings were uncomfortably cold. That was an issue since probably the most interesting thing to see in Mudanjiang is the daily morning market. Because China is on one time zone, daybreak comes very early in the northeast so the morning market is over by nine. That's how I found myself groggy and shivering on a busy street in Mudanjiang at seven in the morning the day after our arrival from Taipei.

It didn't take long for me to be drawn into the energy of the market and absorbed in all the delicious and exotic foods that are unique to China. Even in a backwater town like Mudanjiang, the variety of produce and prepared foods on display seemed endless.
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One of the high points of any market in China is the abundance of fresh fruit, especially berries. One particular vendor was wheeling a cart down the center of the market that was practically groaning under the weight of cherries, yang mei, and golden gooseberries.
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Mei Ling's sister's house was about a fifteen minute walk from a busy pedestrian zone with department stores and a miniature amusement park. The department store had upgraded itself substantially from our last visit two years earlier and now boasted a deli section and a food court that rivaled the ones one might see in Shanghai or Beijing.
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On the pedestrian street outside there were food vendors already set up in advance of the night market which would begin several hours later.
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That evening we had our first homecooked meal in Mei Ling's sister's apartment. Everyone tripped over themselves trying to fit in the tiny kitchen while I amused myself torturing the kids with still-living food items.
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Dinner finally appeared with not one but two silkworm dishes. There's nothing like washing down homecooked spicy northern Chinese food with ice cold Snow beer.
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I didn't have it in me the next day to get up by seven for the morning market, so I joined Mei Ling and the kids a little later at a smaller street market which had its own collection of interesting foods. The highlight was the vendor of stir-fried unhatched chickens, which proved to be quite spicy and tasty once you got past the little feathers. For anyone who prefers their little chicks already hatched before being fried, they had those as well.
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Next stop was the barber shop for haircuts for Ian and Spenser.
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After some lazing around at the apartment with the kids it was time to hit the night market on the main pedestrian street. large_IMG_0250.jpglarge_493EFE9505FF31388E4D1AF35E5D3013.jpglarge_IMG_1801.jpg

On our last evening in Mudanjiang we walked to a park where a couple of hundred people were getting some exercise doing a communal dance to Chinese pop.

Outside the park was another small night market but it couldn't hold a candle to the one in the pedestrian zone. However, I did get a chance to chew a pig tail.
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By a stroke of good fortune, we had to visit a larger city called Shenyang in order to obtain a visa for Mei Ling's Mom to visit us in the US. Through persistent campaigning, I managed to convince Mei Ling to split our time in China equally between Mudanjiang and Shenyang. I didn't know a thing about Shenyang, but I figured three days there had to be better than three more in Cleveland ... er Mudanjiang. Therefore, we found ourselves taking an overnight train to Shenyang before I'd even had time to get bored. Hopefully I'll be able to find another way to cut down our stay in Mudanjiang the next time we visit China. The visit itself is non-negotiable. The town may be Cleveland to me, but to Mei Ling it's home.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 14:08 Archived in China Tagged heilongjiang mudanjiang Comments (0)

Around the World 2015: Guangzhou, China

China is a huge and diverse country. Even after five previous visits, I only felt like I'd seen at most five percent of what was worth seeing in China. I was looking forward to adding to that with a visit to Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province. While Guangzhou may be only vaguely familiar to Westerners, it is one of the ten most populous cities in the world by any form of measurement, and possibly the most populous by metropolitan area. It's better known to Americans by its Anglicized name of Canton, and as the origin of most of what Americans and other Westerners consider to be Chinese, or Cantonese food. Guangzhou is well-regarded throughout China for its food, especially seafood, and is famous for its markets. For Mei Ling and me, that's nirvana.

Like most of the world's great cities, Guangzhou is intimately associated with water. Around the city, multiple river systems converge to form the wide and powerful Zhujiang (formerly Pearl) river which splits and rejoins itself countless times forming numerous small islands in the river. Our hotel was in the Shamian Residential District, a tiny rectangular island formed by a narrow canal of the Zhujiang River. Shamian was clearly an enclave of the wealthy. It had a wide central street with a beautifully landscaped park running down the middle. The park had well-maintained exercise equipment and a running track. The buildings were relatively new and attractive, and the shops and restaurants on the island seemed to cater to expats.
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As soon as we'd dropped off the bags, we headed across the canal to Guangzhou's busy pedestrian zone. Mei Ling and Ian split off for a rendezvous with an old friend while Cleo and I ate a snack at a tiny alley restaurant that served a delicious salad made with crunchy fish skin. As is so often the case with dishes that I absolutely love in Asia, we were never able to find that salad again during our visit. Mei Ling still hadn't found her way back once we'd finished eating, so we went to the spa next door to get our feet nibbled by tiny Garra rufa fish. Cleo made a valiant attempt but eventually her two year old mind couldn't overcome her natural instinct to keep her feet from being bitten.
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Mei LIng eventually rejoined us and we spent some more time exploring the main pedestrian street Shangxiaju and snacking before heading back home for an early sleep. We still had to recover from our grueling train journey and flight earlier.
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The next day was a market day, of course, so we met up with Mei Ling's friends and crossed the Renmin Bridge across the Zhujiang to Haizhu, the largest river island in the Guangzhou area. We spent an entire day wandering from market to market at the western tip of Haizhu. I was disappointed that I couldn't convince Mei Ling to buy the sandals with the incomprehensible Chinglish slogan.
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Later we crossed back north across the river and circled back towards Shamian, where the enormous Huangsha seafood market awaited us. One of the more interesting discoveries there was sand worms, also known as peanut worms. We couldn't resist buying a bag of these unappetizing pinkish-grey tubes and eventually brought them to the most well-known seafood restaurant in the market where they were prepared for us with a garlic sauce. They tasted like garlic sauce.

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The next day we spent a little more time exploring the neighborhoods close by our hotel and then took a taxi to Liuhua Hu Park in the northern part of the city. The beautiful park was full of serene walking paths and grassy lakes where locals were boating. One of the highlights was watching some guys playing jian zi, the Chinese version of the hacky sack game I saw Mei Ling playing in Seoul.
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In the evening, we met up with Mei Ling's friend Guo Guo again and explored one of Guangzhou's upscale modern malls before having dinner in a hot pot restaurant.
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We decided to check out of our hotel the next morning. Another of Mei Ling's old friends was driving us southwest to the city of Kaiping, and it would be easier for us not to go back to Guangzhou at all. We walked back across the canal for one last meal at Huangsha market.
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On the road, we stopped at a special restaurant Mei Ling's friend knew about where we seemed to be the only customers. The specialty was paddlefish, which had a wide paddle-shaped snout. Several of them were swimming in large tanks at the restaurant. I tried looking them up afterwards, but couldn't find any convincing identification of what we had eaten. They're clearly not the same fish as what is commonly described as a Chinese paddlefish, which appears to be practically extinct. Hopefully the ones we ate weren't endangered!
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The only reason to visit the Kaiping area that I'm aware of is to see the eerie, multistory diaolou houses that were built intermittently between the 15th century and the early part of the 20th century. Some of the structures were constructed to serve as watchtowers, while others were multifamily residences. The mysterious diaolou reminded me of the imposing towers of Bologna, whose builders and true purposes have largely become obscured by the passage of time. In the area we explored, the diaolou arose incongruously from rice paddies that could only be traversed by narrow flagstone paths.
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On the way back east from Kaiping we stopped in the coastal town of Zhuhai for dinner. The star attraction here was Zhuhai Wanzai Seafood Street, with a long seafood night market on one side and a row of seafood restaurants on the other. Mei Ling immediately went to work on buying delicacies for us to bring to a restaurant. The best part was watching her negotiating for a huge horseshoe crab.

Refrigeration for the seafood probably hasn't changed in a hundred years. Here you can see how the guys on the ice truck carve up and distribute their product.

We spent the next day in Shenzhen, hanging out with yet another of Mei Ling's old friends. We spent a few hours in one of Shenzhen's many theme parks, of which the most interesting part for the kids was the monorail. In the evening, we had yet another seafood banquet at a coastal restaurant where we picked our food from tanks.
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The next day we crossed into Hong Kong, where we had less than twenty-four hours before our flight to India. Fortunately I'd been to Hong Kong twice before, so I'd already seen most of the interesting sights and markets. We stayed in a luxurious hotel suite on an upper floor of the Nina Tower, one of the most prestigious hotels in Hong Kong. We'd gotten a very low rate thanks to Mei Ling's local connections.
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In the morning before our flight we hung out in the busy Sham Shui Po market area of Kowloon, where we window shopped for a couple of hours and tried some snake soup.
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I wasn't sorry to be heading to the airport once again. I'd been waiting a long time for my first visit to India.

Posted by zzlangerhans 17:25 Archived in China Tagged hong_kong guangzhou guangdong shenzhen zhuhai kaiping Comments (2)

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