A Travellerspoint blog

East Asian Immersion: Dalian part I

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I was completely unfamiliar with the city of Dalian until I was on my eighth visit to China, so I think it's safe to say that the vast majority of Westerners have never heard of it. Even after being to China so many times, the only way I came across Dalian was by studying a map to better understand my location when I was visiting the equally unknown city of Shenyang. Every time I visit China I become a little more familiar with its geography, but there's always another level of detail to investigate. While reviewing Shenyang's surroundings, I realized that the province of Liaoning had a rather striking coastline that resembled a closed hand with its index finger extended to point southward into the sea. About halfway along the index finger peninsula, a much smaller peninsula projected eastward almost like a wart on the back of the finger. Most of this wart was comprised by the only sizable city in the region, which was Dalian. I immediately felt an attraction to the city due to its remoteness from other metropolitan centers and its obvious intimate relationship with the sea. Mei Ling told me she had never been there, but Dalian had a good reputation in China as a vacation spot. I placed it on my ever-lengthening list of places to visit without expecting we would get there just two years later.

After we decided we would base ourselves in Beijing for summer vacation and visit nearby cities, Dalian was one of the obvious destinations. It is accessible from Beijing by train in about five hours or by plane in an hour and a half. Since our Airbnb in Beijing was at the doorstep of the Airport Express train, we decided to fly. Our Airbnb in Dalian was a significant upgrade from Beijing, a 23rd floor condo in a complex of massive skyscrapers in the center of the city called Eton Place. One of Mei Ling's oldest friends, Guo Guo, flew in from Guangzhou and stayed with us in Dalian.

Once we were settled in our Airbnb we set off for the closest night market we had researched. The supposed night markets had all disappointed us in Beijing and we were hoping for a better experience in Dalian. Our condo complex was surrounded by wide avenues with never-ending streams of speeding cars which could often only be traversed via underpasses. Our unfamiliarity with the location of the underpasses forced us off course and into new and fascinating discoveries. The most visually striking feature of the city was the futuristic skyscrapers, some of which were as tall as the Empire State Building in New York City. In fact they appeared even taller as they generally stood some distance from the other tall buildings, unlike in New York City which looks like a forest of skyscrapers. The most amazing were the tallest tower in our home base of Eton Place, currently the 42nd tallest building in the world, and Dalian International Trade Center, currently the 49th. The International Trade Center was useful as a landmark as it could be seen from practically anywhere near the center of the city. The five tallest buildings in Dalian were all completed within the last five years, and sixteen of the tallest twenty within the last decade. It was clear that Dalian had recently undergone a remarkable transformation.

Zhongyuan Food Street was the epitome of a Chinese night market with an enormous variety of food choices along a single colorful, throbbing street. The first restaurant we encountered boasted a large array of tanks with every imaginable type of seafood. The hawker at the front was eager to keep our interest and showed the kids around the tanks, eventually letting them play with a live octopus.

Sadly for the hawker, we weren't about to sit down at the first restaurant we saw. We gradually weaved our way through the crowd, marveling at the vast selection of skewers, small plates, fresh fruit, and live seafood restaurants that lined the sides of the street. It was a scene that couldn't be found anywhere in the world except China (and Taiwan).

We eventually settled on a live seafood place and gave our orders at the tanks. We decided on live octopus, blood clams and tairagai clams, an unfamiliar fish whose named translated to "young lady", and sea intestines. Sea intestines are a bizarre life form that bears an uncanny resemblance to human guts.


Mei Ling requested the octopus to be prepared raw, which meant that the chopped tentacles were still squirming when the dish was brought to the table. Contrary to popular belief, this does not mean the octopus was still alive. However, the nerves to the tentacles still function for a while even after the head and brain are detached. Naturally it's revolting to many people but it's far from the most shocking thing I've eaten. We offered it to Cleo and Spenser but only Spenser could be convinced to try it.

In the morning we went to the main market within walking distance of our apartment. It was a large complex with warehouse-type buildings devoted to seafood, meat, and produce. The meat section was particularly overwhelming with dozens of stalls tightly packed together and the sounds of cleavers chopping through thick cow and pig bones. The smell of freshly slaughtered animals and offal was heavy in the air, and motorbikes and loading equipment zipped through the narrow aisles with wild abandon.

The outdoor sections were largely devoted to fruit and spices. At one point, a vendor good-naturedly lifted a corner of his canopy to allow a large SUV to turn the corner. We spent most of the morning in the market and the adjacent shopping center, where we engaged in a fruitless quest to locate a magnetic backgammon set. Another interesting discovery were small green melons that had been grown in Buddha-shaped molds.

In the afternoon we took the bus to Xinghai Square, a relatively new feature of Dalian that has been described as the largest city square in the world. Across from the bus stop was either a small park or a large lawn inexplicably adorned with the figures of a giant bulldog, a young Buddhist monk, and three enormous fish designed to look like hedges. None of us had any idea what the tableau was intended to signify and there was nothing around to provide any clue what we were looking at. Over the next few days we were going to become accustomed to these whimsical sights around Dalian.

Xinghai Square is a lot of things, but city square is not one of them. There isn't anything resembling a city near the enormous grassy oval, which is surrounded on most of its perimeter by tall, ultramodern apartment buildings and hotels. Despite the apparent housing for tens of thousands of people, the expanse between them was empty except for occasional pedestrians strolling towards the waterfront. Each of the many entrances to the oval was flanked by aerodynamic mesh sculptures of athletes engaged in different sports.

The south-facing portion of Xinghai Square is the only break in the ring of skyscrapers. Between the oval and the waterfront is an elevated, curved platform that reminded me of the roof of the Oslo Opera House. It's called the Open Book monument, although it looks a lot more like a skateboard ramp than a book. Furthering the confusion is a bronze statue of a skateboarder on one of the monument's staircases, although there were no actual skateboarders on the book and I highly doubt the security guards would have looked favorably on that kind of activity.

The waterfront area was quite crowded and fun. We admired the profile of the Xinghaiwan Bridge that crossed the bay while the kids chased a remote-controlled motorcycle around the concrete plaza. There was a good-sized amusement park adjacent to the plaza and we let the kids enjoy a few rides. Having a little time to process what I had been seeing, I was starting to realize I was in a very special and unusual place. This little corner of China was still too remote and insignificant to be of any interest to Western tourists, yet it was greatly appreciated by the Chinese and had acquired a peculiar hypermodern yet traditional aesthetic. I felt very fortunate to be witnessing this amazing transformation of a rural city into a unique modern metropolis.


On the eastern side of Xinghai Square a canal extends from the bay inward towards the city. On the far side of the canal were some particularly ornate apartment buildings and a beautiful Gothic castle which we later learned was the ultra-expensive Castle Hotel.

We headed back to the city and another busy night market for dinner. I learned how to get sea snails out of their narrow spiral shells and Cleo learned how difficult it is to pick up a quail egg with chopsticks. By the end of the night we'd already had more fun in Dalian than we'd had in five days in Beijing.

Posted by zzlangerhans 15:37 Archived in China Tagged travel china blog tony night_market dalian friedman Comments (2)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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 which 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.

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 the 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.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

Posted by zzlangerhans 14:55 Archived in China Tagged travel china beijing blog tony sanlitun friedman dongzhimen nanluoguxiang sanyuanli Comments (0)

Cajun Circuit: New Orleans part II

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When we travel to larger American cities, we're always keen to check out their farmers market game. So far the best we've encountered have been in Portland, Oregon and in Los Angeles. On Saturday morning we headed to the Crescent City Farmers Market, which operates in different parts of the city on different days of the week. Saturday's edition was held in a parking lot in the Central Business District, not far from the Auction House Market where we'd had brunch the previous day. The vibe was good and we picked up a basket of plump strawberries, but we were a little disappointed at the size of the market and the lack of unusual products. We might have been better off at the market across the river in Gretna, but we only had time for one that morning.

Our final food hall was also in the Central Business District. Pythian Market opened in the ground floor of the historic Pythian Building in 2018. The food selection was diverse with a number of traditional New Orleans outlets as well as cuisine from far-flung locations. We focused on the Colombian and Vietnamese kiosks and ate quite well. There was a jazz trio livening up the atmosphere in front of an incongruous Christmas tree with Mardi Gras decorations.

I'd found a couple of special events in New Orleans that weekend. On the last Saturday of every month, the New Orleans Arts Market is held in Palmer Park in the western part of the city. This turned out to be an impressively large exhibition of artwork, photography and crafts close to the park's playground, which gave us an opportunity to peruse some of the stalls more intently without having to constantly make sure the kids weren't about to knock over the displays. We saw a lot of original and creative work in a pleasant outdoor environment.

Our next event was the Congo Square Rhythms Festival in Louis Armstrong Park just north of the French Quarter. This annual celebration of African and soul music takes place in the part of the park that was a traditional meeting place for slaves and free blacks in the 19th century. It's a beautiful park with duck ponds and fountains that shoot water straight up into the air. Around the stage numerous kiosks were set up to sell clothes and crafts along with refreshments.

After the festival we got back in the car and drove around the French Quarter, admiring the wrought-iron balconies and colorful shutters of the many Creole townhouses in the neighborhood. As we grew closer to the river, the traffic became more congested and we realized we had reached the inland side of Jackson Square. We had done pretty well avoiding the touristy aspects of New Orleans so far but there's no other spot as emblematic of the city and the energy felt good, so we found a rather miraculous parking spot and ventured forth on foot. It seemed like at least half the people visiting the city must have been crammed into the few blocks around Jackson Square. The crowds were dense and the smell from the carriage horses was overwhelming, but it was all worth it once we got a view of the immaculate St. Louis Cathedral. In the grassy square in front of the cathedral is the iconic bronze statue of Andrew Jackson on his rearing horse and some beautiful multi-trunked Mediterranean fan palms.

On the pedestrian street between the cathedral and the park were an array of artists, caricaturists, and fortune tellers. A crowd was gathered around a breakdancing crew and we watched them joke around and perform athletic feats for a while.

That evening we ate at Restaurant Rebirth in the Warehouse District. It was a little more interesting than GW Fins had been the previous night but still unfortunately not the awesome dining experience we had hoped for. It was surprising we hadn't done so well with the restaurants as on our last trip to New Orleans in 2011 we'd had four amazing dinners in four nights. In a way, that was our first family trip ever as Mei Ling was unknowingly almost a month pregnant with Cleo. As the pictures show, a lot has changed since then. Three kids, about twenty-five amazing trips, and much better iPhone cameras. It had been great to return to New Orleans and relive those amazing memories from when we were still a young freewheeling couple with the world at our doorstep, but there's no way on Earth I would trade it for what we have now.





On our last morning we all woke up shivering. I thought someone had turned on the AC in the middle of the night, but when I looked outside the skies were grey and a steady drizzle was pattering against the windows. Outside, we realized the temperature had plunged into the 50's from the high 70's the previous day. This didn't trouble us one bit since our only remaining task was to get to the airport and get on our plane back to Miami. I couldn't help but feel a bit of traveler's schadenfreude knowing that if the weather had gone sour a day earlier our visit to New Orleans would have been ruined. We'd gambled on cutting this segment back to two days in order to see Mississippi and we'd gotten lucky. Any residual grudge I had against the gods of travel over the episode with Spenser was now forgiven.

Posted by zzlangerhans 23:14 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Cajun Circuit: New Orleans part I

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The drive from Jackson to New Orleans was the most boring episode of the trip. We cruised the whole way down the interstate without making a single stop. I'd already canceled that night's dinner reservation, which was kind of a bummer. I'd eaten with my parents at Upperline the year it opened in 1984 and I was looking forward to having another meal there thirty-four years later, but it wasn't going to happen. Once we got to New Orleans we had to focus on getting Spenser's prescriptions filled, and we were still too rattled from his health scare to enjoy an upscale dinner anyway.

Things started looking up once we reached the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway. The 24 mile-long structure is the longest continuous bridge over water in the world, and driving across it literally felt like driving over an ocean. For most of the length of the bridge there was no land whatsoever in sight except for the bridge itself. Towards the southern end of the causeway, the New Orleans skyline came into view and we had great views of the shoreline when the road rose upwards at the crossovers.

Our Airbnb in the downscale Gentilly neighborhood, well north of the French Quarter, was our only disappointment of the trip in terms of accommodation. It was a shotgun style house that was cramped and completely devoid of character both outside and in. We did save a lot of money staying there as Airbnb's were brutally expensive in New Orleans, but if I had to do it over again I probably would have spent a little more.

Filling Spenser's prescriptions turned out to be quite a saga as well. Once I sorted through the papers they had given Mei Ling at discharge, I discovered that they had never given her the actual prescriptions although there was a list of the medicines in the discharge instructions. I took everything to CVS and although they didn't accept the discharge paperwork in lieu of the prescriptions, they did allow me to write new prescriptions even though I'm only licensed in Florida. They didn't have the steroid inhaler so they called it in to another CVS which I then had to drive to. That inhaler turned out to cost $200, which of course was an out of pocket expense since we have a high deductible. Once I got back home I discovered that the steroid dose actually had to be sucked out of the inhaler, which Spenser couldn't understand. He kept trying to blow into it. When I looked up the medicine online, I found the minimum age for it was six. Why would an experienced pediatrician at a children's hospital prescribe a brutally expensive medicine for a kid who was too young to use it? As a doctor, I knew the answer was that we make mistakes like this all the time. Some of us try and check ourselves and keep up to date on new developments in our fields, and some of us just embrace mediocrity. I resolved to keep this episode in mind any time I prescribed a medication that I wasn't intimately familiar with. The $200 inhaler turned out to be an expensive paperweight.

At least canceling our dinner reservation meant we could visit another food hall. New Orleans now has three of them, and the closest one to our Airbnb was the most historic. St. Roch Market has existed in the same location just north of the Marigny area since 1875. The most recent renovation came in 2014, a decade after it was gutted following damage from Hurricane Katrina. The St. Roch Market was also the inspiration behind a namesake food hall from the same developers in our home city of Miami.

We arrived more than a half hour before the 10 PM closing time, but the only patrons left were at the Mayhaw cocktail bar and most of the restaurants looked to be on the verge of shutting down. We were just in time to wangle a few dishes out of the open kiosks and had an eclectic dinner of ceviche, gyros, and grilled fish. Overall we were somewhat underwhelmed but we had to give St. Roch a pass since we'd arrived so late. Next time in New Orleans we'll have to go during peak dining hours.

Friday morning we had breakfast at Auction House Market, in the Warehouse District. This food hall had a high-energy vibe largely due to the early lunchtime crowds. There were Asian and Latin options along with the ubiquitous Cajun and coastal offerings. In the center of the market was a huge marble bar underneath an expansive skylight. Hanging from the ceiling under the skylight was an array of glass shelves filled with beautiful green vines and house plants. It was an amazing look that we took careful note of for the new house we'll be moving into in May.

Mardi Gras World on the banks of the Mississippi is the warehouse and workshop of Kern Studios, one of the pre-eminent designers and builders of Mardi Gras floats for almost a hundred years. The Kern family opened Mardi Gras World thirty-five years ago to allow visitors to observe the process of float construction year-round. It's expensive and touristy, but it's pretty much the only way to experience Mardi Gras in New Orleans outside of the week that the wild celebration takes place. There wasn't much going on in the way of construction when we were there, but the kids were impressed by the colorful and remarkably lifelike styrofoam figures. Much of the styrofoam carving is now completed by an enormous robot working off a computerized template. Behind the studio is a patio that overlooks the Mississippi and the Crescent City Connection bridge to the West Bank.

We remembered New Orleans' residential charm from our last visit seven years previously so we took a drive around the Garden District, upriver from the French Quarter and the city center. Soon enough Mei Ling's sharp eye spotted a crawfish truck that was in a symbiotic relationship with a local beer joint. The boys were sleeping by this point and I felt I'd had enough crawfish for a year, so Mei Ling and Cleo had a girls' lunch while we stayed in the car.

Once the boys woke up we joined them and got a closer look at the crawfish operation, which consisted of two guys engaged in a continuous cycle of unloading, uncrating, spicing, shaking, and boiling crustaceans. They seemed to be enjoying themselves but I didn't envy them their backbreaking job.

The immediate vicinity seemed particularly inviting so we took a stroll around a couple of blocks, admiring the colorful paint schemes and wrought-iron balconies of the neighborhood mansions. By then it was already time to return to the Airbnb and drop Spenser off with his Grandma. It was time to experience one of New Orleans' ultimate pleasures, a gourmet restaurant.

Choosing just two or three restaurants out of the myriad of options that New Orleans provides is a daunting task. There's simply no way to do justice to one of the most renowned culinary cities in the United States in such a short period of time. I had pored over various lists and reviews and eventually selected GW Fins and Restaurant Rebirth, along with the aforementioned Upperline. GW Fins has been a fixture in the French Quarter since 2001 and has earned a reputation as possibly New Orleans' top spot for fresh and innovative seafood dishes. The traffic was gnarly on a Friday night and we needed every minute of the extra time we'd allotted ourselves to arrive on time for our reservation.

Despite our eager anticipation, dinner was anticlimactic. We scratched our heads when we perused the entrees. The choices were an array of the most typical fish one might see on a menu at any seafood restaurant in the country. Tuna, halibut, swordfish, snapper. The preparation and sides seemed fairly mundane as well. We ordered the one unusual fish we saw, sheepshead, despite misgivings about a parmesan crust and ultimately found our misgivings to be justified. In the end the meal wasn't bad, but I'm pretty sure we hadn't been served anywhere near the best food New Orleans had to offer. The brightest light was the Chocolate Mousse Bombe we had for dessert.

We hadn't planned on visiting Bourbon Street, but as we stepped out of the restaurant we found the weekend procession in full swing. Although Mardi Gras only lasts a couple of weeks each year, the game of tossing beads from balconies in return for the flashing of breasts persists to some degree year-round. The kids thankfully focused on the bead-tossing and were completely oblivious to the flashing. They caught a few small chains and couldn't understand why the men on the balconies wouldn't throw them the big beads. I tried to explain to Cleo that it would be a few years before she would be able to earn those. The kids had a blast walking up and down the street and interacting with various hawkers and street performers. Dressed up as they were for our dinner out, they added a little color to the Bourbon Street scene themselves.


Posted by zzlangerhans 19:16 Archived in USA Comments (0)

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