We Are the World

Edited slightly upon further reflection.

I have been accused by certain readers of this blog of being obsessed with food. I don’t think of myself that way, but honestly my meals have been the most interesting part of my life on a day to day basis. Aside from meals, I get up in the morning, I go to work, I take part in conference calls, I have lunch, I work some more, I come home, have dinner, and go to bed. Not that different from what I did in Seattle, or from what people do in thousands of cites all over the world every day. But I realize that I am not writing a food column (note to self: possible career move in this direction), so I promise I will someday soon write a blog entry that has nothing about food in it. But not this one.

Before coming to China, I had read about Banquets. It’s a part of doing business here. People who do business together will mark occasions, such as the signing of a contract, with a fancy dinner, usually involving excessive amounts of alcohol. I’ve been in Beijing since October, and tonight turned out to be my first Banquet. I didn’t even know about it until we were getting ready to head home from the office this afternoon. Someone came over and said, “They’re having dinner tonight, and you’re invited.” It was at a restaurant just down the street from our office, one of the fancy places we never go for lunch. They often have cadres of limousines out front and VIPs coming and going. I think the lobby of the building is still in the midst of remodeling, but it had some elaborate displays for the upcoming Chinese New Year, which is generally referred to as Spring Festival around here. We went upstairs to a private room with a very large round table that would seat about sixteen, though there were only twelve attending, so the wait staff discreetly took away the four extra settings and chairs. We knew to be afraid when we saw three different size stem glasses at each setting, including one tiny little glass. I’ve heard horror stories about the traditional Chinese drink, maotai. From my research I also knew that it would be considered rude to not accept hospitality.

Luckily for us, our host was springing for something really special. Instead of maotai, we had baijiu, which translates as basically “white liquor” and is pronounced like “bye, Joe.” I found a link to the exact beverage we had. This is top-of-the-line stuff that has a price tag in the four digit range per bottle when converted to US dollars. I’ve yet to taste maotai, but I’ve heard all sorts of nasty things about it. They said that this baijiu is 68% alcohol (136 proof for comparison to American drinks) – good thing the glasses are really small. The servers brought each of us a little pitcher with an inch or two of clear liquid, and poured one shot into the little stem glass. At the beginning, our host stood, and we all joined him, and he offered a toast to our partnership, and friendship between nations and whatever, and we all downed our glasses. Then the servers came around and replenished our glasses from our pitchers. Meanwhile, they were bringing out a wide array of dishes on the big lazy susan in the center of the table. Over the course of the evening I counted twenty dishes, and I may have missed a couple. Some things I could identify, many I couldn’t. There were a couple of simple vegetable dishes, like elaborately prepared celery with a nice dressing on it. There was a cold dish of the black mushrooms they like so much here. In the largest of our stem glasses, they poured a thick yellow liquid which we Americans called “Corn Julius” – a semi-sweet beverage made from corn that was slightly warm. Very odd tasting, but it was good to take a sip of that after getting a bit of a dish that was really spicy.

One dish was brought around in individual clay pots to each of us. They took away the plates we had been using and set the pots in front of us. The lids of the pots had little Buddhas on them. Then a different woman came into the room, dressed differently than the servers. She explained the story of the dish, which is called something like Monk Jumps over the Wall Soup. It was something about how the soup smelled so good cooking outside a monastery that a monk jumped over the wall to find out what it was. It was a thick broth with many different kinds of what seemed to be sea creatures in it. I have no idea what those chunks were.

There were several different preparations of fish, and one dish that had little tiny octopus in it. Keeping in mind that there would likely be many more toasts, I tried to get some solid food in my stomach, but it was kind of difficult with the selections on offer. And the toasts did come. CL reciprocated and offered an other friendship toast, then someone else stepped up. Then the “challenge toasts” started. Our host came around to each of the Americans individually and said how glad he was to meet us, and if we ever need anything, etc. “Ganbai!” (“Bottoms up!”) And then other members of the Chinese partner came around to do individual toasts. I lost track after five or six, and I know that both CL and JW had more, given their higher positions. As far as I could tell, we polished off two bottles of the WuLiangYe 68%.

In addition to the baijiu and the corn drink, there was also a Chinese sweet red wine, kind of like a port, that the servers kept pouring into our medium-sized glasses. After all those toasts and all that food and all that wine, the evening progressed to the other popular Chinese entertainment: karaoke. Our host had a very strong voice and a very good sense of pitch, and started out the evening with a good rendition of a Chinese song. After a few of the other Chinese present sang, including our PG, the calls for us to sing grew louder. The machine had a huge selection of pop songs in English, and JW started us out with “House of the Rising Sun”, doing a passable job. While I wasn’t paying attention, one of the Chinese guys pulled up “Edelweisse” and dragged me up to duet with him. The screen was only showing the lyrics in Chinese, so it’s lucky I could dredge an approximation out of my brain and fumble through it. At one point, to avoid further solo spots, CL, JW, TG and I did a horrendous four-man take on “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling”. I completely cracked up laughing towards the end when I managed to look away from the stream of lyrics to notice that the images behind the letters were something like a tour of a Buddhist monastery. Then four of the Chinese guys did a group song, the title of which apparently means “Friends” – the accompanying video featured a rugby team. The American crew retaliated (nearly killing the evening) with “American Pie” which has way too many verses to be practical for karaoke. Later, after a few more toasts that polished off the last of the baijiu, they started bringing out Heineken to add to our misery. At long last, someone had the bright idea to sing “We Are the World”, which I can now state from personal experience is a monumentally terrible karaoke choice. Everyone joined in on the choruses and everyone mumbled through the rest of it. This is how international business deals are sealed.

I have a conference call early in the morning. I really need to sleep now.


Time flies like an arrow into the heart of the future

Date: 26 January, 2007
Location: back seat of a taxi creeping along the Third Ring Road

Given my druthers, I druther always take the nice new Beijing taxis with the gold stripe in their paint job, the recent Hyundais and VWs, but there isn't always one around when you need one. Sometimes you get one of the older Citroëns – red or blue and white. TG and I had one once that died about four times on the way to the office, every time we came to a red light (yes, they do stop at red lights...most of the time). As I write this entry, I'm in a red one that stalled as he pulled up to pick me up. Not a good sign. The driver seems reasonable, though he's getting a lot of honks from other cars as he cuts from lane to lane. He asked me which way I wanted to go (by sign language) – via Second Ring or Third. I picked “San Huan Lu” (Third Ring Road). It's a little longer on Third, but gets you to the Huabei quicker sometimes. Traffic's heavy this morning, so maybe it wasn't such a good choice. JW told me to pack my patience when I came to China, and it's certainly come in handy.

BG is off to visit the northern city of Harbin this weekend. It's famous for its Winter Festival, with fancy ice sculptures and so on. I'll see if I can scam some of her pictures to post here. If her report is positive, maybe I'll try to fit it in my schedule next year.

Location: back at home

Here's a bit of Engrish humor. I promise I’m not posting this to ridicule people who do not know my language very well. I'm just amused by how people use language. This is the label on my mattress. It looks like someone knew the general shape of the letters they wanted, but not what they meant. If you looked at the word Tranquil and didn't know the letters, you could easily confuse a small i for a small r. Walking to lunch the other day we saw a young woman wearing a denim jacket with DELXUE in big letters across the back. Made me wish I had a cell phone that could take pictures.
And another little bit of linguistic amusement. This is a brand of bread I buy fairly often. The bread is good, though the slices are very small. I'm guessing Bimbo means something different in some language. It doesn't fit the pattern of Mandarin, where you never find m at the end of a syllable, but it could easily be one of the other Chinese dialects.
Here's another random photo. This was my dinner on Tuesday night. It's a dish I call Stir-Fry Whatever You Have. The ingredients vary. This time it was chicken, onion, carrot, garlic, and noodles. It is accompanied by the best Chinese beer I've found so far: Haidao Black, which is apparently brewed by the Tsingtao Brewery. Not many stores carry it, but luckily the little convenience store here at Seasons Park is one of them. Chinese beers tend to be very light in both color and flavor, but this is one exception. It's not as full-bodied as a stout, but has a pretty nice malty taste.

I've been mostly eating dinner at home this week, so not many restaurant stories. For lunch we've been to the Hawaiian Pajama place (AKA Northwest Tiger) and another one in the same block. It's also good and also inexpensive. We found a new dish at Tiger’s that we all like – the ribs. Cooked to falling-apart with a delicious dry rub.

Today for lunch, JW, TG and I decided we were tired of going to the same old places all the time, so we walked further south from the Huabei than we had before. We came to another side street and saw the red lanterns indicating restaurants. We picked the first place that looked interesting. It turned out to be a traditional hot pot joint. No pictures on the menu, no English speaking staff, ignorant Americans… yeah, it was fun. We managed to pick out a couple plates of meat and some noodles and cabbage. They brought each of us a little bowl with a thick dark brown liquid in it and little dollops of other colors on top. The waiter showed us what to do. He scooped in some fresh chopped green onion (at least I think that's what it was) and stirred it around. In the center of the table was a hole with a metal bowl suspended in it. He ran outside and brought in the hot pot. It was a big metal bowl with a charcoal burner sticking up in the middle of it. There was boiling water all around it in a ring. We took bits of thinly sliced meat in our chopsticks and tossed them in the water, gave them a few seconds to cook then picked them out and dunked them in the brown sauce, which tasted kind of peanutty. I think one kind of meat was lamb or mutton, and the other possibly pork (it was pink on the plate and turned almost white when cooked). For some reason the waiter brought out one more plate, and we had no idea what it was. Either some kind of tripe or possibly a sea creature (we later found out it was beef intestine). For the intestine, you take a piece in your chopsticks and dip it into the water five times - yi, er san, si, wu - to get it hot (doesn't need to cook much apparently), and then dip in the sauce and eat. It had a very strange, slightly chewy texture. I don't know that we'll be going back there, but, as we always say, "It's an adventure!" I'm sure the staff was as amused by our behavior as we were by the whole experience.

Shortly after getting back to the office after lunch, we hopped in the car with HX and visited our new office space in the G-Box. Construction is proceeding at a frenetic pace. Last week it was a large open space; today there are frames up for all the walls, and I'm told they’ll probably have all the drywall done tonight. There are crews working round the clock. Some of their construction methods seem a little odd to us, but they seem to get the job done.
The workers took bits of scrap wood and built themselves the table for their table saw. The ladders are also tacked together from bits of scrap wood.
Now that I look at the pictures, one skeletal room looks pretty much like another. I think this area will someday be Reception.
And this is apparently already in use as a conference room.
Here's an example of the construction techniques. The floor is solid concrete. To put in wiring they chisel out a path to a depth of an inch or so. I think I'll end up in this part of the office, which is on the north side of the building.
This is the view out the windows on the north side. That's the Second Ring Road.
To the south it looks like this. The major intersection you can sort of see is Dongzhimen, the street I live on. To walk home, I'll probably walk down along here to the intersection and take a left. It should take 20 minutes or so, but that will have to wait till we move in here and the weather gets a bit warmer.
Here's one last example of workers making their own tools. This is a broom made of stalks of bamboo. It’s similar to the ones we see used to sweep sidewalks all over town.

While we toured the office, JW talked on the phone with CW, who is also up in Harbin, though he's there making business contacts. Without going into details, it looks likely that JW and I will go up there soon for a couple days to work out some technical procedures with a company based there. So maybe I won't have to borrow BG's pictures after all.

Tonight the whole gang is headed to Tim's Texas BBQ, which comes highly recommended.

The next morning…

The food at Tim's was very good. It's all done up like a Texas roadhouse, and the waiters wear cowboy hats and speak pretty good English. I had the Cowboy Platter: potato salad, beans, slaw and choice of two meat items. I picked beef rib and sausage. The meat was all excellent, and their BBQ sauce is very nice, just the right combination of sweet and spicy. But taste isn't everything, I guess. I was violently ill for several hours after I got home. The standard thing is to blame it on the potato salad, right?

We have reservations to go back there to catch the Super Bowl live. They'll be showing it on big screen TVs all around the place. The game is a 7am China Standard Time Monday morning, so it will be breakfast before going in to the office. I haven't heard yet if anyone else felt bad after eating there last night. Others had the same things I did.

And I'll sign off with this: it's 9:30 on a Saturday morning, and I just heard a commotion outside in the courtyard. I looked out the window to see a wedding party rushing across the grounds. A man in a black suit was carrying a woman in a big white dress, and they were being followed by a man with a professional-looking video camera and a crowd of other people. At least the spectators got to wear coats! It’s below freezing out there.


Bowling for peace

On Thursday evening, fourteen of us from the office went bowling at Gongti 100. The 100 in the name refers to the number of lanes at the bowling alley. I didn't take my camera – I'll have to go back sometime and snap a few shots. It's really huge.
This is a picture I stole off someone else's website (I promise to replace it with my own as soon as I can). We got lanes 25-27, split into three teams. My team was the one with only four people, so we took turns bowling the fifth line. In the first game we came in second place by a small margin, but in the second game we really took off and topped the second-place team by forty points or so. I only managed a 111, nowhere near my personal best, and my wrist was feeling pretty sore by the time we finished. One thing that was remarkably consistent about my performance was that every time I got a strike or spare, I did really terrible the next frame. Consistent in my inconsistency. Anyway, everyone seemed to have a pretty good time. I don't know if this kind of outing for "team-building" is done much here. I enjoyed the chance to spend some time with the Chinese half of our office. Sometimes I feel like there's an invisible wall across the middle of the office, with the Americans over on one side and the Chinese on the other. That's one kind of wall I hope falls over time (and I'm sure the eventual improvement of our language skills will help). As we were leaving, I asked one of the women if this had been more fun than staying home watching TV. She said no. I had noticed that she seemed to be enjoying herself earlier, so either she misunderstood my question or she really enjoys TV.

When I turned on the TV this morning (something I really don't do very often), there was car racing on ESPN and Larry King on CNN, so I started flipping channels and ended up on BTV-8, which is a music channel. They were doing a show on Korean music, and the hostess was speaking in English. I caught part of a video by a singer called Bada that was pretty good, more rock than is usual for K-Pop. In the "Up and Coming" segment, they showed a clip for Kim Ah-joong’s version of the Blondie song "Maria". It's from a movie that she stars in called 200 Pound Beauty, and from what I could gather in the video, the plot concerns an overweight girl who is a clumsy misfit. There are of scenes of her embarrassing herself by trying to wear trendy clothes and being dorky in front of cute guys. Then she goes to a hospital and has some sort of operation, and when she comes out, she's thin and beautiful. Now guys trip over their feet when she walks by. Somehow she becomes a pop star and there are scenes of her onstage with lights and pyrotechnics. Musically, it's pretty close to the original version, though much of it is translated into Korean. It looks like you can watch it on YouTube. (Internet's being really slow here today, so I can't get it to load myself – someone let me know if it's really there.) If an American movie had the same plot, I suspect it would be boycotted for its treatment of overweight people, much as Shallow Hal was a few years ago. I don't know if that makes Americans superior in sensitivity, or just reflects cultural differences. Or maybe sometimes you just have to find humor in something without examining it too closely for political correctness.


Watching TV here can be annoyingly similar to in the US in one respect: certain commercials get repeated way too frequently. On CNN, one of the biggest advertisers is Malaysia Airlines, and I must admit one of their ads amuses me. Their catch-phrase is "Wish you had more time? Book online with Malaysia Airlines." Nothing special, huh? No prizes to the one who came up with that line. But some of the images they put with it are good. My favorite shows a man in a business suit hurrying into an office, glancing at his watch and looking harried. He passes a table that has a coffee maker, a bin labeled COFFEE and a bin labeled SUGAR. The coffee pot holds only water. He looks at the pot longingly, checks his watch again, shakes his head, and starts to walk away. Then he turns back, puts a scoop of coffee grounds into his mouth, adds a scoop of sugar and a glass of water, swishes it around in his mouth, and goes upon his way. Then the slogan comes up on the screen.

And I just have to add that no matter how much cricket gets covered here on ESPN, the game is still completely opaque to me, less understandable than quidditch. No wonder it didn't catch on outside of the British empire.


Everything Forbidden is mandatory

Picking up where I left off...

Yesterday afternoon I made another trip to Carrefour for some household items. TG and I went to a different one than where I went back in October. This one is further away and much larger. I got an iron and ironing board, a toaster, and a wok. I have a frying pan I got at IKEA back when I first moved into the apartment, but the burner on the stove is really made for something larger, and a wok seemed like the most sensible thing. Oddly enough, the one I got was made in Germany. Go figure.
I also picked up some speakers for the laptop. I was going crazy just listening to music on the little built-in speakers. I'm very happy with these. They were made by Hyundai. TG also picked up a set of speakers for his computer. Getting all that stuff back in a little Beijing taxi was fun. Like the majority of the taxis here, it was a Hyundai, and they're kind of cramped for long-legged Americans like us, especially when they have a cage around the driver like some of them do.

Last night was another culinary adventure. JW, TG and I went to a little place around the corner called A-Che! It's basically Cuban food and drink with lots of Che Guevara décor. It is really nice inside (and I don't say that just because it was so cold outside). There was a little bit of New Orleans in the mix as well, and Latin videos were projected on the wall. We got to see a lot of Shakira, which is never a bad thing. Anyway, we started out with some "Cuban margaritas" which seemed sweeter than normal ones, and might have in fact been made with rum instead of tequila. The food turned out to be okay but not great. I had Cuban style roast pork with beans and rice. The meat was excellent, but the beans and rice mixture was rather dry and flavorless. TG took advantage of the availability of Cuban cigars and politely blew his smoke away from us. I'm getting kind of used to all the smoking around me here, and must admit the Cuban cigar was less stinky than any other cigar I've smelled.

Even more entertaining than the videos was a large table of Russians next to us. There were about ten of them, and they were consuming prodigious quantities of alcohol of all sorts. I saw a bottle of Absolut brought to them, and the whole thing was drained before they left, along with dozens of beers and who knows what else. After dinner, a little band started playing jazz and Latin standards ("Girl from Ipanema", "Fly Me to the Moon", "The Shadow of Your Smile", and so on), and one of the Russian girls jumped up on her chair and started dancing. The three of us stayed in our seats and moved on to a Russian beer called Baltika 9 in honor of the entertainment. There were also some more trained dancers who did some great whirling and dipping and so on.

This morning I managed to get out of bed and make it down to the gym around 8:00, then Skyped with D for a while (nasty weather in Seattle). At 11:30 I met TG for a little sightseeing. We got in a taxi and asked for the Forbidden City (actually I pointed to it on a map, but whatever). For some reason the driver dropped us off at the north entrance, which is closer (and therefore a smaller fare for him). Most visitors go to the south entrance, so we saw things in kind of a backwards order. The place is so huge we didn't get through more than about half of it, though we did make it to many of the most famous buildings. There's a lot of renovation and restoration going on. I took 155 pictures – just some of the highlights will go here.
Here's the frozen canal the runs along the north wall, and the nortwest corner Arrow Tower.
This is Dui Xiu Shan, The Temple of Accumulated Elegance, which is made of natural stones piled up and mortared together into an artificial hill with a temple on top. There are tunnels inside it.
The north part of the City has many small courtyards like this with trees and temples and oddly shaped chunks of stone on pillars. I'm sure it looks quite different in the summertime.
This is a close view of the walkway, with some nice stonework.
There are many of these passageways, almost like a maze.
Many of the temples have sculptures of animals outside them. Aside from the deer and dragon, there were lions, cranes, peacocks, and turtles.
We thought the tall temple in the background looked really interesting, so we tried to make our way towards it, but every time we found a passage in that direction, it either turned a different way or ended. We never did get any closer to it. But that's okay, we saw many interesting things.
There were lots of people around, though it wasn't really crowded. I'm sure it's a different story at other times of the year. Instead of approaching our dragon-tower temple, we found ourselves here...
It was like walking onto a gigantic movie set. I tried to imagine the place without the modern trash cans, railings and warning signs. The building in the background is Qian Qing Gong, The Palace of Heavenly Purity, which dates from 1420. During the Ming and Qing Dynasties, the emperors lived here.
A little peak inside to a throne room.
Every time we walked though a gate, there was another courtyard and more elaborate buildings. We began to say things like, "Oh, look, another temple," in deadpan voices. Here's TG taking a picture backed by an ornate wall just outside the Gate of Heavenly Purity.
Two golden lions greet visitors here. The far one is the male, representing the emperor, and the near one is female for the emperor's concubine.
This is the female lion. Notice the cub under her paw. Hopefully she's playing with it, not crushing it. It was in this courtyard that we had our first interaction with a stranger. A young woman wearing some sort of ID badge came up to us and asked us in English where we were from. We told her we were Americans, and no we weren't just visiting China on a vacation. She said she was a volunteer at an art gallery over at the other end of the courtyard and invited us to see the watercolors. I'm sure she was exactly what she said she was, but we politely declined and said we wanted to see more of the buildings. Maybe we would stop in later. She said, "I don't think you will." Very perceptive of her. We smiled and laughed as we walked away.
This is the Large Stone Carving. That's its name (in English anyway). It was carved out of a single piece of stone that was brought from several miles away. There's a sign to explain how they did it. Workers poured water on the road in the cold of winter, making a long ice road, and they pulled the stone on the ice. It's 16.75 meters long, 3.07 meters wide, and 1.7 meters thick, and weighs more than 200 tons. The carvings now visible are not the originals. In 1761, the original design was chiseled off and replaced with the nine dragons with lotus trim we see now.
Here's a view where you can see some of the modern city in the distance, including construction cranes, of course.
This got a chuckle. I don't think I need to explain anything on this one.
Coming in the winter does have some advantages, including sights like this.
This is Wu Men (Meridian Gate), the main south gate where most people come in. Along here a gentleman spoke to us who said he was visiting from Shanghai. No, we're not visiting, we live here, we work here, we're Americans, do you know where Seattle is?
Outside that gate is another spectacular courtyard (yawn), and then this gate, which is right on Chang'an Boulevard, Beijing's main street. Here we talked to a young woman from Shanghai. I think she was either a student or had a job in Beijing. When we said we were working for the Olympics she was intrigued. "Thank you," she said. "We need lots of help. It's a very big thing, and we've never done it before." She introduced us to her friend. I noticed that a little crowd of Chinese was gathering around us, listening in on the conversation.
Across the street is Tian'anmen Square. That's the National Museum on the far side.
And this is the Great Hall of the People, the Chinese Parliament Building. As we walked along here, another young woman approached and asked where we were from. No, we're not visiting—Americans—Olympics—since October—and so on. She told us she came from the city near where the big Three Gorges Dam is, and introduced us to her friend who was visiting from their home town. By this time we had worked out a story that we only had a little time for our sightseeing, then had to get to our office to work. Somewhere in there was another conversation with a woman from Qingdao, which is the coastal city where the Olympic sailing events will take place, and this is her friend... Americans—Olympics—October—work.
I'm sure this monument commemorates something important, but I didn't get any closer to find out what. By this time I was feeling a little tired. (I’ve since looked it up, and it’s the Monument to the People’s Heroes.) Near here, a girl in a red coat came up and asked where we were from. Americans—Olympics—October—work. She introduced a young man who was with her. He said he loved American movies, and Spiderman is his favorite, though he also likes Shrek, Toy Story, and lots of others. He was very enthusiastic, and said he liked the sound of American accents. They invited us to see a calligraphy and watercolor exhibit over at the museum.
Forward the Revolution!
This would be a great spot for people watching but for a couple things. First, it was too darn cold. Second, about every ten paces, someone will approach you trying to sell you postcards or Mao wristwatches or Red Army style hats. Or try to get you to go to the calligraphy exhibit at the museum. Or maybe just practice their English. Americans—Olympics—October—work.
This is a view along Chang'an looking east. We walked along the street for a while until we found a taxi that was available. Whew! I'm tired all over again just writing about it. Oddly enough, the whole affair only took about four hours. There's still plenty we haven't seen yet in that part of town, like the lovely calligraphy and watercolor exhibit at the museum, so we'll be back. And if anyone ever comes to visit me here, I'll probably get to act as tourguide and go through it again.

Well, it’s getting late and I’m very tired. Posting this entry has been quite tedious, since the only way I could get the images to upload was by doing them one at a time, and some of them I had to try three times before they made it. I might post some of the remaining pictures in later entries where I don’t have new photos.


It’s the food

When I was in Seattle over the holidays, I got my hair trimmed, and while I was talking with the stylist (DT), he asked me what was my number one favorite thing about living in Beijing. I didn't hesitate. I said, "The food." He seemed very surprised at that answer, and I was surprised that he was surprised. It was a veritable ring of surprise. I had read before I came here that Beijing was full of great restaurants, and it has certainly proven to be true. And I haven't even been to very many classy, expensive places. It seems that every block of the city has at least one or two restaurants, and for the most part, even these cheap neighborhood places serve great food. And we're not just talking Chinese food. I've mentioned before about The Tree, which had really good pizza (and there's a little spot called Napoli across the street from Seasons Park that makes pretty good pizza as well). Far Away Café has tasty food in the style of Southern France. I've been to a couple of American and British places. I've been to the "gold dome" place that I mentioned back on November 12, and it specializes in Uighur food from the far west region of China, which has elements of Middle Eastern flavor in it. Probably the best mutton I've ever had – though I can't say I've had a lot of mutton in my life. I've also been to a very nice Sichuan restaurant that I'm glad I didn't have to pay for. I've yet to find any Mexican food, which I've heard is the one real lack in the city's culinary scene. And as it turns out, I have not yet had the famous Peking Duck, though there are lots of duck places all over.

Last Friday those of us in town went to an Indian restaurant called Mallika. We found it because the China Club Football card gets a discount, and the web site advertised a live Bollywood dance show every night. Given its location, right in a multi-story entertainment complex featuring a 100-lane bowling alley (we've got a work outing scheduled there soon) and several trendy night spots, we expected it to be more expensive than your average Beijing restaurant, and it was, though still reasonable by US standards. Four of us shared a good bottle of wine and ate well for about $20 a person (each dish was around $10 and the bottle of wine was about $25). The only disappointment was that the promised "Bollywood dancing" consisted of two Chinese belly dancers doing routines to Bollywood music.

Last night the gang went to a tapas place called Mare that had been on my list of places to visit. It was very, very good. The five of us ordered ten or more dishes, running a gamut from garlic shrimp to pork medallions with goat cheese to chorizo with potatoes to gazpacho. PG showed up late, just as we were finishing, and got a couple more. We also tried a variety of desserts, and the one I picked turned out to be a real winner: mascarpone cheesecake. The rice pudding was also excellent. Throw in a couple bottles of wine and give your server ¥1500. The place was packed – you have to make reservations – and almost all of the clientele was non-Chinese. Service was much more attentive than usual for a Beijing restaurant, and their English was very good. It’s a wonderful place for special occasions.

I've also had reports of good Thai places. I've been to the nearby Korean BBQ place twice, and the Malaysian spot back by the Royal Kuntai Hotel.

What it basically comes down to is the fact that Beijing is a very large city, the capital of a major nation, and there are lots of people here from all over the world who expect good food. Washington DC is similarly supplied with good eating, and so is London. It's also part of Chinese culture that the best way to be hospitable to guests is to treat them to a good meal out. Incidentally, I've heard that the situation is very different in India. There, hospitality dictates that entertaining guests is done in the home, so the restaurants tend not to be of such high quality – and in fact the world's best Indian restaurants are mostly outside India. All of that is pure hearsay of course. Maybe I'll get to India someday to put it to the test. I can state from my own experience that there are at least three or four good Indian restaurants in England.

In other news...

  • I apparently have an account with China Citic Bank. I was sitting at my desk the other day and AB handed me a card and told me the password. Initially it has ¥1.00 in it, which is only about $0.13, but it will be used for reimbursement of any business expenses I have here. Citic is one of the official Olympic sponsors, so we probably got some sort of deal.

  • Things are apparently moving along in the G-Box. I haven't been over there since our office space was bare cement, but I'm told it's being built out now. They brought us some furniture samples yesterday so we could pick out which chairs, desks, cubicles and cabinets we like. CL, JW, and PG have been poring over the blueprints, figuring out if they put in enough power outlets and network plugs.

  • Weather has continued cold and clear. The snow that fell while I was back in Seattle is still on the ground in places, since we've had virtually no time above freezing, but there's been no more added to the little piles, and they're looking pretty grey. Forecast calls for possible snow this weekend.

  • Some of my coworkers are going through the process of getting their visas converted to work visas (from tourist). For TG that involves a three-day trip to Hong Kong on the company. Apparently it is easier to get a Chinese work visa in Hong Kong than it is here, and his tourist visa is expiring next week. I don't know yet if I'll have to do something similar – I've still got more than a month left on mine.

  • I've finally started taking advantage of the gym here at Seasons Park, trying to learn how to use all those crazy machines. I do miss playing soccer.

Bye for now.


Travellin' tunes

Cross-reference my Last.fm journal here.


Frozen transit

Location: Over the Pacific Ocean somewhere
Time zone: Pacific Standard Time

Turbulence, bad enough that they suspended beverage service. I shouldn't be surprised, since the flight from Seattle to San Francisco was rough and the route from SF to Beijing covers the same general area at the start. On the news this morning I saw a big weather system over the northeast Pacific, and that's where we are. Good thing I got my Bacardi and Pepsi before the crew had to strap in, though it's a challenge to pour from the can into the little cup with the ice without spilling. So far so good.

The movie showing right now is The DaVinci Code, which I saw two weeks ago on the eastbound flight, so I've got The Rough Guide to Bollywood on the Zen. I finished A Deepness in the Sky as we waited on the tarmac at SFO. Very good book - not surprising given the quality of the other Vernor Vinge books I've read. He manages to straddle big concepts and human-level things very nicely.

This is one of the roughest flights I've been on. I try to relax and smile and treat it like a rollercoaster ride where you can't see what's coming next. Whee! Rum on an empty stomach might in this case might actually be a benefit...

I hope it doesn't last too long, though, since I didn't get anything to eat in SF.


Location: Over the Bering Strait
Time zone: Approximately on the International Date Line
Sometime during Little Miss Sunshine, around the time when the family arrives at the pageant, even Kafka on the Shore couldn't keep me awake and I turned off my reading light for a nap. Not long after that, more turbulence woke me up. The credits for the movie were running, so I knew it hadn't been long. I saw that the guy next to me was out of his seat, and started to get up, taking advantage of his absence to escape my window seat. Just then they turned the seatbelt light back on. I opened my window shade to see a bizarre scene below. It didn't even look like something from this planet, but I know things often look strange from high above. It was like giant sheets of ice suspended over nothingness. And above it all, in a strange blue fading sky, was a full moon. I quickly pulled out the camera, though I have little hope it could capture the scene. When the trip display came back on the screen, I saw that we were passing over the Bering Strait.

Location: Over the Sea of Okhotsk
Time zone: Unknown

And now I'm looking down on the barren white mountains of eastern Siberia with late afternoon sun turning the snow a little pink. I'm very glad I'm six and a half miles above it. Still six hours to go. The land below is incredibly desolate, just thousands of bare mountains dusted with white. I wonder if they have a brief season of green there. The land seems so empty, and I can easily imagine that even in the long history of humankind, there are many of those valleys and ridges that no person has ever walked upon. Why would anyone? There's nothing there, and surely not much to eat for any kind of animal, and it's not on the way from anywhere to anywhere unless you get to the age of air travel.
The ice looks different here in the Sea of Okhotsk, more fragile, kind of like crumpled wax paper pressed between two sheets of glass.

Location: Over some part of Siberia
Time zone: Probably the same as China Standard Time

I’ve started seeing roads and the geometric patterns of agriculture, and I am comforted by the knowledge that I am once again traversing the world of human beings.

I would like to publicly thank the artists whose presence on my Zen made the trip more bearable: Shylock, Dizzy Gillespie, Danielle Dax, the Strawbs, Michael Brook, Miroslav Vitous, Tasavallan Presidentti, Richard Thompson and the rest. Thanks also to Vernor Vinge and Haruki Murakami for writing such enjoyable books.

Location: Beijing, China
Time zone (internal): Undetermined

I'm sure I could say more, but it's past 9:30 and I'm more asleep than awake. My coworker TG brought me some leftover pizza from the place across the street to fill the void in my refrigerator (and stomach), and CL sent an email excusing me from going to the office tomorrow.

Apparently, the internet connection from here to the US has been unreliable lately due to the earthquake off Taiwan. Oh, joy.