Tuesday, February 28, 2006


And hopefully the last of the bitter cold.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

It's the little things that matter

Like having ready access to potable water. China's tap water isn't drinkable. Even for brushing teeth, bottled water is recommended. Here I am, immensely proud of having negotiated by phone a water delivery service.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Washington, my home sweet home

I doubt that all of these fruits were really imported from Washington State (I'm not even sure what kind of fruit the pink and green one on the right is), but seeing these stickers on a fancy fruit basket was still a nice surprise.

Chinese chess on a Monday afternoon

Around town

This is why I got my rabies vaccinations (apparently rabies is China's 2nd deadliest infectious disease, if you believe the official AIDS figures released by the government)

Sunday, February 19, 2006


Last night we had dinner with an old friend of mine from high school, Greg Distelhorst. He's working for the Washington Post's Beijing correspondent, Philip Pan. In fact, you can see his name in lights on the Washington Post's most emailed article for today, The Click That Broke a Government's Grip. Interesting article, too.

Saturday, February 18, 2006


Buying a cellphone. Just as much of a headache as in the United States, but with a whole new set of vocabulary. I never learned the words for "prepay", "mobile to mobile", or "text message" in my Chinese classes.

Dairy Queen is tasty under any circumstances, but particularly after a spicy-hot Szechuan meal. We stumbled upon this store at a local shopping mall while looking for flannel sheets, which don't seem to have made it onto the domestic Chinese market (though I don't doubt they're exported by the ton to the United States.)

Caveat Emptor

Life is very good. I bought a computer desk, chair, and halogen lamp from IKEA last night (half an hour before closing, after the crowds had thinned). We assembled the lot in less than two hours and I am happily, comfortably settled in next to the window (plenty of natural lighting) and the radiator (plenty of warmth for my toes).

I had a special breakfast this morning at the top of the China World Hotel, where you can eat your eggs and croissant while gazing out over the city's skyline. Well, the skyline looks pretty much the same in every direction. All of the really distinct buildings are less than three stories tall - namely, the Forbidden City and other bits of history scattered around the city, wedged between high rises and overpasses.

After breakfast, I stopped at the Silk Market, which was once an open-air bazaar near the World Trade Center and still is a major tourist trap and haven for pickpockets. I'd been snookered more than once by inflated prices for tourists (often at higher than 300% markup), so I was on my guard. Some two hours and three shops later, I came away with four items, my wallet lighter by a mere 11 dollars. Still, I wasn't sure that I'd gotten a good deal. Had I spotted this posted placard of handy phrases before making my purchases, I might have done better! (Apparently the Tourism Ministry thought to throw a bone to the unwary vacationer.)

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Happy Valentine's Day!

情人节快乐! We took a break yesterday from running errands to celebrate Valentine's Day. The weather was unexpectedly beautiful for Beijing at any time of year. The coal dust parted and there was blue sky! The day was full of success, and provided a much needed reprieve from the crowds, sulfur, and bureaucratic headaches of the previous days. (Several hours were spent in vain trying various banks in the area, attempting to recharge the gas card to heat the radiators in our apartment)

Our first stop w
as a karaoke palace (钱柜)on the east side of the city. Karaoke to most Americans means a bar, but in China these establishments can run to hotel-quality. The marble foyer, for one, was a dead giveaway. The complimentary lunch buffet was extensive if not as delicious as the street food we've been having, and our private karaoke room was cushy, soundproofed, and equipped with a 50-inch TV.

Next we headed to one of Beijing's historic attractions for a nice view of the city's lakes from the top of the Drum Tower (
gulou). The area, Houhai, still preserves some of Beijing's traditional four-walled compounds and the narrow streets that in other parts of town have been bulldozed to make way for skyscrapers (see below).

The lakes are still frozen but the bicycle taxis were out in full force. Jeremy bought me a long-stemmed rose for a third of the price asked by a street hawker earlier in the day. We sighted the "Catholic Church" of Beijing and an Italian restaurant wedged in one of the hutongs, got hungry and hopped in a cab. 45 minutes later, we were still in the cab, stuck in traffic somewhere in the vicinity of the international trade district and diplomatic quarters. The sun had gone down, ruining our half-formed plans of dining at the top of one of Beijing's posh (and I mean posh, as in live
string quartets in the lobby) hotels, and we were now starving. Two Pizza Huts later (we didn't eat there - there were lines out the door and weren't in the mood anyway for baby corn with our pepperoni), we eventually stumbled upon a little hole in the wall, where for 6 dollars we dined on 4 dishes. The MSG and the second hand smoke nearly knocked us out.

The evening ended with a "foot" massage, which for 12 dollars included a leg, arm, and back massage as well. The massage parlor, like the karaoke establishment, was more hotel than salon. From what I could overhear of nearby conversations, business deals were being made while calluses were being removed. And I thought, how can I work things out so that all my business is conducted in a massage parlor?

Monday, February 13, 2006

First adventures in Beijing

Jeremy and I headed out yesterday to IKEA, thinking we would pick up a few inexpensive linens and household items. We had barely entered the warehouse before being jostled on all sides by a stream of similarly minded young Chinese in their 20s and 30s. Up the escalator we went, with a security guard barking at the shoppers to move in an orderly fashion. At the top of the escalator we were astounded by the number of people in the store. Each and every display was surrounded by shoppers picking over items. Moving through the store was less like taking a stroll and more like navigating a train station at rush hour. That was the first disappointment. The second was the prices, which were identical to those in the United States. What a contrast to the steaming hot croissant-like bing we’d bought off the street that morning, about 6 cents each. We did our best to leave the store as quickly as possible, which meant finding the aisles that had only 15 instead of 30 people in them. Outside, Jeremy spotted a “dumpling city” sign, which led to a delicious lunch of steamed dumplings and stir-fried eggplant, bell pepper, and potatoes.

Carrefour—the French equivalent of Walmart—was our next stop. Clearly, we had not learned our lesson – avoid Western stores on weekends, where throngs of middle class Chinese gather to spend their money. If anything, the store was more crowded than IKEA. Pushing the grocery cart, Jeremy and I could barely stay together as we moved, slowly and painfully, through the store. Like IKEA, the store is laid out so that you have to go upstairs before you can buy stuff downstairs.

The first time, we entirely missed the down ramp and made a full circuit. On the second pass, we found the down ramp entrance. Like cattle, we emerged onto the ground floor. There we were met with the spicy smoke of Chinese wok cooking and the sight of raw fish, stacked high in rows, heads all pointing in our direction. Hawkers called our attention to special promotions. I snagged a box of strawberries before ducking back into the crowd, checking to make sure that Jeremy and the shopping cart were not too far behind.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Bejiing, China! 中国北京

Jeremy and I arrived safely last night in Beijing, an hour early on a very comfortable Air China flight – the emptiest I’d ever seen, so a good deal of sleep was had. Perhaps too much, which explains why I’m up at 3:45 am local time.

After a bit of a hunt in the dark with the taxi cab driver, we located the apartment, turned the key, and entered. The heat of course had not been on for months, so we stayed bundled up for at least 45 minutes while trying to figure out our heating options. (Ultimately, this involved inserting a plastic screw of sorts into the water heating box and turning it to release water from the pipes into the heating tank. As the tank was filling, our screw fell out and we scrambled to fit it back in before the tank overflowed. In the nick of time, we closed the valve, but it was so close to the full line that once the radiators started working – after more guesswork with the dials and the pilot light – the water heater started leaking steadily as the water expanded with the heat.) Anyway, I expect this to be just one of many “adventures” in getting settled here in Zhongguo. Similar procedures were necessary before I could get this internet connection to work!

The apartment is small but nicely appointed, with the baby grand in the living room and a lovely glass partition between the bathroom and the bedroom. There are still various layers of dust and soot in the apartment, but thorough cleaning and some new linens should do the trick.

We have an internet connection here that costs 33 cents an hour, not much at all, but that’s also enough to buy a nice breakfast. So I’ll be on periodically, with email and various IM services. I’ll still be using my UCSD email account.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

One last breath of fresh air (leaving on a jet plane)

In preparation for going to China, where the weather prediction is often "smoky" from the coal used to heat millions of homes, Jeremy and I took a trip to San Diego's main attraction, the beach. With the Santa Ana, daytime temperatures were in the low 80s, a dry warmth - the likes of which we won't see for another 6 months.