Sunday, September 30, 2007

Day 2: The List

Must Have Item To Make You Look Like Less Of A Dumbass Tourist: The Tea Jar

Tea (Cha) is the national drink of China. It's everywhere, from restaurants, to convenience stores, to highly specialized Tea shops which are often the nicest store on the block. You get tea for free with your meals at nicer restaurants (where it costs upwards of a whole $7 to get two people stuffed with food), but if you are rambling the hutongs and living off of street food, you need to get your caffeine kick somehow... which is where the Tea Jar comes in. Everyone carries these here, especially cab drivers and shop owners (ok, that's like 70% of the population) and because they are all clear glass or plastic you can check out all the different brews, the leaf style and color. Basically they are like Eugene's omnipresent Nalgene bottles, but usually a bit smaller and almost always clear. Because our hostel charges a whole 40 cents per cup of tea (!) we bought a bunch of jasmine tea and brew our own using the handy water boiler, and hike around town with a constantly-caffienated spring in our step.

Street Food Of The Day: Jiang Bing

Imagine a paper-thin crepe with an egg, a piece of fried dough, a savory soy-like sauce, a spicy chili sauce, green onions and cilantro all rolled up and made right in front of you... for breakfast. Our vendor was delighted to rip us off by charging us 5 yuan instead of the usual 3 (60 cents instead of 40... oh damn), and was even happier to see us swoon at the delicousness of it all. It made our noses run, and our tastebuds tingle, but it kept us full all morning. Guess what we are having for breakfast again today?

Must Have Item That Will Definately Make You Look More Like A Dumbass Tourist: Faux-Tiger Skin Rug

I had this idea a while ago, and although I was thinking of something a little more kid-friendly, this would definately do. Now, how the hell am I gonna get it into my suitcase?

Cutest Beijinger Of The Day: Kitteh!

Pets are hugely popular here, and we've already seen cats, dogs, rabbits and several different bird species. None came close to this little guy in terms of sheer cuteness, though.

Smell Of The Day: Seed and Nut Stands

Beijing is a never-ending olfactory experience, and often times smell will be the most stimulated sense as you walk around the streets and hutongs. One of my favorite smells has got to be the shops and stands that sell a wide variety of nuts and seeds. Chestnuts, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, hazlenuts and much more are very popular in Beijing, and these stands often have long lines of customers. It's not at all surprising, as the smell of these nuts and seeds slow-roasting is delicate, complex and totally enticing.

So, as I'm sure you can tell by now, Beijing is an amazing city with an endless amount of things to see and do before you need to even consider going near a tourist spot. The only downside is that you can only physically walk so many hours in a day before you simply collapse from exhaustion. The benefit to this is that you reach a point in the evening where you just have to go home, regroup for a few hours with some tea and always-tasty Tsingtao beer before heading back out to check out the wild and crazy hutong night market scene. This provides the perfect opportunity to practice the Mandarin (people seem to love it if you make any effort at all, especially if you don't mind joining them in a laugh at your expense) and write down a few thoughts. Hopefully you all enjoy reading them.

Bye for now!
(picture: me and the bell tower, taken from the drum tower)

Saturday, September 29, 2007

"I take two Benadryl in times of peace, and two in times of war..."

Ahh, Jetlag. We were so exhausted after a day of tramping around the city that we broke the cardinal rule of jetlag management and passed out around 5pm local time. We woke up at about 2am, and with nothing to do we decided to watch the Duck game stats update on gametracker. Not wanting to stare at a computer for 5 hours waiting to get word about our lost bags, we made a party of it and had a couple of Benadryl each, washed down by a shared bottle of Tsingtao. 15 minutes later, we were both passed out again like a couple of freshmen. We woke up around 7am local, read the thrilling (but disappointing) finish to the Ducks game.

Whatever is in that Benadryl stuff saved our jetlagged asses from several long hours of waiting, and another day of out-of-syncness. Now, it's off to score some Hutong breakfast, and then on to meet with the Friends of Old Beijing. The only problem now is that we still have no cameras, and we smell just like the locals... but maybe that means we get the local price on baozi and bing.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Safe Landings...

Well, we finally made it. After a flight delay, a rerouting, several "WTF" moments at ticketing counters, and having all our luggage lost on the way, we are finally in Beijing. We arrived at 5:30 a.m, waited for our bags, realized they weren't coming and filed the necessary paperwork with the airline. We went through immigration and customs, and in a jetlagged daze we walked out the doors of the terminal to the taxi queue. We were instantly accosted by a man who said "taxi" and beckoned us to follow. As we passed the line of waiting cabs, it suddenly occurred to me that we should just get into the first livery cab, and not follow the seemingly well-intentioned gent to his undetermined location. We hopped in a cab, to a chorus of disappointed wails, and started driving into town.

I have never witnessed anything quite like Beijing traffic before. It is truly a testament to the engrained cultural value of social harmony that everyone can so totally ignore the rules and act solely in self interest and yet avoid any accidents. Our driver straddled lanes, merged and generally navigated the chaos like a fish swimming in a giant school. Several times I was convinced we would be sandwiched between cars, hit by bicyclists, or run off the road by larger, faster cars. He even managed to call our hostel on his cell and get updated directions, all while negotiating traffic that would make a NASCAR driver blanch.

After checking in at our hostel, we had little choice but to walk around for a while, as our room was not yet vacated. We explored the neighborhood hutong (alleys) for a while, and were delighted to find them as authentically rustic (read: smelly) and full of character as we could have expected. Clearly the Olympic development has not totally destroyed old Beijing. After getting thoroughly lost in the winding hutongs, we finally got our bearings and headed to BeiHai park. Exhausted, jetlagged and overwhelmed by the enormous city bustling around us, BeiHai was the perfect escape. People were dancing, knitting, practicing TaiChi and playing cards along the edge of the lake, and the high-rises around us were smothered by a layer of smog so that we practically forgot that we were in a city at all.

We walked past the Forbidden City to Donghuamen street where we had a delicious meal of Fujian tea-smoked duck and SiChuan beef and onions with beer (for like, $8). We checked out some of the shops in the Wangfujing shopping street, but we were beginning to get pretty tired, and had a long trek still back to the hostel so we headed back. Now we are hanging out in our tiny but charming room in our siheyuan (courtyard-style) hostel. We both stink like the dickens, but have no clothes to change into and very limited toiletries due to our luggage being lost (this is also why we have no photos yet). Hopefully the bags will arrive tomorrow, and we can show you all some of the sights of this amazing city.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The more things change, the more they become different...

So, a few of you may notice that my half-assed attempt at writing regularly in this blogs previous format have ceased. Some may even have noticed that my attention has been distracted of late from the topics which I had written about in the last academic year. These changes have occured quite by chance, through the miracle of Craigslist, in the form of a new (paying) job in a field I had never really considered seriously. As I attempt to reinvent myself as the immaculate product developer, this blog will focus on material culture, design and consumer products.

And what better way to kick off an ongoing exploration of these topics than by documenting a month-long trip to the modern heart of consumer product manufacturing: China. Andrea and I will be leaving for Beijing on the 27th of September, we will stay in Beijing for about 2 weeks, as Andrea completes research on her thesis (see her blog at, then on to Shanghai and the Yangtze Delta for about 10 days, then back to Beijing for the 7th International Conference on Sport and the Environment. During the course of this journey, I want to use this space to not only show the tourist sights and landmarks of China, but also the material culture: the myriad products made and consumed in China.

Because we will be packing lightly, and bringing back purchases for ourselves (already on the list: tailored suits, rugs and communist kitsch) I will be happy to arrange the purchase and transportation of any items which I post here, if you are interested. If there are things you would like me to look for, please leave a comment and I'll se what I can do. Just think of me as your private shopper in the manufacturing capitol of the world...

6 days now, and counting...