Monday, January 21, 2008

"Their objective is to get every penny from you..."

Russell Peters wasn't kidding. I have to hand it to Chinese tour operators, even though to me they present a special kind of torture. They lure you into these package tours with absurdly low prices (in my case, Shanghai-Hangzhou-Suzhou for HKD$2000, just around $260). Then they trap you on a bus and take you to places like silk factories, teahouses, gigantic jewelry stores.

Today I witnessed the latest abomination in Chinese tour scams, something I thought really demonstrated the creativity with which they plot to dupe unsuspecting tourists:

Outrageously expensive "lucky" stone lions!

I didn't understand a word of the guy's sales pitch in Cantonese (which sounded like it was positioned as a history of the stone lion in Shanghai, why they were special, historic examples of their luckiness, and how monks prayed blessings over these particular lions so they were extra lucky--with warnings not to buy the "fake" lion souvenirs so readily available in other places). Curious, I went over to a rather small lion, about the size of my palm, and nearly gagged. Y2300! That is almost $300 USD. I asked someone if they were made of some rare and wonderful material. Nope. Apparently they are expensive because of the monks' prayers that make them extra lucky. Even the tiniest lion, which would fit on a keychain, was about USD$30. I didn't even venture to look at the larger lions that people would use to flank their doorways.

But what really flabbergasted me was that people in our tour group seemed to be taking them seriously. People tell me that older Hong Kong-nese are rather superstitious, but it really surprised me when people started dropping thousands of yuan from their hard-earned money on these lions. One woman bought three of those little guys for around Y300 each, and another guy bought the Y2300 one.
Later, when the tour took us to a pearl factory, no one bought any jewelry at all. Moral of the story: luck sells, vanity doesn't.

Back in business, sort of.

I am so behind on blog-posting by now that the enormity of what I have to post makes me want to avoid it altogether. But I feel like I need to get this stuff down somewhere, or I'll never remember what it was like to visit all the places I've been visiting the past three weeks. I think the best approach is a non-chronological one, because it would just take too long to get down all the details. Also probably be boring. I also think snippets beat out my usual long-winded accounts detailing every meal and turn. So I'll just do my best, even though I go home in 3 days and a lot of it will be after the fact. But here goes.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Thank heaven for free airport wi-fi.

I'm sitting in the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, which rivals the Hong Kong airport in cleanliness, modernity, and distance from the city. I can't believe how long it took us to get to the airport from city center, and our cab driver was averaging 110km/hour.

Anyway, I'll write more if I have time but basically after a week in Singapore I hopped a coach bus bound for KL. We spend maybe 2/3 of the day exploring KL and buying gorgeous batiks by the armload. Though ironically I find myself preferring Javanese batik to the Malaysian ones here (I like the method of dyeing but none of the patterns have really jumped out at me). I dropped US $100 on an abstract batik painting by an up and coming artist that looks like something I would see at SFMoma. Better, I figure, than spending $5000 on a painting by an established artist. And I can even wash and iron this piece.

Everywhere I go there is curry, which is not good for a tummy recovering from another (less serious) bout of tummy issues. The traffic and city planny in KL is completely mad. The city is raw. But I kind of like it.

We're heading to Penang now... more later.

Sunday, January 6, 2008


Don't worry, I'm still alive and kicking, I just don't have reliable access to internet, or it's hella expensive. I'm in Singapore now, just got in from HK. I don't know why I'm in these first-world countries and struggling to connect to the web. My hotel charges an exhorbitant SGD 0.85 per minute. I don't know anyone who charges internet by the minute. This is turning me into a firm believer that internet should be free, to everyone. Geez, man.

More later (if I have time after work and can use the Internet there).

Monday, December 31, 2007

Beijing says: “See you on the flip side, snookums.”

My last week in Beijing was a little less exciting than one would hope, mostly because it’s impossible with my family to get out of the house before noon (or rather, 2pm in most cases). So on the weekend we end up wasting the whole day, and by the time we get out, all the sights are closing and all we can do is have dinner, get home late, and start the cycle all over again. I had my heart set on the flag-raising ceremony in Tiananmen, and seeing Mao’s Mausoleum before I left, but ended up doing neither (and the flag raising isn’t even that early in the winter time… 7:30am vs. 4:30am in the summer).

But I did manage to have some nice dinners, including a splendiferous Christmas feast at Da Dong Kao Ya (Beijing Duck), reputedly the best duck restaurant in the city. It certainly was the fanciest. The duck itself is similar to Quanjude, but notably leaner and crispier because of their special roasting method (which you can witness from the foyer, this army of young chefs in toques, sweating as they hold fat, glistening duck carcasses over open flames).

The other dishes we got were, each one of them, were nothing short of a taste experience, visually artistic and flavorfully complex. Started with some cold broad beans mixed with some delicious mix of black bean paste and tea leaves.

Moved to two types of scallops, one in X.O. sauce and one fried lightly in batter and served over a corn and soy mash relish. Then had tender, flavorful oxtail (boneless, skinless, fatless), a kind of whitefish ball over some green sauce, and halibut glazed in a tangy, sweet sauce. Finished with a dessert of Beijing battered apple chunks glazed in melted sugar and tang yuan (sesame mochi) in a coconut milk broth.

I think I pretty much gained all my weight back, hah hah hah. That reminds me of a story someone told me (who shall remain nameless) that made me much less happy about losing weight while in Beijing. Warning: Don’t read further if you don’t want to spoil your lunch! Apparently he woke up one morning and really had to go to the bathroom. He went, did his business. But when he turned around to flush he saw something in there that really didn’t belong. It started moving. And to his horror he realized it was a 7-inch worm. A WORM! That came out of his BODY! He wanted to get rid of it but figured he should get it to a doctor for medical/scientific purposes, so he fished it out with a fork and stuck it in a water bottle. Even the doctor was grossed out and showed the worm to his doctor buddies down the hallway. Anyway, turns out there was only one worm and after a couple days of anti-worm medicine, he was okay.

Just be careful what you eat and get a physical check-up when you return home!

The rest of the week was pretty much spent re-eating at all my favorite places, except one nite we tried a new restaurant, Tai something or other. Most notable was the large sand pit in the foyer where they kept hundreds of live turtles. Cute as they were, they were intended for food, as I later saw braised tortoise on the menu. Sadness.

Had a good-bye dinner at the Hunan place near work and it was so bittersweet to say goodbye to some teammates and good friends that I’ve grown really fond of these past few months. I started missing them, and Beijing, before I even left. Gave out a lot of hugs and promises to visit next time I come to China (which may be sooner than I originally thought!).

More pictures form my last meal in Beijing, at, you guessed it, the Xinjiang restaurant:

My favorite dish, laghman. I could eat a whole plate of it by myself.

Da pan ji, a signature Uigher dish with spicy, flavorful chicken, potatoes, and flat, wide noodles.

Mutton and broth over Uigher bread.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Did someone say booties were "in" this season?

Check out these beautiful little boots my mom and I picked up at the "arts and crafts" warehouse on Wangfujing Dajie. These have got to be some of the best souvenirs I've gotten from China so far, even though only a small child, or woman with bound feet, could wear them. At Y48/pair, they weren't exactly cheap, but they're supposedly hand-embroidered. At least one or two pairs will find a happy home on my bookshelf =D.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

Never felt less like Christmas Eve, so thought I'd share a favorite Christmas hymn of mine.

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan's tyranny
From depths of Hell Thy people save
And give them victory o'er the grave
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death's dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, O come, Thou Lord of might,
Who to Thy tribes, on Sinai's height,
In ancient times did'st give the Law,
In cloud, and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.