Monday, November 8, 2010

Halloween Party!

Nothing like getting things kicked off right.

I always thought that our first hosting event here would be like a normal Chambers Family Dinner in the U.S., less than 10 people, casual, low-key.....not quite. But Brian and I were both pretty darn excited about it. We had people from both companies over on the Friday night before Halloween, and the apartment was festooned with faux spider webs that Brian artfully strung up. We had an impromptu concert, played Mummy-Wrap and bilingual Pictionary, as well as ate some pretty delicious food. If i do say so myself. :)


Apple cider
Yanjing beer
Emmental and Smiling Cow cheeses and crackers
Fruit platter
BLT salad
Homemade salsa & chips
Bok choy boats with sweet potato and bacon (definitely the hit!)
Cookies (from Horrible Cookies in the US)
Caramel apple mini cupcakes (except without the caramel apple topping because it didn't work for me...bu hao)


Happy Halloween from China!

The S Series, Part 2

I'm feeling a flurry of blog posts coming on. so many days are full of things that I see - things that inspire, amaze, and confuse addition to the fact that i've finally determined to live life here to the fullest. i'm tired of comparing it to the states, tired of being frustrated with different customs, and tired of being mad at not being able to find my vegetable of choice in the grocery store. I am in one of the largest and most unique cities in the i'm going to live it up!

S series part 2: Shrimp pasta, Supermarkets, Sanlitun, and Sub-zero temperatures.

I'm finally beginning to cook around here. I like challenges, but grocery shopping and cooking here is definitely a serious challenge. I found the nearest grocery store (in a nearby basement, like so much of the retail here) and have spent the past two weeks getting to know it a bit better. It is full of the typical chinese supermarket things: piles and piles of vegetables - more green leafy things than i can count!, random chicken pieces on piles of ice, and employees hawking the wares of their particular department. Mostly I have been successful, as in the shrimp pasta dish that I created last week, compliments of my parisienne friend Isabel and Giada. (check out her blog! Adventures in a Gluten-Free Life) However, last week i bought some bacon. It looked like delicious, thick-cut an exact replica of cartoon bacon, with the perfect delicious bands of fat and meat. Yet........YET. When I started frying it: the fat went nowhere, the meat turned brown (not like bacon), and smelled of beef. I have no idea what part of the cow I was eating, but it was NOT pig. ah well...can't win 'em all.

Sanlitun is one of our favorite areas here in Beijing. It's a wonderful combination of small narrow streets full of tucked-away crowded restaurants, the Village - a new brand-name shopping extravaganza, and Ya Show - the fake brand bartering market. Very popular with expats for its fun dining options (Apothecary, spanish tapas, and Bitapitta) and international resources (bookstores, shopping, and hair salons). If you come visit we'll be sure to take you there!

While I don't believe we've quite hit the sub-zero temperatures here, I'm getting pretty nervous. The 2 and 3 degree celcius days haven't been horrible, but everyone keeps saying that this is supposed to be the worst winter in 500 years. I don't even know how to comprehend that. This Florida girl has no idea she's doing.

Top 10 (part 2 of 2):

4. This past month has been full of incredible excess....and i am so overwhelmed at everyone's generosity that I don't know what to say. From pages of facebook birthday wishes, to cards, to blog posts and emails, to cookies, brownies, candy, magazines, and even deoderant (thanks, mom!)...i can't say thank you enough. You all have made being here such a delight. Even on those awful days when I didn't want to venture out of the apartment for just wanting to stay someplace understandable, seeing the cards on the fridge and grabbing some cookies made me feel very loved and able to handle it. Thank you.
5. Things I love in China: cucumbers (have i said this already?), fresh fruit juice, peanuts, lettuce, eggplant, and elevators. The elevators here are awesome. You know in the U.S. those buttons: "Door open" and "door close"? And how the door close one doesn't actually close the door? It's a psychological ploy to make you think you're helping? Well....get this. Here, the 'door close' button actually closes the door. Immediately. It's vastly efficient and I love it.
6. One thing I still haven't gotten used to yet is the 'please' and 'thank you' culture here. It doesn't really exist. Please is only used in very few situations and thank you is only reserved for people who you aren't close to. Friends and family feel a bit alienated if you say thank you. Which is bad thing for me...thank you comes out of my mouth every 3 minutes.
7. My walk to work is pretty enjoyable. I thought it was going to be awful, but I have discovered the beauty of it in many ways. I especially enjoy all the street vendors selling breakfast. It's pretty much like over the river and through the woods. (except read 'train tracks' instead of river)

This isn't along my walk, but i'm always on the lookout for humorous moments.

8. This Florida girl bought her first pair of boots and skinny jeans. It's so weird. I caught a glimpse of myself in a full-length mirror while shopping the other day...and scared myself because i thought another girl was standing right next to me. (side note: they're ankle boots....which brian really doesn't like. He says they're fine, but he hasn't told me I look good while wearing them yet. :) haha
9. We had a big poker night with some friends from the US: Dana and Tom Zemke (who took us for all we were worth), Derick Cissel, Brandon Huffman, Greg Kaeuper, and Brian and I. My first time really playing poker....I think i did okay.
10. We bought a toaster oven!!! Which is why we've started the hosting in full swing! We had 20 people over for a halloween party and then 15 over for a casual dinner last friday. I'll share some halloween photos in the next post....

zai jian!

Monday, October 25, 2010

The S Series

Sihui, Street Vendors, Siestas, Salitun, Supermarkets, Shrimp Pasta, and Sub-Zero Temperatures. Celcius, that is.

There are way too many things to put in one blog post, so I'm going to break it into a few entries. We'll tackle the first three this time around...

Two weeks ago Brian and I moved to a new apartment here in Beijing. Through a series of events the company is changing their corporate apartment (a very wise move for them), but honestly, i was pretty upset. I felt that I had worked so hard to achieve a tenuous sort of existence in our new neighborhood of Dawanglu: we had the apartment "home-ified", I had dealt with the dry cleaners, found the nearest grocery store, we had frequented the downstairs DVD shop, and I knew the best place to catch a cab during rush hour. To think of starting over in another location... I was so frustrated, and I shed some serious tears. I know that in writing it, it doesn't sound like that big of deal. Honestly, it's not. But it was intimidating in that moment.

Like many other times in my life, I have to step back and say, wow, God, I really like to fight you on things. We are now settled into our apartment in Sihui, and it's awesome. This place is better than anywhere we've lived in the US, with more amenities than I can recount. Alright, God, You knew best. Again.

My first night in Sihui, Brian was on a business trip and I decided to push myself to explore. Right outside our apartment is a fairly large park and as I strolled outside into the night air I made the split second decision to simply follow the crowd. Which was rather odd, since everyone seemed to be finding their way to a series of dark back alleys, through a break in a broken wall, and over some railroad tracks to.......the subway! The best part of the adventure was that I found what I had been hoping to see for a while now: real China. Street vendors! Carts full of fruit, steaming meat on sticks, doughy buns, boots, coats, children's dolls, and even suction cup wall hooks demonstrated on the side of a neighborhing car. I think I grinned the entire time. I couldn't help it. It was so engaging, so unexpected, and so foreign. I loved it.

Afternoon naps are the best thing ever. Whether it's a brief eye-close in the afternoon at work or curling up on the couch as the weather gets cold. This past weekend Brian and I both developed colds, so we are taking many naps....and loving it.

Since this is the first installment, I'm only going to do a top three. To be continued in a following episode.

Top 10 (part 1 of 3)
1. Paulaner Brauhaus. This past saturday was the last saturday of Oktoberfest at the Beijing Brauhaus. So Brian, Derick, Brandon, Greg, and I headed out for some sauerkraut, sausages, and beer at picnic tables while listening to some hilarious German entertainment. Trivia question: Where was the first German brewhouse outside of Germany in 1993?

2. Nyquil and Dayquil = awesome.

3. We had our first Chuar! Don't ask me how to spell that. Either in traditional chinese or in pinyin. But it's delicious meat on sticks cooked by a guy on the street...over his own personal trough charcoal grill. Complete with sides of peanuts, cucumbers, and beer. Delicious.

Alright, that's it for now!
Adios, amigos....

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Yunnan Trip

I thought about starting small, maybe warming up with a post about our new apartment or something. Just to get the writing juices flowing before I tackled our full-blown, 9 day trip to rural china. Then I decided that such an entry deserved all the pure focus of my first writing experience in a while. I've written bits and pieces in my head...both as they were happening and in the week since returning. Now if i could just remember them....

The week of October 1st through the 10th included one of the major Chinese holidays: my 27th birthday. i.e. Chinese National Day.

Which, after working random weekend days prior to the time off, afforded us a week of unfettered time in which to wander throughout the country. Our friend Greg has been salivating over this trip since he arrived in China over a year ago, so Brian and I joined him and his friend Gordon for what I can only say was incredible.

The Yunnan Province is located in southern china, on the west side, right next to Myanmar and the province of Tibet. This region is known for its myriad of ethnic minorities, Tibetan villages, and unique culinary style. We flew into Kunming, the capital of the province, and took a night bus to Dali, one of the famous chinese 'old cities.' The night bus reminded me very much of the night bus from Harry Potter...very narrow bunks with people perched on beds and swaying back and forth as the bus wound its way through the mountains. Honestly, it was a pretty good ride. Until we arrived in Dali at 5:30 in the morning and realized that we had been robbed. Greg lost a mega Nikon camera, a point-and-shoot digital camera, and some cash, while i lost my iphone. Our stuff was right next to our bunks, but these guys were good....and we still don't know how they did it.

Now, while it was an absolutely horrible thing, Greg made the wise comment (this is why i love greg!), "you know, it's just a thing. plus, it would have been so much worse if i had spent a week capturing things i will probably never see again in my lifetime...only to lose it at the end." So, with many of Brian's "Leah, why don't you take a picture with your iphone?.....Sorry, too soon" jokes and our adventurous side taking over, we moved on. And i'm so glad we did. We walked around the dark, silent, and human-scale town of Dali, before anyone was awake. That feeling, of the pre-dawn hush, as we strolled streets that would later be full of noisy people and cars, was one of such anticipation and contentment.

We checked into Sam's Hotel (which was awesome), enjoyed a nap, and instead of paying the 121 kuai fee to see the famous dali pagodas, we rented bikes for 10 kuai and biked the back alleyways up the hill NEXT to the pagodas. Even better. As Greg said, "any time I've ever rented bikes on a trip it's been a success." Check!

Our plan was to leave Dali the next morning, head to Lijiang (another famous old town) and then up to hike Tiger Leaping Gorge. That gorge is one of the deepest in the world and is supposed to be incredible. However, it was also supposed to be touristy. Which is why, 5 minutes before we were supposed to catch a bus to Lijiang, we found ourselves talking with Sam, our hotel owner, and changing our plans. Completely. He suggested that instead we travel to the west, to the Nu Jiang River. Also in a valley, the river is much less visited and could truly offer us a vision of rural china that we wanted. So, with much laughter at the irony, we jumped on a bus heading west, into the unknown. Now, this is the point where I must give a big shout out to Gordon. Greg has learned some awesome Mandarin. But....when it came to negotiating a private driver, figuring out where in the world we were, and ordering food when there weren't menus, much less english....Gordon was indispensable. He took Chinese in school, moved to China, and now conducts all his business in mandarin. Quite impressive.

This post could be forever. So, I'm going to give the highlights. After Dali, the trip changed to: hire a private driver who will drive us up the Nu Jiang river, while we get out to hike, eat, and stay at small towns along the way. Which is what we did.

We zip-lined across the Nu Jiang River.

We hiked up a small village that we had spotted from the road. After arriving at the first home, we offered candy that we had brought, and discovered that we were the first white people they had ever seen in their village! They then invited us in for tea....and while i have never seen so many flies in one location, ever, it was one of many moments during this week where I thought, "I cannot believe I'm doing this."

We had several other hikes and adventures during the trip, including outdoor markets with rounds of steaming tofu and mountains of veggies, villagers going about their daily life, Tibetan monks, local school kids, and some mom-gets-the-eebie-jeebies moments.

We drank tea with more villagers and watched them shuck mountains of corn. Which we discovered was only for livestock and corn liquor!!

We walked into another small village and came across a woman weaving. After watching her for a few minutes, she told her daughter to bring me a stool...and so i sat there, watching her at the loom...simply mesmerized. After much coaxing, Gordon finally convinced her to allow us to purchase one of her creations.

That evening my wonderful husband broke out candles and a small cake from the bakery, and Alou, his daughter, Greg, Gordon, and Brian all sang me happy birthday while we sat in Alou's Tibetan Lodge playing euchre and drinking Alou's self-professed "not very good" homemade wine. (It was actually quite unique and I liked it) Alou's daughter gave me delicious chinese fruit roll-ups as a gift and we all shared cake in the dim light of the rural town. Pretty darn good.

To cap off the trip we decided to return to Lijiang, which we were told was too unique to miss. There we stayed at Mama's Naxi Guesthouse, which is THE place to stay. Perfect place to end the trip as it had a comfortable bed, western toilets, and even an electric blanket! Plus, meeting Mama alone is worth staying there! She is a strong, cheerful, fun lady who runs the place, running a 3 guesthouse operation and restaurant. Giving advice, jokes, and plenty of 'HELLo!'s, she also gave us a necklace gift and double cheek kisses when we left.

I can't even come close to describing everything. It was the trip I never thought I would take. I never thought I would be here. But you know, despite my slight breakdown when i discovered that I was going to have to use squat pots for week, I am incredibly grateful that I am here. These people are unexpectedly and unendingly generous. They are so cheerful, and want to help in any possible way that they can. I'm also getting used to the stares. I've started smiling back...and watching their faces light up into smiles of unfaked joy...sigh. It's beautiful.

Top 10 of Yunnan:

1. Interacting with the villagers: having tea, being offered homemade corn liquor, passing out hard candies like my mom used to do on family vacations, being offered biking advice, and watching them work: at weaving, picking corn, shooting pigs with small blunt darts....
2. Experiencing first-hand what a true paradox rural chinese life is. You stroll through these towns, and they don't have plumbing, but they are all talking on cell phones while watching their satellite televisions.
3. Biking through the mountains trying to find a set of terraces (these were planted with wheat)...see one, get off the bikes, hike a very narrow trail right next to a steep cliff, climb over a couple fences, and finally arrive at the terraces. Only to find that the original road that we were on led right to it.

4. Mastering the art of the squat pot.

5. NOT eating the soup that we had in a small village that was supposed to "be for women to eat." In contained some very questionable chicken parts...that i never knew existed in a chicken.
6. Playing tons of euchre

7. Actually feeling inspired and sketching again!

8. Eating at absolutely delicious hot pot restaurant in Dali. The dad managed the restaurant, his wife cooked, and his son served. They were so so excited to have westerners in their establishment that they just grinned the entire time, and offered us plenty of cigarettes as we left. Plus, 2 huge hot pots, and 5 large beers only cost us 68 kuai (which comes out to 10 dollars. for 4 people. ridiculous)

9. Stumbling upon some marble carvers in the mountains while we were biking. We stopped and took pictures, marveling at their skill and ability to capture the expressions.

10. Being able to have such an adventure. We are so blessed.