flying from china to taiwan

posted in: china, travel 0

Not-so-direct flight

A not-so-direct flight from Xiamen to Taipei–presumably to avoid the military airspace over the Taiwanese strait.

What was making headlines in the Chinese news when we left:
What's making headlines in China.

…and in Taiwanese news, when we arrived:
What's making headlines in Taiwan...

yang wawa

posted in: china, travel 0

we’ve just come back from several weeks of holiday in Hong Kong, China (Shenzhen and Xiamen), and Taipei–and wow, was baby S ever popular! especially in China, where girls (and the occasional guy) on the street would often come up and ask to take a photo with him:

Extremely popular in China

(same thing with waitresses in restaurants, shop attendants, etc.)

Extremely popular in China
Extremely popular in China

(not everyone was so forthcoming–some only stared after we passed by)
head turner

it was all a little bizarre… and then on the train from Shenzhen to Xiamen, some little kids saw the baby and started yelling “Yang wawa, yang wawa!” over and over, and were so excited to pet him:
Yang wawa

I asked my parents what “yang wawa” means–and I didn’t quite understand their translation. But perhaps this google image search will give you a (terrifying) idea of what our baby apparently looks like to Chinese people.

how Ai Weiwei got his name

posted in: china, words 0

well, this is according to Wikipedia, but it’s cool if true: Ai Weiwei’s father was a famous Chinese poet called Aì Qīng (艾青). But that wasn’t his real name; his original name was Jiang Zhenghan (蒋正涵), styled Jiang Haicheng (蒋海澄)–in addition to his numerous pen names.

Anyway, this poet was tortured and imprisoned in 1932 for opposing the Kuomintang (KMT) party. While in prison, he wrote his first book Da Yan River–My Wet-nurse (《大堰河——我的保姆》)… But while writing his surname (Jiang) he stopped at the “艹”, because he resented sharing the same surname as KMT leader Chiang Kai-shek (“蔣介石”). So he finished the rest of the word with an X. This happens to be the Chinese character ai (), and since the rest of his name, Hai Cheng, meant qing (, the color blue), he adopted the pen name Ai Qing.

sounds like an interesting family.

Self-portrait by Ai Weiwei: its caption(草泥马挡中央, "grass mud horse covering the middle") sounds almost the same in Chinese as 肏你妈党中央, "Fuck your mother, the Communist party central committee". (The Australian via Wikipedia)

mala xiangguo (麻辣香锅)

posted in: china, food 0

Mala xiangguo is a new dish I discovered on my last trip to China; and I’m hoping someone just recently invented this, because I don’t know how I could not have tried it before! After seeing people line up for this dish at different food courts, we finally tried it at a sit-down place called… yep, the name of the dish. (ma la xiang guo = “numbing spicy fragrant pot”)

Unfortunately this is a post-eating shot, but you can see it’s for spice lovers. You could say it’s kinda like a dry version of hotpot… Basically there’s a counter with raw ingredients (similar to what you would find for hotpot), and your server fills a gigantic metal bowl with whatever you tell him. Then after choosing either regular or really spicy, the cook does some sort of magic cookery while you wait for its final delivery to your table. YUM! and NUMB!

I believe you pay by weight at food courts, but at this particular restaurant it was a set price. which apparently also included ice cream to cool you down after (or maybe even during?) your meal–like this guy here, who we watched alternate bites between the bowl and his two cones:

a day at the beach… in Dalian

posted in: china, food, travel 0

Since it’s December and minus 15°C out, I thought I’d write about the beach. Or at least about the last time I’d been to a beach, which was in Dalian on China’s Northeast coast.

Dalian was rated China’s most livable city in 2006–a fact that kept popping up everywhere we went (or maybe we were just watching too many CCTV commercials at the hotel). Dalian also happened to be the site of a massive pipeline oil spill in July, equivalent in size to the Exxon Valdez accident (though I suppose this is minuscule when compared to what was happening in the Gulf of Mexico at the time).

Anyway, we were curious to check out the beaches since we were there barely 3 weeks after the oil spill.

business as usual

As far as Chinese beaches go, things appeared to be normal for August: i.e., insanely crowded + blazingly hot. We opted to stay away from the crowds and crossed over to a rocky area by the water. No oil residue in sight!

…and only one wedding photo shoot.

[the job of the woman behind the bride was to throw the train of the dress high into the air–imitating a gigantic gust of sea wind, I guess?]

The heat was too much, so it wasn’t long before we grabbed a taxi back to the hotel… and after some rest and A/C, we headed to a sichuanese restaurant and had some of my favourite dishes for dinner: shui-zhu-yu (fish), pickled cucumbers, and yu-xiang-qiezi (eggplant). woot!

the most famous foreigner in china

posted in: china, cross-culture 1

…is a Canadian dude from Ottawa?! His name in Chinese is 大山 (‘dashan’ or big mountain), and he’s crazy famous. Hilarious because I would never have heard of him in Canada–but Chinese people tell me he’s more famous than Mao. (How’s that for a benchmark?)

So I guess it’s no surprise that the Canadian embassy in Beijing now has his face plastered on the building, as a publicity thing for the Shanghai expo. They also have a billboard showing Stephen Harper walking with Hu Jintao… It’s kinda weird advertising (I mean, have you ever seen promos on an embassy?), but I guess a little national PR doesn’t hurt. (?)

canada's rep to the world expo

liang pi (凉皮)

posted in: china, food 0

Liang pi literally means ‘cold skin’ in Chinese, and is a lovely cold snack served in the summer. This dish comes originally from Shaanxi province but you can pretty much find it everywhere in northern China, and in Beijing it is common to find liang pi stands on the street, like so:

good advertising

It’s basically a cold noodle dish, but the noodles are cut from a large sheet or ‘skin’ (hence the name). According to Cultural China’s website:

First, wheat or rice flour is turned into a soft dough by adding water and a little bit of salt. Then, the dough is put in a bowl, water is added and the dough has to be ‘rinsed’ until the water is saturated with starch from the dough, turning into a muddy white color. The remainder of the dough is now removed and the bowl is left to rest overnight at a cool place to allow the dissolved starch to precipitate. The following day, there will be a kind of starch-paste on the bottom of the bowl with a more or less clear liquid on top which has to be discarded. Once the liquid has been removed, a small amount the paste can then be poured into a flat plate or tray, and spread evenly in a thin layer. The whole plate is placed into a large pot full of boiling water, where it is steamed for a couple of minutes and the resulting ‘pancake’ cut into long pieces vaguely resembling noodles.

Ok, starch paste doesn’t sound so appetizing, but it’s the sauce that makes this dish! Variations abound, but the main ingredients include garlic, vinegar, chili oil and sesame sauce. As Julia Moskin of the nytimes describes it, the sauce “hits every possible flavor category (sweet, tangy, savory, herbal, nutty and dozens of others).” (Coincidentally, she is describing my fav place to eat in NY, Xi’an Famous Foods–whose version of liang pi actually inspired us to go to Xian this summer! Yes, it’s that good.)

liang pi sauces at an indoor food court

Finally, the noodles and sauce are tossed together with chunks of wheat gluten, cucumber slivers, sometimes beansprouts… a savoury yet refreshing dish when you’re sweltering from the summer heat. Prices range from 3-10 yuan in Beijing, with the more expensive ones coming from fancy shopping mall food courts (gotta pay for the aircon, I suppose).

trains in china

posted in: china, travel 0

Trains are a great way to travel within China. There are several different categories of train, as identified through the route number. Routes consisting only of digits (no letters) are the regular, cheapest (and slowest) trains. Train numbers starting with ‘K’ are fast trains (kuai literally means fast), T trains are te-kuai (especially fast), and Z trains are zui kuai (“fastest”). Except nowadays there are even faster, more modern trains in the C & D category (no idea what these stand for), available on popular routes such as Beijing-Shanghai.

Seats fill up fast though, so unless you got your tickets early you may not have a choice of train. Train tickets are sold only 11 days in advance, and only from the city of departure: you cannot buy a ticket in Beijing for a train departing from Xian, for example. (Well, you can pay a travel agency to do this for you for a fee, but they are still limited by the 11-day selling period.) Since I rarely travel on a fixed itinerary, I typically buy tickets the old-fashioned way: jostling with everyone else at the train station.

schedule board in Beijing

As time-consuming and painful as it seems, I actually like going to the train station to buy tickets. Before you even get in line, there is typically a board showing ticket availability for the next 11 days–though it takes forever to flip through when at a major hub like Beijing. In addition to the different train routes, there are 4 classes of tickets: hard seat, soft seat, hard sleeper & soft sleeper. Hardness/softness isn’t literal (except possibly in the case of hard seats), but they do indicate the level of comfort you will be traveling in. Hard sleepers mean sharing a train compartment of 6 bunk beds, while soft sleepers have only 4 (along with a door that closes, if I remember correctly). And for some reason, the higher up your bed is, the cheaper the ticket–for reasons I haven’t figured out yet.

Actually, there is a fifth category: “no seat,” which I suppose is cheapest of all, but would only do if the distance were short (or your desperation great).

waiting in line in Xian

This summer I visited a few different train stations and couldn’t help but notice a general change in people’s behaviour. On my first trip to China five years ago, I remember being appalled and intimidated by people pushing and butting in front and crowding the ticket window–all this despite the metal guardrails put in place to enforce a line. But now in 2010, it was quite orderly: though you still feel rushed by the sheer number of people behind you, no one is shoving you and you get your turn at the window like everyone else.

I have no idea what you’d do if you didn’t speak Chinese though.

When we were in Xian, it was impossible to get sleeper tickets to Beijing, so we opted for soft seats on the overnight Z train:

And because of ticket availability, our plan to go from Beijing to Ha’erbin was replaced as we got hard sleeper tickets on a regular train to Dandong:

hard sleeper car with obsessive train worker who swept every 5 minutes

This 20-hour trip was uneventful except for the police boarding the train at one point and checking everyone’s ID card (not sure what that was about). Our car was also quite peaceful compared to other overnight trains I’ve taken before: no raucous drunken card playing in the middle of the night, but rather families playing with their young kids or napping away the time.

he was fascinated by my passport
woman & her mother quietly playing cards
our compartment, from above

Then there was the couple on the bottom bunks, who for the 20-hour duration would magically bring out from the recesses of their luggage more and more bags of food (instant noodles, crackers, cucumbers, peaches, you name it)–which put our meager snack bag to shame (at that point of the trip we didn’t even have a tea canister! unthinkable in China…). A sample of our booty: “bimbo” bread (mediocre white bun with red bean), sunflower seeds, dried kiwi and dried tofu snacks.

view of north korea

posted in: china, travel 0

There is a section of the Great Wall just outside of Dandong called 虎山长城 (Tiger Mountain Great Wall), again along the border with North Korea. The wall itself is not all that remarkable if you’ve been to other sections: it looks way too new & reconstructed, with the site obviously renovated to herd tourists. But I must admit the view of North Korea was unexpectedly beautiful…

Dandong 丹东

posted in: china, travel 2

This is my second time facing North Korea–the first time being a tour of the DMZ organized by the USO–but this time it’s from China. I’m now in Dandong, a very industrial looking city with 600,000 inhabitants.


As you can see, the Yalu (“duck green”) river separates China from North Korea–the Chinese side looks rather raucous and full of restaurants, while the Korean side… well, there are a number of smokestacks, and an unmoving ferris wheel. You can easily cross the river via the Sino-Korean Friendship bridge (provided you have a visa), but a more interesting sight is the bridge right next to it, the Yalu River Broken Bridge. This original bridge was bombed by the Americans in 1950 during the Korean War (in which China supported the North, being Communist), and the North Koreans have since then dismantled their side of the bridge. The Chinese side is now of course a tourist attraction: there is a 30 RMB entrance fee, a giant screen showing interviews of Chinese war pilots recalling the time (this is *on* the bridge), and finally a viewing area at the half-bridge’s end, where you can pay to use binoculars for viewing the hermit kingdom.

*Update: here are the photos!

the sino-korean friendship bridge
yalu river broken bridge
view of sinuijiu
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