Christmas in the Orient

“‘Maybe Christmas,’ thought the Grinch, ‘doesn’t come from a store.'” – Dr. Seuss

In this short post, I want to share my experiences with the Winter holidays in China. I had originally thought that the western holidays, especially those religious holidays, would not be observed in China. I presumed that the Chinese would not share the festivities or music or decorations or food. In fact, Christmas does take place in China, if maybe not quite the same as here.

The first thing I experienced during the Christmas season was a cooking lesson. To be more specific, it was my wife’s and my fourth baking master class. These classes are taught once a month in the Kempenski Hotel Restaurant by the world renowned Chef Joachim, a Swiss Master Chef and Baker. We had the honor of taking his Christmas cooking class, where we learned to make trifle, Christmas pudding, and spice meringue.

Beginning in early December, many prominent sites in Beijing began to aire their Christmas décor and lights. We were able to see some really great light displays. There were Christmas trees and lightings, parties, choirs singing carols, and many other festivities. One of my favorite was the grand Christmas dinner at the Sofitel Wanda resorts. It was an eleven course Christmas dinner, featuring sea slug, duck heart, and nine-layer tripe. There were two other nice banquets – one at Langham Place and another at Novitel Xingquio Hotel. The food and music at both were quite enjoyable.

The month culminated in me celebrating a private Yuletide feast with a group of my friends. Although the apartment was small, we were not stopped from having a large gathering with a Winter goose and other dishes from around the world – like mushroom lasagna and chicken curry. We exchanged gifts playing Dirty Santa, a game that involves stealing presents from each other.

It was a terrific holiday season, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time sharing the holidays with such wonderful friends!

Sustenance Ideas in Asia

“There is no sincerer love than the love of food.” – George Bernard Shaw

When we think of sustenance farming and urban gardening, Asia is not one of the first areas we consider. In fact, we would first think of large cities in the west whose governments are concerned with stable, clean farming and independent populations. Asian countries are not ostensibly known for governments which care much for these ideals. I had an opportunity to learn otherwise about China.

During my time here in China, I have on two separate occasions visited urban sustenance farms in both Beijing and Tianjin. There, I was able to see a true push for better farming practices and better urban lifestyles. The spirit of globalization meeting the independence of local populations can truly be felt in these areas.

There are large efforts in using less space for more produce. For this, the practice of hydroponics is being explored. Using walls as anchors, large areas of unused building sides can be turned into space for gardens on a large scale. Using space in creative new ways – like hanging gardens and dirtless gardens have proven to be successful here as well.

This seems to be catching on quickly in suburban areas around the larger Asian cities, like Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Xian, where the cost of living is still high but the access to fresh food is being sent into the city. The farms I was able to visit had been stable and self-sustaining areas for a few years, proving that it could be done, at least in the short term. In addition, many of the pesticides and fertilizers are being re-examined; using insects as natural pesticides and types of processed compost.

I took my trip to both of these farms last July. While it may still seem odd that China, of all places, is really becoming a popular place for urban independent farming, it started in Tianjin. Tianjin used to be an Italian territory, and it still retains much of its western heritage. Even the ideals in Tianjin are a bit different than Beijing, which is less than an hour away by train.

Whether by Western influence of the Italian history of Tianjin or China’s own ingenuity to protect itself, China is working towards making a better place for its citizens. It is slow work, and it will require changing of a few cultural norms, but I believe that this will eventually help China. The whole world should be inspired to try to do what China’s doing – make a better world agriculturally.

Rain of Cherry Blossoms

“He who does not travel does not know the value of men.” – Moorish proverb

While April showers bring May flowers where I originate, in China, Spring starts full force. I was shown what Springtime really means in Asia, and it means Cherry Blossoms. Everywhere I went there were cherry trees raining white and pink and purple flowers everywhere. It was beautiful and mystifying. Not only were the flowers falling from the sky, but there were flowers everywhere underneath, as well.

In the gardens and parks, flowers ruled – not even the grass could compete with the flowers everywhere. I am not entirely sure how this happens, nor do I truly want to know. I enjoyed the scenery everywhere. I was able to go to the very large and very spacious Olympic Forest Park. There were trees everywhere with multicolored flowers, and many types of flowers all through the park. Peach trees, cherry trees, pear trees all spread petals among tulips and roses and lilies. It was gorgeous.

Spring not only gave way to bright colors, but to warm weather, and with it, outdoor activities. The parks were loaded with performers and artists sharing their talents, some for free and some for sale. In the Temple of the Earth, there were several artists simply practicing there skills in painting. Kids were playing in the warmth, families were dancing and talking – everyone was enjoying the change from extreme cold to mild warm.

In addition to the local parks and gardens, I was also able to go to two very interesting cities – Dalian and Gubei. I visited Dalian on a business trip. There was a Biotech Convention there in which I was to take part. While I was only there for a few days, I was able to visit the city. It was beautiful, if a little colder than Beijing. It is a coastal city, with several harbors and shipwrights.

My coworkers and I had a great time, despite needing to work. We played cards on the eight hour train ride, we explored the coastline at night, and even found ourselves trying to open a really heavy door. It was a great time of bonding and fun.

Gubei is a city modelled after another mountain lake village in the south of China. It is very traditional, and even has on old Catholic mission on top of the mountain. Just like any traditional village, there were traditional Chinese arts and crafts, as well as traditional music and designs around the village. It was very cute and very nice to visit this place.

April was more than the beginning of the warm weather in Beijing, it was a new beginning of discovery for me. I started my adventures fresh with the fresh weather. I felt that anything was possible and the world can truly be explored.

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A Moveable Feast

“To travel is to live.” –  Hand Christian Anderson

Although I just started telling the stories of my journeys thus far, I wanted to switch tracks a bit and share with you some of the foods I have tried in China. They range from things with which westerners with a “Chinese” restaurant may be familiar to things that may seem absolutely bizarre to anyone not acquainted with Asian cuisine. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your personal view), I have gotten to eat food from all parts of this spectrum.

I will start by saying, yes, China does have western food. Of sorts… The western food in China is comparable to the Chinese food in the west. By that, I mean that neither is really similar to the food it is imitating. They do have western chain restaurants, such as McDonald’s and Pizza Hut, but they do not taste anything like the ones in America. They still offer a realm of familiarity, however, if one is feeling particularly homesick. The best western food I have eaten in China comes from westerners, namely myself and a few local restaurants that are run by ex-patriots. There are a few wonderful German restaurants, a handful of good British/Irish pubs, and only one true America barbecue place that I have seen so far.

I did not come to China for food that I could get at home. I came to China to be a local, which means eating as the locals eat. The first and, in my opinion, best thing about Chinese food is the abundance of street food. Almost anywhere you go in the major cities (and anywhere else that has at least moderate traffic), you will vendors selling a variety of snacks, treats, and even bigger food items. They have the Chinese version of sandwiches, there are candies and many other sweets, they even sell noodle and rice dishes, depending on where you are.

Another set of places in China with lots of food varieties are the developed hutongs. Hutongs are alleys in China, but many of them have businesses, bars, restaurants, and stands selling snacks, food, and trinkets. There are several larger hutongs like this in Beijing and Xi’an. My favorites so far are the the hutong near the Wangfujing area of Beijing and Huminjie in Xi’an. They offer wide varities of foods and trinkets, with many more things to see than some other hutongs. These places offer things that foreigners and locals alike may not be able to find anywhere else. Some of the strangest I have seen are fried insects and arachnids – scorpions, beetles, cicadas and such, as well as parts of animals we are not accustomed to eating in the west, like intestines and testes.

The hutongs do not just offer the oddities, they offer more palatable options, as well. Many stands sell chips, seafood, duck and chicken meats, and several types of sausages. There are also vendors who make the Chinese version of pancakes, filled with various things – from chives and egg to mushrooms and meat. There are dumplings, steamed buns, and many other delicious things that are both familiar and unfamiliar. There are also quite a variety of drinks that are not usual for westerners – like plum juice and hawthorn tea. On the subject of hawthorn: Chinese eat more of this fruit than any other I have seen. There are all different types of prepared hawthorn, from dried fruit to sugar-covered fruit to drinks and desserts. There are also many stands and open fruit-vegetable markets along the streets at any time.

The hutongs offer the extreme foods for everyone, but if you want to try something much more local, nothing gets any more Chinese than Huoguo, or hotpot. Hotpot a Chinese food style that involves a large pot, sometimes divided into two or three parts, that has boiling broths. Typically, these are spicy broths, but they can be mild as well, with tomato and chicken stock flavors. Vegetables, meats, tofus, noodles, and other dishes are ordered. They are brought to thte table as the broths begin to boil. Once boiling, the food is added and left for a few minutes to cook. Then, the food is skillfully plucked out with chopsticks.

This is most often done with larger groups who want to share a variety of different meats and vegetables. This does take some skill not to spill anything, and spoons with holes are offered for those who are not ready for the challenge. Another traditional food style in China is Malaxiangguo, or dry hotpot. This is similar to hotpot, because you pick a variety of individual meats and vegetables to be cooked together, but there is relatively no liquid. Also, the servings are smaller, meaning this can be eaten with smaller groups. However, eating is often a social activity in China – many people, family and friends, eating together. They do this a few ways, but the Lazy Susan style tables are the easiest way I have seen so far.

China, like America, has many local dishes. While I have not tried them all, I have tried several. I have enjoyed most of them. I still cannot manage to eat fish heads, which are a specialty here in Beijing. China hosts an amazing variety of noodle and rice dishes, vegetable dishes, meat dishes, and desserts and breads. I love the creativity in the presentation, assembly, and seasoning of all the food here. There are many extremely strange foods I have had the opportunity to eat, not pictured here. They include pig brains and donkey penis. Yes, I did try it while I was here. The brains were not as bad as I thought they would be. It was soft and chewy and absorbed the flavors of the hotpot sauce. I decided that I could like them. Penis, however, was terrible. I tried it for the sake of trying it, and I will never eat it again. It as tough, rubbery, bitter and salty. It was altogether an unpleasant experience.

I also had the pleasure of going to Thailand while I am in Asia. Cassey and I were fortunate to try several local foods in Thailand, namely curries and seafood dishes. The food their clashed with Chinese or western food. It was much brighter, with a lot of citrus and cilantro in the cooking. There was a new depth to Asian food that I had not known before in going to Thailand.

I look forward to continue traveling and eating in Asia. I hope to add sequel food posts in the future to share my experiences with you all.

Frozen Dragons

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” –  Marcel Proust

I landed in China in January. It was a New Year. I had new hopes, new dreams. I was on a new adventure. China was this wide new world, waiting for me to see whatever I could see. The problem was that it was cold. Did I say cold? I mean frigid. Did I say frigid? I mean FROZEN! I had landed in Beijing expecting a winter, but what awaited me outside was a polar region that had somehow developed over a metropolitan city. The temperatures were the lowest I ever remember experiencing for any period of time. For a little longer than a month, the average temperature was about 0F°. The high during the month of January was 12F° and it got down to a staggering -22F°. All of this was before the wind chill! It did not snow very often, however, only a few times – maybe a total of four separate times in January. The wind was terrible at times, though. There were times of constant wind, and gusts could reach 50-60mph. It felt COLD. It was so cold that many establishments had low smoke coal stoves to warm their guests, as the normal heating was just not enough to heat a business.

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Regardless of these nasty weather conditions, Cassey (my wife) and I managed to view the city that was new to both of us. The first places we managed to explore were Beihai Park (The White Pagoda) and Jingshan Park (The Beijing Mountain). These were both very cool places to visit. These were not places that were popular to foreigners. In fact, few people in general showed, due to the cold weather and wind. Beihai was a Buddhist temple built above the Forbidden City. It was the temple that the emperor would sometimes visit to pray for the empire. Jingshan Park was a peaceful place, also overlooking the Forbidden City, that was for the emperor to think peacefully and write poetry.

We climbed to the top of Beihai, which was a tall hill with the temple on top. It was very beautiful – you could almost see the entire city of Beijing from the top. The temple was split into different layers, each layer at a different height up the hill. Each place had a place for prayers and incense. Prayers could be written on small wooden prayer tokens and placed at any of the tiers. At the top, there was a café. Cassey and I had hot cocoa and sausages. Jingshan was a beautiful park, even in the terrible winter. There were frozen lakes covered in snow, temples, and pagodas throughout the park. There were also several tall hills. One was the tallest point inside of Beijing. We yet again climbed up in the icy cold wind to see our new city.

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Cassey and I tried several times to enter the Forbidden City, only to learn there was a reason it was called forbidden. Instead, we visited the Lama Temple and the Burial Palace during that time. The Lama Temple was where the Dali Lama, the head of the Lama Buddhism, comes to pray and meditate. It was a very interesting place to visit. Of course the Lama himself was not there when we went, but there were thousands of people braving the cold to say their prayers and offer incense. The temple also had prayer wheels, which were cylinders with prayers carved into them. It was said that if you spin the wheel, you were praying whatever prayer was written on the cylinder.

The Burial Palace was the palace adjacent to the Forbidden City. It was where the emperors and empresses went to be prepared to die. It was also a place where the emperor could gain wisdom from past emperors. There were several gardens and ponds, rock formations and buildings. Most of the garden and water areas were frozen, but it was a beautiful visit nonetheless.

Cassey and I also saw Houhai, a large lake, and Wangfujing Hutong, an alleyway with many shops and stands selling foods and trinkets. Houhai had many hutongs (alleys) that went off to different sides. The lake itself was frozen very solid. In fact, many people – adults and children alike – enjoyed various games, sports, and activities on the ice. It was quite fun to be out on the ice, watching people skate and play. The hutong in Wangfujing was amazing. There were so many different foods and small things to buy. I quite enjoyed myself with all the new food to try.

Eventually, Cassey and I were able to go to the Forbidden City. I got to see it the way few people – Chinese or foreigners – get to see it. There were hardly any people in the Forbidden City when we went. I was able to take pictures of everything, even the empty roads and alleys within the city. All of the museums inside the buildings were easily accessed, and the windows used to view the preserved interior were not crowded. I was told that is a rare thing in China, especially in Beijing. Either way, I enjoyed my time where only royalty walked in the ancient times. The rivers in the city were frozen, as were the statues throughout the city. It was an amazing view, though, and I was glad I had a chance to see it.