Monday, June 29, 2009

Good, Bad and Neutral, Volume 5

Good - Learning Chinese

I've been living in Beijing for a year and two months now. In that time, i've had to learn some Chinese. It's inevitable. But in these past two months, i've moved from just getting by to learning Chinese. Taking classes has been amazing. Ace and i have both been going twice a week for 90 minutes each class. It's one on one, and we both love our teachers. I've learned more in two months than i did in 1 year. Here's why this is so exciting to me, courtesy of Many Eyes:

By the time i leave Beijing, i will speak three of the top four most commonly spoken languages in the world. I'm not planning on learning Hindi anytime soon, but i can still communicate with 2.5 Billion people, over 1/3 of the worlds population. Pretty sweet. I'm definitely planning on an extended stay in a Spanish speaking country (Honduras? Chile?) to bring that back to to foreground. It will be a lifelong struggle to remain tri-lingual, but it's nice to know i have it when i need it.

Bad - Electricity Bills

Or rather, lack thereof. Ace and i came back from the Great Wall last weekend to a powerless house. In China, you don't receive a bill every month, there's no automatic payment, no warning that your power will be shut off. You prepay and it shuts off when you have no credit left.

So we come home Sunday night to no power. I grab the special card and run to the bank. Which closed 30 minutes earlier. We make the best of it and treat ourselves to a long dinner out, and, since we just went camping, have our headlamps all ready for when we get home. We light a few candles and suffer the consequences of spoiled food in the refrigerator and no air con for one night. We eventually got it working Monday night, and it turns out there's a kiosk where you can add credit anytime, but it's all in Chinese. I received help from a nice young couple that was confused why i could tell them what i needed, but couldn't do it myself.

Neutral - Fruit

In my previous G,B and N, i ranted about the steady availability of strawberries, and in hindsight, strawberries were a very good thing, not neutral after all. Since then, strawberry season has come to a crushing halt. No more strawberries, and my smoothies are hurting thusly. The pineapple selection has also dwindled; there are no longer vendors on the street hawking them for 50 cents apiece, peeled and ready to eat. Now you pay $1.50 AND you have to do it yourself. What a rip-off.

But every season brings a new variety of fruits to the street corners. Late spring was cherries. They were delightful and, yes, very cheap... and also dwindling. Mangoes are starting to fade, but i overdosed and had my fill for now, no harm there. Papaya and banana are still around, and for that i am thankful. Summer has brought us mangosteens and lichees; both need to be peeled before eating, and both bear inner fruit whose size and texture are vaguely reminiscent of a testicle. Er... not that i'm particularly well versed in testicle texture. Set, spike anyone?

I can't wait for strawberry and pineapple season again.


Friday, June 26, 2009

Great Wall Camping - Day 2

The moment of waking on the morning of a camping trip is pure bliss. Wonderful sensations of nature flood your tent; trees rustling, birds singing, sunlight piercing through, smell of campfire on your clothes, the buzzing fly stuck inside your tent. Pure bliss. The sound of tent zippers opening in the morning always makes me smile.

7:00am. I was the first one up on Sunday morning, but i had to visit our guard tower to realize it. The rest of my cohorts were all passed out still, the wine had done it's job. I took the opportunity to brew up the first batch of coffee in my french press and enjoy the early morning sunlight. As you can see from Tao's fantastic picture below, the tower has two levels. There are no stairs available, but with a little effort, you can easily hoist yourself up the broken wall. I spent most of the hour by myself, quiet, drinking coffee, soaking up the beauty. Ace was next to arise and we enjoyed peaceful time together. Truly a splendid morning.

After packing up camp, we started to hike back out but had an hour before we needed to make the descent. We dumped our packs at a fork in the trail and headed off to explore another part of the wall. We ended up at one of the highest points in the area. This was a scree climb with drastic drops on two sides, loose ground, unstable rocks... and a panoramic view. I'm glad i climbed it once, but i do not need to do it again.

We ended with another meal at the small restaurant. This time, they slaughtered a chicken for us and served it in a bowl, every part still available, head and claws propped on the top. I'll spare you the pictures.

The ride home was nice too and in general, i love car rides with friends. This comes from fond memories of long road trips with the family. The seven us piled into our brown Ford van and trekked from Chicago to California many times. My dad build a bed/loft in the far back. It was a perfect place to sleep or play cards, and underneath was great for hiding and ploting assaults on the rest of the passengers.

Anyway... it was a pretty comfortable ride both ways to/from Beijing. We enjoyed the scenery and made fun of tao. Here are some of the friendly faces i shared the ride with.

Tao and Alicia are so damn cute, they get two pictures.

Lincoln and Claire (visiting from Singapore)

Ace and i.

Sleepy Ace.

And my favorite picture from the wall also happens to be my last. This was my one last look before i go shot.

Ace and i are already confirmed for our next trip up there, 4th of July weekend. Frisbee may have to take a back seat for once.


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Great Wall Camping - Day 1

I'm still reeling from this weekend, arguably the most powerful weekend of my time in Beijing thus far. Lincoln and Aaron, a few close friends from Ultimate, recently started a very small business. Back Country Beijing offers full-service, guided, back country camping trips to a very wild section of the Great Wall. Ace and I were some of their first customers, along with Tao, Alicia, Claire, two Lilly's, and an Adrienne.

Jian Kou, also known as the "Beijing Knot", is an unrestored section of the wall where three separate parts intersect. The Great Wall is actually many separate walls, created a different times, intersecting at various locations. In fact, new sections of the wall are being discovered even now, thousands of years after it's construction.

As i said, Jian Kou is wild, meaning you must be very careful there. Touristy sections can be walked by anyone, young and old. They will get 10's of 1000's of visitors each day in peak season, while Jian Kou receives 10's of visitors. We were a group of exactly ten, and i saw about a dozen other hikers total. It's a fairly strenuous hike just to reach the wall, and the wall itself is extremely rugged. Exactly one week prior, two people died here when a lightning bolt struck the wall, and the disoriented hikers fell to their death, although they should not have been hiking the highest point during a thunderstorm.

There are sections that rise up at an 80 degree angle, with no remaining steps to climb. Some seemed impassable as you approach, yet we climbed them, very carefully, and one person at a time. Below you can see one such example.

Our private van took us to our departure point, where we enjoyed a vegetarian friendly meal in the small nearby town. Only about 20 families inhabit this town, and our restaurant of choice uses fresh veggies from their garden.

We set off on a 1 hour hike, burdened with heavy packs. It was all uphill, and was often technical, especially once you reach the wall. The vegetation is dense and the insects are bizarre: gnarly, bright colored flying insects that love to rest on your person, wasp-like creatures, both curious and fearless, numerous butterfly's, millipedes, spiders, beetles. I didn't mind them at all, on the contrary, i was so glad to be within nature again.

Arriving at our campsite, we set up our tents and claimed our guard tower for the evening. It was in the guard tower that we would later finish the six bottles of wine that accompanied our spaghetti, before roasting marshmallows in the open fire.

We received very few visitors in our guard tower, but most notable were Hatchet Man and Cooler Dude. Hatchet Man was a tour guide for another group. Hatchet Man was missing a few teeth. Hatchet Man carried a hatchet and nothing else. We did not like Hatchet Man and were glad when he took his group away. Cooler Dude, by comparison, was delightful. Cooler Dude carried a cooler-backpack-thing. This cooler was filled with cold beer. We bought everything he had.

Hiking the wall was incredible. Pictures can do justice, but obviously they fall short. Ace and I will make this a regular trip, hopefully several times a month. We're addicted to the outdoors, and a year in a big city has numbed my desire to get outside. Now it's been officially reawakened and i'm afraid it's going to be tough to quench, but i plan to try. These are pictures from Day 1... i've got a few more from the second day and will post them soon.


Thursday, June 18, 2009

Post for Dad

Another reason for the lack of posting recently, i've been mentally and emotionally preoccupied by a medical emergency with Dad. He was very suddenly diagnosed with heart problems after an angiogram last week. They gave him the results, kept him overnight, and gave him a triple bypass the next morning. Unbelievable. Fortunately, the surgery was a 100% success. The doctors say he'll make a full recovery and be stronger than before.

It's an amazing story though, because they were lucky to have caught the problem before any damage was done, and he was lucky that he went in for a test, basically on a whim. Heart problems don't run in our family, he doesn't smoke or drink, and he keeps a relatively healthy diet. He did a stress test simply because they were offering it free somewhere, he didn't have any symptoms. That's one thing about my Dad: he loves a deal! My parents would come home from the store with four bottles of ketchup, because they were Buy 3, Get One Free!.

Anyway... they had him come back for an angiogram "to be safe". He was probably thinking, yeah, THAT'S how they get your money! When he got the results, they said one of his arteries was 99% blocked. One % more and he has a heart attack, causing permanent heart damage or worse. Since they caught it, there's no damage and will live his life like nothing happened. He'll actually be stronger, now that blood is circulating better. Pretty damn lucky. No. Not luck, a miracle.

This leads to more good news, my parents will still be able to visit me in October, because he should be fully rehabilitated after about 2 months. I'm already working on an authentic Chinese, yet heart-friendly menu for his visit.

Happy Father's Day!


Monday, June 15, 2009

Dance your cares away! *Clap Clap*

Every frisbee tournament has a party. And every good frisbee party has a theme. Shanghai's theme this year was Construction. They are smack in the middle of a massive makeover preparing for the 2010 Expo, hence the theme. Big Brother threw out some decent ideas but then, led by my childhood fascination with Fraggle Rock, we decided upon Doozers. You all remember Doozers, the cute little creatures who share Fraggle Rock with the Fraggles. They also sustain the Fraggles by building delicious "Doozer Constructions" which the Fraggles eat, which creates room for the Doozers to continue building. It's a cool symbiotic relationship.

Fact: i grew up watching the show and at one point, i told time in "Fraggle Rocks". One half hour block of time was a Fraggle Rock. Fraggle Rocks could be subdivided or multiplied, i.e. 1.5 Fraggle Rocks was 45 minutes. My family humored me for quite some time.

Two weeks ago, steph and i sponsored a Fraggle Rock viewing at a nearby cafe. I downloaded the first season and i pre-screened 5 excellent episodes to show with their movie projector.

The Beijing ultimate community was abuzz with Fraggle Rock! Gobo this and Sprocket that! Uncle Traveling Matt was alive in all of us. Everyone knew the theme song (clap clap!). I spent the better part of the past few weekends and some evenings "Doozer shopping" and planning for this. We needed to prepare 35 sets of matching Doozer costumes for the tournament. Steph, Ace, Ken, and myself went to a few different markets and made it happen for about $5 per Doozer.

Then the moment of truth.

The costume:
  • Yellow Hard Hat
  • Yellow Rubber Gloves
  • Green Tights
  • Green Shirt
  • Yellow Utility Belt
  • Optional: Clown Nose
Mike showing off our partially see-through tights.

Ken demonstrating the versatility of the rubber gloves.

Doozers milling about their construction site, while Chinese on-look.

Me tying Tao to a chair using the remaining 50 feet of Utility Belt Strap. Tao is a very good sport when we decide to pick on him.

Ken and i enjoying the situation way more than Tao is.

Tao trying to escape.

The happy doozer couple.


P.S. Sorry for the 10 day lapse in posting. Work got really intense and exciting when Larry and Scarlet returned to Beijing, then i got sick, and then i just ran out of time.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Battle Chuar?

Overseas fans of the popular Beijing ex-pat drinking game, Battle Caps, will no doubt be delighted to read this exciting news. Kevin Reitz, Battle Caps co-inventor and clear favorite at any Battle Caps contest, performed yet another incredible feat of dexterity and concentration... and meat throwing.

From a distance of 15 feet, on his first try, he successfully sunk a lamb skewer into his opponent's beer glass. Avid followers of the popular sport will note that under normal circumstances, no other objects/food are allowed to be thrown other than clean beer caps. The aforementioned opponent, Tao, sanctioned this throw as a "one-time offer", merely because they had temporarily lost all their caps.

Kevin took aim, checked for breeze, and with a high arching toss, launched the skewer javelin-style over the beer bottles between him and his target. It was dead on and the fans went wild. Tao drank the beer and ate the lamb. For more on this story and pictures, please visit the Beijing Ultimate Blog.