Happy (very) belated Thanksgiving!
Zev and I tracked down a Texas BBQ restaurant in Shanghai and scored some majorly authentic smoked turkey and stuffing to celebrate the holiday, it was a good consolation prize for not being with our family.
Saturday night we went to our second Thanksgiving, this one potluck style and the spread was to die for. There was the juiciest turkey known to mankind(cooked for 11 hours), mac n cheese that brought a tear to my eye, mashed broccoli which is henceforth the only civilized way to cook that veggie, and a spinach dip that I continued to snack on until 2am. 😀
Our very generous hosts (thanks Kate and Josh!) put together a knockout dinner and assembled an endlessly fascinating group of mostly-American expats living in Shanghai. Meeting so many wonderful Americans really chased away the homesickness.
Most of our stops thus-far have been full of must-see cultural and historical sights, but Shanghai’s highlights are shopping, nightlife, and dining.There is a huge expat scene and we’re lucky enough to have three good friends living and working here to show us the ropes. Unfortunately, weather has not been on our side the last several days and we’ve spent most of our days doing laundry, regrouping, and becoming semi-pro nappers, then taking to the city in the evening to enjoy good company and nightlife. In addition to our two thanksgiving dinners, we’ve sampled the local club and music scene.
After having slogged through Beijing in the cold and damp, it’s finally time to dry out our soggy feet and recharge. On Wednesday, November 28th we fly south to Kunming in Yunnan province. It is supposed to be a very scenic region, so we’re excited for the warmer temperatures and time outside. Let’s keep our fingers crossed for less smog!
Each of our three days in Xi’an was better than the last. Then again, when you start off with a cold rainy day, one of us with a cold, a budget-negotiation crisis over a new tube of fancy face cream, and a 45 minute search for a restaurant that we ultimately decided has been torn down, it’s not hard to improve.
Xi’an is best known as the home of the Terracotta Warriors, the army of thousands of sculpted-clay soldiers buried along with a Qin-dynasty emperor to protect him in the after life. As with many Chinese ancient sights, there was some initial ambiguity as to what was original and what was a recreation, but we eventually figured out that archeologists have spent the last 35 years digging up shards of the wrecked statues, each of which is a totally unique person, and meticulously gluing them back together piece by piece. Only a fraction of the multi-acre site has been excavated, and it still is a awesome site.
True to our character, Eliza and I very much enjoyed the history and scenery of Xi’an, but what really had us enamored with the city was the food. Day one’s dinner search was a bust, but we have embraced APT’s (my former employer) motto that “if you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough,” when it comes to our culinary adventures.
Xi’an is the eastern terminus of the Silk Road, and its cuisine is influenced greatly by the Muslim traders who settled there. The Muslim quarter’s narrow alleyways are packed with small restaurants, nut and dried-fruit vendors, and plenty of touristy souvenir shops. We ate dinner in the Muslim quarter Friday night, and we owe the success of the meal to Eliza’s masterful matching of menu items to the must-haves listed in our Lonely Planet guide book.
Xi’an’s signature dish is yangrou paomo, a rich lamb broth soaked up by pea-sized bits of a dense local bread and topped with cellophane noodles and slices of lamb. The tiny chewy bits of broth-soaked bread pushed our chopstick skills to the limit, but was well worth the challenge. Paired with the slippery noodles and flakey, tender, and beyond-delicious lamb slices, the experience was at the same time an exotic adventure and a comforting reminder of home: brisket and matzah ball soup.
Also on the menu were spicy cumin lamb kebabs, braised lamb feet, mistakenly-ordered but surprisingly delicious fried rice (our first fried rice of China, strangely enough) and local Hans beer. The kebabs were served Churrascuria-style, a great way to explore new foods with minimal language skills.
We followed up the meal with fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice from a street stall, which put POM to shame. The fruit stalls sell a pretty wide variety of familiar fruits, but the overwhelming number of persimmons and pomegranates available was a reminder of the seasonality of produce that you barely see in the US.
Not to miss an opportunity to eat, we also indulged in Xi’an’s street food. Most notably we lunched on roujiamo, the local sandwich. We’ve had it a few different ways, but the hallmark traits are a round, dense flat bread filled with meat, fresh veggies and herbs for seasoning, and an extra dash of grease. Our favorite used flakey bread – almost like an Indian roti – with a filling of chopped lamb, chillies, and garlic.
We’re now on the train to Nanjing for some history and seafood. We’re snacking on our last Xi’an treat, a piece of a giant dried fruit and nut cake – think the world’s largest granola bar.
Enjoy the food porn below (and in a subsequent post, due to Internet limitations), and stay tuned for more!
Sent from my iPad
Sorry for the prolonged absence, the Great Chinese Firewall has been wreaking havoc with our blog. WordPress.com is permanently blocked (as is the New York Times, and intermittently, Google), so we are forced to post via email. This means no formatting or slideshows, but we’ll get more flashy post-China (and maybe post Myanmar, our next country, as they have NO internet…). For more info on the Chinese firewall, check out greatfirewallofchina.org.
Thankfully, that has been the extent of our travails in China so far. Everything else is going swimmingly. We spent a full week in Beijing. There was so much to see and do. Beijing is a walking city – as in walk ’til you think your feet are going to fall off.
Metro, walking, metro, walking, eating, walking, metro, eating, collapse = Beijing.
One of the highlights was Tienanmen Square. The government is in the midst of the 18th Chinese Communist Party Congress, where they are selecting a new leader, so the main area was blocked off to pedestrian traffic and the atmosphere was extremely tense. Security was much tighter than usual (according to our friend who lives in Beijing) and there were many bag searches. It gave you the feeling that some big changes were afoot, and really drove home that we were in a foreign country at a very significant time, politically speaking.
The Great Wall was more impressive than ever imagined – Zev immediately broke out into a chorus from Mulan. Hundreds of thousands of workers/prisoners labored for years on end to create this hulking structure that seems to dance across the mountain ridges, an awe-inspiring sight for even the most jaded traveler.
The Peking duck was delicious. On our first attempt we went to a touristy restaurant where we were rushed in, hovered over, and encouraged to order the most expensive thing on the menu. It was an unpleasant meal, excluding of course the crispy duck skin dipped in sugar… The second time we went to Li Qun, a smaller restaurant in one of Beijing’s famed Hutongs – small alleyway communities filled with small shops, restaurants, markets and traditional courtyard family homes. It was actually the same place we had seen on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations before we left the states. Given limitless resources, our trip would be one giant re-creation of that show. We went with a college friend who is studying in Beijing for the year and had a fantastic time. We ordered the usual duck as well as spicy cumin fried duck wings, peppery sauteed Peking duck bits, and talked international relations. It felt delightfully illicit to chat about East Asian international relations so close to Tienanmen Square.
On November 12th we took an overnight train to a town called Pingyao, an ancient walled city that seems to have retained a good deal of it’s old world charm, something most Chinese towns haven’t managed to do. Our hotel room is incredibly charming. With a traditional kang stone bed, and wooden inlaid windows, it has oodles and oodles of character.
Tonight we head to Xi’an for 3 days to see the terracotta warriors. After Xi’an, we head to Nanjing, Shanghai, Kunming, and Leaping Tiger Gorge.
Follow me on Instagram for more pics (elizaq).
A few early impressions on Beijing:
– As a New Yorker I am a strong believer in mass transit, and have much pride in the NYC subway system. To my great dismay, Beijing’s subway puts any system I’ve ever seen to shame. We have yet to wait more than 3 minutes for a train, it’s super fast and clean, there are easy to understand Mandarin and English signs and audio recordings everywhere, and a one way trip anywhere in the city is only 2 yuan (~30 US cents).
– Exercise playgrounds are awesome! Walking around town one morning we discovered a playground for grown-ups filled with swinging, hanging, and otherwise fun-looking apparatus. Maybe the novelty would wear off over time, but these sure seem more entertaining than a gym to me. (photo 1 below)
– We’re definitely loving the food in this country. Cheap and delicious street food is available on every block, and the recent addition of “ji-guh” (“that,” accompanied by a pointed finger) to our small but growing Mandarin vocabulary greatly improves our food-purchasing abilities. Highlights thus far include hot pot and a fried pancake stuffed with pork, leeks, and Szechuan numbing pepper (photos 2 and 3 below).
– A second note on food: cold sesame noodles are actually Chinese! I had always assumed they were an American invention as most I’ve had in the states just taste like peanut butter on spaghetti, but we ordered noodles at a local place for dinner tonight (see “ji-guh”, above) and although they were not as sweet and a little more spiced than the ones in the US, they’re unmistakably the same dish (photo 4).
– Public toilets are a worthwhile public service. They’re all over the place here, and we greatly appreciate them. I think it would be a great second-term issue for Obama.
P.S. We’re having some technical difficulties writing posts and reading the blog ourselves right now. We’re not sure if it is due to Chinese Internet restrictions, or just a plain old slow connection at our hotel. Our sincerest apologies for any issues with formatting or photos below.
Zev and I breezed through our direct 14 hour flight to Beijing and arrived at our ‘spartan’ accommodations in one of the older neighborhoods near the Forbidden City. On the flight we were lucky enough to have 3 seats to ourselves and really sprawled out. We packed an excellent bag of snacks including clementines, granola bars, wasabi peas, and bagels, thus managing to avoid most of the plane food.
The internet here is iffy, and we’re learning the vagaries of internet in China. Facebook is non-existent (we anticipated this), Google is spotty, but strangely Bing seems to work like a charm.
We got about 4 hours of sleep the night before our flight and only managed to squeeze in an hour or two of shuteye on the plane. The next few days will be spent taking it easy and acclimating to our new surroundings. Can’t wait to get out and explore the Zhengjue Hutong area near our hostel tomorrow!
Dinner was at the first restaurant we could find with English on the wall. We had steamed buns with pickled cucumber and lotus root on the side.