National Week Vacation

We left Beijing at 1 in the afternoon, the highway eerily empty on Sunday. Although missing a day of travel, leaving Sunday enabled us to avoid the mass exodus and chaos of the first Saturday of National Week. We flew, without mishap, to Hong Kong, paused for a snack of noodles and wontons, and flew on to Taipei, arriving late in the evening. After retrieving our bags, a very friendly security guard with surprisingly flawless English walked us to the bus, as I had completely forgotten to research this aspect of travel (well, I’ve always been picked up from the Taoyuan Airport). We both fell asleep for the hour long ride, although I tried to keep my eyes open.
We disembarked to drizzle, and dashed across the street to find a cab. As our driver sped down the slick streets at a breakneck pace, I craned my eyes out the window trying to recognize anything. It took until we were almost at Da’an Park for memory to kick in.

Dolamanco Hotel. It was decent enough, I’m not very picky. A small room but comfortable bed, flat screen TV, clean bathroom although no shower curtain. I slept like the dead until Sawyer woke me up around 7. A terrible breakfast–cold eggs, bad coffee. I filled up on toast, and we drew up an itinerary. We bought umbrellas and walked to Da’an station. Our first destination was an hour and a half outside of Taipei, a touristy little place called Jiufen. An old gold mining town on the top of a mountain, it’s scenic with great views of Keelung and the northeast coast, some good touristy-trinket shopping, and great food. From Zhongxiao Fuxing, we took the 1062 bus to Jiufen. The drizzle slowly worsened along the ride, and by the time we arrived in Jiufen, it was a torrential downpour. I was a little bit worried this might ruin the trip, but my wonderful boy was laughing the whole time, to my relief. We hurried into the Old Street, which has partial roofing that offered some slight protection from the rain, and we bought blue and yellow plastic ponchos. We wandered upwards, stopped at a tea house. Downstairs, window view of fog. I showed Sawyer pictures of what he would be seeing in nice weather.

The tea ceremony. A heavy black ceramic water pot boiled over a chunk of sterno. Our waitress poured water over the teapots and cups to warm them, and left us. I’m bad at tea ceremony. I left the tea in for too long, and it got too bitter. I could barely lift the big pot to refill the tiny one. We drank many small cups of tea (the taste of which slowly improved as I got the hang of it) and dried off and warmed up and Sawyer played angry birds.


After a while we ventured back out. Still raining. I bought a dachangbaoxiaochang to share, wild boar sausage inside sticky rice sausage. Garlicky and sweet and hot and delicious. We descended down a short flight of stairs to a tiny noodle cart shop, I ordered niuroumian and pork”gan” noodles. Turns out “gan” means liver. It wasn’t bad, but a little bland. The beef noodle was delicious–greasy, rich, flavorful chewy noodles. We shared another sausage on the way home.

The Most Delicious Thing

Traditional Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup

We arrived back in Taipei around 2, and immediately found a cab to the National Palace museum. Although I’ve been there many times, still enjoyed walking around seeing all the historical treasures. A quick walk through, then back to the hotel for a short break. We walked around trying to find a travel agent near Zhongxiao Fuxing. Finally found one, got lots of advice for our week of travels, then walked to Shida Night market, cutting through Da’an park. Walked by my old apartment on Xinsheng South Road. So many things have changed. A new bookstore across from my old place–I would have loved this cafe. New restaurants and stores all over. But more importantly, we were starving, and the night market is a treasure trove of deliciousness.

Tender Delicious Iron Plate Steak with Noodles and Fried Egg

First we stopped at a jipai cart. A filet of chicken that’s been flattened, deep fried and sprinkled liberally with MSG and chili powder. The vendor cuts it into little strips and we ate by poking awkwardly little sticks into the bag as we walked down the crowded streets. After circling around, Sawyer was intrigued by the iron plate steaks. I ordered one for us to share and we sat down out of the misty drizzle that’s still present. Our food arrived, a sizzling iron plate mounted in a thick wood base, with a mess of thick noodles, covered by a red sauce, a lightly fried egg and a generous steak. We mixed the egg yolk up in the sauce as it cooked on the iron. The steak was surprisingly tender and delicious for something that cost us 5 dollars. I purchased a cup of the tangy citrus drink from the corner stand that always has a cute girl (at least for the past 3 visits over 5 years) manning it, and Sawyer gets something grapefruit based. Enticed by the fragrant steam buns folded over around shredded soft braised pork belly and pickled vegetables, Sawyer stopped and bought one. We shared bites of it and then follow with dessert: a bag of luscious fresh fruit from my favorite stall. I had a serious fruit habit when I lived in Taipei, I went to this corner stall at least once a week, dragged all my friends there. The strawberries burst with flavor, bell apples subtle and refreshing. Crisp Asian pears and white peaches, mouth melting succulent mango halves, juicy chunks of vivid pink dragon fruit. We walked on through the drizzle and waited to meet some friends of mine from last summer’s conference. We met in front of the Burger King (one of many new places since my time) and rambled through the night market to Cafe Bastille. They offered an impressive, overwhelming selection of beers. I nursed a Chimay while reminiscing with the guys and they discussed their different China and Taiwan experiences.

Shredded pork steambun sandwich

We woke up far too early in the morning for my liking, but I reluctantly put on my running gear and followed my athletically inclined boyfriend out into the gray morning. We ran through my old campus, Taiwan National University, and I pointed out my classroom, old hangouts, etc, and then we circled a few times around the park. We walk back around my old neighborhood and bought breakfast from one of the ubiquitous little hole-in-the-wall breakfast joints. Two sandwiches, luobogao and danbing to go (a steamed and then fried turnip cake, and a crepe-like fried egg ‘burrito’ for lack of other description). We tried to sit in Starbucks but they kicked us out for having outside food (even after Sawyer bought a coffee). Back at the hotel, we sat in the breakfast area and figured out our next travel options. The people next to us enviously eyed our food and sighed when informed it was from several blocks away.

Danbing, or fried egg crepe

Luobogao, steamed and fried turnip cake

The receptionist helped us book hotels and airline tickets and contact the Penghu hotel. She wanted to make us reservations in a more expensive hotel with English speakers, but I impressed upon her my ability actually speak Chinese, despite my online-website-illiteracy. We bought train tickets to Hualien at the Taipei Main Station before heading off to Xinbeitou.

When my sister came to visit me over Christmas, one of our joint adventures was to this little suburb hot spring town. In the middle of winter, markedly more hungover, I somehow got us there, where we halfheartedly nibbled on some really amazing corn from a street cart, and dipped our feet in the hot stream. I don’t know why I didn’t do this more often when I lived there. Xinbeitou is only a 30 minute metro ride outside the city (and apparently an up and coming suburb now, since it’s so beautiful). It’s outside the general urban center of Taipei, but still conveniently on the MRT.

Xinbeitou Public Library

At Beitou, we switched to the five minute shuttle to Xinbeitou. A ten minute walk uphill from the station brought us to the hot spring museum and new gorgeous public library. If this was a feature when i was living here, I’d have been there every weekend to study. Next to the museum is the public hot springs. we decided to keep walking and soak on our way back. We walked around to the Thermal Valley (also known as Hell valley). Boiling hot water trickles down through the town in little rivers, a hot gutter lines one side of the street, that some locals (and occasional hungover halfie robot sisters) will sit on the curb and dip their feet in (despite signs forbidding this). Thermal valley is a large pool of this sulfurous boiling water, steam rising thick and odoriferous into the trees above. Engrish signs warn of the extreme temperatures and not to betray the water lest it burn you. Steam rises up from the sewer grating on the sidewalks.

Don't Cross It.

Xinbeitou Thermal Valley Steam Rising

We ate lunch at a Japanese udon noodle house. Mine had thick chewy noodles in broth with a tea egg and several fish cakes. I supplemented it with an order of pork chops which I dunked in the broth. Sawyer got kimchee noodles with pork, and added a “hot-spring” style soft poached egg, and we shared Japanese style silky tofu. Then it was hot spring time.

Pork and Fishcake Udon Noodle Bowl

Kimchee Udon Noodle Bowl

The public hot springs is great. It’s outdoor, and mixed gender so bathing suits are required and most people wear swim caps ( we refrained from this). It was slightly drizzling but that just made the whole experience more relaxing, I think. For 40 NTD, about $1.20, you can stay there as long as you’d like. 20 NTD gets you a locker for your things. They have showers and bathrooms, sell beverages, bathing suits and towels. We started at the lowest pool and worked our way up the 4 levels of heat, although I could only dip my toes into the 4th level before it got excruciating. I sat up to my chin and soaked in the middle level before moving on the the next. Moving was painful. I counted the seconds. Skin turned bright red when we moved on to the cold pool. We completed this process several times. Sawyer made a friend–a funny little old man who garbled some words at him in the cold pool.
“Excuse me? I don’t speak Chinese.”
The old man looked at me, smiled, and repeated himself. I realized he was saying “reeeed laaabstah.”
“Oh, yes, yes, red lobster.” I smiled back.
He pointed at Sawyer “Your friend, no English” or something vaguely similar to that twisted out of his mouth. I smiled and nodded pleasantly, but really mister, I don’t think it’s his English that needed improving. When we were relaxed and completely dehydrated and ready to move on with our day, he admonished us, “too early to leave!” I think. He could have been calling me a pterodactyl or something for all I could understand his English.

Unassuming entrance to public hotsprings. Most relaxing dollar I ever spent.

We went to Taipei 101 upon our return to the city proper, shared a snack of dou-hua, or soft tofu pudding with red beans, and walked around Shinkong Mitsukoshi where he bought a camelbak and then we met my cousin at the Taipei Main Station (terrible idea, she didn’t realize we didn’t have a cellphone, I had to bother some poor stranger and call). We had dinner and caught up before our train to Hualian.


My Motherland

I first visited Taiwan in second grade. It was the most exotic place anyone in my school had been to–even the kid who moved from Australia. Then, to my great fortune, after I graduated from high school I was lucky enough to stumble upon the opportunity to study at National Taiwan University at their Chinese Language Program. But directly after graduation, as I was scrambling to make the decision to defer and apply to NTU, my grandparents sent me to Formosa Youth Camp, which is basically the Taiwanese version of Israeli Birthright. It’s been around for forty some odd years and has been affectionately nicknamed Loveboat, for the tendency of Taiwanese parents sending their daughters in hopes they’ll find a nice Taiwanese boy. My grandparents sent my youngest aunt (she met a nice white boy in Taiwan). My roommate at the camp had parents who met at Loveboat. It’s a lot of fun–a month with 400 other kids between the ages of 18 and 24, going to workshops, doing tourist Taiwan stuff and traveling around. And eating delicious food. And drinking. After that month, I spent the next 10 months living there on my own (a daunting feat for a 17 year old), and was able to get back again last summer for a conference.

My early memories are a blur, a long ago vacation that left certain indelible imprints on a young mind but have been worn down over the decades.

Heat, big bold colors, annoyance at being made to wear pants by nagging grandmothers, the dusty-sharp smell of the apothecary shop, the crunch of sugar cane between my teeth and the juice seeping out. The sweet burning scent of sugar caramelizing on a road side lollipop maker’s griddle. The claw machine game and my new favorite stuffed kangaroo. The taste of clover, French frogs legs, and swirls of pastel skirts sweeping in front of my dazed eyes as I struggled to stay awake. The pain of my fingers caught in the van door, my cherished copy of Mossflower falling apart as I reread it over and over, the vast and impressive greenery of Taroko, the gleam of a thousand gold Buddha statues. Crisp slices of pears in my great aunt’s apartment and the stink of sulfur rolling in steamy clouds down Yang Min Shan.

Then again as a seventeen year old, fresh out of high school, not a clue of what I wanted the future to hold. Painfully shy. I arrived early in the morning, a gray dawn, vaguely recognized my great aunt waiting, sat in the back of her car yawning. Taipei is a grim looking city, it hit modernity a few decades too soon. Weather worn, grimy, unrelenting, I watched as giant signs on all the buildings flashed by– some I recognized; Sony, Asio, Mitsubishi. Other just a blur of Chinese characters. It had quite sunk in, the enormity of my decision.

My aunt’s apartment was in a bustling little area just waking up as we pulled in, full of soup and sandwich carts, juice and congee stalls. Great Aunt ushered me up the stairs where I sat, slightly stunned from the sensory overload. Great Uncle came up moments later with a sandwich and fruit. I numbly ate a few slices of Asian pear and guava, the three layer triangular sandwich of sweet, soft white bread, a fried egg, cucumber and a little sauce, and chewy ham and dried shredded pork, before crawling into the lacy covered bed in the guest room, not even bothering to take off my jeans or turn on the lights, and sinking blissfully into sleep.

I was awoken a few hours later by the sounds and smell of cooking. Barley and whole grains mixed in with steamed rice, a bowlful of vegetables, more fruit. I ate several bowls. Days passed, my existence revolved around sleeping, eating, and being taken around to meet friends of Great Aunt, and to eat more, always to eat more. I was shy, unable to speak, even if I knew any Chinese it wouldn’t have come out, sat where I was told and stared out at everyone with my shoulders hunched like wings up to my ears. I forgot what hunger felt like. I sat out on Great Uncle’s rooftop garden, it was lush and full and green. I padded silently around the apartment, poking around at stuff. And then camp started.
A whirlwind of making friends, tourism. This was the most Asian Americans I had ever been around, and there were even a few halfies to boot, although this didn’t stop a few ignorant souls from asking me what a white girl was doing in an Taiwanese heritage camp. We took morning workshops–Southern martial arts, learning the art of Chinese knots, and spent the afternoons on field trips. We spent our evenings eating delicious food at the night markets, sneaking out to bars and KTV, collapsing exhausted onto hard mattresses with the AC blasting and wrapped up in downy soft comforters to protect from our bare skin from the mosquitoes. I was introduced to jipai, bubble tea, cosmos, zhuroufan, and typhoons. I came out of my shell long enough to impress an auditorium with some spoken word, and unfortunately garnered a few creepy admirers who sent me anonymous notes. We set things on fire and dodged demerits, grew tired of the corn soup served at every meal, were bused to every tourist site accessible in a two week time, including a beach where I got stung by jellyfish immediately upon entering the water.

I spent days looking for apartments with my father and mom’s cousin. My skin crawled just thinking about living in most of them–illegal rooftop shack slapped together out of sheets of corrugated tin roofing, places with no internet, no air conditioning, a sublet with an 80 year lady, tiny hard beds, no mattresses, all purpose spaces with shower and toilet and plug-in electric stoves in the same 3 feet..A typhoon struck, giving my dad an excuse to stay an extra day, walk around campus with me, lecture me a few last times. Standing, waiting for the airport shuttle to arrive, my dad sweating in the tropical summer heat, he looks away but I could see the tears in his eyes. Strangely, until this point, I hadn’t realized I’d be basically by myself in a country where I didn’t speak the language or know the culture, far away from all my friends and the family I knew. The very sudden realization almost made me want to cry, but I refused. A strange, hollow, empty, almost terrified feeling swept over me. I had no idea what to do with the rest of my day. I had no idea what I was going to do with the rest of my life. For the first time I could remember, I had no plans, no schedule, no activities to rush to. I walked slowly back to my new apartment, overwhelmed. My upstairs neighbor, bless her wonderful heart, gave me a hand-drawn, detailed map of our neighborhood, with adorable stickers pointing out the grocery store, the bus stop, and different useful stores and stalls in the nearby night market. I clung to it and ventured out into the open when hunger got the better of me.

My first meal in independence: a roadside stall had attracted a long line. Like most Asians, I took that to mean whatever they were selling was worth eating. I waited in line, pointed at the golden rounds of dough frying in the bubbling vat of oil when my turn came, and fumbled for heavy 50 NTD coin for two. They were stuffed with shredded turnip. I remember it being hot, savory, perfectly salted, delicious. I devoured them on the walk back to my apartment.

Maybe nostalgia is why I think so fondly of Taiwan, or maybe it’s just really awesome and everyone should visit because it’s fantastic and the food is amazing and the people are incredibly nice. A while ago the subject of a week of vacation came up between Sawyer and me. Since he’s been all over Asia I figured he’d have some good recommendations for what I should do. We ended up deciding that it would be awesome to go to Taiwan–I’ve been trying to get back to visit since I got to China, and he had never been. So we did, and it was awesome–a really relaxing, food and adventure filled 9 days.

Balls, Cab Drivers, and Food Poisoning. Again.

So I got food poisoning again, this time I think from Annie’s, and have spent the last two days trying to recover on the cracker, white rice and ginger ale diet while still at work. It’s been kind of miserable and I haven’t been motivated at all to write about the very fun weekend I had or my Taiwan vacation which I promise I have started to write about and will post soon.

I’ve been so busy I haven’t been cooking that much, just ordering lots of salads (or eating crackers and soda) but I did see Brussels sprouts appear at Jenny Lou’s so I bought some and made a nice veggie pasta for dinner one night: cut pumpkin into half inch cubes, halve Brussels sprouts, saute in olive oil, butter and garlic until the pumpkin is soft. Add in some thawed and peeled frozen shrimp, and a handful of dried cranberries. Toss with pasta, a tad more olive oil, and grated Parmesan. Omnomnom. Tasty, simple dinner.

Shrimp-Cranberry Pasta

The boys went to Hong Kong this past weekend for Frisbee. On Thursday, I helped Ginny with his seemingly 2 tons of luggage (someone sent down a team order of uniforms, which is surprisingly heavy) while trying to flag down a cab to the train station. It only took us 25 minutes and some frustration and swearing at empty cabs who refuse to stop, but finally got him in a cab, and then I accidentally forgot to give him his small gear bag which I for some reason thought was my purse. Luckily, Bambi didn’t leave til the next day so I could pass it off to him. The two of us went to dinner at the Xinjiang place, since I’d been feeling like an absentee friend. Dinner was good, as always; yang bao nan, which is wedges of bread under a lamb stew with vegetables, some green vegetables and chuanr. Good food, but I forgot how utterly dirty the little hole in the wall is. I sat and tried not to touch anything and tried not to put anything down on the sticky table.

It had been a long day–I started at 7 at a hotel to host a conference event, then took the afternoon to deal with my bank problem–discovered that they made a typo, and thus I couldn’t receive any money, and went for the next training session of my kindergarten curriculum. Surprisingly, the bank was incredibly embarrassed and fixed everything right away, where I was prepared for an hour long wait and days of frustration, which usually characterizes banking in China. Kindergarten is exciting. We’re moving on from patterns and finger painting to color mixing and learning the rules of the classroom.

Friday after work Sawyer and I went to In & Out to meet several people for dinner. It’s a Yunnan restaurant north of Sanlitun, hidden among the embassies, that has pretty great food. It turned out to be quite the adventure getting there. Our reservation was for 7. At 7, we found a rickshaw cab. We had just gotten to Sanlitun Village and were about to cross the street when our driver suddenly turned around and joined several other rickshaws that were fleeing in the opposite direction. He wouldn’t stop and let us off until we were quite far away, which was really annoying. His only explanation was the cops–I guess that the rickshaws and tiny motorized box cabs require a special license to go into certain areas, only most of them do it illegally. We ended up walking to the restaurant, and not getting there til past 7:30. But most of our party didn’t get there ’til 8. Perhaps in retaliation to that, but probably more to the fact that they’re incompetent and we were in a private room and therefore easy to forget about, the service was abominably slow. We asked, like foreigners always do, for our rice to be served first, so of course it was served second to last. Each dish took an additional 20 minutes to come out. We didn’t finish up with dinner until 10.

Afterwards we went to Fubar for a delicious Dark & Stormy, but while the ‘speakeasy’ is a pretty cool space, their ventilation leaves something to be desired, and we left early due to haze of smoke.

Saturday I read a story about pumpkins to a bunch of little baby nuggets and their bossy older sister who insisted we play the games she explained and not the activities we had planned, and actually yelled at my assistant teacher. Kids are kind of brats these days. I went home, discovered Hector had unearthed an old bag of kitten formula and torn it to shreds and rolled around in it, causing himself to smell like baby vomit, so had to clean it, reluctantly ate some lunch, and went to get my nails done. Apparently I fell asleep in the chair and they decided to just let me sit and not do anything, since usually the whole process takes about half an hour, and I woke up after an hour and they still hadn’t finished. Then went to get ready for the Charity Ball. Work subsidized some tickets so I was able to go to a very fancy charity dinner and networking event at the China World Hotel. Britta and her roommate, who already had found a cab after a long wait, picked us up. We cut through Sanlitun–why, I’m not sure, the traffic there on a Saturday night is always horrible. Our cabbie did, however, make the strategic decision of taking the bike-only lane (an asshole lane that I hate when I’m walking/biking, but that I appreciated while in the cab). Halfway through Sanlitun we met with a bit of a kerfuffle. Another cab had stopped diagonally, blocking traffic, and someone was forcibly trying to pull the cabbie out of the seat, with much yelling, old people screaming, kids crying, and crowds pressing around decidedly not helping. Our cabbie stopped, recognized the other driver as his friend, got out (ignoring us, asking him what the hell was going on and can’t he drive around it and not get us involved), physically separated the big guys fighting, gave his friend a talking to, gave the onlookers and disgruntled passengers a talking to, got back in the cab, and drove on like nothing happened, smiling and obligingly turning the radio station from some screechy music to 88.7, “baba dian qi,” which plays American pop.

We arrived at the event without further drama. Apparently there was a island/castaway/survivor theme. The moment we walked in, everyone was given a different patterned sash denoting our “tribe.” I was soon accosted by a woman who asked me my name. Being there to network, I immediately replied, oh hi, nice to meet you, I’m Robot. And then she wrote it down. “Um, excuse me? What’s that for?”
“You’re going to participate in the tribal games” said that sneaky, sneaky lady as she ran off. I immediately headed for the bar.

Castaway Coconut Drink

Managed to forget about that while enjoying the appetizer trays being walked around, and drinking the juice out of a whole coconut, and perusing the silent auction. But then, shortly after being seated for dinner, the entertainment people got up on stage and announced the imminent start of the competition. No. No. No. I wanted to run away, unfortunately, ALL of my bosses and their bosses were there and knew exactly who I was when they called out my name and I had to go up on stage. In front of 700 people. Oh fun.
So I made my way up there and stood on stage with all the others who had been browbeaten or tricked into participation, and the “challenge” was to “build shelter” i.e, put together an Ikea coffee table. With no tools. I tried to smile and not look like a zombie or someone who was terrified that they were going to flash some very important people like the Ambassador and ALL of their superiors while trying to assemble Swedish furniture by hand on stage. Amazingly, I won, and no wardrobe disasters either. A measly three points for no prize, but I still won, and immediately went back to my table for a stiff drink.

Oh why look, there's a giant screen showing me build a table in a party dress with my bare hands.

The food was actually pretty awesome. Started out with a shrimp and avocado cocktail, followed by a creamy sweet corn chowder. The main course was filet mignon skewered with sugar cane and in some sort of sauce, with roasted vegetables and sweet potato puree. And the dessert–a fluffy coconut sort of custard ice cream, cake, macadamia praline, and then dishes of dark rich fudge filled chocolates. Mrs. Fields cookies were passed out as favors, as were mini bottles of Jack Daniels. It was a very fun evening altogether, although the Caribbean Steel Drum band decided to go with Disney songs that seemed to chase everyone away (seriously: the band started playing and there was a mass exodus). There were midnight snacks on the menu, but I was pretty full and we left before I could sample any.

Some of the young professionals ended up joining forces and went to Melody for karaoke. Finally. How have I been in China for 10 months and not gone to karaoke yet? Well, mostly because the boys always went when I wasn’t around. I blame them. But it’s finally been remedied and I can say that I sang my little robot heart out along with everyone and had a good time.

Sunday I must have spent 100 kuai on cabs, going back and forth from teaching to Sawyer’s couch to watch episodes of Breaking Bad. We ordered delivery for lunch from Refresh!, which apparently has more than subpar smoothies, but some very good, albeit small servings of, food (I got a cheddar, apple and bacon panini and salad). I got stuck in traffic and mild rain all day. When I got to my 2:00 lesson, they were locked in the apartment and couldn’t let me in, had to wait for their grandmother to return home with the key. I taught the kids through the front door screen and scowled at the tiny, ugly little dog roaming the hallway that barked at me nonstop for 10 minutes. On the final cab ride back, was stuck in traffic for 40 minutes (it’s generally a 20 minute ride). The cabbie, who had been silent for most of the ride, took the opportunity to ask me some questions. I answered most of them–how long I’d been in China, etc, before I didn’t understand something. I made him repeat what came out as garbled junk–it sounded like he was asking me about white and black people. Oh, no that’s right, he was. He asked me if white and black people ACTUALLY got married in America, if that was a real thing. When I confirmed that yes, people of different races do intermarry, he asked why, and why was it allowed. I wasn’t exactly sure how to answer this, although I decided I probably shouldn’t mention that I was mixed, so I shrugged and pretended to nap for the rest of the ride.

What I Forgot to Write About This Past Month

So here’s why I haven’t written anything about the last month. I’m a weekday full-time intern for a large international economic organization, an evening part-time employee of a start-up company, and a weekend Kindergarten teacher! And there’s that whole romantical, utterly disgustingly adorable boyfriend thing. I’m highly tempted to refer to him as McSteamy from now on but that actually makes me gag a little bit. So we’re going to call him Sawyer.

Things at work have been seven kinds of crazy and I’ve even had to work overtime (as an intern!). Things of note that have happened: as I was home from teaching I hear a “craaack” and looked down to see a hairline crack appear in the soldering on the handlebar of my bike. Well, shit. I biked very slowly and carefully and tried not to put any weight on that handlebar, but the crack kept getting bigger. As I rolled in through the gate home, it snapped clean through. Highly annoying, terrifying and inconvenient.

I’ve gone back to Taste, the Yunnan restaurant in the hutongs. Food was amazing as always. Chanterelle mushrooms with shredded chicken, spicy cucumber salad. Fried goat cheese lightly seasoned with salt and pepper. And of course, the lamb chops, which were stickier and fattier than I remembered, but absolutely just as delicious.

I went to D Lounge for the first time to welcome a friend back to Beijing. Although I’ve heard it called the D-Bag Lounge, they offer a really good drink menu, I have to recommend their Chase’s Mule or Cucumber Gimlet. Ludacris apparently came to town that night, and although I opted to stay at a relatively relaxed quiet bar before going home early that night, some of my friends hung out with him at Spark.

The past few Saturdays have been amazing weather wise. I’ve started my kindergarten demo classes and wake up early to enjoy an hour of patterns, musical rhythms, balloons and finger painting caterpillars and butterflies. So…this is not how I imagined my life would be in my early twenties. It’s weird the extremes I live in–one day at work I’m working on a budget of millions of USD, the next I am looking up sets of commemorative stamps for my boss to purchase, the next I am finger painting and singing with toddlers.

I’ve been to brunch a few times now after teaching to take advantage of the sunshine and pollution free days while they last. Element Fresh in Sanlitun was nice enough. I really was blown away by Nola, however. It’s New Orleans style food nearby embassies and Silk Market. I ordered their homemade sausage, which came with a salad, and two poached eggs on top of a “sweet potato rosti” which, from what I deduced, is a shredded sweet potato patty of sorts, and homemade apple sauce. It was amazing. Sawyer ordered Eggs Sartou, poached eggs with a tomato-Hollaindaise sauce on homemade biscuits. Also good, but mine was better.

Back in September, the boy took me to Houhai for my first visit. It’s a very pretty lake surrounded by blind masseurs and rickshaws and bars. It’s a popular destination for night time road-drinking and whatnot, but we were just out enjoying the sunshine. We also went to Sanyuanli Market for my first visit. Nearby Sanyuanqiao, it’s one long lane of fruit, meat, seafood and vegetable stalls, and of better quality and variety than the wet market near me. They have things like arugula, rocket, basil, and avocados that’s not generally available at your run of the mill vegetable market, plus a few market stalls that sell dry goods and cheese, spices, and some stalls that sell appliances. As well as a generous bagful of amazing looking tomatoes, bell peppers, avocados and salad greens, we got cheese, a mortar and pestle, a big French press, a coffee grinder, and I finally found ground coriander seed.

Produce on sale at Sanyuanli Market

Seafood on sale at Sanyuanli Market

I made duck and risotto for dinner, and he made a great salad to accompany it (ok, I have to confess, I am terrible at making salads. Give me a recipe and I can make you gnocchi or petit fours or chocolate ganache covered rum soaked orange cakes or Indian chicken curry from scratch, but I cannot put together a simple salad well).

We visited the Glasses Market, about a block south of Jinsong station on line 10, which is a bit disappointing and very much like a Yashow filled with nothing but ugly glasses. And I finally brought Sawyer home to my China family (ie my ridiculous roommates) for assessment. I made braised pork tacos.

I had two pork tenderloins, and made a very quick dry rub: crushed up cumin, coriander, cinnamon, paprika, salt and pepper in the mortar. I put down a bed of bay leaves, green bird chilies and dried red chilies in a baking dish, seasoned the meat, tucked in chopped up onion and celery and crushed cloves of garlic all around and over it, and covered it with a juice-box of orange juice (the oranges at Jenny Lou’s were really expensive-almost seven dollars. The juice box was fifty cents). I covered it with tinfoil and popped it in the oven at 160C or around 325F for 2 hours. In the meantime I made fresh salsa and guacamole. Three of the mouthwatering red Sanyuanli tomatoes chopped finely, half a red onion minced, some shallot, four green bird chilies, salt, and lime juice. Crushed up the avocados with more lime juice, crushed garlic, salt and pepper, red onion and tomatoes. If you’re not one of those genetically predisposed to hate it, you can toss in some cilantro to both of these. I also caramelized some two sliced onions and tossed with a can of sweet corn, and stewed apples with sugar, butter, and some cut up chilies to accompany the pork. All served on corn tortillas warmed in the oven with some Dutch white cheese (it’s soft and spreadable but its a less expensive decent alternative to feta) and a squeeze of fresh limes. They turned out really good, although kind of messy–the corn tortillas didn’t hold up very well and fell all to pieces.

Shredded braised pork

I’ve been trying to go the the gym more regularly too. Waking up at 6:30 is a bit terrible, especially when I’ve been working overtime and Excel is coming out of my eyeballs, but I’ve made it to 13 kilometers. More on the overtime: I have managed to completely confused myself with all the numbers in my head and convince myself I’ve done it all wrong and redone charts to make different models at least fifty times now. And as if the crash course in accounting wasn’t enough, I get to sit in on hour long meetings where three agitated Chinese women argue among themselves in circles in Mandarin about numbers and graphs and meetings. I try to follow along, but it’s mostly just frustrating.

Sawyer and I went to Rumi for dinner one night, a Persian restaurant. It’s a nice, relaxing place to go for hookah on a Friday evening, and they also have great food. We ordered the yogurt, lamb with rice, and two kinds of chicken with rice mixed with currants and saffron rice and some other berry. It was all very delicious. I also managed to get people to go back with me to Noodle Bar in Hidden Village for some beef noodle soup outside, although we didn’t stop at the Well Bar in the middle of the courtyard as I’d hoped. The noodles were just as good as I remember.

The first week of October is National Week and it’s a national vacation. Before I left for a little holiday, I got together a bunch of people for dinner. My friend Scones and I had been trying to make a time to go to Homeplate for bbq but never could quite make it work–here we though it would be the perfect opportunity. I arranged everything, got everyone all fired up and I was excited for pulled pork sandwiches, which the boys rave about. Only, we arrived to discover that it was closed for the holiday. What a letdown. We went to Bellagio instead, a Taiwanese chain with pretty decent food and really good juice drinks and desserts. We ate a copious amount of Taiwanese specialties–three cup chicken, stewed minced pork, fried tofu, dragon beans with lotus nuts to name a few dishes, before moving on to a new bar, the James Joyce (great name, attractive decor, good beer) and finally Luga’s to see a friend’s band. Tequila. Tequila was involved. It was a fun night and a good start to our vacation.

A Weekend in Seoul

Wow. A month since I’ve had the time to remember that I supposedly have a food and travel blog. I am the worst. Well, it’s been a pretty crazy month and I’ve got a lot to write about. First of all, I owe a update on my second visit to Seoul.

So Britta and I had a three-day weekend due to a Monday being Mid-Autumn Festival and we both needed to take our visa trip, so we took Friday off of work and went to Seoul.

I had to wake up at stupid o’clock in the morning (5:00!) and reluctantly get out of bed and meet Britta at Dongzhimen for the airport express. The flight there was rather uneventful. We flew into Gimpo, rather than Incheon, it was cheaper and much closer to the city. The first thing we saw at the airport was a Dunkin Donuts, so of course we stopped for some coffee.

Even the cups in Korea are adorable

We took the train to our hostel, Ann Guesthouse. It was clean and the people were nice. A large dormitory room with about 12 beds, a bathroom and a little kitchenette. After depositing all our stuff, we hit the streets. First stop, Namdaemun Market. This was the place that I thought was a night market, but when I went at 8, was closed. At noon, it was bustling. Food carts and stalls of clothing and cute things. We had some of the rice cakes in spicy red sauce, the fried rounds stuffed with glass noodles, cinnamon, sugar and peanut stuffed rounds as well as we perused the many little alleys.

Pig feet in Namdaemun Market

Really Amazing Street Tacos in Myeongdong

Next was Myeongdong area. High end shopping! Forever 21 and H&M were our first places to hit, although we paused at quite a few smaller Korean stores. We had some chicken kebab tacos from a street cart that were amazing. While we were walking around, I pointed out Namsam Tower.
“We could totally walk up that way. It looks pretty close” I said. Then we kept walking and turns out there was a mountain between us and the tower. Just kidding about that short walk. After hours of shopping we decided to get some Korean Barbecue for dinner. It was alright, but the street food was better. I used the restaurant’s hi speed wifi and was able to research the way to get to the tower. We walked for about twenty minutes through a very cute neighborhood, and arrived at the cable car station. The tower was cute. Everything is Seoul is really cute. Even more so, Namsan is very “romantic” and all about couples and love and wishes being made on locks.

Spicy fried chicken bits with a hot mustard sauce

That night we walked around Hongik area, buying some spicy chicken with a ketchup and mustard sauce and tater tots. Britta walked into what looked like a pub and but was yelled at for not taking off her shoes. We tried the place next door, only they tell us we have to order food in order to drink. We leave to get in touch with her friends and wander into a frozen yogurt place- Snow Spoon. Britta used their internet while I lingered over their display case and eventually bought an Oreo cookie frozen yogurt chocolate cookie sandwich to share. We sat in the window, watched the college kids streaming by and shared the cookie. Some young Korean guy suddenly tapped on the window rather violently.Britta and I recoiled, hoping it was not the one we were trying to meet. To our relief, he walked away, only to return moments later and come into the store to talk to us.

“What is this place? Are you drinking?”
“Uh…this is a frozen yogurt store. You know, dessert”
“What are you, like gay or lesbian or something?”
“Excuse me? What kind of question is that?”
He was doing a pretty poor job on hitting on us, and luckily, the friend of a friend we were looking for chose that moment to come inside. The random guy was all sorts of intimidated by the tall Korean American boy and ran off. We went with Andy and his friend to a pub where we were seated in a private, sliding door enclose booth. The boys ordered food, beer, and soju.

Soju bombs with Cass beer.

I was freezing, so I asked the waiter to turn the AC down. He wouldn’t, but he did bring me a zebra print blanket. awesome. I got all cozy and wrapped up, and because I’m apparently an old man, of course, I ended up dozing off at the table before the soju arrived. I rallied, and after a few bottles of soju, we moved on to meet up with some Korean girls in a park, and then went to another bar where they ordered platters of delicious fruit and some Korean plum wine that tasted exactly like Robitussin.

“Isn’t this good?” the girls exclaimed and I smiled weakly, they seemed to truly like it but it was sickly sweet and sticky with a weird fake grape flavor. We made it home to our hostel around 3, and woke up at the ungodly hour of 8. I stumbled down to Dunkin Donuts, although in no mood for Dunkin’s smiling, cheerful cups mocking my suffering, while Britta found our DMZ guide.

Flags on the Bridge at the DMZ

DMZ: a forty minute bus ride to the start, a bus switch, an exhibition and the friendship bridge, the tunnel that North Korea denies making. The unification train station that was discontinued. Views of North Korea and the giant flags. I admired the views, thought deeply about the historical significance of it all, laughed at the North Koreans, and tried not to look as miserable as I felt. I napped on the bus, and lastly they brought us to a store to try and foist ginseng products on us. Britta and I walked back, I took a shower and we both napped.

Lunch: bulgogi and rice at a little restaurant in Hongik. We walked around more, really appreciating the neighborhood, then met Britta’s friend’s coworker in Sincha. We had bibimbap and walked around streets filled with artsy boutiques just south of the river, then walked along the river and then to another cutesy boutique neighborhood and stopped for coffee.

Sunday: busy, busy day. We went the legit way up Bugaksan (apparently the directions I followed in march were for the back way in that doesn’t require check points). We took the train to Gyeongbok station, then a bus up to the mountain pass. Checked in with our passports, then climbed up a multitude of stairs. Beautiful views. Then bus back down to Gyeongbok. Briefly looked at the palace and the changing of the guards, and walked to Bukchon Village. We walked all around an even cuter, traditional-Korean-House neighborhood with boutiques and restaurants and cafes and stairs. We had lunch and caved and ordered bacon cheeseburgers which were amazing and my best decision ever. We were ecstatic.

Walked to Insadong, looked at the art and pottery and kitschy tourist stuff, and bought big clear plastic bubble umbrellas. Found beautiful pottery tea-cups to bring back as a gift. After a brief rest at the hostel we went to Hongik area again. We went to a hof for dinner and ordered a pitcher of Cass beer and a basket of fried chicken and fries. Amazing. We were starving and the beer was good and the chicken was fried to perfection and everything about the weekend was basically amazing. After dinner we wandered and got cream stuffed waffles. We went to Itaewon, but it felt seedy and kind of like Sanlitun, so we went back to Hongik and home.

Amazing fried chicken from a Hof is Hongik area

Basically I fell in love with Seoul again and had an amazing time and I definitely recommend it as a destination to visit.