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Monday, March 31, 2008

China, The Food (Young Joe, Chow Fat)

I have to admit, I was a little nervous about what type of food I would find in China. How would I order? Do they eat dog, or is that just a stereotype? Would I be presented a plate full of squishy things with tentacles? Raw things? Pigeon? Donkey? Would I hang my head and succumb to Mickey D's? Could I last 2 weeks on Snickers and beer?

All my worry was for naught. The food was spectacular. I'm starting to realize there's a reason why people in different parts of the world eat different foods -- because they know something we don't, and that something tastes good.

A few highlights:
  • Hot Pot -- Think Chinese fondue, but with water instead of oil. Take loads of thinly sliced lamb, fresh greens, mushrooms, ginger, dough, potatoes, fish balls, noodles, and tofu and cook them together in a pot of simmering water in the middle of your table. Add beer, friends, and dipping sauces, and you're guaranteed a good meal.
  • Peking Duck -- We were honored to eat duck number 1,150,325,487, and we have the certificate to prove it. Since 1864, Quanjude has been serving its famous Peking (roast) duck. Order your duck, and they wheel out a silver cart and carve it for you on the spot. Duck breast, skin with fat, and head are all presented. Take a few sprigs of spring onion, dip the duck in a dark, thick, amazingly tasty sauce, and wrap it in a small rice-based tortilla. Mmm, mmm good. Bonus entertainment comes when they fill up your tea pot. Instead of a basic pour, it's more a perfectly arched jet of water.
  • Street Food -- From sweet sticky rice treats to skewered lamb kabobs rolled in cumin and rosemary, you could find just about everything from a street vendor.
  • Dumplings -- How can you go wrong? Mash up a bunch of pork, beef, tofu, shrimp, or your favorite choice of protein, add some vegetables, and wrap them in a bun and steam or pan fry to your liking. Yum.
  • Donkey Pancakes -- Braised donkey in a pita pocket. Who knew?
  • Red Bean This, Red Bean That -- I don't know if red beans are naturally sweet, or the Chinese just picked them to use in pastries and artificially sweeten them. But honestly, I don't really care. From red bean lattes to red bean scones, we were pleased.
  • Home Cooked Goodness -- We were fortunate enough to stay at the Culture House in Yangshuo, home of Master Director Wei. And let me tell you, he deserves every bit of the title "Master Director". At night we sat down at a large dining table with the 8 or so other travelers staying in the same house. An older woman (perhaps Wei's mother?) would bring out heaping dish after dish until the lazy susan in the middle of the table couldn't hold anymore. The food was by far the best we had the enitre trip. Since we were in the south, the ingredients were fresh. The sauces were perfect. Jen fell in love with the dumplings. I obsessed over the stuffed peppers and ginger pork. I would go back to China simply to learn the cook's secrets. You think I'm kidding.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

China, The Highlight Reel

Shortly after our trip started, Jen and I decided to keep a list of highlights and anti-highlights (memorable moments, but not in a good way).

A number of these probably won't make sense unless you've been to China or were on our trip, so feel free to ask if you'd like further explanation... (and many of these will link to photos once I have them uploaded, so you'll have to check back later)

  • Flight to China and getting bumped to business class for no apparent reason
  • Personal tour guide / lifestyle consultant / food orderer: Xian
  • Water show at Grand Goose Pagoda
  • Hot Pot
  • Pot Stickers
  • Grandma's cookies
  • Buying Chinese Rolex
  • Red Lantern Hostel
  • Seven Sages Hostel
  • Sweet Sticky Rice
  • Chinese babies' butts
  • Old man Mao outfits and glasses
  • Forbidden City
  • The Italian couple
  • Western breakfast
  • Western toilets
  • Eastern clean
  • Terracotta Warriors
  • "Are they 'Hello'?"
  • Megaphones
  • Guilin Seven Stars Park: tour guide, peacock photo, man with free tangerines, Bill Clinton podium, ink blown painting, golden rat, temple(s)
  • Guilin Backpackers Inn
  • Yangshuo
  • Biking in countryside outside of Yangshuo
  • Not getting followed up Half Moon trail by old ladies selling water and coke
  • Master Director Wei and his Culture House
  • Chinese Calligraphy, brush painting, and taichi lessons from Master Wei
  • Fresh banana and lemon yogurt smoothies
  • Home cooked Culture House food
  • Impressions Liu Sanjie light show, with door-to-door service and 2nd row seat while paying less than face value of ticket
  • Yak meat, Yak cheese pizza, Yak cafe
  • The Great Wall
  • Ziplining down from The Great Wall
  • Donkey Pancakes
  • Peking Duck
  • Jasmine tea
  • Full body and foot massage
  • The Summer Palace
  • Wu-Mart
  • Dried Fish
  • Red bean latte, scone, and pastries
  • Signs written with poor English grammar
  • Fake Oreo switcharoo
  • Deer Park
  • Last-minute flight booking
  • Counterfeit 100 yuan bill
  • Chinese Rolex breaking. Twice.
  • Pearl Market aggressiveness
  • Dried persimmons
  • Flight delay and cancellation
  • Mr. Bond coffee
  • The bus ride to The Great Wall
  • Flight back home in economy where nothing worked (no movie, no dimming of lights, lack of food selection)
  • Being hassled everywhere to buy cheap crap

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

China is Great, but Doesn't Like Blogger

I just returned from a two week trip through China. I had hoped to blog a little bit along the way, but remembered once I sat down at the computer that China blocks the major blog sites.

It's difficult to sum up a trip to a (new-to-me) foreign country that's not a part of the Western world. You'll have to bear with me as I collect my thoughts (and photos) into a hopefully coherent summary.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Ready, Let's Go!

Take a roller coaster and cross it with a pinball machine. Then bring the temperature down below zero. Throw in a bunch of snow and ice. Next, toss a handful of uber-excited, incredibly strong dogs that live for nothing in life but to pull (something, anything, and everything), and you have the perfect recipe for dog sledding.

I think my friend and coworker Heather summed up our dog sledding trip quite well with two very different statements:
  • "what the hell [have I gotten myself] into"
  • "I was amazed at how relaxed I was upon completion of the experience...we spent 4 full days not thinking about work, regular-life obligations or anything else. It was all about the experience and getting from point A to point B. Such a clear mind is so hard to come-by and it was weird to experience it so fully for such an extreme amount of time."

Outward Bound led our 4 day dog sledding expedition through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. This was my second Outward Bound trip, and I can't speak highly enough about the organization and all of the instructors I've interacted with. They're incredibly knowledgeable, concerned about your safety and well being, and give their all to make sure you have an amazing experience. If you're ever considering an outdoor adventure, I highly recommend checking them out and the wide variety of trips they offer.

From sun-up to sun-down, we were active. Whether it was stomping through thigh-deep snow to find a good tree to saw down for firewood, or pushing and pulling with all our might to stop our sled from falling into a ravine, or chipping away at 24 inches of ice to get a water hole, we were working.

In the morning we boiled water, fed the dogs, took down camp, ate a little breakfast, and got the cross-country skiers off to break trail and set the pace for the day. The ones mushing were left to finish packing the sleds and harness the dogs.

The dogs were fantastic. Each had his or her own unique personality. Some were crazy, others shy. Some drank their soup as fast as their tongues could lap, while others didn't budge when you set a bowl in front of them. At night they would randomly start howling in unison, and then stop on a dime as if a conductor had flicked his wrist.

The one thing the dogs all had in common (for the most part) was their love for pulling. They would bark and whine if we stopped on the trail for more than 2 minutes. And getting them hitched in the morning was like trying to get a child to walk and not run on their first visit to Disneyland.

The Boundary Waters proved to be a perfect place for a dog sledding trip -- beautiful wide open lakes, tight portages for exciting ups, downs, and turns, and nobody for miles and miles. I'm happy to report that although we woke up to -10, we were never really cold. I did smash my pinky between the sled and a tree, but that was the worst of it for our group. Oh yes, and I (and the rest of my team) did hop in the frozen lake at the end our trip after getting in the sauna. There's nothing quite like it -- much like dog sledding -- and I encourage you to try both.