Thursday, January 10, 2013

A night at the museum

If you ever spend some days in Dandong City in Chinas Liaoning province and you don't know what to do except peeking over to North Korea, I can recommend a museum, which is one of a kind. Especially when it comes to its name: The Museum to Commemorate the War to Resist American Aggression and Aid Korea. Quite a long one, I have to say. And it sums up pretty much all that's to see there. I won't even start to discuss the political responsibility, who started the war and who committed war crimes and who is the winner. This is for historians to decide. When you stroll through the museum though, all these questions seem to be clearly answered. The Americans were the cruel enemy and the Chinese PLA was the hero and sole victor. To be fair, the museum is a nice place to spend some quiet hours away from the bustling Chinese reality. It is a little outside of the city on a small hill, offering nice views of the Korean landscape and the city itself (40.117104,124.358913 on Google Maps). 

So what do we see there? Weapons, vehicles, uniforms and even planes used in the war. Personal accounts from both Chinese and American soldiers. Miniature reconstructions of various battlefields and of course a huge gift shop.   

Watching the tanks and planes on silent display is a reminder, that not so long ago this part of China was stumbling from one war into the next one. The WWII, the Chinese Civil War and only a few years later the Korean War. 
Anyway I definitely recommend this place, even for Americans and Canadians, whose parents or grandparents fought in the Korean war, just to get a different take on this conflict. Seeing for oneself, that the Chinese also suffered a lot, losing almost 150 000 men in the conflict. A conflict which casts its long shadow up until today. Looking over to North Korea from the entrance gate renders this last statement pretty real.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Nostalgic dining in Dandong

Eating out in China is always interesting and sometimes surprising. Take this one time when my wife's family decided to head north of Dandong to have dinner at a small farm, that was transformed into a restaurant/museum. Every party has their own private room, decorated in Chinese cultural revolution style. While you wait you stroll around the museum, displaying various stuff from the cultural revolution.

It's a sprawling place, so there is a lot to see. Especially the shoes and uniforms from the revolution and the Korean War are impressive, adding to the special air of this place. 

There's food of course. Rustic, rural Northern Chinese food. So totally different what you would expect from your regular Chinese restaurant. Silkworm and chicken-head soup are among the delicacies. My personal favorite though was the tasty blood sausage with cabbage and Tofu. The Tofu is soaked with the cooked cabbage broth creating an interesting and spongy sensation!

You can find this place just north of Dandong, the location on Google Maps: 40.184078,124.357241.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Beijing by bus and subway - 1994 vs. today

In 1994 I stayed in Beijing for a few months to study Chinese at the Beijing Yuyan Xueyuan (Foreign Languages University 北京语言学院). It was an interesting time. First time in China, living my daily life in this enormous city.  Years later, in 2011 I went back to Beijing only to find myself completely lost. Nothing was, where I expected it to be. Whole parts of the city vanished and gave way to shiny new sparkling skyscrapers. Even my University was just wiped and rebuilt somewhere else.  The wonderful Kunming Lake moved from the suburbs (1994) to the city center nowadays. Four ring-roads turned into seven. I couldn’t believe it. In North America or Europe the cities basically stayed the same in terms of size and overall orientation during these 17 years.
I tried to find the original patch of land, where the University was located. That was the plan. Easier said than done. Back in 1994 I had to take the ring subway line “2” to Xizhimen and board Bus 375 to the University. The bus would continue to Kunming Lake. Just north of it was a small factory and behind that just farmland. I would walk for a few minutes past the factory to find a quarter of small hutongs, narrow street alleys with small houses to get some cheap food and chat with the locals. The area around Xizhimen was dirty and chaotic, which I actually liked. There were only two subway lines, the ring line 2, and line 1 from Xidan  to Pingguoyuan. You would walk into the station, scramble with dozens of Chinese in front of the ticket office, hand it over to on of the unfriendly ladies, that would let you pass to the platform. The trains had rubber tires and were powered by diesel engines. It was dirty, noisy and not at all crowded. At least in my memory it was OK.
The bus old and in fact crowded. Everybody spat on the floor and the smell was excruciating.  It was always a tough challenge to get out of the bus.

All that was back then. This time, when I first went down to the closest subway station close to my relatives near Sihui station, I had to familiarize myself with all these new lines. Unbelievable. Within not even 20 years 13 new lines. I’ve never experienced so many people in a train. OK, the tickets look nicer now, plastic cards with a network map on the back. Security is also tighter nowadays, everybody has their luggage screened. Fine. But the people! Surprisingly a lot of foreigners too. Back in 1994 there simply where no foreigners. Step away from the main tourist traps,  and you’re a curiosity. Nowadays you see the as regular commuters in the trains and no-one cares. The trains and platforms are incredibly clean and nice looking. When you look outside the window, video scenes and commercials are displayed on the walls while the train is moving. Again, I’ve never seen something like that. Finally I got off at Xizhimen station. At least the 375 was still operating. I quickly noticed, that it roughly was following its 1994 route. OK it was full, but not so bad. I couldn’t remember anything. The area completely changed, no farmland, no hutongs and  no memories. I got off at Kunming Lake and after a long walk took the new subway back to my place. Baffled, I asked my wife how the Chinese handle the speed their cities and neighborhoods are changing.  They adjust quickly. The former inhabitants of a hutong now life in one skyscraper. Different setting, same people. They squeeze into the subway instead of the bus. They buy property where they can afford it. 20 years ago near the 4th ring, now near the 6th.  Just go with the flow.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

5 things I learned from watching "Fei Cheng Wu Rao"

There is this hugely popular dating show on Chinese Television called "Fei Cheng Wu Rao 非诚勿扰" or "If you are not the one" dubbed into English. Every Sunday evening my wife watches it, and nothing can distract her from following it closely. I join her, because watching it is entertaining and so different from our dating shows to the point, where I cannot believe what I am seeing. OK this is how it works.
24 women sit in a half circle on the stage. One guy after another emerges and talks to the hosts, presents his life, his work, his hobbies and his friends. Every woman has a turned on light in front of her, which they turn off when they lose interest in the poor guy. The first thing he has to do after entering the scene and introducing himself is choose one of the girls as his favorite. Then the first video session starts. He shows a video, where he shows his work and  his hobbies, giving a general idea about his life. After that the girls ask questions about the video. The second video session features his friends telling the world how great and unique and successful the candidate is. The second question and answer game follows until no light remains on, or the time expires. When the time's over, and the one girl, that he chose at the beginning still has her light on, everything is clear. They go home together. Usually no light remains on, but sometimes a few are still there, and the guy has to make a decision. He can either choose one of the remaining girls, or he insists on asking his primary choice out. When she says no, he has to leave alone. So far so good. Most of the time all lights go out. Since all the girl return every week, they wait for their perfect guy, fair enough I say.
These are the 5 main observations I made during watching a lot of these shows:

  1. Most girls turn off the lights during the second video session, ESPECIALLY when the guy has a female   friend talking about him. It's always the same thing. His friends smile into the camera, talking this poor guy up, and as soon as a girl starts to talk, you can see the lights pop away. Having female friends really doesn't impress Chinese girlfriends/wives a lot!
  2. The guys really try super-hard to impress the girls with their job. Showing off ones financial potential really resides high on ever guy's priority list. And if they don't have a high paying job, they emphasize, well everything they can. For example once I saw a soldier, who worked hard during the big Sichuan earthquake. He tried heavily to capitalize on the girls emotions. He cried and played the emotion card maybe a little too much. I mean I admire him for trying so hard to save lives, but here you would expect him too be a little more modest. But maybe that's just me.
  3. A guy with limited earning potential has no chance to get a girl. If an artist or an outdoorsy guy would come to a dating show in the US or in Europe with a regular job, but cool and interesting hobbies, he would have his pick. At "Fei cheng wu rao" he has no chance. Zip. Zero. Nil. Forget it. Go home.
  4. Sometimes foreign guys try to impress the 24 girls. They stand almost no chance to succeed. I don't know why. Maybe the girls don't want to go for a foreigner on national TV. Not even a good job helps here.
  5. OK, this is a controversial one. If the guy can choose between two at the end, he will always pick the one with the bigger, well, you know what I mean. I am sorry, but it's true. I observed this quite a lot. Obviously this has nothing to to with Chinese men, but with men altogether.
I hope you understand that I don't believe Chinese men and women are shallow, which they are actually not. They are just way more practical than we are. Let me close with one of "Fei cheng wu rao's" most famous citations. A poor guy stands trial in front of the girls and he asks one of them:"Would you ride a bicycle with me on a date". She replies:"I would rather cry in a BMW".

Friday, July 27, 2012

Chinese Wraps

Another dish I really like is the Chinese version of a wrap. What is a wrap? Well you take a piece of flattened heated/baked dough and put food on it. Then you wrap it into a roll like shape and well you eat it. Very popular in Latin America but also anywhere else in the Western World it also has a Chinese representation. Since I don't really know its exact name and my wife is out of reach at the moment I label it the Chinese wrap. You can buy the dough at any Chinese shops, just microwave it and you're ready to go.
Put some meat sauce and onions on it first:

Then choose from a variety of stuffings to create you personal wrap experience:

I personally like eggs and shrimp to put into the wrap, but Beijing duck or tofu is also very popular. You wrap it into bite size rolls and you enjoy them:

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Mr. Lam takes us to the train station

In an earlier post I mentioned my wife's uncle Mr. Lam. who gets things done the classic Chinese way. This time I will describe how he accomplishes such a simple task like taking us to the train station. First things first. He has a friend who has a friend who works at the train station. This is important. You always need someone who knows someone in China. Without an extended social network you're basically lost in China. So when we approached the Beijing's Main Train Station I assumed we would park just outside it, unpack and head for the trains. No no, Mr. Lam knows someone. We were headed for a side street to find a closed iron gate with a armed guard. Mr. Lam shouted at him for a few minutes until the guard opened the gates and we could pass. I asked my wife what was going on. She told me, that her uncle threatened the guard with the name of his friend's friend. He would do this and that to him and he would lose his job until the guard gave up and let us through. As I mentioned in my earlier post, the guard didn't want to get into an open confrontation, because Mr. Lam appeared too mighty and too high up the ranks to risk anything.
We drove right next to the train, even before the train was open for the public. We unpacked and Mr. Lam spoke to the trains attendant to take good care of us. Well it was a nice and comfy 10 hours train ride, the attendant made sure, that we have everything...

Friday, July 13, 2012

1994 again. Yunnan bus travels.

Getting around China is not what it used today. So many new airports, high-speed trains and freeways are being constructed, that traveling in China is almost... Well almost like traveling in the US or Europe. Boring and normal. I still remember how difficult and inconvenient it was back in 1994 to get from Yunnan's capital Kunming to the wonderful city of Lijiang. It started with trying to find the correct bus in the chaotic bus station. Nothing written in English, no signs, no information, no-one who cared. The bus itself, an old Hungarian bus, with the seats removed and bunk beds installed. Between the top bunk and the roof virtually no space. The road was bumpy and winding. Today there is a new freeway connecting these city to cut the travel time roughly in half. Back then it was just crazy. The bus would go at about 40 mph. It took us 15 hours to make the approximately 350 miles with a lot of restroom stops and cigarette breaks. Well the fellows of the bus were kind enough, sharing their food and their stories. So everybody was in a good mood until the bus had to stop and some soldiers entered to check everybody's papers. Everybody went silent. The soldiers were obviously looking for somebody. When they approached me, I wanted to show them my passport, but they didn't care to take a look at it.
Since it was an overnight route I didn't see to much of the countryside until dusk, when we arrived at Dali. The old road from Dali to Lijiang features some spectacular views of the mountains. Once you climb up the last stretch of the winding road you catch the first glimpses of the Himalaya. Combined with Lijiangs old town and very friendly people it was the highlight of my first China travel back in 1994. I have never been there since, but I choose to believe that nothing changed in Lijiang and at least with the gorgeous vistas I am probably right.

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