Sunday, August 26, 2007

There's not a chance this can top Jon's last day in Hanoi

But it has been obscenely long since we've updated you, and for that we are sorry. Hello public, please forgive us. Also I (Amy) am technologically challenged and can't upload my photos, so you will have to imagine two extremely attractive, evenly tanned, experienced travelers. And then look for two confused awkwardly burnt giggling Americans dodging motorbikes. That would be us. I'll be the one with the hot sauce never more than an arm's length away.

While Jon was sweating (typical) and riding motorbikes (yikes), Halliday and I were making our way to Hoi An. We flew from Hanoi to Danang airport, notable as the landing place of the US military when they entered Vietnam, and also notable because if you say it several times fast it sounds like a twanging rubber band. danaaaaaang. We took a short ride from Danang to Hoi An (not to be confused with Hanoi, or An Hoi, directly across the river from Hoi An), and found ourselves at a cute little guest house we would call home for 3 nights. Our room had a balcony that overlooked the deck below and rice paddies beyond that. We ate breakfast on the deck each morning, including vietnamese heaven coffee...think hot equivalent of coffee ice cream socially acceptable to consume at 7am.

Hoi An was a delightful little town, full of charm and thankfully not quite so full of motorbikes. In fact, there are signs all over the historic district downtown (probably a total of 4 blocks) noting that the area was open only to "pedestrians and primitive vehicles." We took the pedestrian route the first day to wander around and explore, but decided to step it up a notch on the second day. We rented some primitive bicycles for the day (10,000 dong and we were off), think huffy circa 1980 complete with flourescent spray paint job. Best 70 cents ever spent. We spent much of the next two days pedaling back and forth to the beach, about a 20 minute ride away. The ride was well worth it for the near empty stretch of perfect beach with warm water and street food to be had right in the vicinity. An exceptionally nice trip was the one we made at 6am on our final morning for one last dip in the sea. Many of you know how I feel about early mornings (um, they're sacred I love them), and that ranks near if not at the top of my list for best ways to kick off a day. Anyway, enough gloating. Point being once we had bicycles, we were basically locals. Except for the being white and the inability to stop and start without nearly toppling.

What am I forgetting? oh the food. Hoi An has two specialties we particularly enjoyed. The first is Cao Lau, a dish of noodles, roast pork, leafy greens, and often shrimp and/or little hard-boiled eggs of unknown origin. We sampled this on 6 inch stools at several different spots, and found each slightly different but all delicious. The second Hoi An dish is the white rose (I'm sure it has a vietnamese name, but after 10 days here I'm still not quite sure how to say "thank you," so we'll just stick with the english), a shrimp sort of dumpling surrounded by rice noodley dough in the shape of a rose. Cover with roasted garlic chips, dunk in hot sauce, and you've got yourself quite the snack.

After two days of beach-going, town exploring, and yes, occasional tailoring (naturally I selected black and brown items, take that beach), we decided to spend our final day getting some culture. We took a bus to see My Son, a nearby site of relics from the Champa Kingdom. This was billed as a sort of mini Angor Wat, and since we don't have time to make it to Cambodia, we thought this was a great substitute. As it turned out, the relics had been mostly destroyed by American bombing, and those that remained were a mini mini mini Angor Wat. Nonetheless, it was an interesting trip, both for the quick history lesson and for the pleasure of seeing a couple in matching tie-dyed blue ankle length skirts and white tank tops conducting some sort of amateur photo shoot.

We sadly said goodbye to our beach town and flew, after a short delay in Danaaaaaang, to Ho Chi Minh City on friday. We weren't quite sure what to expect here other than a large city no one seems to love, but figured if nothing else there would be some good food. Correct. We got in around 9:30pm and quickly headed out to a do-it-yourself beef barbeque place highly recommended by our guide books. It did not disappoint. They brought out a plate of raw beef marinating in garlic and garlic and also garlic, as well as an open barbeque. We have decided that interactive eating makes everything more fun (see, e.g., dipping, rolling, grilling on open flames), and this was no exception. Delicious.

We declared yesterday consumerism day and hit up the shopping near our hotel, and when the daily monsoon struck around 5pm, opted for a cocktail at the 23rd floor of the nearby sheraton. Though the day was a pleasure (of course, is there another kind here?), it didn't seem all that Vietnamese. Yes, I just accused Vietnam's largest city of not being Vietnamese enough. Luckily we remedied that assessment at dinner. After rejecting two perfectly clean and nice restaurants (snooze), we wandered past a place full of Vietnamese people, not a whitey in sight. Perfect, we thought.

We were then presented with menus. Curiously, these menus had english translations. Also curiously, the first page included various preparations of turtle blood. Hmm, no gracias. Next page? Snake heads. Boiled, grilled, in hot pots, with tamarind sauce, etc. Holy yikes. Other options included goat and god knows what else. We selected some seemingly benign options: fried rice (pretty good, prefer not to think about what might have been mixed in), chicken (sounds better than it looked), and soft shell crab (eek). What the meal lacked in style and taste it made up for in comedy. By the time our check arrived we both had our feet off the ground for fear some of the still-living snakes might slither out. Asia. First the yak, now this.

We're off to the airport shortly to fly to Bangkok, so today's recap will be a quick one. We got up early and went to the War Remnants Museum. This museum is one of the city's main tourist attractions, and is difficult to summarize in just a couple of sentences. However one-sided it may be (used to be called the museum of american war crimes, or something along those lines), it was sobering to say the least, and left us both a bit shell-shocked. And maybe it was our imagination, but it felt like many of the other visitors to the museum, particularly the children, were eyeing us with particular attention as Americans. Not quite sure how to feel about that yet. Anyway, we're glad we went, and won't soon forget the horrific images that fill up the exhibits.

For fear of leaving on a debbie downer note, I'll continue...We've loved our time in Vietnam, and can't wait to move on to Thailand. More from there as we round out the adventure. Sorry for the lack of pictures. And to Josh, EBs, and Jon, come back.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Hello, My Name is "Table for One"

Fresh from our celebration of Halliday's birthday last night (including shrimp and sweet potato pancakes, grilled shrimp with lemongrass, pork and mushroom rice pancake, pork with noodles, snail soup, and a little tofu thrown in -- all with matching Halida t-shirts), Team Asia called it splitsville again. I (Jon), sent Halliday and Amy on their way to Hoi An, HCM City, and the beaches of Thailand. Meanwhile began my 72 hour solo journey back to the U States with a full, and final, day in Hanoi.

Finally free from the restraint of co-travellers, I let loose and broke all the rules. Here's a photo essay of my free-wheeling ways:

Off to an early start, I began the day as usual with a stroll around Ho Hoan Kiem Lake. No sign of tortoises . . . or scammers.

Onward to St. Joseph's church for morning Mass.

Craving a salad for lunch . . . lucky for me leafy vegetables are the treat of choice at Bun Bo Nam Bo.

Who says Americans can't pull off the half-shirt bellyroll?

Missing DC, Potomac Restaurant on the shores of Ho Tay Lake makes me feel at home.

At the seat of power -- the Presidential Palace -- but namedropping Bob Shrum and John Kerry doesn't get me in the door.

Feeling like Tom Cruise, they pulled out all the stops for me and cleared out the plaza in front of Ho Chi Minh's masoleum ala Times Square in Vanilla Sky.

Ngac Ho Market for Slunch (second lunch).

To tired to walk on my little legs all the way to Nha Tho? No problem. I'll just motorscooter across town for only 10,000 dong. That's me in the rearview mirror wondering if I could have put that US$00.75 to better use.

Look mom, no hands!

Holy hell I'm sweaty. Cool down with some iced Vietnamese coffee.

Sleepy after my busy afternoon, I'll take a short nap under my fancy 'ella.

What better way to wrap up my stay in Hanoi than with a Bia Hoi (or three).

A little tipsy from my beer break and eager to extend my stay in Vietnam, I inquire about a position as a Summer Associate.

Learning from the best, the Socialists sure know how to stage an election!

Dinner time. I could really get into a yakburger about now . . . but I suppose I can make do with pork patties in broth.

Night falls the same way morning begins at Ho Hoan Kiem Lake . . . still no tortoises or offers to sing karoake for US$100.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Just Another Day at the Cloud Yard

The first of two back-to-back overnight train rides under our belt, the three of us hopped in a bus (at around 5am) for the short trip from the Lao Cai train station to the village of Sapa. We arrived in town before most shops, restaurants, etc., opened (especially because it was Sunday), but tenacious travellers that we are, we camped in front of the famous Baguette et Chocolate. Homegrown in Hanoi, B&C is one of the capital's most famous patisseries. We were sad to discover that the Hanoi location was under construction. Thank heaven we travelled to Sapa to try out the second branch! It was worth the wait (and 10 hour trek) for yummy coffee, bonbons, and fresh fruit.

Our morning was off to a great start. In the distance, we spotted a high peak with a radio tower on top. And what else does Team OurGreatAsianAdventure do when there's a mountain/hill/precipice with evidence of human activity at its peak? Climb it, naturally. So we did.

And then we fell for one of the two greatest blunders. The first of which is never start a land war in Asia (learned); the second is never hike to the top of a mountain expecting to see only a radio tower. Instead, the Sapa mountains treated us to all sorts of high-flying excitement: mountain ostriches (no kidding), a mile-high city blasting the lastest in Northwest Vietnamese techno, and a "Cloud Yard" (which is exactly what its name suggests . . . totally incomprehensible).

Ready for second-breakfast, we left Cloud Yard for a bowl of pho bo (beef noodle soup). As we saw no cows and many water buffalo, we're thinking it was "bo" in name only. Stomachs warmed, we left for our second adventure of the day -- a 3km hike to the nearby village of Cat Cat. Unlike most of our hikes, this one was entirely downhill, at an approximate grade of 59321043 degrees. Other than a small run in with a flock(?) of goats, the trip down was uneventful. The trip back to Sapa (think 59321043 degree grade, only this time straight up) was roughly the same, but a bit slower (and interrupted by a short break for red bean/green pea/coconut ice cream). That said, we've had to adapt our motto "No Shame in China" to account for the buckets of sweat Vietnam has squeezed out of us.

To replenish our fluids, we spent our last hour in Sapa sipping Bia Hoi. Our whirlwind tour of Sapa drained us a bit, but we're glad we went. The city and mountains were beautiful, our hikes fun, and Amy was only hoodwinked into purchasing "local" goods once.

A final note: For some reason we can post on the blog but not read it. To that end, we were able to see that Josh and EB posted a last entry before heading back to the U States, but couldn't read what they wrote -- we're glad that had such a great trip and were sorely missed here. Miss you guys -- see you in Beantown!

We're off to board our train back to Hanoi. Our usual hotel had no available rooms for tomorrow night, so we treated ourselves to a small taste of luxury by booking a room at the Hilton. And before Ron gets any wild ideas, it's name is simply: Hilton Hanoi Opera. Tintin, not Jane Fonda, appears to be the main celebrity.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Sayonara from Team Tokyo

As we (EB & Josh) write this, we are sitting on the first leg of our journey home, the flight from Tokyo to Dallas where we will hopefully go through customs, be permitted back into the country and then wing our way the rest of the journey home to NYC. Before we say our goodbyes and hand Our Great Asian Adventure over to the remaining explorers, we must wrap-up our last day and a half in Tokyo for you, our ever-curious public.

Friday morning we opted out of our usual mysterious ticket machine bowl of ramen at the subway station and instead immediate headed over to Roppongi to see the newest mixed-use mega-development to hit the scene. Following on the footsteps of Roppongi Hills, Tokyo Midtown is a giant complex of towers with office space, hotel, shmancy residences, a cultural facility, a concert hall and an enormous galleria with the nicest shops and restaurants. Though everything appeared to be New York-themed or inspired (bagels, Madison Park hot dogs—though in Japan they are a breakfast food, Gramercy bar), the complex was well bigger and put the Time Warner Center, probably New York’s closest comparison, to shame. We meandered through levels B2 (two underground) to 2F and crossed some skybridges—highly connected as are all things in Tokyo—before grabbing a breakfast of a French pastry, an onigiri and a green tea latte. Very New York meets Tokyo.

The choice then was to take the subway or the lengthy walk to our next stop and, though we weighed the options, we opted for walking in the hopes that our last full day could put us over the 300 miles walked this trip. We’re marginally crazy about the walking thing, but it’s the only way we justify the massive consumption we also fill our days with. Heading through Roppongi to Shibuya, we saw a couple residential areas we had never seen before and, of course, some luxury boutiques along the way. We stopped at a sweet housewares shop in the hopes of picking up something for our new digs in Cambridge, but when the tiny box for cufflinks was $150 (Vietnam crew—that’s 90 million dong for you) we opted against it.

Once in Shibuya we realized we were right smack in the middle of lunch hour and though we had a spot picked out in Shinjuku, we passed a bustling ramen spot that looked too good to be true. And indeed it was. Opting for the tried and true technique of this vacation—we’ll have what they’re having—we selected the same ticket from the vending machine from the man just before us and sat at waited for whatever it was that would appear. Scary fish? Animal innards? Luckily not. Instead what came was an enormous bowl of noodles with tender roast pork and bean sprouts. It was fabulous. Second only perhaps to the world renowned roast pork of my grandmother Babi, this may have been the most delicious roasted pig I have ever had the pleasure to consume.'=

Full of pork and soup, we quickly rushed to the subway to get to Takashimaya Times Square, the enormous department store in Shinjuku with the massive food court in the basement. But I thought you just ate delicious pork soup?, you say. Well this was our last full day in Tokyo and we had no time for pansy-ing out on our meals. We were headed for tonkatsu, fried pork served over rice. Since the last time we had been to Takashimaya things had changed a bit at the tonkatsu counter and though there was no longer any formal seating, we took our lunch boxes to go and sat on some stools near shoppers waiting for seating at another basement luncheon spot. You will perhaps not be surprised to learn that heavily breaded fried pork is tasty.

Nearly defeated by our two rapid-fire pork deliciousnesses, we headed upstairs to the Tokyu Hands department store portion of Takashimaya. Tokyu Hands is a “creative life store” where you can get everything from plates to exercise equipment to construction wear, and we checked out every level. Though we aspired mostly to look, some hilarious misuse of English or otherwise wacky Japanese-ism got us on most every floor.

Our shopping done, we headed back to Shibuya to get thoroughly lost walking the curving, flashing light-filled, retail-overloaded streets along with all the highly made up hipsters teens and twenty-somethings of Tokyo. We did the requisite scramble as we crossed the street and wished that we had something that fun at the corner of Union Square and 14th Street.

Having asked at least 5 people for directions help (love those Tokyo addresses), we eventually found a recommended izakaya famous for its use of the leek. Yes, the weak onion. This restaurant prides itself on using leek in every dish, and several dishes on the menu were exclusively leek. The premise was odd, but the charcoal-grilled leek with miso sauce and the agedashi tofu were not. We also tried a couple of sakes and pretended to read the bottles but we don’t read Japanese so that was a foolish exercise. Josh took such a liking to the place that we engaged in a serious negotiation with the host to see if he could buy the t-shirt worn by the waiters, but it was to no avail. I guess, as with most things, we’ll just have to wait for that Japanese fashion trend to make its way to the US in a couple of years.

Having had an appetizer nosh, we headed back to the hotel. Before we had left for the day, we gave the concierge two restaurants we were interested in and asked that she make a reservation at either. We were amused, though not totally unsurprised, to return to a message waiting for us that they were unable to make a reservation at either because, naturally, both were closed for the holiday. How foolish of us. We selected yet a third choice, open for some reason (perhaps they have no house at the beach and had alienated all their fancier friends), changed and went back to Roppongi.

The restaurant, called Shinju, turned out to be a huge hit. It was an upmarket izakaya serving beautiful dishes ranging from grilled meats to sashimi to rice and udon noodles. We sat at the bar and Josh got to use his favorite Japanese expression (spelled phonetically): “O sosume wa non deska?” which means “what do you recommend?" Their recommendations served us well and in addition to the treats listed above we had a fried tofu dish, not so dissimilar from agedashi tofu, that may have taken the tofu cake for the vacation. It was a lovely place and an excellent meal to cap off a great trip. Though it was a Friday night, we opted against serious clubbing in Roppongi and instead headed home around 11ish to pack and prepare for our next morning’s big adventure (slash who am I kidding? We don’t go clubbing and the types we saw out in Roppongi were totally the Tokyo B+T crowd. We were far too New York snooty/sleepy for that).

So that brings us to this morning. 4:30 this morning, to be precise, when our alarm went off to rouse us for our second attempt at the Tsujiki fish market. And to keep you in suspense no longer, as I know many of you have been watching closely since our failed attempt two years ago….Yes—the market was open and we finally got to see it in action. This market must be seen to be believed. It is a giant series of open-air warehouses filled with stalls selling some fish you recognize and some that appears to have only been seen by human eyes on Planet Earth, the BBC documentary series. These things were amazing and bizarre. The fish sellers speed around the market at breakneck speeds in these bizarre motorized wagons, carting boxes of fish, shrimp, clams, lobters, crabs, eels—you name it, they sell it. Though it was great to see all the fish on offer, the highlight of the morning had to be the tuna auction when hundreds of merchants gather together to bid on the day’s tuna catch. If you are born and raised in New York City, you may believe that tuna is a round fish that has a metal can exterior and that pops when you open it. Interestingly enough, that’s not totally accurate. Tuna is actually an enormous fish and at the auction today roughly 200 such animals, weighing between 80 and 700 pounds, were bought and sold. The 700 pound fish were easily the largest thing I have ever seen, except perhaps for the fake blue whale at the Museum of Natural History, and these were cooler because they were lying on the ground next to me and about to become my breakfast. That’s because, other than the sight of exotic fish and the thrill of the fish auction, the other highlight of Tsujiki is the unbelievably fresh sushi that is available for breakfast. The queues start forming around 5:00, so we picked a spot with a reasonable line and waited for our bowl of breakfast goodness. We opted for chirashi (raw fish over a bowl of rice), mine coming with meguro and toro and Josh’s coming with six or seven different fish. It was extremely fresh – not surprising, since the fish are basically flopping around next door in the market, and it was by far the best breakfast chirashi we’d ever had. OK, also only.

Raw fish consumed before 7:00 am, we headed back to the hotel and off to the train bound for Narita airport. Which is roughly how we got to where we are now, somewhere over the Pacific without any land in sight. (I’m not that worried though because I feel pretty confident if we need to make an emergency landing that the island from Lost will appear and Matthew Fox will be there to greet us).

And so with this, our final blog posting, Team Tokyo sends our goodbye and thanks to you our great readers. We had an amazing trip and loved reporting on it to you in real time. Special thanks also to our many commenters and especially our grandmothers, who we understand have been following our exploits closely by receiving the print edition of the blog. We also have to send special love and wishes for continued fun to our former travel mates as they continue their Asian adventures through Vietnam, Thailand or (if you’re Jon) the airport of every major Asian capital city. We had a fabulous time with you all and look forward to reading about (and commenting on) your adventures through the blog. And now…on to our next great adventure!


Now that our technical difficulties have been resolved and our competition relocated stateside (safe travels ebs and josh, asia misses you), it seems the responsibility to blog is squarely ours. And blog we shall.

I (amy) am currently horizontal in a 6x5 cube with halliday and jon. Elaborate? Ok. We're in an overnight sleeper train on our way to Sapa, a town in northwestern vietnam we plan to learn about sometime before we arrive. It's supposed to be beautiful and we're hoping the time there warrants the back-to-back overnight sleeper plan. I take that back, we're finding this plan hilarious and it's already worth the trip. For example, when we arrived at the assigned platform, our train had cars 1-7 and 9-11. Which car are we on? 8, obviously. The solution? Wait for an incoming train with a car 8 to arrive, split our train, and add the substitute car 8 to the middle. Inform as few people as possible, insert soundtrack (vietnamese opera, we think, being played from somewhere), and throw in backpackers. Allow to boil.

Actually it was less dramatic, and resolved fairly quickly given the number of moving parts (literally. And pun embarrassingly intended.).

This morning we visited Ho Chi Minh. Having missed Mao in Beijing, this was our last chance to catch an embalmed communist leader, and it was, well, a trip to a masoleum. I'm not sure what adjective to go with. It was interesting to see the number of vietnamese who turned out early on a saturday morning (lots), and also to note the amount of respect and attention he draws even today. And then it was 9:45am and we had a full day ahead of us.

We headed to the temple of literature, followed by some delicious rice pancake snacky things near our hotel (sub 2 dollars for the 3 of us), and lots of other fun. What fun, amy? Well I would love to tell you but I'm afraid I will lose service if I don't post soon, so an update will have to follow.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Oh Yes, We Remember Him . . .

(Ed. -- Our techinical difficulties have been solved. Remember that these events occurred before those in the earlier entry. Please read in either order with that that in mind.]

You might not know it from the blog (slash we're totallyirresponsible) but when team China (one team one dream) split up, Halliday, Amy and I (Jon) jaunted off to Hanoi. As I write, I'msitting seaside on the roof of an Asian "junk" after a morning of swimming, kayaking, and snacking on dragon fruit in Halong Bay (more below). To get to Hanoi, we flew through Hong Kong -- famous for itsairport shopping -- and used up all our extra Chinese yuan/rmb/zlotys on snacks and American fashion and gossip rags (to catch up on Bradgelina and for photos of clothes to show our tailor in Hanoi).

We spent our first evening in Hanoi doing two things: 1) dodgingtraffic and 2) eating. Once we learned that the trick to crossingstreets in a country with no stop signs/lights and no traffic rules isthat motorbikers also wanted to dodge pedestrians, we were on our way to a spectacular feast. Conveniently (because we are indecisive andalso cannot speak the language and are scared to order without Joshhelping us), Vietnamese restaurants only serve a single dish. In thiscase, the restaurant gave us a card that made as much clear: "We serveonly grilled fish.". Jean Georges Vonvonvonvonbullet, eat your heartout. Grilled fish was one of the best dishes we've had (though we missed EB and Josh terribly). After dinner (maybe it was before), weexplored the lake near our hotel for a bit and then fell asleep -- ok,passed out -- leaving our clothes and the lights on.

We proclaimed the next day in Hanoi "consumerism day" and set our sights on having glasses made (pun embarrassingly intended) and buyingfabric for suits, shirts, skirts, dress-shirts, pants, trenchcoats, and anything else we happened to see on an attractive magazine model.The fabric market was overheated and insane. But the language barrier didn't stop us from negotiating for dirt cheap prices of moderatelyattractive pieces of cloth. Fabric in hand, we grabbed a quick bowl of pho and then rushed to the tailor to have our dreams sewed together from whole cloth. The experience at the tailor was comparable to Shanghai, with a few subtledifferences. For example, when I (still Jon) requested my suit be"skinny" and demonstrated how I wanted my pants to fall on my hips and thighs, the seamstress didn't hesistate for a second to reject mydemand: "I'm not making you women's pants.". Next, I gave her a pairof Josh's pants that he'd asked to be copied. He wanted only two things -- that they be lined and that the pocket have another pocketinside it to hold his cell phone. Oh no, how would we explain"pocket-in-a-pocket" to our tailor. If only our whole experience could be that easy. "I remember this guy," the tailor said. "A 'pocket-in-a-pocket,' I know how to do that now. Do you want one in your pants, too." Nope, I shook my head. Not a chance. (But really, Josh, I think it's nice -- not to mention practical).

We Are Having Technical Difficulties . . . Or How the Dog Ate Our Homework

After spending two days on an Asian Junk in Halong Bay writing a blog entry about our first few days in Hanoi, we appear to have technical difficulties and the post about our journey from Shanghai to Hanoi through Hong Kong and the delicious food we ate and clothes we had along the way has vanished. We are confident, however, that we can recover it and will post it soon (we hope) albeit out of order. For once, this poor execution was not my (Jon's fault).

Meanwhile, we'd like to tell you about the days following the days that we blogged about but cannot find, and in particular our trip to Halong Bay, which we've decided is part of the Gulf of Tonkin (where we sank no ships and passed no resolutions). Spending several hours at the fabric market and at the tailor (yes, Josh, you are getting a "pocket-in-a-pocket" in your pants and yes, they remembered exactly who you were when I asked for it) got our appetites ready for another delicious Vietnamese dinner. We'd only had two bowls of pho and a pork and quail (fine, pigeon) egg bun, so we were ravenous. Without the guidance of Josh and EB, we were on our own to select a delightful local place. Which is why it was a mistake when we settled on the highly recommended "Hanoi Inn" from Lonely planet. It might as well have been the Inn at Little Washington. We walked up the stairs to see nothing but American and European faces looking back at us. On another trip, that would be fine. But not on Our Great Asian Adventure. We promptly asked for a menu and looked at the offerings. Hamburger, steak frites, meatloaf, and duck a l'orange, but no sign of anything Vietnamese. And so we fled as fast as possible.

Instead, we found in our Luxe Guide what sounded to be the grittiest, noisiest, least-likely-to-be-overrun by people like us restaurant we could. Success: only locals, not a white-y in the bunch. We're not sure what the name in Vietnamese was, but we're sure it translates to "Banana Leaf Cockroach Heaven." Yes, the floor was covered in both. (We actually only saw one tiny bug). We stuck with the motto "It only matters that the cooking surfaces are clean" and dug in to the simple beef, noodle, peanut, sprout, hot sauce, leafy vegetable. Once again, Hanoi didn't let us down. We loved every bite (leafy vegetable included). Satisfied with our delightful find, we followed the locals in our restaurant to another nearby establish that served what looked like Capri-Sun: unidentifiable juice in a plastic bag rubber-banded around a straw. Turns out it was fresh sugar cane juice. Yum and yum.

The next morning (Thursday) we were finally off to Halong Bay. It was beautiful slash our van ride out included as comical an array of visitors as we could have hoped for. First, there was the snooty pair of Frenchies who were living in Bali and taking a weekend in Hanoi. Next, four British boys from "outside Manchester" who claimed to have just graduated university but didn't look a day over 12. Did we mention how they said Chinese and Vietnamese women were "fantastic"? The rest of their tale is not safe for work, or for blogging. Sharing the front seat was a Vietnamese couple on their honeymoon. Cute. The groom had relocated to Colorado and the bride was from Saigon and spoke no English. The perfect pair, except when the groom introduced himself, told us about their 500 person wedding, and added without a second thought: "We'll have to spend the next few weeks getting to know each other." Make of that what you will. Finally, our tour guide brought his father -- age 46.

Halong Bay only got better from there. Tasty seafood, beautiful scenery, great company, and hilarious co-travellers. And in keeping with our style, we saw a pagoda on the top of a mountain and, naturally, climbed it to see the view.

As Amy put it this evening after we returned, drank 3 bia hoi a piece and ate one kilo of lychees among the three of us, "So many great things have happened today it doesn't even feel like the same day."

We're back in Hanoi tonight and tomorrow, leave for Sapa tomorrow night (on the border between China and Vietnam -- yes, mom, we will watch for ice patches and landmines) and return Monday.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Turning Japanese, I really think so

In many things, we are lucky. Lucky to have such loving families, great friends, and one another as stalwart travel companions. Lucky to have jobs/graduate schools waiting for us upon our return and a lovely apartment in Cambridge. Lucky to be back in Tokyo, a city we love, for yet a second (or in Josh’s case third) time. One thing we are NOT lucky in, however, is major Japanese holidays. For, as happened to us two years ago when we were in Tokyo in March, it is yet again a major national holiday—only this time for a week instead of a day—and nearly everything you would want to visit or place you would want to eat is closed. OK, that is a minor exaggeration, but we have gotten very good (speaking and reading absolutely no Japanese at all) at understanding the signs on the doors of cute little bars and restaurants that we’d love to visit that say something to the effect of: “Down the shore with the fam. Happy memorial day week. Won’t be back until Monday, but that’s OK because probs no one is left in the city to read this. Only losers and Americans would be in Tokyo this week.” The real kicker is the Tsujiki fish market, a requisite stop on every foodies itinerary, that was basically all Josh wanted to see when we were here last (closed) and may now only be open Saturday morning before our flight. So you can bet we’ll be there at 5:00 AM Saturday before we head back to the states.

Suffice it to say, in spite of the hilarity of the holiday closures, we have constructed a busy couple of days for ourselves here. Having been to Tokyo before allows us to focus our energies nearly exclusively on eating and shopping since everything we “had” to do (that wasn’t closed) we did the first time we were here. I know, I know, even in cities we have never been to before we focus exclusively on eating and shopping. But humor me, OK?

The morning view at the Park Hotel yesterday (Wednesday) was lovely as always, though the haze that portended a 100 degree day ahead blocked the view of Mt. Fuji. We headed out and immediately ran into a Doughnut Plant New York shop – one of our faves from a tiny shop on the Lower East Side that has made a huge splash in Japan. When we were here two years ago, we made a special trip to find a Doughnut Plant in a random residential neighborhood; now, apparently there are eight around the city. Clearly the Japanese recognize a delicious doughnut when they see one. Our carb fix met, we joined the Japanese masses at the subway station downstairs and ordered a bowl of ramen from a ticket-dispensing vending machine that gave us no indication of what we’d get. So we crossed our fingers, got a number and brought it inside to the man, who made us a lovely bowl of soba, tofu and scallions.

Two breakfasts down, we hopped on the Yamanote line for Ebisu and wandered through Daikanyama, a sweet residential area we had particularly liked the last time we were here. We did a bit of shopping first in the giant mall complex attached to the subway station and then braved the streets. In our walking, we even stumbled upon the French bakery we had visited before, and so naturally that required us to get a chocolate croissant as a reward for such good location finding. (Breakfast tally currently at 3). We continued our wandering in spite of the astronomical heat through Ebisu and down to Meguro, where we hoped to try a tonkatsu (fried pork) restaurant that had been closed the last time we were here. Lucky for us, closed again through the rest of the week. Fortunately, the kind folks at Skadden Tokyo had given us recommendations for kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi right nearby, so we found the restaurant in the train station and took our place at the counter. It was such fun—conveyor belt sushi may be my (EB’s) all-time favorite way of eating—and the sushi was great. It was a total hit. In addition to the food, we enjoyed watching very small local ladies scarf very large nigiri sushi in a single bite.

Already in the train station, we took a stroll through the supermarket (located one level below-ground, of course; highlights included a $50 bunch of grapes) and then got back on the subway for Harajuku. Yes, like the Gwen Stefani song. There we walked down the main street and enjoyed the extremely questionable fashion choices of the Harajuku set. Right now, girls are into maid costumes and things that make them look like Little Bo Peep, boys are in flavors of punk and bizarre reimaginings of urban wear. From there, we cruised the main drag of Omotesando, which I describe as the SoHo of Tokyo: big fancy shops with funky architecture—think Prada store on Mercer Street. Keeping with that theme, at the end of Omotesando is the fabulous Herzog and de Meuron Prada store that is its own giant glass building with diamond shaped windows bulging in all directions. We feigned interest in the absurd clothes and walked through the store, clearly sticking out like the sweaty, unfashionable two-some we are. We knew we were outclassed when sitting outside a young couple drove up in their Mazerati, handed the keys to the Prada doorman and had him park the car for them so they could shop. Overwhelmed by our own inadequacies, we took back to walking, this time through the lovely homes of Aoyama. We stopped for a macha (green tea) soft serve ice cream, which provided us with sustenance to continue the walking.

One observation about Tokyo—teenage girls will queue up for anything and then shriek. We have observed variations on this theme now no less than seven separate times in two days – once in two separate instances directly across the street from one another. Not once have we been able to figure out the cause of all the hubbub. A new store opening? A Japanese boy-band-heartthrob? Cash prizes for winningest maid costume? Like so much about Tokyo, the trend is clear but the meaning remains obscure.

As it grew dark, we headed to Yurakucho and to an izakaya we had read about under the train tracks, notable for being run by an English expat. We had a nice chat with him and even nicer plates of agedashi tofu, fried chicken and sautéed mushrooms. The food was great, but because he spoke English it didn’t count as a real Japanese meal, so we checked out various other little yakitori like places under the train tracks (nerd city planner note—there were a ton of restaurants under the tracks that seemed popular and super successful. Clearly something we need more of in NYC. But the noise of the train overhead was sort of a pain. Perhaps if we has elevated train tracks but no trains. Like an elevated park or something. That would be perfect.) We had some beer and skewers and with eating occasion number seven for the day under our belt, we headed home.

Today began much the same way, with a pastry and a bowl of soup from a shop with the mystery ticket machine (this time cold noodles with raw egg dipped to be dipped in hot broth), only once full, we headed off for the Ueno neighborhood to the north of us. There we explored the park (saw the outsides of museums, visited a temple) and realized quickly that though it was only 9:30, we were already dripping sweat and the day was going to be a heat killer (final word from was 97° feeling like 105°). As any normal people would, when faced with sweltering temperatures we headed for a giant outdoor non-shaded market, where we explored much of the junk on offer. We bought a green tea ice cream but nothing more—I think our negotiating skills got used up in Vietnam and China. Also a curious food fact on display in the market: those wiggly paper-thin bonito flakes you enjoy with your misc. Japanese foods come shredded off a fish that has been dried and smoked to the consistency of a rock.

Post Ueno exploring, we headed east towards Asakusa, an older neighborhood with low-rise buildings and more historic character. It was charming, as we remembered, with little temples all over. We stopped in a local spot – just ducked under some otherwise unmarked curtains on an otherwise unmarked building on the street – for what turned out to be a delicious made-before-our-eyes tempura meal. We were the only ones there when we arrived, and so felt a bit ill-at-ease, but we’d been seated for about three minutes when the place became more-or-less instantly packed with locals appearing out of thin air. It was a treat and a perfect little neighborhood experience. We kept walking through Asakusa and visited Kappabashi dori, the kitchenware street where they sell every type of kitchen implement you might dream of, including the plastic food that is ubiquitous at nearly every restaurant in the city. We bought knives a)because it seemed fun—when in Japan, buy Japanese knives and b)because it seems like exactly the sort of thing pretentious foodies like us should come home with. “Oh these little things? I just picked them up in Tokyo. Oh yes, I’m a very serious chef. I cut things all the time. Sometimes I even dice.” Eventually, we gave our feet a rest at a do-it-yourself okonomiaki (Japanese pancake) place. The food was delicious, though the restaurant was a foolish choice for us as it was a million degrees inside (each table had its own grill generating loads of heat) and they expected us to make our own pancake, which we clearly had no idea how to do. Fortunately they took pity on us and made the pancake for us as we sat idly by, doing not a GD thing to help.

Bellies full of not one but two lunches, we walked through Asakusa to the river and then to the subway, where we headed to the excellent Edo-Tokyo museum. There we learned all about the history of the city including our three favorite facts: 1. Japanese commoners didn’t have last names until 1869; 2. In Edo, a typical family lived in an 8 sq meter row house—makes 340 East 11th Street seem like a palace; and 3.Commodore Perry was sent to Japan by the otherwise forgettable Millard Fillmore.

The museum was definitely worthwhile and we wished we had more time, but we had to rush back to the hotel and to Ginza to meet up with Suzuki-san, our Japanese godmother who housed first Josh on Whiffenpoof world tour and then both of us when we visited in 2005. As usual, it was a delight to see her and we had a nice Japanese dinner at a Ginza restaurant that featured a two-tiered feast of broiled fish, tofu, egg custard, sushi, tempura and soup. She has recently become a grandmother for the second time so we got to see her pictures, though sadly we had no hard copies to show off of baby Sam Olken. We did promise to send her some once we are back, so put on your smiling face baby Sam—we’ll be in Cambridge soon enough.

After saying goodbye to Suzuki-san, we strolled through Ginza and stopped for one last nibble and a sake at a tiny spot underground. The food was oden, or this sort of funny soup thing, but the sake was a treat and the whole scene very Japanese, so it seemed the right way to cap the evening. Another lovely food-filled day.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Destination: Tokyo

Off on our own (tear), Josh and I headed back yet again to the fabric market to attempt to pick up his shirts for yet a third time. Somehow, the magical tailors made the revisions and the shirts seem OK, so after a little bit of end negotiation to cut the price and pay for the hassle, we were finally done with tailoring and 12 shirts stronger.

Given that we had only a few hours remaining in China, we elected to make the most of it by wandering around the little alleys behind the fabric market, where tons of people were out selling their wares (fruits, veggies, tofu, blood sausage—you name it). We opted for the “if it has sesame, egg or scallion and is fried, we will buy it” technique, which quickly resulted in our having at least 8 different street food treats. Some were weird, but most were absolutely delicious. An excellent send-off.

We headed back to the hotel with a little wander through the French Concession and then were off to Pudong airport where we did our best to burn through our remaining RMBs by buying every candy in sight. Our flight to Tokyo was uneventful (though they did serve salad as part of the in-flight meal. Salad? That we haven’t seen in weeks).

As usual, arrival in Tokyo was exciting if overwhelming. We opted for the cheaper and slightly slower train into the city and then spent much of the 70 minute ride into the city desperately trying to decipher the subway map after 3 people gave us 3 different suggestions of which way to go. We finally hopped on the subway, and made our way close to the hotel. We were immediately reminded of the joys of the Tokyo metro as we got out the wrong numbered exit and so were wandering the streets until we recognized where we were (we stayed at this hotel when we were here 2 years ago) and checked in.

Hungry as always, we changed and headed out for a hip dinner out at Rainbow Roll Sushi in Azabu-Juban, where the chefs create sushi roll creations with amazingly fresh veggies (including shiso leaf, yum). We had tuna, sea eel, salmon, and a rainbow roll creation all their own with many different fish. It was a yummy and funky way to kick off the food-fest that will be Tokyo.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Shanghai Roundup

We’re a bit behind on our updates (too much fun to be had, too little time for blogging), so we’ll have to resort to something of a more cursory update.

Sunday morning we opted for brunch, Shanghai-style, with a dim sum feast. The place was great—bustling with locals and no other whities in sight—and naturally we ordered far more than we could consume. Veggie dumplings, pork dumplings, rice noodle rolls, durian pastries, a gelatin that tasted like pancakes, beef balls, chive pancake, radish dumplings, you name, we ordered it. The meal was delicious, though by the end we were a bit defeated.

To burn off our full stomachs, we headed to Moganshanlu, a hip artsy area with lots of little galleries that was described in the guide book as the meatpacking district of Shanghai. There was clearly no High Line in sight nor a nascent Whitney Museum, however, so that comparison may not be totally on the mark. We explored artists’ workshops, Josh befriended one of the artists, and felt generally modern arty and chic.

Because too much culture can have a negative effect, our next stop was the massive Qipu market, the center for all things fake in Shanghai. To describe it as a ring in Dante’s Inferno would not be an overstatement. But we persevered, emerging with a couple bags to bring home all our travel purchases, a belt and a wallet.

Outside, we quickly stocked up on some street food (dumplings and delicious bing), and then hopped in a cab for Xintiandi, the open air mall-ish development new to Shanghai. It is alleged to be an urban planning feat of genius so I (EB) was naturally picking up tips left and right. We waited out the rain with some pastries and coffee (they had a Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf—we don’t even have them in NYC!) and then walked to People’s Square where we amused for what felt like hours by adorable Chinese children playing in the fountain.

Jon and Amy then headed off to the airport to pick up our newest addition, Halliday Hart, and Josh and I took to wandering. We walked south from People’s Square, bought Josh some trendy Chinese sneakers, and made our way to Taikang Lu, an “art” street that was mostly made up of tiny little alleys that appeared filled with trash, bicycles and old men playing cards, but that at the end were a warren of shops, cafes and other fun little treasures.

Back to the hotel, we met up with the rest of the team—now with Halliday in tow we officially constitute a tour group and Josh is required to carry a flag—and headed off for a pre-dinner drink. For dins, we opted to go back to Jishi, where we went the very first night of the trip, for some more delicious pork knuckle. That was paired with bean curd, chicken with pepper sauce, pork with chili sauce, eggplant and other yummy treats. Once again, it was great.

Monday morning we headed off to the Shanghai Museum to fulfill our cultural quotient for the day. There were learned about Chinese minorities, jade, paintings, porcelain and also the Great Vowel Shift going on in the English language (the last because Josh wanted to share some learnings with the group, not necessarily because it was related to China’s long and storied history on display at the museum).

All that culture certainly builds up an appetite, so we opted to gorge ourselves on soup dumplings (pork, pork and crab, chicken). It was more than humanly consumable, but we polished them off, all $5.50 worth for the 5 of us.

We walked for a bit to burn off the calories from lunch (actually burning them off would take 3 laps of the Earth, minimum) and explored some side streets north of People’s Square. After our own version of supermarket sweep at a Chinese supermarket—never can have enough unfamiliar snacks—we headed back over to Taikang Lu to check out the shops and alleys as a group. A few purchases later, we headed back to the fabric market to check out our clothes. For the most part they came out well, though Josh’s order (12 shirts total) came back with all the collars and bottoms screwed up, so we will be heading back yet a third time this morning to see if they have been able to repair them. Apparently Chinese tailoring is a magical art where they allege that if they mess everything up, it can all be fixed in a couple of hours and you will never be the wiser. We’ll see how that goes.

Back to our hotel to get changed and gussied up, we headed out for our final night in Shanghai and our last night together as Team China. Our first stop was the Cloud 9 Bar at the Grand Hyatt in Pudong, which gave us pricey drinks with a fabulous view of the Bund and the city below. It took three elevators and about 9 hotel staffers to escort us to the top, but the experience from the 87th floor was totally worth it. Our cocktails finished, we headed to 3 on the Bund for dinner at Jean-Georges. “Jean-Georges?” you may ask. From this street food-loving, dumpling-scarfing crew? Well, for our last night we figured we should live it up and see if in one meal we could equal the cost of every other meal on the China trip combined (we may just have done it). There’s no need to regale you with the wonders of the meal or the fabulous view of Pudong, suffice it to say the meal included foie gras in three forms, and foam of every possible variety. It was an unbelievable treat.

Our bellies beyond full, we headed home for our last night at the Old House Inn.

One last administrative matter—it is with sadness that I report that this blog entry represents the last of the Olken-Kelly-Herczeg-Koch (and most recently including Hart) group adventures. This morning we parted ways, half to Vietnam and the other to Japan. Though we are bummed to part ways, we will all meet up again in NYC, Boston and San Fran in the weeks to come. For you, our blog readers, however, this should mean twice the fun, as the blog moves in two directions and perhaps includes twice the posts. Please keep commenting, as having dueling Vietnamese-Japanese blogs means we are in stiff competition to see who is the funniest. And we, the Tokyo two-some, would like to say to the Hanoi-bound threesome—Bring It On.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

You’d like 250 RMB for that? How about 2?

For our first morning in Shanghai, after a lovely toast and coffee breakfast in the funky restaurant A Future Perfect in our inn, we did what any culture-seeking, history-loving visitors would do: we went shopping. Not just any shopping, but to the giant fabric market where you barter your brains out on fabric and then on having many MANY clothes made for you by a fleet of unseen tailors. We went a little overboard, darting from vendor to vendor, picking out fabric, flipping through style books, pitting tailor against tailor (I, EB, wanted a jacket that was only designed by one vendor but they only had bad fabric so I tried the jacket on and then Josh brought the other tailor over for some stealth viewing. We were, you’ll not be surprised, totally busted and the first tailor was furious and ripped the jacket off me. What excitement.) Three hours later, we emerged having bought fabric, buttons and placed an order for (among the 4 of us) 26 shirts, 2 jackets, 2 dresses, 2 skirts and 2 pocket squares. All told the bill was roughly 4400 RMB, for an average cost per item of $17.37. We should mention that we haven’t picked up the items yet and they may all look dodgy, but the selection was fun nevertheless.

Spent from spending, we wandered over to the Old City – what the colonists called the “Chinese City” – for a lunch break of Shanghai’s most famous treat, the xiaolongbao or pork soup dumpling. A quick description of the xialongbao might be helpful. Made with delicious pork meat, the xialongbao is super-heated and soaked in its own fat, which somehow creates a delicious broth at the bottom of the small package that wraps the pork meat. Yum. (We even saw one man drinking the broth out of his dumplings with a straw).

Appetites ready, we queued up and quickly discovered that the wait would be half-an-hour or more. Savvy line-waiters, we (ok, Josh) decided to use the oldest trick in the book: The Magnolia Bakery line-cut. He struck up conversation with a group of young women from Guangzhou near the front of the line. Would they mind buying our xiaolongao for us? We’d pay them double the price. Great. Only they didn’t understand the whole “we’ll give you double the price” part and instead of buying us eight dumplings they thought we wanted sixteen. Turns out we did.

Food street with good sesame bread and bad popsicles

Like all cities in China, the “Old City” had a population of at least 7 million, which had swelled to roughly 15 million as a result of it being Saturday afternoon, so after our delicious that-man-with-a-straw-was-a-genius xialongbao, we moved on. We wandered onto a street/alley with vendors a-plenty. From shirtless tailors (thank you for mending holes in our jeans) to bakers (yum, sesame fried bread), there were all sorts of things and services on offer. Unable to resist popsicles in the sweltering Shanghai heat, we made some questionable choices, ranging from lentil (terrible) to corn mint (better but not good). We continued strolling around, taking note of the widespread demolition of old architecture to make way for new high rise modernity. There were a few holdouts, which suggested that people had a bit more leeway with the government than we thought possible – but it’s just a matter of time. We could already imagine the bright-eyed China Daily headline when they finally demolish the home: “Woman Increasingly Excited About Shanghai Improvement District – Clearing the Way for Progress”

From there, we had a significant misreading of the weather, opting to walk across town despite the increasingly black sky and ominous rumblings. Sure enough, right as we got to the old town, we got monsooned. The local 7-11 sold us an umbrella, but it was not enough. We ducked into the Bird and Flower Market, figuring that 1. it’s a cool Shanghai to-do; and 2. it’s indoors. Once inside, however, it quickly became apparent that the bird and flower scene has largely given way to a bustling giant cricket scene (and we mean GIANT), so we rushed out of the insect cacophony and back into the rain. When the puddles got too big to jump across, the rain too hard to see and the lightening a little too close to our umbrellas, we found refuge in a fake goods store (turns out that the limit on feigning interest in knockoff Samsonite luggage is about 15 minutes) before hopping a cab back across town to our hotel.

The rain stopped and we wandered through the streets of the French Concession stopping, naturally, for a brief snack as we meandered. Eventually, we found our way to the famous Face Bar in the Ruijin Guesthouse, another hip Shanghai bar scene. We sat outside on the lawn and had four lovely cocktails (Shanghai can be soooo civilized) before we returned to our hotel for a quick clothes change. Off again, we walked to a highly recommended Hunanese restaurant, Guyi, which once again filled us with delicious and spicy food. We had a cold chicken dish, salt and pepper tofu, diced green beans with pork, double cooked pork with garlic shoots and, of course, and eggplant dish. Though we were well full by the end, Josh decided that no trip to China is complete without some seriously stinky tofu, so he ordered preserved tofu which came to the table black and smelling like death. It was clearly the worst thing that has come our way this trip (yak included).

Post dinner, we headed to People 7, a chic Shanghai bar with trick bathrooms, where we hobnobbed with the Shanghai trendy scene. The space was beautiful and the atmosphere fun, though the drinks were mostly awful. Josh’s tasted like cough syrup and was neon blue. Just one of the dangers of ordering drinks named “Shogun romance” and ‘Broken Hearts.”

Saturday, August 11, 2007


One more spicy meal under our belts (why wouldn’t the deciding factor in where to have breakfast be that the only English words on the outside of the restaurant were “Pig Intestine Powder”?), we headed off to the Chengdu airport for our flight to Shanghai. This flight was on Shanghai airlines which brings our combined total Chinese airlines to 4, including China Eastern, China Southern, Hainan airlines and Shanghai airlines. It’s a tough call to say which was our favorite, though diverting us (EB and Josh) and forcing us to spend a night in Shijiazhuang, the Detroit of China, may shoot China Southern into the lead.

Post arrival in Shanghai, we boarded the world’s fastest train once again, the mag lev from the airport, and at 431 km/hr, we were at the subway in no time. With a bit of wandering and bag dragging, we took the subway to our hotel, the Old House Inn in the French Concession, and discovered a lovely inn waiting for us with cute little rooms and a funky restaurant. We cleaned up, changed, and headed out for a Friday night on the town, Shanghai-style.

For our first truly authentic Shanghai experience, we took the subway to People’s Square and walked along Nanjing Lu to the Bund. To say the subway was crowded is to understate it massively. You think the 4/5/6 train is tough in the morning? Try the red line in Shanghai at 6:30 on a Friday night. Trying to get off the train, with the sea of bodies pushing out and in at the same time roughly recreated the experience of what it must have been like to be born. Once we were off the train, it was like breathing oxygen for the very first time.

We walked along the glitz and flashing lights of Nanjing Lu and saw many a Shanghai-er and tourist out for a Friday night stroll, then headed to the Bund for the amazing light show that is Pudong. Even for the second time, it was pretty incredible. We returned to the spot we visited our first night, the New Heights bar, for some cocktails overlooking the show (including, of course, a bride and groom taking photos on the waterfront surrounded by a massive crowd. Gotta love Asia.) Our first “fancy” night underway—at a bar at the top of the Bund somehow feels a long way away from yak meat in Xiahe—we hopped into a cab and headed back to the French Concession for dinner at Bao Luo, a giant place with raucous patrons and bustling wait staff.

We went to this restaurant on the recommendation of Time Out and also the author Nicole Mones, who has to get a special shout out here. Ms. Mones wrote the book “The Last Chinese Chef” that I (EB) read before the trip to get excited about our upcoming adventures and the culinary excitement of China. In addition to a lovely book, Ms. Mones also maintains a website with food recommendations in Shanghai and Beijing. We have tried almost every restaurant Ms. Mones recommends and her food and location choices have been amazing. True to form, the suggestions for Bao Luo were no less great.

So back to our meal, after a Tsing Tao – Budweiser taste test (everyone in the restaurant but us seemed to prefer the American classic), we tucked into a series of incredible dishes. First came veggies prepared for monks (some yummy mushroom concoction), then pig hoof (scary sounding but unforgettably delicious), eggplant (definitely one of the top 5 dishes of the trip), river fish (which arrived first at our table flopping around alive in its bucket, yup alive), swiss steak and pork dumplings. It was a feast and a fabulous way to kick off Shanghai.

We strolled home through the French Concession, spotting some trendy bars and restaurants on the way, and even found a string of bars where there were many lovely Asian women happy to make Josh’s and Jon’s acquaintance. Good luck there, ladies.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Do you have anything….spicier?

Our lengthy day of travel behind us, we woke up early this morning for a walk around our nameless Chinese tourist town (which seems primarily centered around serving as a base for visitors to the national park nearby and to the airport). After another delicious Chinese breakfast (baozi, rice porridge, eggs), we headed off for the famous Jiuzhai Huanglong airport.

From there, we jetted away to Chengdu (50 minutes door-to-door, no unexpected paving, no re-routing to unknown destination). Chengdu is famous for two things: pandas and Sichuan peppers. Guess which we focused on.

Our first stop after leaving our hotel was not the panda reserve, but lunch. We learned yesterday that a romantic date over a bottle of wine is not the Chinese way – here, people prefer hustle, bustle, shrieking and shouting. We proved this theory true at lunch at a restaurant that was “seat yourself” in name only; in reality, it was a cross between the NYSE trading floor and the running of the bulls in Pamplona. All of the roughly 125 tables were completely full, and a group of locals lurked at each of them ready to pounce and take the free chairs as soon as the current occupants finished their meal. Undeterred, the four of us split up and sought out tables that looked close to paying their bills. I (Jon) found a great target. The table had three Chinese women who not only appeared to be finishing, but even offered their fourth seat to me. I took it. A waitress came and cleared away their plates. Yahoo, I thought. I patted myself on the back – what an able Chinese tourist. And then the waitress returned and brought the women their actual meal – the plates that had been cleared away were from earlier guests. Whoops. I fell for the old “take this empty seat at an insane and unnavigable restaurant trick.” Luckily, EB at the same moment had snagged a prime spot. We all sprinted over as quickly as possible to be sure the empty seats weren’t filled during the split second delay. Our hard work was well rewarded. The restaurant’s theme was snack food, and we ordered two platefuls: red pepper noodles, gaozi, wonton soup, watermelon soup, bean curd, black rice cupcake, spring roll, unidentified dumpling, corn bread, unidentified shellfish, beef skewer, and Freon if you were sitting near Amy right beneath the air conditioner.

Well-fed, we decided to burn off our enormous meal at Renmin, or “People’s”, Park. A quick preface is in order. In our week and a half of adventuring, we have seen some strange things, and indeed, the extraordinary has become ordinary. Monks on cell phones? Why not, ni hao. Unpaved mountain roads? Sure let’s see what this minibus can do. Cab drivers breaking out in operatic song? Hardly deserving of mention. (yes, this happened on our way in from the airport this morning). Even so, the People’s Park was quite the scene. Imagine the space of about two football fields, throw in a few trees full of chirping (shouting) cicadas, and then throw in the following with no boundaries therein:

  1. Troop of line-dancers, nearby boombox playing deafening Chinese pop.
  2. “Dance floor” with ballroom dancing, accompanying unidentifiable “dance music.”
  3. At least 4 karaoke machines. Amplified and amateur at best.
  4. Two adjacent operatic/dramatic productions, each with its own crowd of onlookers. Adjacent= within 20 feet of one another. And yes, microphones.

It was the single loudest thing I (Amy) have ever experienced. Oh and also there were children playing (shoeless, I wanted to drench them in hand sanitizer), dudes playing what they might describe as tennis against a wall, a guy flying a kite so high we all nearly blinded ourselves trying to spot it, and of course, women playing mahjong and men playing chess. I’m still waiting to see a woman break into the chess scene. I digress. You might be confused about the date and time over here, let me clear that up: we were at the park on a Thursday from about 2:30-5pm. Apparently when you have a metropolitan area with 15 million people not everyone has to work, and the idle know how to make some noise.

After some tea in the park, we sought peace and quiet on the 8 lane city streets. We wandered up to a neighborhood with some of the old Qing architecture, and, you guessed it, found a place to snack. We sat down at an outdoor café and ordered some snacks with the old “we’ll have what they’re having” technique. Never fails. We ended up with edamame, boiled peanuts, pickled ginger, mushroom with Sichuan peppers, tofu skin with Sichuan sauce, and green beans. (yes, snack. dinner follows, just you wait). Oh and pijos (beer). All were delicious and quite spicy.

We spent the next couple of hours walking around, critiquing Mao’s attire in the massive sculpture in the center of the city (really Mao? A double breasted overcoat in this humidity?), and generally exploring the streets. Unwilling to pass up the chance for more Sichuan cuisine, we declared it time for dinner. Acting on the recommendation from a local, we headed to a restaurant fairly close to our hotel and ordered up a mouthwatering selection of yak-free delights: eggplant with garlic sauce, double cooked pork, mushroom jiaozi (these turned out to be pork dumplings with a trace of mushroom), mapo dofu, noodles with hot Sichuan sauce, and edamame. As usual, we had trouble picking a favorite, and all were delicious. At this point, no one was hungry, but Sichuan is known for its spicy cuisine, and having only one night in Chengdu, it was our duty to explore it to the fullest. We ordered one final dish, billed as very hot by our waitress. Out came a vat of spice with some beef and bok choi hiding beneath the surface. Each of us tried a bite or two, and though it was quite hot, we think it’s safe to say we’ve met Sichuan head on and prevailed. As per usual.

China got our goat

Plan for August 8th:
  • 6:30 - Stroll around Langmu Si
  • 7:30 - Chinese breakfast
  • 8:30 - Hit the road for an easy trip to Huanglong park
  • 12:00 - Tour scenic Huanglong, taking in the beauty and tranquility of rural China
  • 6:00 - Check into plush hotel
  • 7:00 - Sichuan feast
  • 9:30 - Pass out, happy and full
Actual Events of August 8th:
  • 6:30-8:30 - As planned
  • 9:15 - Tunnel on shiny new road unexpectedly closed (no prior signage); along with miscellaneous other cars/buses/trucks/mopeds/motorized tricycles, head off along the old (unpaved) road on a 45 minute detour through the hairpin turns of a mountain pass. Whee!
  • 12:00 - Come to a sudden stop on the road a mere 50 km from our destination, taking our place among the trucks full of curious-looking yaks. Discover that China, in its continual quest for progress and unceasing drive towards the future, has decided to pave the road ahead of us. The entire road. In both directions. And so we, along with the increasing line of cars and trucks around us, are told to sit tight indefinitely until the paving is done.
  • 1:00 - Paving not done
  • 2:00 - Paving still not done
  • 3:00 - Truck filled with 200 goats arrives. Paving not concluded
  • 4:00 - Hunger takes over in our van. Each member of the group (secretly) decides who would be most delicious to eat. Settle for watermelon instead.
  • 5:00 - Finally, we are given the green light and all cars, trucks and vans make a break for it. After a few stops and starts and one more unpaved mountain road drive, we are en route.
  • 6:00-9:30 - As planned

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Top ten things we have seen monks do

We are blogging now from our van, as we wait for the herd of 500 goats to cross the road, stopping all major highway traffic in both directions.

To catch you up on the past couple of days, we spent our last night in Xiahe eating at a muslim restaurant on the main street (no yak, we believe) and then had the Gansu region speciality warm beers at the hotel across the way. There we were fortunate enough to stumble upon a Tibetan welcoming ceremony, which appears exclusively designed for tourists and involved local tibetans dancing around led by an absurd white man who pranced and flailed like he was Brian Boitano going for the gold.

One more night in our dormitory room and we set off for Langmusi, another monastery town about 3 hours away. En route, we drove through the Sanke Grasslands, which were filled with beautiful rolling hills and wild flowers. Though less mountainous than our earlier drive, the ride was nevertheless exciting as much of it was on unpaved road.

We arrived in Langmusi early enough to enjoy a late lunch and do some exploring. To select said lunch eatery, we went with the surefire olken method of selection: follow the locals. This landed us in a muslim restaurant (menu included the phrase "we are a muslim restaurant and do not serve pork" followed by descriptions of several pork dishes - when asked about, they were unavailable. You decide.) where we had delicious top ramen (handmade noods and all) for the bargain price of less than 50 cents, as well as some other noodle extravaganza and some fried eggplant and pork mini-sandwiches. We do our best to order "chieze" (eggplant) whenever possible for guaranteed deliciousness.

Perhaps a word or two about the town is in order. Langmusi is on the border of Sichuan and Gansu provinces, and features two monasteries: one on either side of the "river." The river is more like a creek, and given some of the things we saw going into the creek, it seems advantageous to be upstream. Like way upstream. That said, we all loved the feel of Langmusi. It's very quiet (spritual fulfillment doesn't make much noise outside of prayer time at the monasteries) and a great place to hike, explore, and of course eat for a couple of days.

After hiking around the monastery on the Gansu side and up into the hills around it, our shoes became so caked with mud that it felt like we had gained 10 pounds every time we took a step. Horsebackriding is a popular pastime in Langmusi, though we opted against taking a ride, led by Jon's conviction that if we came within 3 feet of a horse we were all sure to be killed. To relax our weary feet from hiking, we stopped for tea at a tea house on the main street - the other patrons were all Tibetans in their characteristic all-weather robe-cum-jacket-cum-backpacks and oversized silver jewery; needless to say, they were amused when we insisted on sniffing each of the ~15 teas before buying.

Following our tea stop, we took a short break back at the hotel. This is notable not only because we were staying at a real hotel this time (think private bathrooms), but also because "short break at hotel" has rarely shown up on our daily itineraries. Caked in mud and mysterious odors -- Amy and I (Jon) had been to scared to shower in Xiahe -- we decided to take advantage of our luxurious Langmusi accommodations to clean up a bit. Boy would it feel good to take a nice hot shower. Only what little water came out must have come directly from a glacier. As Amy put it, it was not so much a shower as holding an icicle above our heads and cleaning ourselves drip by frozen drip. Only later did we find out that hot water was available only between 8:30-11pm or 6-8:30am. Of course.

Fresh and clean we ventured out for a traditional Tibetan dinner of yakburger and apple pie at a restaurant called Leisha's -- a tourist trap to the extent that a town populated almost entirely by monks and with only one 500 foot long road can have "tourists" or a spot to "trap" them. The yakburger was surprisingly delicious, and we also had cauliflower, noodles, and fried rice. Each dish came with a choice of vegetables or . . . yak. Not to be too western, we avoided ordering items on the menu ranging from bruschetta to pizza to risotto to burritos.

As dinner was winding down, Josh struck up conversation (in Chinese) with a group of travellers who had motorbiked from near Beijing over 5000 kilometers to places all over China. By "Josh struck up conversation with," I really mean that they overheard us mocking yak, and toasted us (with warm beers) because even Chinese stomachs can only bear so much yak meat. Our new friends took to us so quickly that they ordered a full bottle of baijiu -- a traditional Chinese aperatif/mindbender -- for the seven of us to share. We're fairly confident that biajiu translates to "grain alcohol" or "everclear" in English. To return the favor, we ordered "er" (that means two in Chinese -- I've become a master counter) apple pies, one for us and one for the three of them. Let's just say they didn't like our American treat as much as we enjoyed their Chinese one. After a couple rounds and an exchange of business cards, we stumbled home.

Day 2 in Langmu Si started early with a stroll up one of the high hills near town to a set of prayer flags (looked more like colorful arrows), from which we could watch the morning ritual: monks to morning service, pilgrims circling endlessly around the temples and performing prostrations, yaks and sheep and horses generally milling about. With the mountains rising all around town, it was completely gorgeous. Occasionally one of the pilgrims would wander up the hill, shriek in ecstasy, and throw handfulls of prayer confetti in the air. We watched the monks file out of the main prayer hall and sit for a "lesson," which seemed to involve sitting still and getting sutra-d at.

Back in town, we had a tasty and traditional Chinese breakfast of baozi (carrot and lamb), rice porridge, pickled cabbage, and a fried egg. Yum.

Afterwards, we met our guide for a brief, semi-informed tour of one monastary, during which we were suckered into buying shawls and incense to offer at a temple. We saw shrines to assorted Buddhas (e.g., buddha of eye health), as well as relics of mummified Lamas, and later got to watch the monks in class. It gradually became clear that our guide - who, keep in mind, professionally leads tours to the Tibetan section of China - has no great love for Tibetans nor any particular respect for their religion. Fun. Anyway, that took an hour and he was back to the hotel, leaving us free to wander and graze as we chose.

We spent the rest of the morning on a beautiful hike behind the second monastery where we ventured through streams and up mountain valleys. Back into town for lunch at our favorite muslim spot, we wandered around town and then ended up our day back at the second monastery where we found yet more living buddha relics and some monks doing end of day chanting (which were done in the lowest possible voices imaginable. Isaac Hayes has nothing on these monks). For dinner, we opted to pass on the yak and tried a sichuanese place in town which was good and spicy and hopefully a sign of the yummy sichuanese food to come over the next few days. Though the food was the highlight, the most amusing part of the meal came when one of the large fish in the tank adjacent to our table lept into the air, thereby knocking some piece of electronic equipment into the tank, and in the resulting fall back into the water, take its own life. No one in the restaurant appeared to notice or care.

So, after three full days exploring Tibetan monasteries, we would like to share with you the top ten things we have seen monks do in China:

10. Chanting sutras
9. Swinging a pick axe
8. Eating popsicles
7. Riding in a land cruiser
6. Playing 2x4 (a game where you swing a 2x4 at a passing motorbiker)
5. Flirting
4. Pooing into the main river flowing into town
3. Playing vice city on the computer at the local internet cafe/monk robe store/yak meat emporium
2. Hailing taxis while talking on a cell phone
1. Answering cell phone while chanting sutras