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I’ve been really enjoying the single life. No, not in that way. I’ve been enjoying doing a lot of walking, exploring the city. I’ll walk to various restaurants for dinner, and on the weekends I’ll go on looong walks around the city. Like 10 miles or so. I just like seeing stuff. Nothing in particular. No agenda. No destination. Just a map in my pocket so hopefully I can get back where I started. And my Zen to keep the tunes flowing. I feel like I’ve got a pretty good idea of the area after talking 3 or 4 walks in different directions. That’s something I never could have done with the family. I can walk as fast as I want, as far as I want, and stop at anything and everything that looks interesting, for as little or as long as I like. It’s a bizarre feeling. The days seem sooo long. I’ll certainly enjoy tootling around with the fam, but I’ll miss this too.
Beijing is known for its food. I’ve had a lot of great food. I’ve also had some not-so-great food. I’ve found that when I’m with someone that knows what they’re ordering, we usually come out ok. When I go in a non-Chinese restaurant, I always come out ok. It’s when I walk into a Chinese restaurant solo that I sometimes have problems. First of all, anything that doesn’t have pictures on the menu is out, obviously. And it’s not easy to figure that out since I have no idea how to ask to see a menu before I go in. Maybe I need to figure that one out. But I walked into a hotpot place the other day (I didn’t realize it was a hotpot place before going in—it just looked like a nice restaurant). Most Chinese restaurants that have English on the menu have a “sort of” version of English. So for my hotpot, I ordered some seafood balls and chicken. I should have known better than to order the chicken. China has a way of making me lose interest in chicken. Their idea of chicken is to gut the chicken, then carefully slice it up and server it on a plate so that it still looks like the chicken—skin, bones, head, feet, and all. And they’re so scrawny that you have to put whole pieces with bones in your mouth and try to gnaw off a little meat. Sorry, but that just doesn’t do it for me. Anyway, so I’m sitting at my table, with the entire wait staff staring at me, and one of them motions to my fork with regard to the seafood balls. So I figured that I guess those weren’t for the hotpot after all. Must be an appetizer or something. So I popped one in. Oops. They were for the hotpot alright. In fact they were still half frozen. I suffered through it and ate it, despite one of the wait staff motioning (while the rest were laughing) that it would be ok to spit it out. Half-way done with my meal, they brought the menu back, and I finally realized they were trying to get me to order some vegetables. I assumed that they were included, but no. Well, since I was half done, and I wasn’t enjoying it too much anyway (if only because the staring from whole staff was getting old) I passed and just hurried out.
I’ve had some really good non-Chinese food. I’ve had great Indian, Korean, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, Israeli, African, etc. Actually, the other Asian foods are hit & miss. If you get authentic, it’s really good. But there are some places where they’re Chinese run, and they’re not so good. I recently went to a Korean restaurant that won the “Best Korean Food in Beijing” from the international reader’s poll (Han Na Shan). It’s a big chain, and if all restaurants are like the one I went to, the restaurants are both huge and packed. The Chinese love this stuff. The only problem is, it’s horrible by Korean standards. E place that Hedi & I went to, no one spoke Korean. That’s a bad sign. It was the same for Han Na Shan. It’s also a bad sign when there’s no Korean on the building, which was the case for Han Na Shan. Ugh. But I tried a place right next to my apartment that was run by Korean (at least the manager spoke Korean) and it was much better. Large variety of good banchan (the free small appetizers that just come—you don’t order them), even for just me (like 6-8 dishes before the main dish). Han Na Shan had nothing but a tiny dish of bad kimchee and soggy cucumber. Ugh. There are tons of Koreans here, so I’m sure there are more good Korean restaurants. I just have to ask them to find them. I’ve given up on the restaurant guide, as the only decent Korean food I’ve had was not listed in the guide, while both of the bad restaurants are. This is the beauty of staying for a couple years. It gives us time to discover the city.
Like I was saying, I’ve had some really great food too. My apartment is surrounded with a huge number of great restaurants of international origins. The Indian food here is better than most Indian food I’ve had in the States. More variety, more flavor. The Israeli place was simply amazing. I got a combo pita + shwarma thing, and I expected the pita to maybe come with some hummus or something. When it came, I thought there must be some mistake, because the pitas came with like 10 side dishes. It was soooo good. Again, more flavor than US restaurants. I took a picture. I could eat that every day. I don’t only because there are so many places to try, and I like experimenting. The African place also rocked. I was a little timid on the ordering. I didn’t quite go for the alligator tongue or the Rocky Mountain Oysters (yes, they were really called that on the menu, and yes, they really were testicals). But I had some samosas (I can never pass up samosas) that were very different form the Indian ones I’ve had. But the best part was a freshly made fruity chutney that was absolutely killer. The African place was totally Africa, including a thatched roof, which was apparently imported from Africa, along with everything else in the restaurant. Te restaurant is part of some agreement with China/African governments to build relations. Whatever—the food is good! Oh, every table also had one of those (I’m not sure what the correct term is, so I’ll just call it…) big bong things. You can apparently order whatever you want to smoke at the table. Same story for Indian food. I took a picture of one place that such cool tables, with various ingredients embedded in them. One downside of the places run by non-Chinese is that they tend to be much more expensive than Chinese places.
How cheap is Chinese food? Let’s put it in perspective. At the hotel where I stayed, the small bottled water containers were 30RMB, or about $4, each. While walking around Shanghai I ate at a nice restaurant I found that had western food. I hadn’t tried western food here yet, so I was curious what they could do with it. Not expecting much, I was surprised that the food was actually really good. I was starving after a lot of walking around Shanghai, so I pigged out, ordering a chicken/mango salad, strawberry smoothie, salmon/spinach pasta, and coconut crème brulee for desert. Total damage after tax & tip: 46RMB, or about $6. There’s a food court kinda place near my Shanghai hotel where I’ve eaten a few times, where they serve real food (unlike food courts in US malls). Today I got a beef/veggie/rice thing cooked and served in a huge leaf for 15RMB (less than $2). But stuff in Beijing has been a bit more expensive. Not sure why—maybe I haven’t found the good places yet. Oh, speaking of which…
A coworker took me out to lunch at a really fancy place that used to be home to imperial servants. It’s a residential place, where each table is in its own room. Before ordering, he asks me, “is there anything you don’t eat?” Warning to anyone who ever receives this question in China: it’s a trick question. I said no, not really. I’m not a big fan of shell fish, but I eat it. I had also been in China long enough to know to tell him that I’m not a big fan of head, feet, or skin. Bones I can work around. Great, so off he went ordering. When the first dish came, it looked interesting, so I asked him what it was. Goose lung. Oh. Um. I guess I forgot to mention I’m not a big fan of goose lung either. Actually, I ate it and it wasn’t bad. When I was younger I wouldn’t have been able to pop one in my mouth knowing what it was. My time in Korea helped with that (for which I’m very thankful). Another interesting dish was black chicken soup. Not blackened chicken. Black chicken. The meat is actually black naturally. It’s some funky kind of exotic chicken. There were some other bizarre things which I can’t remember anymore.
Some of the things you see on menus is just amazing. I’ve asked some Chinese folks if it’s for real, and it is. And a lot of it they just serve on sticks on the street, kinda like how you get a hot dog in NYC. One of the things I saw in my guide, which I wasn’t sure how common it was (or whether real at all), but I saw for myself: goat penis. There’s a reason I limit my Chinese food to places with English on the menu!
I’m leaving this Thursday to go back to USA for a few weeks, mainly to help the fam get moved out of the house, and then spend some time with family before we all head back out. Hedi & the kids haven’t come over yet. They’re waiting for the school year to get out.
The biggest thing I have to get done in the next few days is get our apartment selected and secured. This has been a very difficult problem. There are a couple factors, mainly revolving around school location and work location. Both are in Beijing, but the city is huge, and they’re quite far apart. Actually, even before that, we had to decide where the kids would go to school. This was also a very hard decision, because while there are some good international schools, most of them are out in the boonies in a community called Shunyi. It’s basically a community that sprang up for expats, and expats only. It’s literally about a dozen little neighborhoods with American style homes, in cookie cutter fashion, all jammed together. Ugh. We really don’t want to live in a compound of foreigners who try to pretend they don’t live in China. If we’re going to live in China, I want to dive in head first and live right in the heart of the city. Ok, that’s also a fairly expat life, since the apartment is well out of reach of middle class Chinese, but at least it’s in the heart of the city, with China literally all around us. So we decided on Beijing City International School, which is the most downtown of any international school. It’s a nice new campus, going into only its third year. They have school buses which go to most of the main apartment complexes. I really don’t want the kids to spend a huge amount of time on a school bus, so we’re going to live close to the school. Only thing is, the school is on the complete opposite side of the city as my work. So my commute is going to be, um, challenging. I might try the subway, but I think the likely thing is that I’ll break down and hire a driver, so I can at least work in the car and work shorter hours. The kids bus ride will be about 10 minutes. My commute will be about 90 minutes. But there’s lots of stuff around us, so we’ll enjoy being in the city on weekends. One thing we’ll miss (I will at least) is being part of the kids sports leagues. No baseball, soccer, baseball, etc. We could have all that if we lived up in Shunyi, but it’s not practical from where we’ll live. Plus, to maximize our experience here, I want to get out and see/do stuff on the weekends.
So while I’ve picked the apartment complex, I still need to figure out the exact unit. Apartments here are all individually owned, so you have negotiate with each landlord on price and terms, so it’s not easy to simply compare different units, even when they’re vacant. While many units come furnished, we’re picky enough that we don’t like virtually all of the furnishings. Apparently it’s common to roll in a furniture allowance into the rent, and then we can pick our own stuff. I think that’s what we’ll do. Hedi doesn’t trust me to pick it (probably rightly so), so we’ll wait until she’s here, which means we’ll be without furniture for a month or so, which is how long it takes to get, according to the preferred supplier I talked with.
I’ll be relieved once I get that figured out.