Sunday, January 20, 2008

Winter in Xi'an

Just wanted to throw in some great winter pictures. An unusual snowy season for Xi’an – been snowing flat out for almost 8 days with no end in sight. With little snow removal equipment the streets are crazy and we try to travel as little as possible – kind of nice for us actually. Taxis are hard to come by. Problem is that people in Xi’an continue to drive as if there’s no snow – don’t pay attention to pedestrians, drive unbelievably close to other cars, bicycles, buses. Many tires are bald, and a few people have put chains on their wheels. But there’s still bicycles, mopeds, and a variety of other vehicles on the roads, sidewalks, or wherever they can pass. We have seen several accidents, mostly fender benders, but could have been avoided if people would slow down a bit and stop. Have included pictures of our now unusable ping pong tables, a night shot in front of the Wild Goose Pagoda that was taken just after we went out for Tal's birthday at a local Italian restaurant, and a Chinese snowwoman.


We spent our winter holiday in Yangshuo, southern China, with the Rothman-Shaperos, who were brave enough to visit us from Toronto. We spent a week in Yangshuo which is famous (everywhere in China is famous for something) for its karst mountain peaks, beautiful countryside, and meandering rivers. It was really beautiful, but not as warm as we’d hoped, and perennially overcast. However, overcast does not necessarily mean polluted, so it was still a breath of fresh air compared to Xi’an.

Yoni had last been to Yangshuo about 20 years ago, and was a bit apprehensive at what he would discover. Things have changed so much in China during the past two decades and he had wonderful, picturesque memories of Yangshuo. Well, he said it was still beautiful, just more crowded, commercialized and built up. The views were spectacular from everywhere you looked.

I was a little overwhelmed by what a backpacker haven it was – felt like being in Thailand or Katmandu in the early 90s. Even had the same hippie/backpacker clothes. Actually, I LOVED the clothes there . . should have shopped more. It took me awhile to get my head around the fact that we were actually still in China, it had somehow morphed into 2008, and we had these 5 kids traveling with us. Was a bit of a time warp. How did time ever fly by so quickly?

We flew into Guilin and decided to take a boat to Yangshuo. The river was very low so boats couldn’t make the entire journey, and we were told that we would be taking a van, then a boat, then a taxi – about a three hour journey for a set price. We could have taken a 90 minute car ride to Yangshuo, but chose the more scenic route. Shortly after pulling away from the dock in our dinky little boat our captain slipped and fell overboard – not an auspicious beginning. There's a picture of us before we left dock with the woman who helped organize the boat. Once we realized he was OK, it was hard to control the laughter. Y helped pull him and his wet cellphone up onto the boat and he went home and was replaced by a second captain. The new captain managed to stay dry.

After the boat trip we were placed on a glorified golf cart for a VERY bumpy ride through the picturesque village of Xing Ping, and then got onto a public bus to Yangshuo. Everyone wanted to take a little more money than we agreed upon at the outset, and this tended to be the tone of Yangshuo. But I suppose that’s to be expected in a place where the local economy is fuelled by tourism. We tried not to let it get to us, and in the end it really didn’t.

Most of the tourist life was centred around a few streets – too many choices of restaurants and they all seemed to have the same menu. A little Western food (usually pizza and spaghetti) and a little Chinese food. The result was that they generally didn’t make either food particularly well. But we didn’t go there for the food. I suppose if we more adventurous, or didn’t have the kids with us, or had a little more time, or all of the above, we might have seen the “real” Yangshuo outside of this tourist destination. But, seeing as we’ve been living in the “real Xi’an” for the past 4 months, ,we were quite happy to feel like tourists.

Our favourite hangout was the Karst café. This was popular with the local rock climbers, and had good enough food and an open fire pit in the middle of the restaurant stocked with chunks of raw coal in case you were cold. When you were bored waiting for your food you could play with the fire – a favourite male pastime, but let’s not get sexist. Noam burned the sole of his shoe one day when trying to stay warm. Not particularly safe to have an open, unvented, fire inside a restaurant, I know, but this was Yangshuo – everything was kind of hippie, laid back, relaxed. Anyway, upstairs they had a nice TV and a bunch of videos and we enjoyed hanging out there and also had a great day rock climbing with the guides from the café - see the picture of my two boys; one's going up and one's coming down.

We did many different things there – biking through the countryside (picture of Yoni, Gary, Kobi and Noam), climbing some mountains (picture of Yoni and Tal), boating down the Li River (there's a picture of Gil alone on the boat with our captain . . who managed to stay on board for the whole trip), visiting a HUGE stalagmite/stalagtite cave (unfortunately, I missed that adventure as I was at cooking school), rock climbing, and seeing a very awesome sound and light show on the Li river directed by Zhang Yi Mo himself. He’s the director of many Chinese films including, “Raise the Red Lantern,” “To Live,” “5 Girls and a Rope” to name a few. Linda (that's the other Linda) and I enjoyed a half-day of Chinese cooking school (there's a picture of that too) and Yoni and Gary had a mountain biking adventure (not on the same day, obviously) as we all tried to balance the needs of the various kids and the wants of the various adults.

As we were on the boat trips the drivers would inevitably point out to us the various sites – most “famous” mountains seemed to be famous because they looked like something. A mountain that looked like cat ears, or a lion, or the ubiquitous dragon. One mountain supposedly looked like it had 9 horses carved into the side. I counted 3, and that was only using a very active imagination. But regardless, it was spectacular. Some of the caves closer to Guilin were famous as the Chinese hid there during World War II, or as it is known locally, “The War Against Japan.”

We saw a mix of old and new: cormorant fishing whereby the fisherman tie a string around the bird’s throat and then the bird catches fish that it can’t swallow and passes them on to the fisherman (see picture, and there's also a picture of Tal and Zev holding a couple of captive cormorants on one of our day trips - many opportunities to take some of these "posed" pictures as long as you pay the locals a little cash). On the more modern side, there were fishermen (on the same primitive bamboo rafts that the cormorant fishers used) using electric current to electrocute the fish.

Have also included some pictures of village life on the Li River; there's a man squatting by some meat he's preparing - to sell, I think, and a person carrying their load up from the river.

Also included a picture of the whole gang on the last day of our trip. And a good time was had by all. Unfortunately I haven't yet figured out how to put all these pictures in order, but I'm hoping you'll be able to piece everything together. That will be my next blogging lesson. Until then, farewell, adieu, shalom, au revoir, and zai jian.

Our apartment

This is a video of our apartment. We are moving to the third floor next week. But we live on the first floor now. By Noam.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

fountain madness

During December we had a great visit with the Rothman-Shapero clan from Toronto. I'm posting a video of one of the most memorable parts of their visit. We had gone to the Wild Goose Pagoda here in Xi'an where they have this nice fountain show several times a day. Some say the fountain show reminds them of Las Vegas, but having never been to Vegas, I have no comment. Anyway, the big wild goose pagoda (there's a small one too) itself is definitely Xi'an, not LV. It's one of Xi'an's famous landmarks - about 1350 years old, was built to house Buddhist sutras brought back from India.

The video shows Kobi and Gil Shapero, and Noam, prancing around the fountains during the show and trying to avoid getting wet. What it doesn't show is that, a few moments after the video camera was (unfortunately) turned off, the fountains directly below the steps they're walking on (you can see them in the video) erupted and they all got a nice sprinkle. Luckily, everyone was a good sport, and a good time was still had by all. Use your imagination. One could also ask what were the parents doing just filming this, without actually intervening, right?

Friday, January 4, 2008


A food blog. Been meaning to write this one for awhile. At the beginning of our year, I wrote about this faculty dining hall about 20 metres from our home where we could eat reasonably good Chinese food for unbelievably low prices. Well, we have not been there in a long time as they have a variety of chefs and you never know what awaits you. Been burned too many times. We also stopped going to a student dining hall which, at the beginning, seemed awesome. Cheap, lots of choices - a virtual food court of Xi'an local food, maybe 100 metres from our home. But Tal was the first one to get overwhelmed by the noise, smells, and some of the less appetizing dishes. I was next (one too many bowls of these cold soba-like noodles with lots of msg called mian piar), and now none of us will enter. So, I’ve begun cooking more, we have a few restaurants which we generally like, but we have learned that it is important to not eat too much Chinese food, as we sometimes grow tired of it. Also, the family just seems to do better as a unit when we’re seated in the peace of our own relatively clean, heated home. These restaurants are often very cold - you eat in your winter jacket. Just can’t seem to have that kind of family feeling at some of these joints that, quite frankly, wouldn’t pass even a basic health and safety inspection in the US or Canada.

So, I've asked some Chinese friends to teach me to cook and I bought some things that I vowed would never enter our apartment because we eat out so much: a wok and cooking oil. Actually, I broke with the cooking oil when I was frying potato latkes for Channukah, and the rest kind of happened naturally. Had too much leftover oil. I've made a few decent dishes but most have been only acceptable, at best. I attended a half-day cooking class with my friend Linda (visiting from Toronto with her guys) while traveling in Yangshuo (southern China) recently and learned some good basic Chinese cooking skills. Adjusting the temperature is key, and the concept of “measuring” is pretty much useless. Try adding 2/3 of a spatula of water to a dish and you’ll see what I mean.

My favourite part of cooking is shopping at our wonderful local outdoor market. By contrast, going into the supermarket here usually makes me nuts. It is overcrowded, hot, too many things I don’t recognize or wish I didn’t recognize, tons of salespeople but many of them not particularly helpful, and the lines to get out of there are not necessarily long but just move unbelievably slowly. Took me until very recently to find a decent kind of flour there – my first attempts at challah were just gross. Didn’t even taste good when I tried to make French toast out of them the next day. If you try to buy an item that doesn't have a bar code on it the check out person will tell you you can't buy it . . or you can wait 10 minutes (not an understatement) for somebody to try and get you another one but sometimes they never come back. Most of the products you pay for at the check-out counter but some items have to be bought from special registers throughout the store. Some big items are obvious but others are a surprise (like certain shampoos), and I'm told at the check-out counter that I have to go back up 2 flights and wait in another line before checking out. Grrrr. Probably doesn't help that my Chinese remains limited and I struggle to communicate at the best of times.

Yoni and I tried to return something today at this supermarket (a tea pot that cracked the first time I added hot water . . why do I still insist on buying the cheapest of everything?) and we had to go to 6 different individuals and get a variety of receipts and stamps before we got a refund. I suppose it might have been better just to forego the $3.

Anyway, as I mentioned earlier, the opposite of our local supermarket is the outdoor market across the street and a 10 minute walk from my apartment: a wonderful place, reminiscent of Mahane Yehuda to those of you who know Jerusalem, but dirtier and full of the sounds of people horking everywhere. They have these unbelievable tofu stalls with plain tofu, deep fried tofu balls (they open like a pita and you can stuff them or put them in soup), marinated tofu, long strips of textured tofu, and a variety of different tofu types that look interesting but I haven't tried yet - you just can’t imagine . . . .

And the mushrooms . . . . truly amazing! All different kinds - fresh or dried. Also, farm fresh eggs everywhere. And this wonderful round bread with a hint of spice (cumin, maybe, but definitely something else as well) made by the minority Muslim population here. I've included a picture of the market, and a picture of this round bread (like nan or laffa) with these 3 smiling guys who make the stuff. I keep meaning to show them this picture when I go there, but inevitably I'm at the market by the time I remember. Actually, much of Xi’an’s wonderful food is courtesy of the Muslim population - mostly Uighurs but also some other minorities as well. Anyway, now that I have started to cook more regularly I’ve been buying and experimenting and trying to learn the names of things from the market. It’s so much fun. I’m told that there’s dog meat at the market as well, but since I don’t cook meat here . . I generally avoid the meat area. Probably not a bad thing.

And around the food market is this amazing street with all these outdoor vendors. Hard to buy anything for over 25 cents. I've included a picture of me and Noam with Zev, Kobi and Gil Shapero buying some fresh sugar cane on this street, when the Rothman-Shapero clan was visiting from Toronto. No problem spitting out the sugar cane pulp on the street around here. And there’s this sticky, sweet deep fried rice/dough rolled into a ball, sprinkled with sesame seeds, and filled with sweet red bean paste. You might have eaten it at a dim sum place. Every time I ask the guy what it’s called he says something different so I still don’t know what to call it. There’s this kind of mini waffle dish that the boys love – we used to eat something like it in Taiwan but it was stuffed with either custard or sweet red bean paste. This one’s plain but delicious. And then there’s the fried dumplings in these huge containers and these little women lift them somehow. When I try to buy just one or two they don't really understand me and always give me too much.

I've discovered that the secret to enjoying this street is to just take a taste of everything and don't over-indulge. And there’s a kind of bread called “bing” (pronounced with a falling/rising tone) which is round like a pita, but doesn’t have a pocket and is a bit more crumbly and a touch sweet. Works great for mini pizzas and tuna melts, but you can also buy it stuffed with all kinds of pickled vegetables or have it shredded in soup with lots of vegetables and your choice of lamb, beef, or just plain vegetarian - the soup is called pa mou and one of my favourite local delicacies. And there’s a sweet or salty bread baked in these outdoor coal-burning kind of metal tandoor oven (garbage cans in other countries, maybe?). One of our favourite outdoor grabs is a plain roasted sweet potato. They have two kinds of sweet potatoes - one's white and less sweet, a bit dry, and the other is dark orange and perfectly creamy when baked correctly. Hard to go wrong unless you’re the person who has to sell it . . 7 days a week beside a coal-stoked fire, pushing your little cart around town.

Our favourite snack: seaweed. There’s regular Chinese seaweed and then there’s the Korean stuff – more textured. I prefer the Korean, as does Tal. Rice crackers – different than the ones we used to buy in NP. There’s seaweed flavour, sugar-sprinkled (yum), deep fried (less yum), and some others we don’t try. There’s lots of these dried tofu snacks as well, but we haven’t explored them yet. Once I thought I was trying dried tofu but it was dried, pickled bamboo. Not a big seller. And we've tried honey dried Chinese dates (yum) and a kind of popcorn; slightly sweet and salty at the same time, but it's more corn and less pop than we're used to. We try to avoid the potato chips: Italian meat flavoured, sweet prawn, savory prawn, Mexican chili . . I could go on.

And then there’s this amazing find: a fabulous Indian restaurant. We went there when we had had too much Chinese food, and I just couldn’t bring myself to cook more regularly: cramped kitchen, not the right utensils, couldn’t quite find the right ingredients, etc. Anyway, we went to this Indian restaurant that was recommended by a friend from India, and were amazed at how LONG we had to wait for food. Probably 10-15 minutes, but the Chinese restaurants are so fast this seemed like eternity. Then we started to eat . . the food was extraordinary. Probably among the best Indian restaurants I've ever frequented, and we all got kind of quiet. Towards the end of dinner Tal said, “hard to believe that I think what I’m going to miss most about China is this Indian restaurant.” Anyway, after that experience I got inspired to work to make food a bit more enjoyable.

One last funny story, as I wrote this blog in parts. Since starting this blog, and my praise of this wonderful local market, I need to tell you all that I was recently pickpocketed there. Xi'an is apparently the pickpocketing capital of China. What luck. Anyway, once I was shopping there and I had my wallet in my pocket and one of the stallers told me to put it in a breast pocket. I thought he was being overly cautious but did it nonetheless. However, the other day I went with my cell phone in my (zippered front) pocket and it was stolen. These guys are good. I was telling a friend when a kid (Noam's age) overheard and said that one time he was with his mother at the market and someone was hiding underneath one of the stalls (or behind some vegetables, I couldn't understand the exact details) and tried to grab his mother's cell. Of course this kid, being the right height, saw the man and kicked him. Next time I'll bring Noam with me. But I'll still shop there - can't help it. It's just part of the experience, and the best produce around.

And on that note, I'm going to post now. Meant to attach more pictures but I just never seem to get to it, so I may add to this blog later.