Postcards from (smoggy) Beijing

Pollution levels reached "hazardous" levels in Beijing on Saturday. Some scientists have labled Beijing as "unlivable" because of the poor air quality in the city.

Air pollution reached “hazardous” levels in Beijing on Saturday. Some scientists have labeled the city as “unlivable” because of the poor air quality.

Pollution masks have become a necessity in the capital. I started wearing them a couple of years, after I noticed that I was getting sore throat and coughs more frequently.

Pollution masks have become a part of everyday life in the capital. I started wearing them a couple of years ago, after I bought a bike and began using it to commute around the city.

View of suburban Beijing from a subway car. Some scientists have labeled the city as "unlivable" because of the poor air quality.

View of suburban Beijing from a subway car. An Australian soccer player who spent a year in China told the magazine FourFourTwo that playing in the smog “was like closing your garage door, turning your car exhaust on and running around in the enclosed space.”

 

Zima, back from the dead and now available in China

Remember Zima, that lemon-lime alcoholic beverage from the clear drink craze of the early ’90s? Coors Brewing Company stopped producing it in the U.S. in 2008, but it’s found new life in Asia.

The 7-Eleven near my apartment in Beijing began stocking it recently, and just for the sake of nostalgia I bought a bottle. Zima was a staple at house parties when I was a teenager, a drink for girls who didn’t like beer or liquor. Jolly Ranchers, a type of hard candy, were often added to “improve the taste.” Continue reading

When in China, beware of man-eating manholes

A friend of mine who moved to Beijing a couple of years ago told me that his mom warned him to be wary when walking near manholes in the city. She had read a story about a man in China who fell into an uncovered manhole at night and was found dead a few days later.

A mom's worst nightmare.

A mom’s worst nightmare.

As a mom, she was, naturally, worried that this was part of a larger problem, and that road work sites in China were more dangerous than ones in the US.

As silly as it seemed, her concern stuck with me, and whenever I bike in Beijing I always glance at manholes before speeding over them. Today, I biked past a road work site and saw this …

manhole.tree

Apparently, the construction crew ran out of cones and had to get creative. It doesn’t look safe, but I guess it might keep you from falling in.

Postcards from Mutianyu

20140725-183426-66866052.jpg The village of Mutianyu (慕田峪) is located about 80 kilometers northeast of Beijing. It sits at the foot of a restored section of the Great Wall and is a popular destination for international tourists and Beijingers seeking some fresh air.

20140725-184055-67255537.jpg Mutianyu is no longer just a sleepy village of farmers. The boom in tourism has brought lots of new development to the area. These buildings, located in a welcome area for visitors to the Great Wall, didn’t even exist when I visited a couple of years ago.

20140725-185327-68007756.jpg An old basketball goal outside a home in Mutianyu. Basketball is one of the most popular sports in China, and NBA stars like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant visit the country every year.

Cupping therapy: no pain and no noticeable gain

During the hottest part of summer, temperatures in Beijing regularly soar above 95 F (35 C). To cope with the heat, women shed pants and long-sleeved shirts for tank tops and skirts, while the less fashion-conscious men simply roll up their shirts, exposing their midriff, however rotund.

The Beijing summer look for men that never goes out of style.

The summer look for men in Beijing that never goes out of style.

A few summers ago, one of the these bare-bellied men walked past me on the street. As I turned to look at him, I noticed a series of purple and pink bruises on his back, each about the size of a baseball. At first glance, it looked like he had been the victim of a brutal assault. But each of the bruises was the same size, and perfectly circular.

I told one of my friends what I had seen, and she said the bruises were from cupping, a form of traditional Chinese medicine commonly used in Asia and the Middle East. In China, cupping is known as baguan, and is used to alleviate everything from headaches to back pain. Continue reading

Hole-in-the-wall restaurant leaves hole in the stomach

I’m a big believer in giving second chances. And if you’re a restaurant that serves great dumplings for less than $2 a serving, I’ll even give you a third, fourth and fifth chance even if the occasional batch leaves me feeling a little green.

Such was the case at my favorite neighborhood dumpling joint, 杭州小吃 (Hangzhou Snacks). The place has all the characteristics of a Chinese dive restaurant. Limited seating. Few spouts for hand washing. No bathroom. And dirt-cheap prices.

A middle-aged man runs the restaurant with his wife. He’s short on words and smiles but always remembers what I want: two orders of dumplings and a tall, cold bottle of Yangjing beer. The man often smokes cigarettes while he cooks, occasionally looking up at a TV mounted to the wall to read a headline on the 6 o’clock news.

The man takes care of the steamed buns and dumplings, while his wife boils the soups and serves the vegetable and rice dishes. She’s the charmer of the two, and not averse to greeting me with a smile when I settle my bill.

The dumplings are comfort food, the Chinese equivalent of my mom’s salmon patties and mashed potatoes. But for a foreigner with a weak stomach, eating there comes with a risk. As one of my friends eloquently put it: “I go there regularly. After eating their dumplings, I also have to go regularly, if you know what I mean.”

But, like a girl who refuses to leave her abusive boyfriend, I kept coming back, until a recent bout of food poisoning that forced me to see a doctor. His advice? Stay away from the hole-in-the-wall restaurants and street food. “Even we don’t eat that stuff,” he said.

That was two months ago, and I’ve since heeded his advice. Still, there are days when I pass by the restaurant, spot a bowl of fresh dumplings steaming up the window and think about stopping.

My heart says go, but my stomach says hell no.

 

Red duck district

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My favorite roast duck restaurant in Beijing, Liqun, is a bit tricky to find if you’re a first-time visitor. It’s located in a hutong, or alleyway, and the neighborhood isn’t particularly well-lit at night.

Fortunately, someone came up with the ingenious idea of drawing a series of ducks on the side of a building nearby. So once you get close, all you have do is — literally — “follow the ducks” … and then eat them, of course.

A silver anniversary China wants to forget

Last week, I stayed at the Raffles Beijing Hotel, one of the oldest hotels in the Chinese capital. Built in 1917 on Chang’an Avenue, it has been a part of some of the most significant moments in modern Chinese history.

When the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, a banquet to celebrate the occasion was held at the hotel, and Chairman Mao Zedong danced in the lobby. Forty years later, in the spring of 1989, the hotel served as the base for many foreign journalists covering the student protests in Tiananmen Square.

The view from my access-restricted balcony at Raffles Beijing Hotel.

The view from my balcony at Raffles Beijing Hotel.

I could see the square from my sixth-floor room, but the door to the balcony, where better views could be had, was locked. A letter from hotel management said “the hotel has received notice from the Public Security Bureau that there will be activities held along Chang’an Avenue.

“Therefore enhanced security measures will be put in place by the Chinese government, which are beyond the control of Raffles Beijing Hotel. From Tuesday, May 20th to Friday, June 6, 2014 we are obligated to lock windows and balconies facing Chang’an Avenue.”

I’m not aware of any “activities” planned during that time period, but June 4 marks the 25th anniversary of the government crackdown on the student protests. Each year, authorities step up security ahead of the anniversary and references to it are blocked online on the Chinese mainland.

The letter from the hotel.

The letter from the hotel.

Worst translation ever?

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I’ve lived in China for almost four years, so I’m used to seeing bad translations, more commonly known as Chinglish. But this one, in downtown Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, stopped me in my tracks. It’s a store selling makeup products called, simply: Slavery.

(In Chinese, the store is called Xiao Xian Nu, or 小仙奴. I have no idea what they intended to mean.)