Monday, November 30, 2009

More Food at Nán Yáo Tóu

November 23rd to 28th
It was a pretty quiet week. We were both working far too much due to a rather optimistic schedule (Rod, also author of said schedule) and an upcoming CGA exam in Beijing (Pavan). We had the dubious honor of learning the procedures for being last out of the office. The key point is putting a big bike-lock device on the front door as the fingerprint scanner and the automatic lock it hooks up to is apparently not terribly secure. Certainly not secure like a bike lock.

As one of the purposes of this blog is for us to enjoy when we look back on the trip and one of our favorite things during work weeks is the food, the focus of our coverage will be food.
November 23rd
Lunch on the 23rd was a seasoned (as in spiced for flavor not heat) potato dish known as Yáng Yù Cā Cā. This is served by a Nán Yáo Tóu restaurant that evidently feels strongly about old men who smoke.

A specialty of northern Shǎnxī, Yáng Yù Cā Cā is made by reducing potatoes to paste which is shredded and steamed (perhaps in the other order). Yáng Yù means potato, Cā Cā refers to the key tool used to pastify. It appears based on the attempts of co-workers to explain through English and mime that this is probably some sort of device involving two (or more?) layers where one slides a layer back and forth producing a shredding or tearing effect on the innocent potatoes fed into the machine. At some point along the way the mixture is seasoned and steamed.
November 24th
On the 24th Rod was nearly fooled by mushrooms trying to impersonate something like calamari. According to Pavan these are delicious.

We also had some green beans, or Lù Dò. Due to concerns over blandness these are served in a dish consisting of about half green beans and half spices and peppers (not eaten).

Mù Xū Rò Pork had some issues with translation. Apparently it is "pork, egg, asparagus lettuce, and edible tree fungus". We aren't quite sure what an 'asparagus lettuce' is; it certainly doesn't appear to be asparagus.

The major feature of the meal was fish. The fish was almost certainly formerly one of the fish swimming in a bucket near the entrance.

As always, the fish was tasty but rather challenging to consume due to issues with de-boning using chopsticks. As a result the miàn added to the dish later was more enjoyable than the fish itself.

That evening we had to go to the supermarket and coincidentally had the camera. The fish section was entertaining.

The highlight of the fish tank was the delicious turtles. Well ... maybe we should just say the turtles. It's hard to say how delicious they really are; they may have been farmed turtles, which just don't taste the same as free range.

Things that died in peoples fish tanks had been donated and put on ice, including what looked suspiciously like a collection of angel fish (on the left).

Mini-shrimp, dried, were available in bulk.

For the individual without refrigeration, or perhaps as a snack on the go, a convenient variety of dried fish and squid were presented.

Last but not least, a wide selection of instant noodles. These are uniform in one characteristic: they are all much better than what is generally available at home.

November 25th
If there is one thing you can count on in Nán Yáo Tóu it is that you will see a new device mounted on a barrel-o-fire. On the 25th the featured attraction was the multi-steamer.

For lunch we had soup. Pavan had meat and Rod tried vegetarian. The meat soup was heavy on veggies, the veggie soup was heavy on noodles.

Due to dissatisfaction with the vegetable soup we got to try another new thing: a Shǎnxī breakfast sandwich (our name, not theirs). Eggs are fried in between a thin dough, the resulting wafer is brushed with spicy sauce and tasty sauce, and then the whole thing is folded around a leaf of lettuce. It is delicious.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Bike Trip To Chang'an

Sunday, November 22nd.


Pavan was studying hard for her upcoming exam so I had made plans to go to Chang'an by bike with Jeff Fang. I got a cab to the Active office and then hung out there for a while with Jeff waiting for Nemo to show up so I could use his bike. I wore shorts as riding in jeans sounded chafe-intensive; Jeff, by far the more experienced rider, was apparently immune to this concern. Nemo showed up a few minutes later with a rather clean, new looking mountain bike, that is probably brilliant for a person a foot shorter. It felt a lot like getting on your old bike from when you were a kid. After adjusting the seat as high as possible it sort of fit, though my knees came up remarkably high on the upstroke.

We pulled our "heff"s (cloth tube that you pull over your face to make a ninja mask)  up and set off. The trip began in the city and during the first thirty or so minutes we rode out generally south towards the city boundaries. According to the bike computer on the borrowed bike we generally travelled at about 20km/hr. Intersections rapidly proved to be a little awkward. If the bike is moving the hot air from ones breath generally trails out behind you and doesn't cause any problems. At intersections while one is cruising blithely out in front of busses and so on it is often necessary to slow or stop. When slowed or stopped in the cold morning air your breath produces considerable steam, which thorugh both it's natural inclinations and the channel created by the ninja mask tends to want to rise. Just above the ninja mask the hot air encounters ones glasses and forms a marvellous mist. The effect is that you pull up to avoid a made motorist splattering you across the road and your glasses promptly turn opaque, as if desiring to keep the unpleasent realities of the situation hidden. Douglas Adams once proposed a pair of glasses that would turn completely opaque in presence of danger; the effect of the glasses in the morning air was quite similar. The loss of vision on reaching an intersection made it hard to follow the only viable plan for surviving biking through a Chinese intersection: go when Jeff (who is hopefully the blur through the mist) goes.

A short time later we passed out of the city boundaries. Jeff refers to this as "being in China now", apparently as opposed to be in Xi'an. The road stretched out through the mist and what appeared to be a bike lane was surprisingly often occupied by cars, trucks, vendors, crowds, and other obstructions so fairly often it was necessary to duck onto the main road where it was easier to attempt to draft the large trucks flying by six inches away. Jeff seemed totally imperturbed by the prospect of sharing space with much larger and more solid vehicles; I found it alarming on a number of occasions.

Jeff preferred to sit down while riding so I followed his lead. After we had been going for forty-five minutes it was very noticable that some muscles in my knees were getting rather tired. All along the roat was a kind of endless array of small shops and vendors. At around an hour out my knees were aching in a few places that evidently don't get much excercise from running and swimming. Luckily Jeff was thirsty (or thought I was) so we stopped at the endless shops and procured some water and a curious small somewhat spicy sausage for energy. The sausage may or may not have helped; five minutes of knee break was a life-saver.

A short distance further down the road we stopped to admire some unusual windmills.

At 11:37am, knees ready to quit, we finally reached our destination.

The fishing spot was a small artificial pond where fish are farmed. It is free to fish but you have to pay for food. All in all this seems like a rather good deal.

The fishing gear is basic - a simple telescoping pole with a fixed-length line attached - but seems like it should be effective. I say should be because we never witnessed an encounter between fishing pole and fish, despite the locals turning on a fresh water pipe and hurling in fish food to encourage the fish.

Lounging around in the noon sun fishing was rather pleasant. After we had played with the fishing equipment for a while the food Jeff apparently ordered while I wasn't looking showed up.

The best part, despite being rather overly salted, was a dish that translated as "edible wild herbs".

Apparently these are literally wild herbs; the locals pick them growing wild in the area. I didn't recognize any of them but there were delicious.

In addition to the wild herbs we had rice and a chicken broth with chicken in it. This appeared to be basically a chicken that was plucked, gutted, and then wacked into roughly even-sized pieces with a cleaver. All the edible bits were present, including feet and head.

Jeff didn't seem to want to eat the head and I wasn't too enthused either so we started throwing scraps to a pair of puppies that had been eying us from accross the yard. The puppies seemed pretty enthused about this so we kept throwing them bits.

The toilet facilities at the fishing camp could be described as rudimentary.

After lunch we wandered down onto a nearby riverbed to look around. Jeff is in the foreground of the picture.

As we wandered east we disturbed a pheasant and then noticed there was a mountain just barely visible through the mist. I convinced Jeff that we needed to get a little closer to this so we took the bids off the good road and onto a muddy dirt road leading mountainward. Unfortunately we ran out of road fairly shortly.

The whole time Jeff used the same gear rather than switching to deal with the mud so I got a bit ahead when we headed back. After shooting through a particularly muddy slope I glanced back and saw Jeff was behind and decided to brake to wait. On EVERY bike I have ever used the right-hand brake is the rear wheel. Every bike except Nemo's. Apparently when using the brakes earlier in the day I never noticed it was actually the reverse of the expected orientation so it was with considerable surprise that the rear of the bike and I launched forwards in a bid to dive over the handlebars rather than just skidding the back wheel. Luckily the child-like proportions of the bike came to my aid and I was able to land with my feet on the ground quite far forward, the handlebars pushed nearly to the ground, and the bike kind of popped up behind me then with great grace tumble sideways sustaining only a minor knee-scrape.

At the end of all this the bike was a little dirty and Jeff expressed that it might be best if Nemo never saw it that way. We made it back to the road and started towards home. According to a road sign Xi'an was some 29km away. My knees protested greatly and my ass was rather sore so I tried riding standing up more often. This proved to be a key breakthrough. Sitting on a tiny bike causes your knees to rise to high and produces a very energy inefficient peddling motion. Standing up turns out to both spare your behind from the saddle and spare your knees from the aching caused by the inefficient seated peddle so on the trip back I think I actually recovered energy. If only I had realized sooner!!

To avoid Nemo wanting to kill me when I returned his now less than spotless bike we stopped at a roadside carwash which agreed to clean the bikes for ¥3 each.

We even got to operate the water-gun. This was surprisingly powerful; we discovered to our surprise we were able to knock the bikes over with the spray.

We continued on towards Xi'an and to my delight my knees continued to recover courtesy of standing up rather than sitting on the saddle/torture device. I think we may have gone rather faster on the way back than on the way out. By the time we returned the sun had dipped enough that the air had cooled so the game of glasses-misting-at-intersections was played out again.

Once back in the office we got onto the topic of our plans for after Xi'an and I mentioned that after China we had six weeks off. Jeff seemed a bit surprised at this so I asked about China vacation (which I had done before and forgotten about). Apparently they get one week of vacation per year after the first year of work and then get plus one day of vacation per year for each year of employment thereafter. Apparently there is a cap on China vacation as well; you cannot get up to 15 days or anything like that. This seems rather crappy. On the other hand, I've mentioned our vacation allocations to Europeans who were just as shocked at how little we get.

My cab driver understood my pronunciation of the apartment address on the first try so at around 5pm I got home. My throat proved to be quite unhappy with the consumption of so much Xi'an air particles (despite the ninja mask); the next morning I got to enjoy coughing up some charming phlem, something that hadn't happened since our first arrival days in Xi'an.

For dinner we went to the Sleepy Time Cafe where I learned Pavan had never had a banana split so we corrected that problem. The local banana split is nearly correct; the only unusual bit is that the banana and ice cream and so on all sits on a bed of strange fruit parts.

-- Rod.

Bike Prep

Saturday November 21st.

Jeff Fang came by at 9am to help us communicate with the internet monkey. Our internet had been flaky ever since the provider did some "upgrades" (eg turned off the service without warning for two days). Google search and gmail would load but almost no other sites would respond. The internet repairman showed up and started poking at our computer. This was hard for him as he didn't read English with any degree of competence. After ten or fifteen minutes of poking through router and computer settings he announced all was well without fixing anything and made as if to leave. Rod expressed dissatisfaction and Jeff tried to communicate to him that we needed a fix. The repairman then announced that he might be able to fix things by calling the service provider and having them change some settings in a way that is usually not permitted that might help. However, if this fixed our problems he wanted a ¥50 fee! After much grumbling we said OK, extort away, and he made his call. Miraculously the internet resumed functioning! Jeff started asking him for assurances that it wouldn't simply turn off again followed by further extortion. After being pestered for a while longer the guy finally said screw it, told us he'd done us a favor, and stormed out without his extorted earnings. We were a bit concerned he'd call and have it turned off on us but so far it's still working fine.

While Jeff was admiring the view from our apartment we got to asking about how much the construction workers that have been workiing 18 hours per day seven days per week make. He figured for two to three hundred hours per month they might be earning ~¥1500 (~$235). A software engineer might earn ¥2000/month when they were very junior, moving up to ¥5000 per month over a few years and up to maybe ¥8000 after five years if they were paid well. The salary would be double in Beijing but the housing prices are triple. People working in Nán Yáo Tóu as waiters and the like would earn even less than the constructions workers. It is quite remarkable how wide the salary gap in China is. It's hard to imagine earning five times what a construction worker would make working crazy hours at home.

Next Rod and Jeff set out to rent some bikes for a proposed bike trip the following day. The first stop was a gear store reputed to have good cheap gear. Pavan came along for the cab ride but continued on past the gear store to buy western style groceries. On the way to the gear store we sampled spicy duck neck from a street vendor. Spicy duck-neck is good but at the end of it you have a spicy hand and a chunk of duck neck with the meat gnawed off. This situation is further complicated by the lack of a reasonable garbage cans per square mile in Xi'an. After a short search it was deemed acceptable to fling the duck-neck-remnant into a sort of street garbage dump that seemed to be accumulating a short distance down the street from the gear store. The gear store is within the city walls, just inside the west gate on a small side-street leading south off west street.

The tiny door and grubby staircase leading upstairs didn't look impressive but at the top was a store with some pretty decent gear for relatively cheap. A decent fleece cost ¥200 (a cheaper one was available complete with fleece pants for ¥120) and a set of seemingly decent full-size Bushnell binoculars were ¥120.

We also picked up a pair of bike gloves (¥30) and a couple of scarf/balaclava/ninja mask devices. These are basically a tube that you fit around your neck like a scarf and can pull up to cover your face or to be a headband or to wrap around your head in a variety of ways. In our case it was to be a ninja mask while biking to avoid breathing too many of the lovely Xi'an air particles.

After buying gear we headed out to find the bike rental shop.  We walked out the west gate and headed out down the street to the specified intersection. There was a street-side bike repair shop and not a rental site to be seen. Jeff phoned the vendor and a few minutes later he showed up riding one bike and pushing the other. He brought two rather small mountain bikes that appeared in dubious repair. After some hemming and hawing we decided to decline these, figuring that Jeff would use his own bike (we had expected the rental ones to be nicer) and Rod would borrow a co-workers. This meant there was no need to bike home from downtown so some time was freed up.

We were near Jeff's school, North-West Polytechnic, so we wandered through. It looked much like a North American school that decided to abandon upkeep several years earlier. The dorms look border-line condemned and are apparently not heated. Jeff mentioned that as a student he spent a great deal of time in classrooms - to the point of sleeping there - and so on to avoid being back in the frigid dorm rooms. After we left the campus it also came up that apparently North West Polytechnic students have been blacklisted en masse from US immigration because the school does some research projects on behalf of the Chinese military. The black list apparently even extends to Dell support: if they identify a customer as blacklisted they won't help you!

Over a fast-food meal of dumplings and soup dumplings (literally dumplings with soup plus the normal meat or whatever inside) we agreed to meet the following morning at the Active office, borrow a bike from Nemo, and ride out 20-30km towards Chang'an (former name of Xi'an as capital, now just a ... district/municipality/area south of the main Xi'an) to a spot where we could fish, grab lunch, and generally chill out in the country.

Next it dawned on us we were near the Small Wild Goose Pagoda so we grabbed a quick cab over to it. It rapidly became apparent that "little" is not entirely accurate.

The "little" pagoda is 43m tall and has survived a series of earthquakes that knocked off the top two tiers and then split it essentially in half! The split-in-half aspect was repaired when the Communist party restored it sometime in the mid-60's (if memory of the plaque serves). We were able to climb it. Jeff turned out to be proportioned rather better for this than Rod; some spots were rather tight. The other Chinese visitors to the pagoda often expressed some form of surprise at seeing Rod coming up the stairs.

From the top we were able to see out over the grounds and look down at the museum. Admission is included in the price so after clambering down - a rather harder enterprise than going up - we wandered off in that general direction.

The best thing we found on the grounds was a ringable bell (the best type of bell!). For ¥5 three wacks with the log hanging near it were permitted so we paused to make a considerable amount of noise.

The museum was small but quite nice. Nothing much different than what we'd seen in other places except for a couple of wooden models of Xi'an at various points in it's history. They also had a rather nice collection of Buddha statues from various dynasties. A couple of pictures of their stuff are posted at

After this we headed home. After a fair bit of difficulty with finding a taxi we got one who wanted to play the multiple-passengers game. We said OK and headed off.

For dinner we went over to Christina`s (lady Pavan met in our building complex) apartment for a mixed western/eastern meal. Christina made dumplings, pork, and a kind of salad made by frying oil with peppers in a wok then pouring it over cucumber (delicious). Pavan brought crackers and a couple of cheeses and meats and made what our hosts termed "Italian Noodles". Aside from Rod's production of two or three dumplings, Rod and Christina`s husband contributed primarily on the consumer side of the equation.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Is it ... *iced* beer?

Friday, November 20th.
Pavan came to the Active offices again. It was her turn to direct the taxi but he didn`t seem to understand her "Rǔan Jìan Yúan". He understood Rod; perhaps the hour per day spent practicing pronounciation with co-workers is starting to pay off?

At lunchtime we managed to get some stuff even the co-workers hadn't tried by way of Rod "helping" with the ordering. This consisted of enquiring as to what a given group of menu items (in Chinese characters) was then pointing to one at random, asking what it was, and, provided it didn't sound vile, ordering it. We got a couple of main dishes selected by co-workers and a couple of Rod's choice sides. The highlight was, without a doubt, a huge bowl of curry-like sauce with potatos, green peppers, onion, chicken, peppers, and so on.

There was also a fish that was cooked in a delicious sauce. Unfortunately eating bone-in fish pieces with chopsticks is messy and difficult. Locals are pretty competent; we had problems. Pavan gave up after one piece; Rod tried several and created a decent sized area covered in shredded fish bits, bones, and sauce while consuming very little meat and expending considerable effort. Locals can somehow eat the meat off from around the bones then drop the bones at the end. Our approach invariably results in bones in your mouth that you then have rather few polite options for disposing of. A few more practice runs may be required to really get the most out of the fish.

Chicken, green pepper, and little crunchy bits cooked with peppers is a much easier dish to eat.

After eating this, a couple of bowls of rice, and several other dishes we thought the meal was coming to a close. We reckoned without the local noodle fetish. The huge bowl of curry-like stuff now had some open areas of sauce with nothing floating in it. Into this space fresh noodles were added, then stirred into the curry. The noodles were rather long so lifting them with chopsticks was something of a battle (though less so than the huge noodles from earlier in the week). The resulting bowl of curry-like stuff and noodles is fantastic. We probably could have ordered the giant bowl of curry-like stuff and eaten it with first rice then noodles and had enough food for all six or so of us!

Re-noodlification of the curry-like stuff

At 1pm it was time for another pronounciation lesson. We got five different people to help, one per day, so this was the last new instructor. They all seem good and all put their own spin on things so it seems like the Language Lesson hour (1pm-2pm) is going to be pretty fun. Pinyin, the system of romanizing Mandarin, is relatively new so it was somewhat surprising to learn that school children learn Pinyin essentially before Chinese characters! They then practice all through school writing things in both Pinyin and characters. Amusingly this practice is carried over to English: they will, in early stages of learning in English, sometimes write English plus Pinyin for that English as a means to guide students in pronounciation!!

For dinner we went to the Sleepy Time Cafe (more accurately the Sculpting In Time Cafe). We brought study material and hung out there for a while. During dinner we decided to order a beer. A small amount of confusion later we found a menu and pointed at the beer item as simply saying it was resulting in questions from the waiter we couldn't understand. In response to Rod holding up two fingers and then pointing at beer the waiter pointed at iced coffee on the menu. This seemed a bit odd so we pointed at beer again. A short time later un-refrigerated beers showed up and it dawned on us that he may have been trying to point specifically at the word "iced" to enquire if we wanted it chilled. Lol.