2015 China Trip Day 9/26: Beijing’s Tsinghua University and Xian’r Lao Man Restaurant

It was another beautiful but cold morning in Beijing. (I know that news outlets are constantly reporting on the terrible air quality in Beijing and while it does have its terrible days, did you know that it is not even listed among the top 20 most polluted cities in the world?)

Our must see today was Tsinghua University. Tsinghua University along with Peking University are the top two universities in China. The competition to get into those two is fierce. The process is not fair. Depending on the household registry of the applicant, the student has a 0.01%-0.56% chance of being admitted. In comparison Harvard’s admittance rate is 5.9%. While Tsinghua is not the prettiest University campus (Stanford) I have seen. It is the most charming. I fell in love with the ginko trees and all the bicycles on campus. To me trees and bicycles symbolizes carefreeness.

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2015 China Trip Day 8/26: Onwards to Beijing

I first visited Beijing in 2008 right after the Olympics. I had not expected to like Beijing because everyone who had been to Beijing told me that Shanghai is much better. In my opinion each have their own charm and each city is a place I can see myself residing there for an extended period of time especially when the air quality improves. Though to be fair in my 2008 Beijing trip and this trip I was lucky to visit on great air quality days.

To get to Beijing from Datong, G and I took the slow train which takes around 6 hours. Currently there is no high-speed rail between the two cities, but I am told that within two years there will be one. The below train station is typical of the older style train stations.

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The iconic green train that I have taken several times in my childhood growing up in 1980’s China.

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The inside has been refurbished. I booked a soft sleeper carriage because I would have choked to death by the smoke in the hard sleepers and hard seats. I had bought lots of snacks to bribe my carriage mates into not smoking. Luckily we ran into a couple from Mississippi who decided to do a 20 China trip. Lovely people. [Read more…]

2015 China Trip Day 7/26 Part 2: Datong Museums & The Datong City Wall

Datong is a city that has wowed me in many ways: cleanliness, great air quality, public spaces, the nice people. I am shocked at how much I enjoyed a Tier 4 city as I did not care for some Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities that I had visited. In China, Tier 1 (Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, Guangzhou, Tianjin) & Tier 2 (Nanjing, Hangzhou) are clearly defined but Tier 3 & Tier 4 are where it gets murky. The way I see it is this if a city has two subway lines, it is a Tier 3. 1 subway line or less, Tier 4. Datong has none and probably won’t for the next twenty years. But it is a good thing as it really doesn’t need it. There isn’t even a rush hour yet.

What impressed me the most was The Datong Museum. Equal in my opinion to The Guggenheim and MOMA. It is better than the museums in Shanghai some of which are world class. And eons ahead of Hong Kong which has some of the most substandard museums I have ever seen for a city of its size. But the most amazing thing about the museum is that is almost empty. And free! Only the second museum that I have come across in China that is free.

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Grand hall with nobody. More security guards than tourists. Most domestic Chinese tourists are not interested in museums. They did no get much schooling and most don’t care to learn about real Chinese History. Most people are not aware of the fact that before the Communists simplified the Chinese characters, literacy was less than 20%. My maternal grandfather has a 3rd grade education level. My maternal grandmother is illiterate. My mother and her four siblings only graduated middle school. My cousins on my maternal side graduated from vocational high schools which is similar to trade schools. None of them care for museums and prefer to watch TV.  [Read more…]

2015 China Trip Day 7/26 Part 1: The Shanxi Countryside and Local Shanxi Food

For G and I’s book, there was a good portion of it set in the Shanxi countryside. I wanted to see if our research matched reality. We hired a driver and car for 600RMB ($97) to take us outside of Datong to where Shanxi borders Inner Mongolia and to The Great Wall of China. I ate a huge breakfast once again as I knew lunch was probably not going to be good. The below was only plate 1 of 3 of my breakfast. I was shocked at how fresh the vegetables and mushrooms tasted in Datong, so I ate huge quantities of vegetables every morning.

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The Northern China villages are similar to the Southern China villages and yet worlds apart at the same time. Rarely have I found any of the old villages I have been to quaint. I am enamored with the idea of village living and not the day to day reality.

We were lucky that the day we drove out was a sunny day and had been sunny the day before because it was mostly poorly maintained dirt roads. Lots of abandoned homesteads. The Northern China countryside is a harsh place. It is extremely cold and there is not much water. We passed by many villages and there was nobody left except the elderly or the very young kids. Everyone else left to work in the cities. Picture below is the abandoned Shanxi style houses.

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2015 China Trip Day 6/26 Part 2: The Yunggang Grottos & The Fenglin Ge Restaurant

One of the downsides of traveling is that the more I see the more jaded I become. It takes a lot to impress me and make me think this place is worth visiting and even more for me to say this place is worth coming back.

The Yunggang Grottos falls in the former simply because in the 3-4 hours we spent there, we saw everything.

Entrance ticket is 120RMB($19.35USD), half price for those over 60, and free for those over 70. To get to the grottos, you have to pass all these newly built replicas. I don’t mind them as I think these are tastefully done.

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After a 15 minute walk through the replicas you reach the grottos, which according to Wiki is an excellent example of Chinese stone carvings from the 5th and 6th centuries. Wiki also states there are 252 grottoes with more than 51,00 Buddha statues and statuettes. But the official map I bought at the ticket office says there are 45 grottos. I think Wiki is counting each “hole” as a grotto whereas the map I bought labels a group of “holes” as grotto #1, grotto #2, and so on. [Read more…]

2015 China Trip Day 6/26 Part 1: Datong City Center & The Jin Hua Gong Mine Museum

One that I first noticed about Datong is that there is a severe lack of people. Every local I have talked to says that the one child policy is not enforced in Datong. Though if you have more than two kids, you will be fined. Unless your first two kids are both female, then you can keep on until you get the desired male child.

The picture below is taken around 8am in what is their city square. In most cities, city squares are especially vibrant in the mornings. Here it is nearly empty.

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Looks impressive but I have no idea what it is because it is not fully complete yet. All the architecture in Datong is most rebuilt in the style of the Ming Dynasty.

 

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Attention to detail. Each and every detail of the myriad of buildings is hand-drawn with no repeats.

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Another one:

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And one more:

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The streets are very empty so much so that you can park anywhere in downtown Datong for free. Notice that the bustop is very tasteful designed as are the street lights. No garbage to be seen anywhere.

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G and I’s first destination today is Jin Hua Gong Mine Park. We booked a taxi through the Garden Hotel to take us to The Jin Hua Gong Mine Park and the Yunggang Grottos which are within a 5 minute drive of each other for 280RMB($45USD). Driver speaks Chinese only. The car is on the small side but smoke-free and clean.

Breakfast today was included in our room rate at the Garden Hotel and it was one of the best breakfast buffets I have come across in China beating out some of the 5 Star Hotels. I ate four full plates because I knew we were going to be skipping lunch. Lunchtime is the best time in China to visit tourist hotspots because all the guided tours are eating lunch. Though for the first part of our trip the Jin Hua Gong Mine Park, I was not worried because most domestic tour groups do not like visiting museums. The Jin Hua Gong Mine Museum is located on top of a government owned mine within a huge mine community complex that includes even an elementary school as mine workers and their family lives within the complex.

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Notice the miners behind me to the left. During the entire three hours G and I spent in the Mine Museum and its surroundings we spotted 4 other tourists and about two small bus loads of miners in full uniform. The entrance down the mine shaft is to the right.

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Empty lobby. The glass panel on the floor is a small scale recreation of the Jin Hua mine.

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Up close shot.

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The museum is well presented with many of the exhibits in both Chinese and English with minimal translation mistakes. I took pictures but none came out well because it was quite dark inside. All in all I was quite pleased we came here. Recommended if you are into learning more about how a mine operates in China. Entrance ticket is 35RMB($5.65USD).

2015 China Trip Day 5/26: Shanghai To Datong

Our morning started with a trip to the 7 Eleven next door. The night before when I reached out to grab what I thought was a cold drink was actually hot, not lukewarm but the temperature of a heat pack. I bought the the HK Style Mike Tea for G. Another surprise in that it ended costing 12RMB($1.90USD) when the freshly made version is between 6RMB-10RMB in most reputable drink shops in Shanghai.

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G’s breakfast, the drink I bought from 7Eleven is on the left. Cute bottle, I think most of the money went in the packaging. Tastes pretty good identical to the freshly made versions from reputable drink shops. [Read more…]

2015 China Trip Day 4/26: Shanghai – More Food and The Shanghai Urban Planning Museum

Miles walked: 9.35

I weighed myself this morning, the results were unpleasant. Two days of unrestrained eating caused me to gain nearly 4lbs. G was up around the same amount as well.

I needed to cut back on my calories so for breakfast today I drank a big cup of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice and sugarcane juice. I tried several juice bars during this trip and my favorite is the FRESH EVERYDAY chain because they use only the freshest fruits, operate in a hygienic environment, and the workers are very nice. The day before I tried their sugarcane and pear juice for 12RMB($1.93USD), today I tried their pomegranate sugarcane which was 26RMB($4.00USD). I liked both but my favorite still remains their pure sugarcane which is 14RMB($2.25) and not on their menu for some reason.

 

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G still ate a typical Shanghainese breakfast of jian bing except with fried dough this time and freshly ground green bean, red bean, soy bean, and black bean milk. Total for his breakfast was 6RMB($1USD).

 

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We then spotted a crowd of people waiting for a store to open. It was 8:30am on a Sunday, the store does not open until 9am, what could they be selling that would cause a crowd but not a line?

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It turns out it is for the Chinese caterpillar fungus which has risen equal the price of gold if not more.

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Next we made our way to the Shanghai Urban Planning Museum which we had previously visited in 2010. I am still just as impressed with their large scale model of Shanghai as I was 5 years ago. Shanghai really does have this many tall buildings, and in the future I think it will surpass Hong Kong.

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9 million+ people ride the Metro in Shanghai daily. This does not include the amount of people who bike, use their motor scooter, car, and the myriad of public buses. According to Wikipedia, the population of Shanghai at the end of 2014 is estimated to be greater than 24 million which is larger than the entire island of Taiwan which according to 2015 estimate is 23.46 million.

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Another exhibit I found interesting was a bunch of comic strips drawn by Frank He Youzhi depicting Shanghai life during the 1930’s-1970’s. The comic below is an example of his work which depicts a man going door to door selling coal to housewives. Cooking and heating with coal was common during the 1980’s in Shanghai as was the use of chamber pots. Back in the 1980’s about half of my relatives bought coal and emptied their chamber pots daily.

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After nearly 3 hours of standing on our feet, G and I were very thirsty and hungry so we walked over to R&B World Teahouse. We bought this XL size drink for 16RMB($2.60). Made with real fruit, we saw the staff squeeze an entire lemon and lime along with a bag of green tea and some jello bites. There are many such drink places in Shanghai and it is one of the reasons that is making people grow fatter. I observed a lot more overweight people especially women during this trip than all my other trips to Shanghai. Way too many restaurants, dessert shops, and sugary drink places for one to indulge in.

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Our thirst was quenched but our stomach was growling. We decided to visit one of the best known stores in Shanghai for it, 舒蔡记. Dianping does not contain many good reviews of this place but since I only use Dianping as a guide and not the absolute last word, I decided to go anyway becauseI trust this blogger’s taste buds and he gave this place a very favorable review. In my opinion there are too many people who have not eaten enough good food on top of possessing not so great tastesbuds to begin with, running around writing reviews on Dianping. And on top of that there are many restaurant managers who offer discounts when one writes them a positive Dianping review. This is in addition to Dianping.com offering many perks to those who do write reviews of any kind.

My favorite food blogger does not disappoint. This is my favorite shenjianbao in Shanghai bar none. Fresh, porky but not too porky, with lots of broth inside each bun. I also like the outside of the bun, the chewiness of the dough is done exactly to my liking. This is a 9.5/10 in taste for me. Shanghai’s most famous chain of shengjianbao’s is Yang’s Dumplings which depending on the chain can range between a 6.5-8.5/10 in terms of taste.

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But as good as their shengjianbao’s are, their most famous item is their rice cooked in a huge round cast iron skillet with bok choy, salted pork, purple onion, shitake mushrooms, and lard. See the crisp crust of the rice which only come from cast iron, and that each grain of rice is plump with just the right bite.

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I will be doing a detailed review of 舒蔡记 sometime in the future as I visited this shop 4 times during my stay in China. I love it so despite the terrible environment and the “I don’t care to work here workers.” This is one of the very rare shops that I break my cleanness standards for.

G and I had to go home for another nap. The jetlag is still kicking our ass. We woke up only to meet my grandparent’s and cousin for dinner at沈大成(斜土路店). I always eat at this restaurant because it is the closest “good” restaurant that is near my grandparents (my grandmother has not walked 5 minutes outside of her neighborhood in years). Lots of food was ordered but I mainly only ate some vegetables and fried fish. Did you know pumpkin and asparagus make a very good combo? I ordered this dish as I am always on the lookout to discover interesting new flavor combos.

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This kao-zhi fish is a Shanghainese staple seen everywhere. Deep fried fish that is the size of my index finger fried to a crisp flavored with soys auce and sugar. Though this restaurant does not make such a great version I still ate it anyway because I love kao-zhi fish. Pity that this was the only time I ate it in Shanghai.

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And of course G could not wait a moment longer to have his favorite dessert in Shanghai, 鮮芋仙 and possibly the world. G first ordered this dessert by mistake during our China trip last year. He tried to return it because he dislikes grass jelly but I told him to just let it go because grass jelly is supposed to be good for one’s body and so he did expecting it to be the worst dessert ever. It turned out to be the best mistake ever.

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The still hot and soft taro glutinous balls with the smoothness and not bitter grass jelly combined with the finely flavored sugary shaved ice along with a splash of evaporated milk was a mixture of flavor and texture combinations that makes each bite a treat to the senses. I love this dessert very much as well but G and I always order one to share as we are both calorie conscious. At 22RMB($3.50) this is a steal!