Welcome to Wenzhou, Watch out for Speeding BMW’s!

Posted in Business 'n Economics at 9:52 am by Benjamin Ross

The other day as I was attempting cross the street in front of my friend’s Wenzhou apartment, I was almost run down by a white BMW 750. I scurried over to the median in the middle of the road, and was looking to cross to the other side, when I heard the blare of another car horn racing towards me, this one a Jet black Mercedes-Benz sedan. I finally made it to the other side of the street, but not before I was nearly hit by an oncoming Porsche SUV. Dodging speeding vehicles is nothing out of the ordinary in the Middle Kingdom. But what was odd was that all of the vehicles I was bombarded with were German designed and worth hundreds of thousands of RMB.

Located in Zhejiang province in Southeastern China, Wenzhou is one of the wealthiest cities in China. When China began the process of Reform and Opening Up, Wenzhou was one of the earlier (and most successful) cities to establish trade relations with the West. Today, a large percentage of shoes and textiles in Italy and France all originate in this once humble Zhejiang coastal town. As the local economy boomed, many of Wenzhou’s people found themselves in the right place at the right time, and today are now swimming in a veritable pool of money far too deep for them to ever spend away.

After my street crossing incident, I decided to do a little of my own research. I took a stroll through the parking lot nearest to my friend’s apartment and took a record all of the parked cars. Here’s what I saw.

BMW Bank of China
The white BMW with black tints, the de facto official vehicle of Wenzhou

BMW 760
Mazda 3
Mercedes-Benz C200
Hafei HFJ7110 (Chinese make)
Buick Excel
Honda Accord
Hyundai Excel
Toyota Camry
Buick Excel
Toyota Camry
BMW 520
Audi A4
Honda Accord
Buick Excel
Mercedes-Benz S350
Chinese Minivan (unsure of the make)
Audi A6
Volkswagen Polo
Hyundai (didn’t see the model)
Mazda 3
Toyota Ruiz

I broke the vehicles down into 4 categories, and here’s what I came up with.

Japanese/Korean mid-size: 9
Buicks: 3
German Luxury Cars: 6
Everything else: 4

Unsurprisingly Japanese/Korean mid-sizes came out on top with 41%. but the number which stuck out most was the full 27% which were all German luxury models! Another common make was the Buick, long regarded as a geezermobile in the US, but widely popular in China, which took 13.5%. One car which was absent from this list (and conspicuously rare in Wenzhou), is the QQ, China’s homegrown version of the Yugo, which can be purchased for under $10,000 USD. In many cities in China, the QQ is now the most common car on the road. In Wenzhou, that honor would probably go to the BMW 5 series, or Mercedes S Class.

While this sample size is far too small to draw any scientifically bound conclusions, it is still quite representative of what I saw during my five days in Wenzhou. Car ownership alone is still a somewhat superfluous way to judge wealth, but it does give an idea of the amount of money that is floating around this once non-descript Southern Chinese city. If you do ever make it down to Wenzhou, just make sure you don’t get hit by an oncoming BMW 760. I hear the V12 packs on a lot of extra weight.

Mercedes China



Back Down South…and Thinkin ’bout the North

Posted in Society, Travel Log (Asia) at 3:33 pm by Benjamin Ross

For the past four days, I’ve been doing something I have honestly never done before in China—take a trip for completely social reasons, with little desire to sightsee, explore, or do anything remotely Chinese. I have been staying in Wenzhou, a coastal, wealthy city in Zhejiang province, where some of my old friends from Fuzhou are now teaching. My friends here are all American and British, and it has been a welcome break to take a short rest from China, even though I am technically still, in China.

Usually, whenever I arrive in a Chinese city for the first time, I spend at least a full day canvassing the city by foot and by bus, trying to take in and observe what I can of my new surroundings. What is unique about this particular city? In what ways is it exactly the same as every other Chinese city? How exposed/hospitable are the locals towards foreigners? What does the local dialect sound like? What is the most recent local street food rage? et cetera, et cetera. I had been to Wenzhou once before, but only for an afternoon, not long enough to gain any real feel for the city. Nonetheless, I decided that this stop on my China trip would be purely social. I had done enough site seeing and exploring in Dongbei last week, and could use a little time to relax with Western friends in a relatively insular environment.

Try as I might not to pay attention to my surroundings, as we were walking home from the laowai bar the other night, it hit me how strikingly similar Wenzhou was to Fuzhou. This is partly to be expected, as Fuzhou is only four hours away from my former Chinese home. But then something else dawned on me. Up until this week, I had spent my entire China trip in the North. Although I have traveled to the North on many occasions, I would estimate over 90% of my total time in China has been spent down South. My trip this summer, which has taken me to Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei, Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning, has been the first time I have ever come to China, without stepping foot below the Yangtze (长江) River. I was now back down South, and suddenly my surroundings felt different, very different.

China, in its most rudimentary geographic regionalization is broken down between the “North” and the “South” with the Yangtze being the generally accepted dividing line. While this delineation is certainly an overgeneralization, and doesn’t speak much for the Western portion of the country, there is a considerable amount of accuracy to the North/South divide. Here are just a few of the differences which I have been reminded of now that I am back down South again.

The Weather: I thought it was hot in Beijing. I even thought it was humid in Beijing. Let me assure you of this. Once I return to the capital city, I will never, ever, complain about summer heat and humidity in the North again. I take one step out of the door in Wenzhou, and my clothes are instantly sticking to my body. The North may be hot, but if I stay down South any longer, I am afraid my internal organs will melt.

The Money: Wenzhou is certainly an extreme example in this category, but if I got a free baozi for every BMW I saw on the streets here, I would die one incredibly fat man. While there is affluence in the North these days as well, it isn’t nearly as opulent as it is in the South(east).

The Language: I never imagined I would say this, but it is refreshing to be surrounded by the kind of scraggly Putonghua I got used to in Fujian, once again. It’s also pleasant to hear dialects spoken in cities. Even though I can’t understand them, I’ve always appreciated the idea of a region having its own language, that outsiders could not comprehend. This is something you don’t see in Northern cities (but do occasionally hear in rural areas).

The Fashions: Beijing is full of hipsters wearing the latest fashions in everything from the latest out of Italy and France to Goth-punk. But, like most other Northern Cities, it also has an even larger contingent who are happy wearing bland, mono-chromatic clothing, which looks as if it was purchased just a few months after the Cu1tural Revo1ution. The average southerner is more likely to be wearing a more varied blend of semi-current foreign styles, and less formal gear. Take taxi drivers for example. Your average Beijing cabbie will be wearing a white button down shirt, black (or blue) slacks, and black shoes. Down South, you’re much more likely to be driven around by a guy wearing a T-shirt, shorts, and possibly flip-flops.

The Rice: I came to Fujian as a non-believer and left an addict. I remember my first few weeks eating at my university’s cafeteria. All of my students were afraid I would starve to death, because I was only eating meat and vegetables, no rice. It took a while to get used to, but after a month I was eating rice twice a day, every day, and sometimes 3 times if I had porridge for breakfast. If I didn’t get my rice, I was hungry half an hour later, and still am to this day if I eat Chinese food without those tiny grains of goodness. While Northerners thesedays eat rice too, it isn’t nearly as automatic as it is in the South. The folks up North will happily substitute noodles, dumplings or mantou (Chinese steamed bread) instead of rice as the staple food. Down South, this doesn’t fly so well. Eating a meal (吃饭) means eating rice, both literally and practically.

There are countless other South/North differences, and I am sure a Chinese would have an even deeper perspective on the matter than myself. In addition to the quantifiable ones I have listed above, the South just has a different vibe from the North. It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what it is, but I am sure anybody who has spent time in both regions of China would feel the same way. The best analogy I can think of would be comparing New York and San Francisco, both excellent cities in their own right. It would be easy to write out a laundry list of differences between the two, but beyond that, there is still a different vibe, a different feeling you get walking down the street, that is difficult to put into words.

As for me, I will be leaving Wenzhou soon to spend a week back in Fuzhou, and then back up North to Beijing just in time for the Olympics. Until then, I will most likely be sweating like a panda, feeling financially inferior to many of my Chinese acquaintances, and consuming massive quantities of white rice.



Welcome to Dog Meat Street 狗肉街欢迎您!!!

Posted in Culture Clash, Food and Drink, Travel Log (Asia) at 2:56 pm by Benjamin Ross

“So tell me, do they really eat dog in China?”

I probably get asked this question at least once a week when I am back in the United States. To shed some light on this inquiry, here’s a short anecdote from my recent trip to the town of Yanji (延吉) in Northeastern China’s Jilin province. Yanji is located just 15 miles away from the North Korean border, and home to much of China’s ethnic Korean population. In addition to being known for its Korean-infused “cold noodles,” (冷面 leng3 mian4) Yanji is also the renowned dog eating capital of China. So much so that they even have a street called Dog Meat Street (狗肉街 gou3 rou4 jie1), where restaurants specialize in serving dog meat in various incarnations, such as dog soup, dog hot pot, or simply chopped up, stir-fried dog with veggies.

Being that I had come all the way from Beijing, and was now in arguably the most famous dog eating spot in the world, I had to give it a try. Along with two Chinese backpackers I had met along the way we found quaint, little, restaurant on Dog Meat Street which specialized in serving dog hot pot (狗肉火锅 gou3 rou4 huo3 guo1) and decided to give it a whirl.

A hot pot is a vat of boiling water, which usually sits in a circular hole in a table, constructed specifically for its purpose. A spicy base, and sometimes pork bones, are boiled in the water to give it flavor. Various meats, vegetables, and other miscellaneous foodstuffs are individually ordered from the menu and then dipped in the hot pot where they are cooked while soaking up the spicy flavor.

For our hot pot, we ordered lean strips of dog meat, along with some cabbage leaves and lettuce. As is customary of Dongbei (Northeastern Chinese) food, several cold dishes were served as appetizers, including fresh seaweed, pickled garlic, and kimchi. Once the meat had been sufficiently cooked, I dipped my chopsticks into the pot to pull out a thin slice of meat. (I had pictures of this, but unfortunately they were on my camera which was stolen in Dalian). It was brown in color, coarse in texture, and from my view looked indistinguishable from beef. One of my accomplices recommend I dip it in some hot sauce which had been brought to our table by the waitress. After dabbing the morsel into the sauce, I popped it in my mouth. The meat was lean and coarse, but did not have a flavor as distinct as pork or beef. The closest comparison I could come to was rabbit. It certainly didn’t taste like chicken. We finished the meal, drank a few Tsingtao’s, and retired for the evening.

So as you’ve probably already ascertained, the answer to the original question of whether or not dog is eaten in China is an overwhelming “Yes.” There is no denying that our furry canine friends do often make their way on to the dinner table in the Middle Kingdom. However, there is still quite a bit of misunderstanding on the subject.

“What kinds of dogs do they eat?”

In and around Yanji, as well as other areas in China where canine consumption is practiced, the dogs which are eaten are not the same ones which live side by side with their human masters. Most are a “breed” of dog commonly referred to in China as 土狗 (tu3 gou3), which means “earth” or “wild” dog. These dogs have been mixed between so many breeds, that even referring to them as a “breed” would be a misnomer. They are not cute. They do not give affection. and they will not sit, heel, or roll over. Rather, they are raised on farms, and though domesticated, they are domesticated as farm animals, not pets. While it is not completely unheard of for pet dogs to mysteriously disappear in the Middle Kingdom, the vast majority of dog meat comes from these special dog farms, not the neighbor’s back yard.

“If one is to go to China and not interested in eating dog meat, how can they be certain this won’t happen by accident or trickery? Is it safe to eat food on the street? How does one know that the ‘pork’ skewers are actually pork and not dog or rat or snake or some other kind of weird animal?”

Dog meat in China (like rat and snake) is a delicacy, and therefore considerably more expensive than beef, chicken, or pork. The main reason that most human populations eat the animals they do centers around economics. When human labor, feed, and space requirements are all factored in, it is far more economical to raise cattle or pigs for human consumption than it would be to raise dogs; You simply get more meat for your buck. Hence the lower prices for pork and beef, and the higher price for dog meat. In all likelihood, it would be much more plausible for an unsuspecting tourist to order dog and be served pork, than it would be the other way around.

“So, how common exactly is dog eating in the Middle Kingdom?”

Although dog consumption does exist in China, is far less common than the consumption of more “mainstream” meats such as pork, beef, and chicken. Much of this centers on the price, as mentioned above. Sure, many Americans would love to eat lobster three times a week, but because of its price, it is usually reserved for special occasions. Dog meat in China is the same. While not prohibitively expensive, it surely is not economical to make a habit out of eating it. Additionally, places like Yanji are by no means the norm when it comes to meat selection. In many areas of China, dog meat is rarely, if ever, eaten at all. Furthermore, as dog ownership has increased in China, so to has the amount of Chinese people who refuse to eat dog, mainly on the same grounds as Westerners—they’re our cute, loyal, furry pets, not our banquet centerpiece.

For those willing to try dog meat, you won’t have to go all the way to Yanji to have a taste. In nearly every major Chinese city can be found a restaurant where it is served. Just look for the characters 狗肉 written on a restaurant sign.* And for those who are not too keen on eating man’s best friend, there is no need to worry. Just go ahead and order your kung pao chicken. I can assure you, it will be kung pao chicken.

*Since dog eating is not especially common in most parts of the country, it is often specifically advertised as a restaurant’s specialty.



Beijing’s New Airport Shuttle; A Look Inside

Posted in Beijing, Travel Log (Asia) at 9:48 am by Benjamin Ross

In anticipation for that particular event which will be coming upon in Beijing on 8/8/08, the new transit line connecting Beijing Capital Airport with the city subway system was opened on Saturday. On Monday I had to catch a flight to Wenzhou and decided to check it out first hand.

Please excuse the quality of the images. Thanks to a particular 坏蛋 in Dalian, I had to take them using the digital camera on my Treo.

The new route has only 2 stops en route to the airport, Dongzhimen station along lines 2 and 13 and Sanyuanqiao along the new Line 10.
Back in the “Old Days,” a cab ride from the airport to the city center could cost in upwards of 100 RMB. Tickets for the shuttle are currently selling for 25 RMB, as opposed to 2 RMB for all other subway fares.
Like most places in Beijing these days, security is tight when boarding the shuttle, and all bags are scanned by X-Ray。
Similar to Beijing’s other new subway lines, the airport shuttle has a safety wall sealing off the tracks from the boarding area on the platform. I arrived on the platform, and began waiting at exactly 7:30 pm.
After a fifteen minute wait, the train pulled up at the station at 7:45. Originally I had been expecting carriages similar to those of the regular subway lines. But as soon as you step foot in the airport shuttle, you will see where your extra 23 RMB went. This ride is posche!
Wide, plush, seats, plasma TV’s, this train is everything you would expect from a city trying to make a positive first impression on out-of-town visitors. The ride is smooth; the carriages are quiet; and the journey is fast. Looking out the window, I noticed we were moving at the same speed, if not slightly faster, than most of the traffic on the highway.
The train runs both underground and above ground at different points, and seemed to have pretty good cell reception along the way.
The only negative I could draw from my experience on the shuttle was its slightly Chinglish infused name…ABC. The letters stand for “Airport Beijing City.” Get it? ABC?…I would have been content at just calling it “Airport Shuttle,” “Line 15,” or something else not nearly as overly creative.
The shuttle arrived at the new Terminal 3 at 8:03–just 18 minutes from departing Dongzhimen. Including my wait, that’s exactly 33 minutes from Dongzhimen to the airport. Based on my single experience, this is going to be an exceptionally efficient way to shuttle passengers between the airport and downtown. At least for me, I know I will never be taking another taxi or a bus from the airport to the city center ever again.



Beijing Today, Beijing One Week Ago; The Olympification of the Capital City

Posted in Beijing, Olympics at 3:29 am by Benjamin Ross

Three weeks ago I wrote a post about the changes Beijing has witnessed between 2006 and 2008. Just yesterday I returned from a brief trip to Dongbei to find the Beijing of today vastly different from the one I left only one week ago. China’s capital city is currently in the home stretch of its extensive eight-year Olympic preparation plan. The goal is to transform a city, once severely lagging in public infrastructure, into a worldwide metropolis capable of being a host to the global stage. As the final pull towards preparation, a new onslaught of rules and regulations went into effect on July 20. The aim of the regulations have been to ensure a positive Olympic experience for the record numbers of visitors expected to flock to Beijing in the coming weeks. Here’s a rundown of some of the changes.

Beijing Third Ring Road 三环路
Northern Third Ring Road, Monday evening rush hour, 6 pm

Until the end of the Olympics, only half of Beijing’s private automobiles will be allowed on the street each day. Who is allowed and not allowed is determined by license number. Dates alternate between cars with even numbered license plates and those with odd numbered license plates being allowed on the road. Today was the first business day with the policy in place. At 9 am I had to make a trip to the Lenovo service center, located along the Eastern stretch of the Third Ring Road, to pickup my laptop which was being serviced. I had taken public transit to get there, but decided to test out the new policy by taking a cab back. My apartment is located along the Northern stretch of the Third Ring Road, and it was 9:30 am on a Monday morning. Usually at this hour, the Third Ring Road is a virtual parking lot, and those traveling in cars are lucky if they can move faster than the bicycles which pass them on either side. Under normal circumstances, the taxi from the Lenovo service center back to my apartment would have taken anywhere from half an hour to an hour and cost around 20 RMB. In fact, it would have been even more than likely the taxi driver would have just told me to take the subway. Today I made it back in under fifteen minutes, and at the cost of 11 RMB. Traffic moved fluidly the entire way.


The past week has seen a major increase in security in and around Beijing. Yesterday, while taking the bus from Dalian back to Beijing, the driver collected each passenger’s ID card. At three different checkpoints, police stopped the bus, and asked to see all of the ID cards. At one of the checkpoints, I was asked to get off the bus, and taken into a police questioning room, where several officers looked through my passport scribbling down information in a log. They asked me how long I had been in China, what I was doing there, and how long I planned to stay. After a brief questioning session, I was led back to the bus. The officers were all friendly, and told me that the check was in order to “ensure the safety of the Olympics.” Upon arrival in Beijing, every passenger’s luggage was run through an X-Ray scanner before we could leave the station.

Beijing Olympic Volunteers
A troop of student volunteers eagerly awaits duty at Beijing Capital Airport.

Army of Volunteers
With a population of over 1.3 billion, China is rarely shorthanded when it comes to manual labor. With this in mind, they have enlisted the help of tens of thousands of volunteers all across Beijing, many of them students and senior citizens. On the streets, in subway stations, at the airport, and virtually any other place where people congregate can be found uniformed volunteers, wearing red arm bands and Olympic volunteer credentials. From pedestrian traffic, to queuing control, to simply answering questions, the army is in force, in preparation for the mass influx of visitors to Beijing. The quantity of citizens eager to help appears to be so great that there almost seems to be a surplus of helping hands. I saw one senior citizen volunteer today sitting in the shade under a sky bridge reading the newspaper. I asked what his responsibility was, and all he could produce was “ensuring safety.”

As of yesterday, many local factories were shut down and ordered not to resume until after the Olympics. This, along with the traffic restrictions, is expected to seriously improve Beijing’s air quality. In addition to the reduction in the number of cars on the road itself, the lack of traffic jams is expected to curb the amount of pollutants released per vehicle per trip. Today the air is fresher than normal, and the skies are showing a hint of blue. This would be considered a good day, compared with Beijing’s usual grey summer skies. However it is probably still too early if this is attributed to a cut back of pollution, or just the natural effect of the change in weather. I’ll have to check back up on this in a couple weeks.

City Beautification
Now that pollution controls are in effect, Beijing has been gung ho on the beautification and Olympification of the city. Ornamental Olympic displays have been appearing in traffic medians, and the streets are now draped in “Beijing 2008” flags and banners. Along with the backdrop of all the volunteers, it is finally starting to look and feel like the Olympics are coming to town.

Business Hours
Since I live relatively close to the Olympic grounds, many of the nearby local businesses have had their hours staggered in order to help control traffic. The idea is that staggering employees working hours, will space out the rush hour strain on transportation. When I went to use the ATM in the shopping mall near my apartment at 9:45 this morning, the entire mall save for the grocery store in the basement had been roped off by security. “In order to comply with regulations, everything except for the basic necessities, has to stay closed until 10 am,” I was told by a security guard. This included my ATM. “The only place you can go now is the grocery store, to buy basic provisions like food. For everything else, you have to wait until 10.”

Subway Transit
July 20th also saw the opening of Beijing’s newest subway lines. Line 10, which runs a route roughly under the north and east sections of the Third Ring road, Line 8, the spur route to the Olympic grounds, and the Airport Express line connecting Beijing Capital Airport to the rest of the subway system. Beijing’s subway system has long been inadequate for a city of its size, and the new subway lines will no doubt ease the strain on the gridlocked road system. The one potential bottleneck however is that the Olympic spur line only connects to line 10. Therefore subway riders coming from line 2 (Beijing’s central loop line), will have to transfer 3 times (first to either Line 13 or Line 5 and then to Line 10 before transferring to Line 8 ) in order to take the subway to the games. The 2012 subway plan calls for Line 8 to be extended to meet up with Lines 1 and 2, but this will be long after the Olympics have left town.

Bus Transit
With the excessive subway transfers required, Olympic visitors might be better advised to take advantage of the Olympic buses which are now running test routes around the city. To alleviate the threat of traffic jams on main traffic arteries, special lanes have been marked off and reserved solely for Olympic traffic. This will include transporting the athletes and officials to and from the games, as well as special free buses for spectators. With the Olympic subway spur only connected to Line 10, the buses will likely be the most convenient ride to the Olympics for most visitors not staying near the North or East Third Ring Road.

Beijing has come a long way since it was awarded the Olympics in 2001. The Chinese capital was badly in need of a face lift, and the Olympics could not have come at a more convenient juncture in time. While the city still has a long way to go, it is certainly in better shape to handle the influx of tourists now than it was when preliminary planning first began eight years ago. With only 17 days 16 hours and 48 minutes to go, only one can only wait to see how it all unfolds.



The trip is over, camera’s gone, back in Beijing

Posted in Personal Anecdotes, Travel Log (Asia) at 12:28 pm by Benjamin Ross

I knew it couldn’t last forever. What was five days of spot-on seamless travel, turned into virtual disaster. Maybe disaster is too harsh a word, since I’m back in Beijing in one piece, but nonetheless, the final three days on my Dongbei trip have to go down as my least successful Chinese travel experience ever.

It all started several nights ago in Yanji when I met two recent college grads who were traveling around China following the torch relay and selling Olympic T-shirts. They had invited me to come along with them to Dalian, and eventually Shandong to help hack goods and see the country. On the day we were supposed to leave, some unexpected work related issues arose, and had to remain in Yanji for a full day working out of a netbar. The boys had already booked their train tickets to Dalian, and I had decided that if I stayed back, worked for a day, and then took a bus, I could still meet them there (the bus only takes half as long as the train). I spent the entire day in the netbar, rushing through my TPS reports, and when I finished, I went to the train station to book my Dalian ticket for the following morning. Once I arrived at the station, I was informed that the Dalian bus service had temporarily been suspended. I would have to take a bus to Changchun, and then from Changchun go to Dalian. This route was still faster than taking the train would have been. I spent the entire night on a bus to Changchun, arrived at 6 am, checked out the town for about three hours, and then at 10:30 am, boarded the bus to Dalian.

While I was on the bus, I received a text from one of the T-shirt sellers telling me that Dalian was in a state of torrential downpour, and that they were going to continue on to Shandong. They had offered to wait for me, but being that I wanted some time to explore Dalian, and that I felt bad having them change their schedule around me, I told them not to wait.

When I arrived in Dalian, it was about 9 pm. I strolled around downtown for a few hours, but was so exhausted from all the bus rides, that I found a sauna house, took a hot shower, and passed out. The following morning, the rains had returned. Usually, harsh weather doesn’t faze me too much, but I had come to Dalian to sight see, and it was raining so hard I could barely see anything. I spent two hours in an Internet bar hoping for the weather to clear up, but all to no avail. After checking the forecast, (something which would have made much more sense to do BEFORE I went to Dalian) it became apparent that it was probably going to rain for the next three days. I decided to cut my losses, and head back to Beijing.

I took a bus to the long distance bus/train station area, and after wading through the crowds found the Dalian to Beijing bus. There was an overnight sleeper bus, which would give me the rest of the day to explore if things were to clear up, and then I’d be back in Beijing the following morning. I went to the ATM to withdraw money to pay for my bus ticket, content with what I had seen in Dongbei, and ready to go back home. Then I looked down at my camera pouch around my belt. It was empty.

It was immediately apparent what had happened. Long distance bus and train stations are the number one most common place to get pick pocketed in China. I’ve probably walked in and out of Chinese train/bus stations over a hundred times. Each time I have anal retentively placed my wallet, phone, passport, and camera in my front pockets, with both hands directly on them. Recently I had bought a Swiss army backpack with a pocket on the top. At previous destinations I had put all my valuables in the top pocket and swung the bag around on my front side. A thief would literally have had to pick my pocket right from under my nose.

For some unforsaken reason, this time at the bus station, the thought of protecting my valuables hadn’t even dawned on me. I had also been carrying an umbrella, something I rarely if ever do, which had required the usage of one hand. Not to mention my camera was stowed in my belt loop “I have a camera, please steal me” pouch. But more than anything, I just wasn’t paying attention. The interesting thing is, in all my travels ever in China, this is the one and only time I have ever spaced out at a transit station, and I got taken right away. Between the long bus rides, the rain, and now my camera gone, I had had enough. I bought a ticket to head back to Beijing that afternoon.

In the back of my mind I like to think that I was going to be hit by a bus last night, or maybe fall down an uncovered manhole. Maybe getting my camera stolen was fate’s way of intervening on my behalf. On the bus ride back to Beijing I was reading Jung Chang’s “Wild Swans.” I was at the part where the narrator is revealing in detail the horrors and monstrosities of life during the Cu1tural Revo1ution. Reading about all the merciless denunciations, beatings, and carnage helped make my problem seem more trivial.

My camera was expensive, but replaceable, but more than anything, I am going to miss all the photos I had taken, the old European Harbin buildings, the Jewish cemetery, the pictures of North Korea taken from across the border, shots of all the random Dongbei food I sampled, the torch parade through Yanji, just to name a few. All in all, there were over 100 shots, and if the punk who took my camera were here today, I’d gladly hand him over an extra couple hundred kuai just to get my memory card back. In the next few days I am going to try to recount as much of my photography as I can through words, as this is probably the best way to make something positive come out of such a situation, and as I did mention before, there are much worse things that can happen on the road than losing a camera and some pictures. Then again, it still stings.

This was actually the first time I have ever been pick pocketed, and I with all the traveling I do, I was formerly quite proud of this small feat. Some people like to say things like this are bound to happen when you travel a lot. I disagree. They happen when you aren’t being careful and have your head stuck up your ass, which is exactly why it happened to me.



Yanji -> Dalian (via Changchun)

Posted in Travel Log (Asia) at 7:09 am by Benjamin Ross

After several days in Yanji, I am now on my way to Dalian.  In Yanji I met two students who were on “torch tour,” traveling the country, following the Olympic torch, and selling T-shirts.  They invited me to come along with them to Dalian and Shandong, but unfortunately I wasn’t able to get a train ticket to Dalian in time.  I took a bus to Changchun, and will take another bus to Dalian in a few hours, and hopefully catch up with them, and possibly sling T-shirts for a few days through Liaoning and Shandong.

Here are a few random observations about Yanji

-All signs were bilingual, written in Korean and Chinese.  Most of the ethnic Koreans speak both Chinese and Korean as a native language.  From what I could gather (I really wasn’t there long enough to say anything more than a brief over-generalization) the ethnic Koreans seemed (other than their language) to be culturally more or less like the Han, similar to the Mongolians in Inner Mongolia.

-Lots of Korean food.  My own personal favorite was 牛肉汤 (niu2 rou4 tang1), a spicy beef soup which was eaten with a side of rice.  Virtually every meal I had came with a side of kimchi. 

-Lots of dog eating.  I’ll let you know in a more detailed post whether or not I partook.

-In a town called 图门 (tu2 men2), an hour outside of Yanji, you can go to the border, and see North Korea.  I usually don’t get too excited about borders, unless of course it’s a country which I can’t actually go in to check out.  This was the highlight of the trip, and I took a lot of pictures.

-Strange Putonghua accents.  The people in Yanji have a peculiar accent where they have an 儿化音 (over emphasis on the “R” sound, like Beijingers), but they also don’t pronounce sh, ch, and zh, like Southerners.  Thus 没事 is pronounced mei2 sir4.

More to come soon.  I have about 3 hrs to explore Changchun, and then on to Dalian. 



Arrival in Yanji…and Pursuit by the Olympic Torch

Posted in Travel Log (Asia) at 8:59 am by Benjamin Ross

I arrived in Yanji at 6 am this morning, and am now roughly a mere 15 miles from the North Korean border. All signs and storefronts here are written in both Chinese and Korean, and there are a fair amount of Korean restaurants as well. So far, all I’ve heard spoken on the street is Chinese, but I haven’t had much chance to explore around yet. From what I’ve gathered, once I get out of the city area there will be considerably more Korean influence.

During my overnight train ride from Harbin I found out I wouldn’t be the only visitor in Yanji today. At 2 pm, the Olympic torch is coming through. I arrived at the scene of the torch route at 7 am, a large crowd of mostly college students was already congregating, cheering, and sporting China spirit gear. Local entrepreneurs seem to be having a field day as the streets are lined with peddlers selling Chinese flags, stickers, and 15 RMB “Beijing 2008” and “I Love China” T-shirts.

As a side note, I really hope the Chinese come up with a few more original cheers before the end of the Olympics. I think I am going to be hearing 加油 (jia1 you2) in my sleep tonight. A little variety would be nice. May I suggest “Rock Chalk China, Go PRC!”



Harbin Wrapup…On to the North Korean Border

Posted in Food and Drink, Travel Log (Asia) at 6:34 pm by Benjamin Ross

It’s been two and a half days in Harbin, and I have decided rather than putting several hours of travel time into a well-formatted and substantial write up (not to mention pics) I’m going to instead continue giving these small incremental updates and observations.  Then when I get back to Beijing, write more in-depth posts.  That being said, in one hour I leave for Yanxi in Jilin province.  Yanxi is a Korean automomous prefecture, and sets just across from the border of North Korea.  I’d imagine this will be as close as my American passport will ever allow me to get to North Korea.  Yanxi is also only several kilometers from Russia, so I’m interested to see the conflex of Russian, Korean, and Chinese culture. 

As for Harbin…I spent the morning today at the Museum of Japanese Biological Warfare against the Chinese.  (The full Chinese name escapes me at the moment, but I believe it was something like 日侵华第779队部遗址).  It is housed at the site of an old military base where the Japanese did human experimentation and tested germ warfare for possible future use.  The exhibits were quite disturbing, and were erily similar to what the Nazis were doing at Dacau.  Fortunately, the Japanese never got to use it on any mass scale because some random country (they weren’t mentioned at all in any of the exhibits) defeated their army and expelled them out of China.

This afternoon I visited the Huang Shan Cemetery, located on the outskirts of Harbin.  The cemetery is massive and in the center there was an old section where Harbin’s Jews were buried.  It was the most massive and picturesque cemetery I have ever seen in China.  The Jewish gravestones were mostly from the twenties, thirties, and fourties, and numbered in the hundreds.  The inscriptions on the headstones were written in both Hebrew and Russian.  There was also an Eastern Orthodox section for Harbin’s former Russian population.

In another random note, I am finding that 东北菜 (cuisine from Northeast China) is rapidly becoming one of my favorite Chinese cuisines.  Here are some of the highlights so far.

-地三鲜 (di4 san1 xian1).  I must have had this dish a hundred times before, but none can compare to what I had last night in a hole-in-the wall Harbin restaurant for 4 RMB.  The lightly fried potatoes, eggplant, and green pepper were beyond heavenly.  Those folks down south have no idea.        

-凉菜 (liang3 cai4)  Dongbei food is known for its emphasis on cold vegetable dishes.  Virtually every restaurant I have been to has a menu stocked with cold cabbage, potato slices, wood ear mushroom, seaweed, and a whole slew of other cold delights. 

-红肠 (hong2 chang2)  In a comment to a previous post, I mentioned that Harbin has the best sausage I have ever tasted in China.  And I also incorrectly reported that it is called 肉联.  The proper name is 红肠, which loosely translated means “red intestine.”  I have been eating them compulsively. 

More to come soon.  I’m off to Jilin in a few minutes.



Harbin, initial thoughts and observations

Posted in Personal Anecdotes, Travel Log (Asia) at 3:34 pm by Benjamin Ross

I’ve been in Harbin about 24 hours now, and here are some quick first impressions and thoughts.

-Everything here is extremely cheap, even for China.  Last night I stayed in a small hotel for 20 RMB (about $3 USD).  I had a tidy single room, with TV and fan, plus a clean bathroom with 24 hour hot water, shower, and a western toilet.  I was totally stoked by this find…until I got an 18 RMB half-hour massage and realized I could have just slept at the massage place and saved my 20 RMB I paid for the hotel room.     

-People here are big–taller, stronger, and wider than your average Chinese.  No doubt an influence of all the Mongol and Manchu blood mixed in with the Han here. No wonder Dongbei guys have the impression of being 很男人 (manly men).

-Most of the foreigners here are Russian.

-This is the first city I have ever been to which has a public park named after Joseph Stalin.  (Disclaimer:  I have never been to the former Soviet Union.)

-I saw a group of people in Stalin Park gathered around a tree watching a man trying to catch a squirrel.  As the man lumbered through the tree branches, people below were throwing sticks and rocks up in the squirrel’s direction.  My first instinct was to intervene on behalf of the squirrel, but then I remembered from my Midwest upbringing that it is virtually impossible for a human (or most other animals for that matter) to catch a squirrel with their bare hands…especially in a tree.  My deceased family dog Abbey, who was faster and more agile than any human save for maybe Liu Xiang, tried valiantly for 15 years and never even came close.  I watched for about 20 minutes, until the squirrel eventually made it back to the ground, and whisked off, leaving the frustrated mob behind.   

-Near Stalin Park I encountered a Uighur man selling round, sugar-topped, bread snacks for 1 RMB.  It was hands down the tastiest pastry I have ever eaten in China.

-Harbin is famous for its European turn of the century architecture.  I can’t speak for what’s already been demolished, but what still stands is remarkably well-preserved.  Zhong Yang Da Jie, the main pedestrian street in old Harbin, is still paved with cobblestone and has maintained a distinct European feel, even though most of the Russian residents are long gone.

-I spent half of my day today exploring Harbin’s Jewish history.  There are two synagugues still standing, the “Old Synagogue,” built around the turn of the century, and the “New Synagogue,” built about fifteen years later.  The New Synagogue has been restored and converted into a museum of Harbin’s Jewish history.  The exhibits include hundreds of photos and paintings with detailed inscriptions about their historical significance.  They also have a mock Torah scroll which records the demographic history of Harbin’s Jewish community in Chinese.  Interestingly, other than the Torah scroll, the only other item which does not contain English translations is an extensive exhibit on “Jewish Einstein.”  As for the Old Synagogue, it’s now a mini-shopping center of sorts, with a coffee house, pizza shop, and a boutique selling Nepalese and Indian jewelry.  The exterior still very much looks like a synagogue   

by the way, if anybody knows an Internet bar in Harbin with Photoshop, I am willing to pay top dollar!

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