Friday, May 9, 2014

Poetic Sundays (not on Sunday): Shakespeare

Well, it's been a while.  Let's not waste time on preliminaries.  I had this unpublished poem of Carol Ann Duffy's written down, obtained at her poetry reading at the Folger Shakespeare Library (a post for another time--DC is so much better than it used to be!  Yay! And now I am leaving.), and I wanted to save it and to share it.


Small Latin and less Greek, all English yours,
dear lad, local, word-blessed, language loved best;
the living human music on our tongues,
young, old, who we were all will be, history's shadow,
love's will, our heart's iambic beat, brother
through time; full-rhyme to us.

                       Two rivers quote your name;
your journey from the vanished forest's edge
to endless fame - a thousand written souls,
pilgrims, redeemed in poetry - ends here, begins again.
And so, you knew this well, you do not die -
courtier, countryman, noter of flowers and bees,
war's laureate, magician, Janus-faced -
but make a great Cathedral, genius, of this place.

    Carol Ann Duffy

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Sporadic travel series: Burma

Okay, I am so, so behind on trips we've taken. But let's go way, way back to October, when we spend eight glorious days in Burma, or Myanmar.  (Need some background on the name?  Here you go.)

Burma is not gussied up, especially not Yangon.  In fact, it reminded me in some ways of Dhaka, that is, a cleaner, romanticized version of Dhaka, but with just as many men in lungis.  The point is, while Burma is a Southeast Asian nation, you can really feel the South Asian influence pretty strongly.  But I felt just as relaxed and pleasant as I always do in SE Asia, without the hustle and bustle of South Asia.

Bagan was amazing, with this incredible volume of temples, beautiful light everywhere, everything an ancient relic.  And we visited the less-touristed Mandalay, where the city itself is not really the attraction so much as the surrounding areas--the concentration of temples and leafy greenness on Sagaing Hill, and the feeling of traipsing through a civilization lost to history at Inwa, once the ancient capital of Ava.

I love this pic of James SO EXCITED for breakfast noodles in Yangon:

Of course, the gorgeous Shwedagon Paya, a major reason Yangon is a can't-miss:

Riding a horse-cart through the ruins of an ancient capital:

A random, not-at-all famous temple encountered on the road between Mandalay and Bagan:

Enjoying the views during sunset in Bagan:

And me and my new BFF, an old lady in a village we passed through on the way to that temple.  She called me into her house, and seeing how pale I am, decided I needed to be protected from the sun with sandalwood paste (we had no common language so I couldn't explain SPF to her):

Beijing weekend

1. Attempted to go see live music, which I always feel super guilty for not doing more of.  Place was packed and incredibly, disgustingly sweaty, and the band sounded like a cross between The Ramones and Save Ferris, except no one could play their instruments.  Lasted about four songs before hightailing it out of there to...

2. Slow Boat Brewery.  Love.

3. Saturday dinner of amazing Uzbek food at lovely friends' place.

4. Yet another perfect Beijing pedicure.

5. Sunday night port-and-cheddar fondue feast, before we lose our fondue pot to storage while we're in training between posts.

I am not ready to leave.

Bonus: our not-very-American 4th of July spent visiting Prince Gong's Mansion:

And taking a boat on the lake at Beihai Park:

And unrelatedly, also on the 4th of July I made this rice pudding and it was AMAZING.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Another Sunday at home

Another day in, as the heavy pollution FINALLY cleared up, but heavy rain took its place.  That's okay, we had melon and prosciutto, baguette, Greek salad, and prosecco for dinner and vanilla ice cream and poached pears for dessert. Then we watched a nice clear bright red (our awful camera doesn't do it justice) sunset from our balcony:

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Eating Beijing: Where to take visitors if you want them to love you forever

My Polish cousins Asia and Ola and their friend Agnieszka visited this past week, and I got some flak from Asia for failing to update this blog.  Guilty as charged, I'm afraid.  And since most recent-ish posts have been catching up on past travels, I figured it was time to turn my attention to Beijing for once.  I fancy myself a pretty good Beijing tour guide, especially when it comes to food, so I decided to share where I took my cousins for dinner while they were in town, as well as some other picks for impressing visitors with Beijing's culinary wonders.

Noodle Bar: On the day they arrived, we started with a low-key dinner at Noodle Bar, in the 1949 complex.  The place is casual, but still in a sleek factory conversion that makes Beijing look cool/posh.  Watching the cooks hand-pull noodles is good fun, and their delicious beef brisket noodle soup never gets old.  Plus, if there is energy left to spare after dinner, there's Sanlitun.

Jin Ding Xuan: I won't pretend this is the best dim sum in Beijing, but at least the Lama Temple location is a great value--very solid favorites for very little money.  Also, when planning a day, it's perfect--we saw the Lama Temple, took a walk in Ditan Park (watching the old people doing awesome old people park activities), ate here, and then strolled down the incredibly rapidly gentrified Wudaoying Hutong, stopping in cute shops along the way.  When we felt like a break, we drank crisp white wine on the beautiful rooftop at Argos, a Greek restaurant.

Chengdu Representative Office Restaurant (Chengdu Bingguan): All of the provinces and some large cities have offices in Beijing to represent their governments to the central government, and they have their own restaurants serving their cuisine.  It's old hat among Beijing foodies to visit the Sichuan Provincial Office restaurant (Chuan Ban), and the food is not bad, but the lines are less cool.  The much less-well-known Chengdu office restaurant has, in my opinion, even better food, and NO LINE EVER.  Bonus Beijing magic trick: it's around the corner from the very posh Temple Restaurant, which has Beijing's most exquisite setting in a renovated temple complex.  Take visitors around the corner for some fancy drinks, either sitting inside and chatting with the fantastic bartender or wandering the temple grounds by moonlight, drink in hand, admiring the beautiful people through the huge picture windows.  And at the end, have the staff call you a cab home!

Peking Duck Private Kitchen: If your crew is on a budget, this is excellent Peking duck at lower prices (and with less snottiness) than Duck de Chine or some of the other better-known players (though they have raised prices lately).  The duck is delicious--the chef used to work in the kitchen at Dadong, one of the big duck restaurant chains in town.

Crescent Moon: The best Xinjiang food in town, in my humble opinion.  Come for the meat kebabs, the meat cooked with cut up spiced nan, the meat dumplings, and the meat served with egg-stuffed bread; stay for the occasional fireworks when the temperamental Uighur owner decides to start screaming at someone.  Bonus Beijing tip: no bathroom at the restaurant, and the ones in the surrounding hutongs are grim and have no stalls (the whole people-staring-at-foreigners thing becomes all the more awkward in this situation).  Walk two hutongs up to Slow Boat Brewery Taproom for some craft beer and a clean toilet.

Baoyuan Dumplings: I used to feel like I was the only person who didn't take visitors here.  But this time I relented and decided to give it another try.  In the past, I felt like their dumplings were actually sort of dull, but their non-dumpling dishes were outstanding... sort of weird, given their focus.  This time, however, I was overall very happy with everything we got.  We weren't feeling drinks afterward, but if you are, hidden Japanese izakaya/wine bar Vin Vie is right around the corner.

Southern Barbarian: This was the only place this week I took visitors that I hadn't previously tried myself (though James had).  The gamble paid off--the Yunnan food was delicious, and the setting was really nice (excellent bathroom, also).  Add in warm service and an excellent drinks list, and this is perfect Friday-night-out Chinese food.  Our after-dinner bar pick was Amilal, though Modernista was super close to the restaurant (however, it was rejected due to lack of bathroom).

Of course, Yunnan cuisine is really popular in Beijing right now, and other options abound.  Two others I consider visitor-worthy: Dali Courtyard (nice setting, less sleek but more cozy--but you get less choice of what to eat as it's chef's choice) and Lost Heaven (Yunnan food goes glam in the Ch'ianmen 23 complex).

Other good picks for showing visitors all Beijing has to offer: Haidilao (hot pot is good fun, but not great for summer); Din Tai Fung (my cousins were going to Shanghai next, so I figured they could get their soup dumplings there); Susu (not Chinese, but the hutong conversion is so great, and there is magic in showing up at an unmarked door in a dark alleyway and going inside to such a beautiful space); Capital M (again, not Chinese, and kind of expensive, but such great views--I love to precede any visits to the Forbidden City with brunch there, after which you can march up Tiananmen Square to the Gate of Heavenly Peace); and the fantabulous Black Sesame Kitchen (also out of the price range we were aiming for with this visit, and requires reservations a month in advance, but this is a dining experience unlike anything else I've ever tried).

Now go eat!

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Mongolia, way back in September

Mongolia.  Mongolia was amazing.  What is there to say?  It was otherworldly and beautiful and wild and bizarre.  The people made the toughest Beijingers look like pansies who spend their whole day catering to tourists, and yet we forgave them because it was all wonderful and the air was fresh and the sky was blue and hills were beautiful and we washed it all down with vodka (the Soviet influence).

We saw the sights, sort of--we hiked over the next hill from our ger camp to see the Turtle Rock, here with a local's ger in the foreground:

We rode horses!  I hate horses!  James made me do it!

The landscape was amazing, here with a view of our ger camp:

And I felt pretty badass up on this rock:

Yeah, it was a pretty awesome Labor Day weekend, only a two-hour flight (followed by a two-hour car ride) from Beijing.

Trajectory of a Tour

So unfortunately, I haven't posted that much from Beijing.  A large part of that is being busy, with a lot going on both at work and in our social lives here.  But probably an even bigger factor is the internet.  Blogspot is blocked, and our VPNs are spotty.  Even earlier, our VPN wasn't working, so I am nervous that it will cut out and I'll lose what I've written.

But I have been wanting to say that I am LOVING Beijing lately.  Maybe it's this past week (blue skies EVERY DAY!), but suddenly I am ready to embrace everything and sad to have to leave in late July.

It is interesting how much time you can waste comparing one post to another.  I don't say this to criticize myself--I think it's human nature, and it just takes time to move through a trajectory of feelings toward a place.  So my trajectory:

-Arrived and saw Starbucks.  Wow, we're not in Dhaka anymore.
-But not everyone wants to be best friends here!  They already have friends!  I don't know who 90% of the people working at the Embassy are!
-Period of aggressive friend hunting.  Spent lots of time emailing promising friends-of-friends and never getting replies.
-Finally, feel like we have amazing friends, the sky is blue, and the Siberian winds have died down.
-Five minutes later, we leave post.

So needless to say, I am trying to pack a lot in before we leave.  Last night we went on an amazing walking tour with Paul French, author of Midnight in Peking, which is a gripping account of the murder a former British diplomat's daughter in 1930's Beijing.  The book is SO MUCH FUN to read, especially for those familiar with this city, and the walking tour was great.  First of all, I can happily listen to British people all day (they just sound like they know things), and second, it was awesome to visit old hutongs, city wall remnants, watchtowers, and the former Legation Quarter (ending, of course, with drinks at Maison Boulud, housed in the old American Legation).  Instead of taking the bus back to the Embassy, James and I headed to the lovely Capital M and had drinks out on the terrace overlooking Qianmen Gate and Tiananmen Square before eating in their dining room.  Yeah, it felt amazing and glamorous, I won't lie.

Today after brunch at home (and maybe a teensy nap as well), we took a walk through some hutongs (I wanted to check out a historic mosque serving the city's Muslim community, but apparently the ladyfolk are not so much allowed inside) before having craft beer at Slow Boat Brewery and a delicious dinner and wine at Palette Vino, a restaurant in a converted courtyard home.

Honestly, I don't think DC will really compare.  But I am trying to keep an open mind, after being decidedly underwhelmed by it the last two times I did training there.  I am looking forward to seeing the many, many friends who will be in town.

But I will miss hutongs, elderly residents and their fluffy dogs, converted siheyuan courtyards and glittering highrises, dumplings and pork buns and noodles, plus excellent renditions of most global cuisines you can think up.  I will miss living amidst a sense of history, as well as a blatant disregard for it that can be maddening.  For better or for worse, Beijingers feel they are the center of the world, and that is something this city has in common with New York, an arrogance that I love and appreciate.