Hello Uncle Foreigner

travel

Nov 26, 2012

Chongqing: Yangtze River International Youth Hostel

Back on the road

The Chongqing Yangtze River International Youth Hostel
Omelettes for breakfastOmelettes for breakfastRoom oneRoom two

For the last weekend of National Day, we decided to get out of town. Our 12-hour fly-by of Chongqing this summer left us wanting more, so we hopped on a bus for the 2 and a half journey east.

This time we went rogue, accommodation-wise, and opted for a hostel that was not in our guidebook: Yangtze River International Youth Hostel. It was located just at the tip of the center-city peninsula in a quaint, traditionally styled building.

It was also right underneath a brand new bridge that was being constructed. I guess we’re just drawn to that sort of thing. But each room came stocked with ear plugs to block out the noise.

The restaurant-bar area was cozy and funky, with a full menu of Chinese and western foods — as reasonably priced as anywhere else. They had a small outdoor area, which would have been lovelier minus the giant construction cranes, but it was a perfectly nice place to enjoy a drink or a meal. Our particular favorites were the homemade mint tea and the breakfast omelets, the latter of which attempted a Mexican flavor (with a vegetarian option!) via a Sichuan spice rack. Oh, and the french fries were pretty wonderful, too.

Our room the first night was small but cute. It was two levels, with a small sitting area and TV downstairs and the bed upstairs. We loved it … until suspicious scrabbling noises started up in the walls and ceiling, and continued until dawn. This was not ideal. Rat fear makes it pretty hard to sleep.

In the morning, we asked for a change of rooms. They moved us, no problem — and, to be honest, they didn’t seem all that surprised by our complaint. Our second room was just off a balcony that overlooked the river. Minus the giant mold patch on the ceiling, this room was pretty nice.

There’s a really charming hostel here, gone slightly to seed. Like, someone had really cared for this place many years ago, but didn’t have the money or the desire to do the upkeep. The staff is genuinely helpful and friendly — they gave us thorough and accurate directions to pretty much everywhere in the city. As it is, however, mice and mold are just too much for us to return (although, to be fair, they weren’t enough to make us leave).

Oct 26, 2012

Summer vacation: Game time!

China or Germany?

Is Qingdao in fact a little slice of Europe in China? See if you can tell our vacation photos from pictures of Germany. Hold your mouse over each image to see if you are correct. And tell us how you did in the comments.

Germany photos from Wikimedia Commons, with attribution as follows: 1. Pkoppenb; 2. Jbergner; 3. Public domain; 4. Jbergner; 5. Jbergner; 6. J. Patrick Fischer; 7. Emmaus.

All Qingdao photos by Peter Sikoski.

Oct 19, 2012

Summer vacation: Street dinner

“他吃素。他不吃肉。”

Mystery dinner tastes great
Eat on the streetWhere are we?

I talk a lot about all of the western food that we eat while we’re on vacation because a lot of it is stuff that we don’t get back at home. But, when I can figure out how to order things, we really enjoy Chinese food, too.

After a night at Beer Mama’s, we needed a little something before bed. There was an outdoor restaurant around the corner, and we plopped down and scanned the menu for characters we recognized. We were feeling really ambitious.

I tried to explain to our guy that Peter is a vegetarian and doesn’t eat meat. We came to some sort of understanding, and he hurried away. On his return, he brought some meat skewers (which I had asked for by pointing out someone else who had them) and a very tasty meat and mushroom soup. But, this is life for a hungry veggie in China. Peter ate around the meat and pronounced it “delicious, and that’s coming from a vegetarian.”

Would you like to play a game?

Oct 18, 2012

Summer vacation: Underwater World

A beach activity for non-beach people

Approaching Underwater World
Underwater World

The opening exhibit of Qingdao’s Underwater World consists of our favorite genre of Chinese museum display: terrible taxidermy. Or, possibly, papier-mâché. Whales, sharks, penguins … all kinds of sea creatures, with lopsided grins and bulging eyes. There were a couple of rooms of this, and then the path led outdoors and to another building.

At this point, we were beginning to regret our entrance fee. But, here’s where it got good. A conveyor belt towed visitors through a giant tank full of sharks, sting rays, and all kinds of fish. It was like scuba diving, but you didn’t even have to move. At one turn, a flat glass ceiling showed off the underside of scads of starfish. We also caught sight of a diver in the water who was feeding the fish.

After the people-mover, there were many more tanks of various kinds of sea life — and plenty of opportunities to buy a plush crab or pearl necklaces — but the conveyor was definitely the best part.

But you don’t have to take our word for it … watch our video!

One more delicious meal, coming up …

Oct 18, 2012

Summer vacation: Where are we?

A simple martini in an unlikely location

At the Russian Bar

I’ll be honest, that evening our pre-dinner libations had been many and strong, and we were having a little trouble finding the restaurant where we wanted to eat. But we did find this Russian bar with internet access.

We ordered drinks and I looked up our destination (which would turn out to be about 50 feet further along). I got an adequate bloody Mary, but Peter’s vodka martini was quite good. The bartender took his time making it, and he looked very proud when Peter told him that it was as good as any vodka martini he had had in New York.

Oct 18, 2012

Summer vacation: Bathing Beach No. 2

A quick dip in the sea

Qingdao bathing beach No. 2

(It’s a balmy 79 degrees here in Luzhou, so it feels appropriate to still be talking about our August beach vacation. Bear with us as we slowly catch up to the present, won’t you?)

Tsingdao beer was the primary attraction when choosing our summer vacation destination, but we were also interested in the prospect of visiting the seaside. Both of us grew up on the coasts of the US, and from time to time we miss the roaring waves. The Yangtze is wonderful, but it’s not the same.

The men
The men gathered around an intense card game.

Beach No. 2 is the nicest beach within Qingdao city limits. It’s much bigger than Beach 6, there are ample changing facilities/showers, and the sand feels clean. And while it’s plenty popular, it’s not too crowded.

As some well know, I am not overly fond of sand, and Peter and I both need to be careful in the sun. But this was our one chance this summer to go for a dip in the sea, so I took it. (Peter was happy enough just to stand on the dry side of the waves.) The water was clear and refreshing, and the sandy bottom felt well-maintained; there was a happy absence of slimy and/or jagged rocks for feet to find. I lasted about a minute or two before I started remembering that I was sharing that body of water with other sea creatures — not that I saw any, I’m just really squicked out by the idea of bumping into fish.

But I achieved swimming in 2012!

After my swim, I dried off in the sun while Peter snapped photos of people who actually liked the beach, and then we called it quits on our second (and, spoiler alert, final) beach visit.

Photorgaphic proof: We're at the beachPhotorgaphic proof: We're at the beach

Listen to this one: Two Americans walk into a Russian bar in a former German concession in China …

Oct 12, 2012

Summer vacation: Say married!

More reverse photobombing

Everyone is taking wedding photos all over the place
St. Michael's Church
St. Michael’s Catholic Church

Like many aspects of western culture, the idea of having a big expensive wedding with all the lacy trimmings is slowly making its way over here, and Chinese couples are starting to incorporate aspects of the modern western-style celebration into their traditional nuptial activities.

One of those adopted aspects is a photo session with the groom in a tux and the bride in a big white dress. This may or may not occur on the day of the actual wedding ceremony, and these may or may not have been the outfits in which the couple was actually married.

In the heart of the old town stands St. Michael’s Catholic Church, one of the most prominent reminders of the German presence. These days, it serves an active local congregation, and it’s in all the Qingdao guidebooks as a tourist destination. As we saw on our visit, it also performs as a backdrop for Chinese newlyweds’ photos. There were several couples in the church square, accompanied by entourages including camera, lighting and make-up people. We noticed a few photographers position their shots to catch us in the background.

Across the square from the church is a banquet hall, making this a one-stop wedding shop, if you so needed.

Enough walking around. It’s time to get back to the beach …

Oct 11, 2012

Summer vacation: Old Jack’s Bar

Our after-dinner drinks go up in smoke

Old Jack's Bar
Old Jack's Bar

We had espied this bar from a bus earlier in the week, and it looked like something we’d be into. Located on a relatively quiet street, Jack’s has a nice outdoor space, and the inside has a simple, cozy pub feel. And they had (non-Tsingdao) beer on tap, which is something that we almost never see.

After our Italian feast, we were hoping to sit back and settle in for the night. The vibe was relaxed and calm, and the drinks were nice and tasty. (Martini status: Good, dirty and strong!)

But, indoor smoking! I keep forgetting that, in most places here, no one has Bloombergered those butts outside. After one round, these non- and recovering smokers needed some air. The patio was full-up, so we sadly said good-bye to Old Jack.

Next up: Wedding-photo crashing …

Oct 11, 2012

Summer vacation: Trattoria Verde

Our Italian splurge

Real Italian food!
Our new friend at the table next door took a picture of us all fancyPeter, outside the restaurant

The online expat reviews of this Italian joint were strong, so we made a reservation and got all dolled up.

The split-level restaurant is cozy, and has a breezy, beachy style — with quirky, cute artwork and tchotchkes on the walls — that wouldn’t be out of place on Main Street in Southampton. Upstairs is a little dark, but we were sat downstairs, with a view of the open kitchen. I can verify that everyone was working very hard.

It was exciting to see a real wine list after so much time. We were trying not to go too crazy, however, at a restaurant that was at the upper end of our budget, so I ordered a glass of the house red, which did me right. Peter’s martini was garnished with a black olive — the one small disappointment of the meal.

We started with an appetizer of roasted asparagus with some sort of hard cheese shaved over the top. (It was something delicious and fancier than Parmesan, is all we can remember; one lesson of this trip was: take better notes.) This was the first time we had seen asparagus anywhere in China, and so we anticipated the dish hungrily. And, oh, it was so good! The asparagus was roasted just perfectly, and the salty tang of the unknown cheese was a wonderful compliment.

As for mains: Peter went with a cheese ravioli, garnished with pine nuts — another rarity over here — and I got a pizza with prosciutto and ricotta cheese. The ravioli were incredible, and the pizza was the Best in China So Far. The crust was thin and crispy, and the sauce (which is most often what Chinese pizza gets wrong) was light and just the right amount of sweet and salty.

It was a pricy meal, but we definitely felt that it was money well spent.

The Trattoria Verde kitchen

Let’s repair to the bar for a digestive …

Oct 11, 2012

Summer vacation: The tour of the harbor

A two-for-one deal

Boating in the harbor

“Just walk out by Zhan Qiao pier and find a guy,” was the gist of the directions we could find. This was echoed by the clerk at our hostel, who added, “You should bargain with them, too.”

What was our mysterious quest? A boat ride!

As instructed, we found a guy holding a big poster with photos of people having fun on a boat. Thirty RMB per ticket, he told us. “两个一起, 30块 [both tickets for 30 bucks],” I countered. This was the very first bargaining I’d done in China! And it was a great success!

In the van
On the bus, we scored the coveted in-the-aisle seats

A small, crowded bus took us out to a busy dock, where a bunch of tourist boats were porting and starboarding. The boat tour is a big thing to do in Qingdao.

And it’s a gorgeous view of the city. From the west side, we sailed east towards May 4th Square, checking out all of our favorite landmarks, on the seaward side.

Round-trip, our journey was about a half-hour. Afterward, the bus brought us back to the center of the old town, and one of the ticket-takers directed people into the nearby shops. We had already acquired our tourist trinkets, however, so we quietly went our own way.

A boat ride in the harbor
Click on the photo above for a full slideshow of our day on the water.

We want more pizza!