Thursday, January 31, 2013

Xi'An: Pagodas, Museums, and Walls

Because I apparently like to torture my family, our final day in Xi'An was chocked full of activities. Just after breakfast, we headed to the Shaanxi History Museum. Located near the museum is the Small Wild Goose Pagoda. Around 15 stories high, it seemed like the perfect structure to make my parents climb early in the morning.



After our morning workout, we explored the area courtyard as well as the museum itself. With over 300,000 artifacts, we could have easily spent the entire day viewing the relics of past dynasties.




But we clearly had not exercised enough, so we decided to scale the Xi'An City Wall. This wall, build in 1370 by the Ming Dynasty to protect the city from intruders, encircles a 14 square kilometer (5.4 square mile) area of the city. The wall is approximately 12 meters (39 ft) in height and 15–18 meters (49–59 ft) wide.

And I made us walk on it.




All of this before we even ate lunch.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Essential iPhone Apps

I'm not very trendy with it comes to technology (okay, when it comes to anything) but even I have to admit that my iPhone has saved my perky backside on numerous occasions while living in Shanghai. While I'm sure everyone and their cat has an opinion on what applications are best (Snowball recommends Cat Toy), I've compiled a list of my five favorite iPhone apps for living or traveling in Shanghai. And since I'm cheap, all of my apps also happen to be free. That's right, not a one of these apps costs a single thing (other than your soul, which I'm pretty sure you sign away when you agree to the iTunes terms and conditions).


1) Hi Shanghai: To be honest, this might be my favorite application. It's a handy guide of places to go and things to do. You can search for places near your current location or if you know the name of what you are looking for, you can simply type it in.

For example, let's say I'm looking for my favorite spinning studio in Shanghai. I type in spin and up pops the listing for SpinShanghai. The app gives me a few details about the place I have looked up as well as the address, phone number, and closest subway station.


Then, if I click the little taxi icon in the right hand corner, a taxi card is displayed with the address in both English and Chinese. I've used this feature on numerous occasions when I'm either unable to pronounce a street name correctly or my taxi driver pretends to be deaf.


2) Explore Shanghai Metro: Even with a driver, we take the subway a lot. It's cheap, it's efficient, and I'm allowed to shove people. This app is basically a map of the metro system in Shanghai which you can use to figure out a line transfer, see how long your trip is going to take, or estimate how much your ride is going to cost. It's also useful when trying to calculate how many more stations you are going to have to endure the karaoke beggars for.


3) Google Maps: I have a horrid sense of direction. I could get lost in my own driveway. In fact, I lived in our last town for six whole months before I figured out how to get to the gym on my own. True story. Anyhow, this is why Google Maps is essential. The lovely blinking blue dot shows me where I am and the flag shows me my destination. Easy as can be. While I do sometimes use the built in Apple Map, I still find Google to be more accurate at this time.


4) Waygo Visual Translator: This app is blowing my mind. Seriously. You use your camera to scan over Chinese characters and it translates them into English. The free version only translates food but for me, that's the main reason to use this app. I can now walk into pretty much any restaurant and order off the menu without simply pointing and hoping for the best. My digestive tract thinks this app deserves a Nobel Peace Prize.


5) Google Translate: I had been in Shanghai for about a day when the taxi I was in drove past my hotel. I started wildly waving, grunting, and yelling stop. The taxi driver apparently thought I was dancing to his music and turned up the radio. I quickly pulled out my phone, opened Google Translate, and figured out the word for stop. Sure, a translation app isn't going to make communicating easy but it can help you figure out a word here or there. Or save you having to walk a few extra blocks.


Those are my essential apps for Shanghai. Does anyone have other ones they can't live without? Did I leave your favorite off the list?

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Shanghai's Worst Kept Secret: The Avocado Lady

"I've found the best place to buy imported groceries". The statement is said in a hushed voice, as the speaker slowly eyes the crowd around us, leaning in closer to ensure this piece of wisdom is for my ears alone. The hint of a smile is coyly forming on the speaker's lips as they whisper, "She's called the Avocado Lady".

The thing is, the Avocado Lady (also known as the Basil or Arugula Lady) isn't exactly a secret in Shanghai. Pretty much every foreigner has not only heard of her, but has visited her legendary store. And it's totally worth it.


The Avocado Lady (real name Jiang Qin) is a savvy businesswoman who moved to Shanghai after finishing high school. Initially, she sold only eggs and Chinese vegetables. It wasn't until a French chef who lived in the neighborhood asked her to stock certain goods that she ventured into the imported goods market. Shortly after, she began stocking hard to find avocados at a reasonable price and thus, her nickname was born.


Today, the Avocado Lady has achieved a cult like following among Westerners with her ability to stock an impressive selection of imported foods at her modest store, which vastly undercut prices at City Shop and other foreign grocery stores around the city. And if you are unable to find the product you want, she is more than happy to order it for you. While the stock changes rapidly, she regularly stocks fresh mints, herbs, tropical fruits, jams, cheese, olive oil, wine, and of course, avocados.


If you too want to be let in on the secret of the Avocado Lady, head to her shop at 274 Wulumuqi Lu, between Fuxing Lu and Wuyuan Lu (closer to the latter). If you have trouble finding it, just look for the large herd of foreigners milling around the cheese fridge.


Monday, January 21, 2013

Xi'An: The Grand Mosque

Located in Xi'An's Muslim Quarter is the Grand Mosque, the first mosque build in China around 740 AD. Located behind the Drum Tower, the Grand Mosque beautifully combines Chinese and Islamic architecture. While only Muslims are permitted to enter the actual mosque, the accompanying courtyards are remarkable as well.





Wednesday, January 16, 2013

How much does it cost?

I'll buy it. Actually, at these prices, I probably won't. In order to give you a little glimpse into the price of imported goods here, I took some awful cell phone photos of  foods people commonly buy in the US. All of the products featured below are sold by a nice little store called City Shop, which stocks all types of international goods and is conveniently located in my basement.

For the sake of this very unscientific experiment, I am using the price of the good as found on Amazon (I am fully aware that with sales and coupons, the price for these products would be even lower in most US grocery stores). All prices are in USD and calculated using the exchange rate as it stood on the date I wrote this post.

First up, we have mayonnaise. In a squeeze bottle no less. Am I the only one that used to squeeze this stuff directly into my mouth as a child? No, no one else? Moving on then.


Hellman's Real Mayonnaise (9 oz)
Amazon Price: $2.81
City Shop Price: $9.33


Jif Creamy Peanut Butter (18 oz)
Amazon Price: $3.28
City Shop Price: $12.55


Doritos Nacho Cheese Chips (12 oz)
Amazon Price: $4.50
City Shop Price: $11.23


Life Cereal (13 oz)
Amazon Price: $4.30
City Shop Price: $15.29


Prego Traditional Spaghetti Sauce (24 oz)
Amazon Price: $3.27
City Shop Price: $8.37


Breyers Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream (1.5 quart)
*Average US grocery price: $5.99
City Shop Price: $27.04

No, that last price is not a typing error. If I want to buy Breyers Ice Cream, it will set me back a whopping $27. (Understandably, you cannot buy ice cream online so I was unable to price it through Amazon. But a quick online search of a few US grocery stores revealed a fairly consistent price for this product).

Total of above goods on Amazon: $24.15
Total of above goods at City Shop: $83.81

And that my friends, is why we stock our suitcases full of food whenever we are back in the US. I just wish we could use that same trick for ice cream.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Xi'An: Muslim Quarter

The Terracotta Warriors are easily the most popular attraction in Xi'An and the reason most tourists flock there. However, Xi'An is full of numerous others treasures which make this city a spot worth visiting.

One of those such locations is the Muslim Quarter. The Muslim Quarter is a fascinating area, made up of narrow alleys lined with exotic foods, interesting architecture, and lovely people. From the first century BC, Xi'An served as the starting point for the famous Silk Road. During this time, Xi'an attracted thousands of traders, mainly Muslim, from the West whose ancestors still live in Xi'An today.

We made our way to the Muslim Quarter just after dusk. The small alleyways burst to life with vendors peddling everything from terracotta replicas to dried fruits and local cuisine.




We had come to the market with one purpose, to try as many foods as possible. It was clear from the beginning that this would be a cumbersome task as stall after stall was full of culinary delights. We picked our way through the crowds to sample everything from fresh bread, baked before us in a tonur oven, to savory hand pulled noodles.





We quickly located our favorite treat of the night, a persimmon cake or Shi Zi Bing. The cakes are made from a persimmon dough that is stuffed with various fillings such as ground walnuts, osmanthus, or black sesame and then flattened and gently fried. The result is a sweet, syrupy treat that had our taste buds begging for more.



Our stomachs stretched to the max, we washed down our dinners with a warm cup of pear and date infused tea. 


If you find yourself in Xi'An, most likely to see the Terracotta Warriors, make sure to stop by the Muslim Quarter to nosh on some of the best street food China has to offer. Just make sure to leave room for dessert.

Monday, January 7, 2013

A Year in Review

Apparently all the cool kids are composing year in review blog posts, looking back at 2012. And just like in high school, I'm still trying way too hard to be one of those cool kids. So here's an overly wordy look back at 2012.

During the first month of the year, we started this little ole blog and rang in the New Year on a plane to Shanghai for our house hunting trip.


I had an epic case of food poisoning on the return flight and after vomiting in a plane bathroom for eight hours, found myself in a Detroit Emergency Room (side note: It's not a good idea to return extremely sick from a foreign country. Homeland Security, the Center for Disease Control, and Customs officials will all interrogate you while holding a bag of your barf.).

See, totally cool even in a hospital gown

Also during January, I quit my job and we embarked upon the East Coast Farewell tour, ie. seeing as many friends and family members as possible before our departure.

In February, we invited our friends over to drink all our alcohol (ok fine, I'll call it a going away party).We also sold our adorable house along with our cars and a large amount of our personal possessions, packed up what was left and officially became residents of Shanghai, China.

In March, we finally started to settle into our new home. We tried out a Chinese gym, spent a lot of time dodging rain puddles, and learned to cook with local ingredients. With another trip to the Emergency Room, China tried to kill me for the second time (see above for the first).

In April, we celebrated our first holiday in China, took a trip to Hangzhou, enjoyed the Qingming Festival, found a Penn State bar, and saw the emergence of summer pants. I also discovered exactly what it meant to be a Shanghai tai tai (translation: housewife).

So this is what people with spare time do

My birthday month consisted of a trip to the Shanghai Acrobats, an appreciation for napping, and my first attempt at making dumplings. We also ventured to Beijing where I lived like a celebrity for the day (or at least the paparazzi part). Matthew began his quest for likable Chinese ice cream and we spent a weekend in Tokyo with new friends.

June brought us an anniversary trip to Moganshan, visits to various markets, and stifling heat that kept us indoors most of the month.

The month of July was all about food as we ordered copious amounts of Sherpa's, discovered a Cantonese diner in our basement, and attended a grilled cheese cook-off. We ended the month with a trip back to the US to take part in the wedding of our dear friends.

Gorgeous couple, right? And yes, I'm talking about the bride and groom. I may be narcissistic but even I know the newlyweds outshine that insanely attractive couple to the left of them.

A typhoon hit Shanghai in August, I started a battle with pork floss (that I still have yet to win), and we toured the Liu Bolin exhibit at MD gallery.

In September, our lives once again revolved around food (notice a pattern here?). We competed in a Chili Cook-off, developed a strong dislike for mooncakes (unless they were filled with ice cream), had high tea at the Peace Hotel, and tried out new foods during Shanghai's Restaurant Week. We also spent countless hours watching college football, witnessed more napping, and had our very first KTV experience.

We started October on a beach in Vietnam. The month sadly went downhill from there when I realized all that time spent running in the local park had been hazardous to my health. At least Matthew discovered some passable ice cream.

The temperatures finally dropped in November, bringing less sweat and more importantly, less skin. We voted in the US Presidential Election and my parents came for a two week visit. We showed them around Shanghai and then toured through Beijing and Xi'An.


We capped off the month with a lovely Thanksgiving with friends, an Elton John concert, a Swedish Christmas celebration, and a visit from a college friend.


Matthew's birthday falls in December and we celebrated with an insanely delicious dinner at Jean Georges' Mercato. We quickly switched gears into holiday mode by attending our apartment complex's holiday party, visiting a Christkindl Market, and watching our friends' daughter in her Nativity play before jetting back to the USA for Christmas with our families.


Funny enough, we landed back in Shanghai on New Year's Eve, meaning that we started and ended 2012 in the exact same place. As I look back over the past year, I'm both in awe of and humbled by our experiences here. It's been a wild ride, one that I have enjoyed immensely and one that I hope you have enjoyed following along. Good luck 2013, you have a lot to live up to.

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