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Sep. 20th, 2011

China 2011: Day 4 Night

Another day spent jetting around southern Taiwan. All the stops and sights have started to blur together. I might as well wait for when I have the inclination to download and go through my photos to remind myself of where we visited. On the whole though, there was not much to be impressed about. *meh*

Current hotel is again free internet. Missing some of the other amenities that we've enjoyed elsewhere though.

For dinner, we went out to a pedestrian street. Choices where kinda meh on the whole. I far prefer the stuff in Beijing's pedestrian street. Saw a lot of Falun Gong demonstrators near the area. Am even more underwhelmed.

Sigh. Another day going back up the eastern side of Taiwan on our way back to Taipei.

*stares at sky*

Sep. 19th, 2011

China 2011: Day 3 Night

Checked out early in the morning, and the tour started the way to 日月潭 (Sun Moon Lake?), stopping at several sites on the way.

I have to admit I spent almost the entire driving time listening to my Zen player over those wonderful noiseless earbuds. It's not cuz I know what the tour guide is saying. It's just... let's just say our current tour guide really needs English lessons. And dictation lessons. It's not that he's not understandable, but it's apparent he's not quick with the vocabulary and takes forever to choke out a word. The way he talks just makes me cringe, constantly. And no, his Chinese is not any better, for the exact same reasons, even though I think his a native speaker (I certainly *hope* he's a native speaker). So for the sake of my sanity, I tuned him out. Besides, it's not like I couldn't wiki the stuff he was talking about if I really needed to know anyway. The spots we visited were... eh, underwhelming, I guess. (Let us all cut Taiwan some slack for not having the sheer history and size of the mainland and thus just aren't able to compete either in natural nor man-made wonders.)

The first non-rest stop we made was a small market-town for lunch. I feel sorry for many of the non-Asians on our tour, cuz the only recognizable western chow there was a 7-Eleven store. As an aside, I noticed that Taiwan doesn't have the same brand permeations that the mainland does. Sure, I see McDonalds and KFC around, but not one on every block, and no more than I see places like Burger King, Starbucks, or Pizzahut. On the other hand, the most common western brand that I do see every few blocks is 7-Eleven. Huh. Also, I noticed that unlike the mainland counterparts, the western brands don't translate their store/brand names. McDonald's is just “McDonalds”, not “麦当劳”, etc. Anyway, back to the tour... I didn't see anything really palatable, and wasn't really that hungry, so I ate two sticks of barbequed wild pig meat, and an ice cream cone (it was muggy hot and we were heading into the tropic zone...damn Tropic of Cancer).

Second main stop was at this temple to Xuan Zhang (Tripitaka). We had to hike up to the pagoda. In the muggy heat. Ugh. I refused to climb the steps of the pagoda after that. I'm sure there's nice scenery from the topic, but I've never been nature-girl.

Third stop was this Peacock Park. Why called that? Cuz they keep peacocks there, apparently. Unfortunately, none of them spread their tails for my camera, what with it not being mating season. There were also pens with some other colorful birds, peasants and others that I have no ideat what of. Did take some pics for those bird watchers out there...

Fourth and last stop was another temple, this one to Confucious and Guan Yu. Odd couple. Took a few pics, but honestly, it's nothing that I haven't seen before, and IMO doesn't even compare to the temple to Confucius in Pinyao, which is like out in the boonies.

Finally, we ended up at our hotel. Fleur de Chine is the name (huh, familiar theme?), a five star place, very much in the Japanese style what with the robes that are provided, the wooden stool and bucket thing in the shower, and a frickin' onsen in each room. Apparently, the place taps the lake and an underground hot spring for the onsen. Neat. Also, apparently internet is free here. Awesome. Need to catch up on all my internet needs...

Sep. 18th, 2011

China 2011: Day 2 Night

After a snack (can't really call it lunch) we decided to go do the tour of Tapei 101 ourselves. It's supposed to be the second tallest building in the world.

Let me just state for the record here that the main metro station in Taipei is a pain and a half to navigate. It's not only the hub junction of all three metro lines, but it also connects to the Taipei train station, and overlaps with both a major bus stop and an underground market covering several city blocks sprawling both east-west and north-south. Not only that, the areas are apparently discontiguous, and require going up and down into other sections (such as the market) to get to another part of somewhere else (like another metro line). And the maps in the place are useless for anything but giving you a rough direction of where to face.

Anyway, we made it to the 101 building. Bought tickets to go up to the observatory deck (floor 88), and were told the line was 45 mins. Shyeah... So we headed down to get dinner first. There I came across an interesting store that was selling pizza in a cone. Basically, they make pizza crust into the shape of the usual ice-cream waffle cone shape. Then they stuff in the toppings (cheese, tomato sauce, the pizza toppings of your choice. Then bake and serve. It was cute, and I think it also results in more toppings than crust compared to normal style pizza. Given how stingy most pizza places in the US are about toppings, I doubt the same thing will ever come overseas. Especially not at their low low price (NT$90 = ~$3 in case you wondered).

After eating, we went up to the observation deck and took pictures. The buildings in Taiwan might not have been as eyecatching from the street as buildings in Shanghai. But from a bird's eye view, it was apparent that they've got some very interesting architecture pieces too. We also stayed up for sunset, so that we could get some shots of the nightlight. I'm not sure how that'll come out, since digital camera...or at least my digital camera/technique isn't that great on LED lights at night.

On the way down, we passed by an exhibit on coral and jade carvings (modern works of art). They've got some really pretty stuff and I ended up taking probably as many photos if not more as of the observatory.

Then, after anothe struggle to navigate our way back to the hotel, we're finally done with Taipei. Tomorrow we start heading south.

(BTW, I just realized that it's not just the ceilings everywhere that's made for Chinese-sized (height) people. The bathrooms are biased too. The tub here just about fits someone of my size. Which means those six-foot-something foreigners are not only going to be walking through a lot of areas bent over, but they'll probably be unable to cram themselves in for a normal bath. Thank goodness for showers, eh? :P)

China 2011: Day 2 Noon

Our first guided tour was a 3 hour of the city, hitting various major attractions...

1. Chiang Kai'shek (how the heck do you spell his name under the Wade-Giles system again?) Memorial was first. We saw the changing of the guards thing at 9 AM. Poor guys. Shiny metal helmets in the muggy subtropical heat (getting worse throughout the day) for hours must suck. Then we went under the memorial where they displayed various historical stuff. I took photos of the shiny medals things. Unfortunately, our guide was rushing us through the exhibit, so I'm not sure what/where the medals are from, but I'm sure I'll get that info once I sort through my photos. Oh, and there was also an Egyptian exhibition there too (we didn't go in), which gave me a WTH moment.

2. Quick drive by of some major goverment cities, cuz apparently traffic control don't allow people to park anywhere close for photos, apparently.

2.5. Stopped by a handicraft/tea shop, purely for advertising purposes. A waste of time, but whatever.

(Then! Suddenly! It started to rain. Hard.)

3. Martyr's Memorial was next. Pretty much a memorial to all soldiers since the start of the Nationalists. It's about what you expect... buildings with rooms that have walls full of names.

(Then! Suddenly! The rain stopped and the sun came out. The muggy heat immediately returned, and you'd never knew that it'd rained except for the wet ground.)

4. Some...temple...forget the name. Apparently dedicated to the local earth diety (tu di). And to Guan Ying.

5. National Palace Museum again. We were only guided through the main attractions and the special exhibition though, quickly. Only about an hour spent there total. All I can think is that my aunt would've been appaled. :P I did like the special exhibition on carvings though - I don't recall seeing it at all yesterday, so I guess it was only for tours or something.

Since I won't have any photos of the museum, I guess I should go over some of the "main attractions" of the museum since our guide took special care to point it out...

* Jade Cabbage - Carved from a single piece of jade, white on the bottom, green at the top. Two grasshoppers (crickets?) are carved into the cabbage leaves, representing fertility.

* Pork Skin - Carved from jade (nephrite?) of all things. Brown colored thing that looks just a layer of pork skin. (Foreigners might not get the resemblance, but since pork skin is a common delicacy for Chinese, it's readily recognizable.)

* Small boat carved from a single piece of walnut (shell?). Magnifying glass shows 8 people carved onto the boat as well as intricate designs on the boat itself.

* A layered (dodecahedron?) something-hedral ball of 17 layers one inside another, each an independent layer but all carved out of one block of ivory.

There were other awesome carvings of rhino horn, bamboo, wood, and ivory too. Nice. We also bought some souvenirs from the shop to give to family/coworkers.

Then it's back to the hotel. I noted further on the way back that while there's a decent amount of cars and pedestrians on the streets, there's virtually no bicycles like normal Chinese cities. Instead, their presence is replaced by a large amount of motor bikes everywhere you look. Interesting...

China 2011: Day 2 Morning

So as it turned out, I was still too tired to go out last night, so I begged off the whole distant relatives thing. I stayed in and sort of "rested my eyes" while my mom went by herself. She later came back rather disgruntled at the food they had available in Taiwanese restaurants here. Apparently none of the dishes ordered me her tastes. She brought back for me a to-go order of sushi she picked up on the way back.

After a good night's sleep, I woke up sometime around 6 AM again. *shrug*

Might as well take some time to describe the Hotel. Palais de Chine is the name. It's supposed to be a five star. Motif is very dark.. as in dark brown wood, low lighting, and glass/mirror strips everywhere that are decorated with black patterns that my mom thought was rust at first.

No free internet, alas. No LAN connection either that I've found. They charge for wireless access here at something like NT$100 for one hour (exchange rate is something like $1 ~ NT$29, so that's like slightly less than $4). Boo.

The controls for lights are very... confusing. I think I got them worked out now, but it's not very intuitive. Same for the shower tabs. Although the nice thing is there's a tab that allows you to adjust the height of the shower-head, which is good for short people like me. Another amusing bit is the toilet, which is one of those fancy things with a control station next to it with a bunch of options, including washing your butt or, quite literally, blowing hot air up your... :P

Elevators are kinda annoying also. Apparently, if you want to select any of the guest room floors, you have to swipe your room card first. That's kinda odd to me, because what if you wanted to visit someone on another floor? Is that not allowed? Meh.

Breakfast was okay. Nothing to surprising at the buffet tables. I still don't think it's as good as the hotel I had last year in Shanghai. But, well, Shanghai. Which incidentally has about the same number of people in its metropolitan area as the whole island of Taiwan, I'm told. Yeah, no wonder the streets remind me more of Chinatown in the US than of anywhere in China in terms of population density (and cleanliness, and lack of air pollution, etc.)

Another thing I've noticed here, in various stores, and even the airport. A lot of fairly low ceilings here. Especially at the airport on our way out. Even I felt the ceiling was low and my height is puny. I can only think that most foreigners with some height on them would probably be able to smack their heads onto the overhanging lights at that place. It's somewhat interesting.

Also, noticing a lot of Japanese everywhere. It's pretty pervasive, on signs, instructions, reading material, tour groups... hell, every waitress/waiter/service professional gives that impression with the whole service with a bow thing. I guess the whole 50 years of occupation pre-WWII really left a mark.

Sep. 17th, 2011

China 2011: Day 0-1 Afternoon

We left home late Thursday night to catch a 1:00 AM flight. Took BART, and somewhere around the two transfers and whatnot, something ripped my jeans. While this isn't much of an issue on the plane since the whole trip is nighttime, it looked so bad when we arrived in Taipei that I had to change in the airport bathroom. Bleh.

The flight itself was ok. The plane had individual touchscreens at the back of every seat. So unlike the American plane I took last year (forget which airline specifically), there was no sharing screens and you could select whatever you want. The inflight movies available for selection were actually fairly new too. So I got to see X-Men First Class and Super 8 after all without having to pay theater tickets. (I'll review the movies separately.)

After watching the two movies I decided to get some sleep cuz we're supposed to be arriving in Taipei in the morning, meaning it'll be a while before I get to actually sleep. Unfortunately, it was kinda hard to sleep on the flight, and I kept dozing off for awhile and then jerking awake when we hit some patch of turbulence. I think in that respect, the airline I had last year was better. I remember my uncle saying that US airline's pilots are the best cuz their Air Force trained or something. Oh well, I guess the pros and cons all balance out.

We arrived at Taipei at something like 5:30-6ish, just around sunrise. The moment we stepped outside the airport, we were hit by a wave of suffocating humidity. Gah. So glad I did decide to bring along a pair of shorts after all rather than listen to my mom rave about how it'll get so cold. Also, on the bright side, at least it wasn't a wave of suffocating smog and humidity as it would've been on the mainland. In fact, driving to our hotels, I note that most of the buildings tend to be...well...cleaner than the buildings in China. I wonder how much of that is due to the lack of soot, smog, and acid rain? :-P

The tour we schduled with doesn't actually begin until Sunday, so we actually have the first day of arrival free to do whatever. After some thought, we went to the National Palace Museum. I was hoping to get some nice pics to match the stuff from last year. Unfortunately, the darn place does not allow photography at all and in fact made people check in any recording equipment at the door. What the hell? So yeah, I saw some nice pieces. Unfortunately, I doubt I'll remember any of it by the time we leave the island.

We ate lunch at a place next to the museum. The noodles were ok; the thin noodle soop with milkfish was actually good. Taiwanese traditional dim sum, on the other hand tastes...weird...yeah; let's just say it's an acquired taste.

Finally, we came back to the hotel because my feet was hurting and I was starting to fall asleep on my feet. I'll probably take a short nap (not too long that would make it hard to switch around my diurnal cycle) and then I think my mom is planning to get together with some of our distant relatives in Taipei tonight. More later...

Feb. 22nd, 2011

Alternate history

So I was skimming an alternate history site. Among all the masses of alternate Civil War, American Revolution, WWII, etc. I found an interesting fic (in timeline format) proposing an alternate timeline where China rises to become a world superpower: The Chinese Superpower

I thought it was kinda cool.

Also, depending on your tolerance for Ameriwank and ASCII misformating of special characters, there's also ISOT American 2002. ISOT, for those not familiar with the genre, stands for "Island in a Sea of Time", referring to when a city is copy pasted/dropped into an earlier (or alternate, as long as it's lower tech) time period and has to deal with it. Probably pioneered by Eric Flint's 1932 novel.

Nov. 15th, 2010

Summer Palace Long Corridor images

Wow, hey, I never knew wiki had a whole bunch of these with captioning. I was kinda bummed that we didn't have time for me to take photos of all the cool images on the eaves there.

I think the official site of the Summer Palace also lists all the images on the eaves along with captioning. Although the image quality there is smaller than the ones from wiki.

Nov. 5th, 2010

China 2010 Index

Photos are up on Facebook, opened to public (there's no images of me in there anyway and I was careful not to mention names). I've put in captions to the albums and photos as much as I can. Facebook does resize the images that are larger than normal, so if anyone needs a better quality copy of a photo (and assuming I've kept a better quality image), let me know and I'll pass it on by email.

The Index )

Nov. 1st, 2010

Introducing China through its cities

(Note to self: need a cutesy Shanghai Expo icon to match the Beijing Olympics one...)

Usually, when I travel to China, it's to visit relatives and maybe do a bit of shopping on the side. Thus, I usually only see Shanghai overnight, and then only the inside of shops, before I take the train to Nanjing and basically spend most of my time indoors at home. On this trip, however, I traveled with my aunt and uncle, who are very fond of bombarding our tour guides and any fellow tour-goers who are unfortunate enough to fall into conversation with them with millions of questions about the state of...everything. Thus, I am left with a much more detailed and wide perspective of my motherland.

Beijing: )

Shanghai: )

Pingyao: )

Xi'an: )

Day 20 Last Day in Beijing

Well, as the title says, it's our last day! And then it's back to the dreariness of everyday life and work. Boo. :P

This morning we went to the Yonghegong (Llamastry?)...the place with the Tibetian Buddhist stuff from the Qing dynasty. My aunt had fun reading all the placards and taking photos/videos, while the rest of us took a few token pics where the scenery/buildings were cool and otherwise mostly stood around and quietly made fun of Buddhism...ok, maybe that wasn't quite the nice or PC thing to do, but we were a little bored out of our minds.

As a reward for our patience (pffft) though, we did come across a tour group of Shaolin monk students when we were departing the place. They were doing kungfu poses and jumps while taking photos, and of course all the passers-by also tried to take photos of them as well. I managed to capture one of them in midair:

Afterwards, we took the subway to Wangfujing St. and went to the foreign languages bookstore recommended there to us by the concierge. I bought a few CDs that I thought might be interesting since they didn't have a great selection of videos. My aunt and uncle spent three hours deciding on what educational materials to buy the twins to help teach them Chinese. My uncle also bought quite a few English mathematics books from the sciences section as the price was much cheaper than those in America. In the end, they bought so many volumes that they had to ship them all to the US, and we managed to rush everything through over at the Post Office just as the place closed.

After that, it was time for dinner, and since we were right there next to the Wangfujin snack street, I dragged everyone over for a look at that infamous street. There, we saw some very interesting foods, such as sea urchin, sea horse, starfish, snake (skinned and not-skinned), beetles (water and longhorn), scorpions (see below), silk worm larvae (below), centipede (see below), centipede (below), and bee cocoon (below)...

No, I'm not adventurous enough to try any one of those. I did however try out the ostrich meat, which was not too bad. My aunt tried some pot-stickers and 汤包 (alas not authentic). My uncle didn't try anything for fear they weren't hygienic, and the twins were too grossed out to even look at the stands for long. (I did take some pepto-bismol as a precaution when I got back to the hotel, just in case. :P)

In the end, we walked back to the New World Mall near our hotel and everyone else ate at the food court there instead. That place seem to be the favorite of the twins especially, even over the duck shop it seemed. Oh well. :-/

Anyway, tomorrow we get delivered to the airport and then it's an 11 hour journey home. I'll still be on break until next Monday, so hopefully I'll recover from my vacation by then. :P

Oct. 31st, 2010

Introducing our hotels

Well, even though we technically still have one and a half more days to stay in our current hotel, I think I've gotten a good feel of it to be able to give it an overview/analysis. All of our hotels on this trip have been four star hotels (my aunt didn't want to chance what China would consider a three-star, especially in smaller cities like Pingyao, and five-star would have been much more overkill/expensive).

We begin with the Central Hotel (王宝和大酒店) in Shanghai. This one is my favorite, mostly for two reasons - there was free internet, and they surprised me with a (free) yummy cake for my birthday. Now that's service. :) On other things, the place was pretty clean and sanitary; no complaints about the bedding or the bathroom from my end. Breakfast was great and varied. The only downside we could have about it was that we weren't able to get our assigned rooms together next to each other or even on the same floor; and, at first, the room they'd assigned me (and one of the twins) was on a smoking floor so the hallway was rather smoky. We were able to switch on the second day to a non-smoking floor, but it was still not next to the other room we had. Ah well, I guess that could be partially blamed on the Expo for filling up pretty much all the hotels in the city.

Next, in Xi'an, we had the Grand New World Hotel (古都新世界大酒店). It was ok in regards to sanitation and cleanliness, and the sheets were warm enough for the cooling temperatures even without any central heating turned on (that I noticed). We were able to get adjoining rooms, which was good since I we all had various levels or the beginnings of a cold around the time in Xi'an. I also noted that was also the best decorated of our hotels, with nice paintings on the walls. The downside was that people were smoking even on the supposedly non-smoking rooms, and my aunt/uncle had to complain to the management about their other next door neighbor. Also, the air in general was bad in the city, and the hotel didn't seem to be too much better than the outside air. The breakfast was decent but pretty monotonous and got somewhat tiring after a while. Also, internet had to be paid for here - 200 RMB for a week.

In Pingyao, we were housed in what I think was called International Financier's Club (云锦城) or something to that effect. Since it was a recreation of the Ming style building, we couldn't help the stone floors or the stiff beds/chairs. I was glad to see that we had sanitized modern bathrooms, even though there was no tub and only a shower stall with wood or bamboo flooring. There was heating, though, which was good since the weather was the coldest in Pingyao during our vacation. Internet, on the other hand, was free and available, which was a surprise to me. On the downside, breakfast was kind of mediocre; and the old style doors with the locks and padlocks were a pain to work with, especially in the dark.

Finally, in Beijing, we stayed at the Capital Hotel (首都大酒店). Again, sanitation and cleanliness were not a problem here. My aunt thought the beds were a little too hard and had them add a layer on top of their bed; but I honestly couldn't feel the difference. The breakfast is definitely both varied and good, though I still think the Shanghai hotel had the better porridge/congee (I guess southerners just have a better way with rice than northerners :P). What I don't like here is that there aren't many outlets to let me plug all of my various appliances in at the same time (laptop, battery charger, phone charger, etc.) Also, they're charging me pretty steeply for the internet (20 RMB per hour).

In general I did want to not that I could've left out half the things in my ziplock bag of liquids/gels for airport security, as well as a few other items. All of the hotels had shampoo, conditioner, body foam, body lotion, shower cap, slippers, and ethernet cable for broadband. I should've just brought the facial wash/lotion, sunblock, deodorant, and hand sanitizer without needing to burden myself with anything else. Food for thought in any future travels, I guess.

Day 19 Capital Museum

So today we visited the Beijing Capital Museum and managed to stay there until we were kicked out at the end of the business day. Y'see, to my aunt, museums are "serious business". :P

The shape and layout of the museum itself is kinda interesting. It seems to be still a work in progress though, since from the upper floors we could see they were still building something inside the museum that had already been completed on the first two floors or so. There was also a round exhibition hall on the other side of the building from the normal exhibition hall that we couldn't figure out how to get to until we eventually wandered into it by chance.

To start off, we spent about 1.5 hours in the largest exhibit, which was of the history of Beijing on floor 2. I kinda like the setup of the exhibit. The path proceeds from pre-historic times in chronological order all the way to the establishment of the PRC. Along one side of the path are the artifacts on display, of various stuff that have been excavated from around the Beijing area (or replicas and images thereof) of the time period in question. On the other side of the path are listed major events occurring in the rest of the world, including tibits of things related to China that were found or occurred in foreign lands. Occasionally on the artifacts side, there would be a small cranny where you would step in and see a life-size model or a brief movie of some particular time/place/event. Interspersed on the other side, were world maps denoting the major powers in the world during that century.

After that, we took a short lunch break, which just consisted of getting some drinks and cookies at a nearby cafe. We also stopped by the bookstore on the basement floor where the food was. My aunt/uncle bought a children's book version of Journey to the West, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and the 36 Strategies for the twins. They were rather cheap, which kinda surprised me. (Of course, the museum admission, sans the special exhibits, was free - so I guess this museum is not looking to be a tourist trap but a serious learning establishment, I guess.

Then came the ceramics exhibit on the fourth floor, where we actually entered through the exit and made our way backwards through time through history. Of course, all the pretty stuff were nearer to the later time periods anyway, and I took some pics of the pretty pieces I saw.

Last on that floor (not counting the round hall we couldn't find the way into yet) was an exhibition about Buddhist statues, which we went through quickly. There were a few pieces there of two figures in...embrace/kissing positions, which made me wonder if they were about the tantric thing. >.>

Eventually, we found our way into the round exhibition hall. The first exhibit we saw there were of bronzes. Nothing too special there. After that, we saw the jades exhibit, which was cool. I tried to take better quality photos there since a lot of the pics I took of jades from the Shanghai museum all came out pretty blurry. It's rather hard to get good focus on the jades for photos since they reflect light so much, which messes with auto-focus.

We had to finish up the jade section because it was near closing time. As it was, we were only able to do a partial glimpse of the exhibition of writing utensils (文房四宝) before we were being shooed out by the museum staff.

We returned the same way we came to the museum - by navigating the subway metro system. It wasn't as hard as my aunt feared, and we were able to get everyone back to the correct exit without any problems. For dinner, the twins insisted on duck again. We tried our luck at the 前门东全聚德 restaurant, but unfortunately there was an hour's wait for service there. In the end, we went back to the other 全聚德 that we'd gone to previously and had peking duck there. The girls were happy and I am of course stuffed. :P

Tomorrow is our last tour day of Beijing before we return home!

Oct. 30th, 2010

Introducing our tour guides

Although our vacation in China isn't wholly over yet, the guided portions of it are. So I thought I'd write a bit about the various tour guides we've had on this journey while they're fresh on my mind, especially since they've been the topic of much discussion among my aunt, uncle, and cousins.

Let's start in order with Shanghai. Although we only had one (and a half if you count the trips from the airport and to the airport) day of guided tour with Kathy, my memories of her were generally ok. She did what a tour guide was supposed to do. Her tour of the French Concession area showed that she knew the area and its history well, and could communicate such just fine with English. Overall, our impressions of her were fair, though not spectacular.

Next was Jessie from Xi'an, who was by far the favorite of the twins and the rest of us. She gave me the impression of a peer much more than Kathy did, though our ages are all about the same, and she could certainly relate to children the best. When the girls joked around about the mistranslations on one of the museums near Yongtai's tomb, Jessie was able to laugh and contribute to the joke. She was also the most loquacious of our guides. On the car trips to/from our tour spots, and even during the tour, she would engage in long and deep conversations with my uncle about every topic under the sun - politics, religion, economy, history, China's place in the world and in the eyes of the people. She wasn't afraid to give her own opinions of everything, and it was very obvious that she loved learning and was a very wide-read scholar as well as well-traveled young lady. She also went above and beyond to accompany us through my aunt's very serious and detailed examinations of every item in a museum even though she must have been walking her feet off much as we had felt the first two Expo days. In fact, even after we left Xi'an, the twins kept comparing the following two tour guides against her and found them wanting. Well, I have to agree...

In Pingyao, our guide was a young man named George. Coming from a much smaller and poorer town, it came as no surprise that his English was not as good as our previous two guides. There were several times where I had to play translator myself between my uncle and our guide. However, he was pretty honest about when he didn't understand something we said. He also put the extra little effort to finding us good restaurants for dinner in the two days we spent there, even though dinner was not included in the tour arrangement we'd originally paid for. My uncle figured that he probably got a kickback from those diners. He was also the only tour guide to actually join us for lunch without a separate receipt (meaning the tour agency paid for his part of lunch too, which is technically against regulations). But since we were happy to find decent (and sanitary!) eateries in such a small town like Pingyao that we really didn't mind the small perks he got out of things. The man did give a general impression of earnestness...

Finally, that brings us to our last tour guide in Beijing, Selena - she who has been the topic of many a dinner conversation. At first impression, she seemed to be very fluent in English and had a pretty impressive resume (lived in Vancouver a few years; lead tours to or in foreign countries). However, the more time we spent on her tours, the more it seemed like...she really isn't suited to her job. Even ignoring the incident at the Forbidden City, and her attempts at talking my aunt to changing her tour program from Mutianyu and Suzhou Street... there are the small things. She would very often lapse into Chinese whenever she wanted to get a point across quickly, despite repeated reminders that we all spoke English as our primary language. She usually addressed only my aunt (half in Chinese), even if it had been my uncle who'd asked the question - as if she expected my aunt to do the translation to the rest of us for her. She hardly spoke a word to the twins and when she spoke to me, it's as if to a high-schooler on a homework assignment rather than an adult vacationing on her own time and money. As well, she would often say that she'd wait for us at such and such a spot for us to be done with taking photos or visiting Such-and-such Hall or climbing a nearby hill to see what was there. She also had a tendency to get picked up in the morning by the driver after we were picked up first, and get dropped off before we were dropped off at our hotel. These are things none of our previous guides had done; they'd always accompanied us no matter where we were dragging them, and saw us from/to our hotel from beginning to end. It just didn't seem quite professional here, since, well, just who's paying for who's time?

I've overheard various other small tour groups with only a few foreigners and an English-speaking tour guide. Most of them act more like Jessie (or Kathy) than like Selena. I guess we just had some bad luck with our last guide. Honestly, I think she'd do better at a desk job arranging schedules than in the field. Other than the last one, I think we had a pretty fair run of guides on the rest of our trip. Anyway, in the end, it's going to be our wallets talking when we do the tipping, and we already know what the math is going to be there.

But, in case anyone else ever thinks about ordering a tour from CTS for Shanghai, Xi'an, Beijing, or with CITS for Pingyao, hopefully this will help you make decisions or know who to request/avoid. :)

Day 18 Olympic Stadium, Summer Garden

My knees and thigh were starting to twinge yesterday evening, but they seemed fine this morning. Clearly, the time I've spent walking daily on this vacation have toughened up my leg/feet muscles such that a 'short' jaunt up the Great Wall is no longer an ordeal. XP

Anyways, this morning we made a stop at the plaza where all the Olympic buildings were. We didn't actually go inside any of them, though they are supposedly open. We did take some photos of the Bird's Nest, the Water Cube, and the... Dragon hotel thing (with the IBM office on the 'head'!).

After that we headed off to the Summer Palace, entering through the eastern gate. We passed a couple of halls, and I think but am not sure we found the courtyard where Dowager Empress Cixi had supposedly imprisoned one of the late Qing emperors (where was our guide?!).

The trip down the Long Corridor was cool. I tried to pick out all the images that I could recognize the stories of, and had fun telling the tales to the twins. Unfortunately, I spent so much time talking that I didn't get to take as many photos of the corridor pics as I wanted to. I did note that there was a huge variation among the quality of the art - some of them look very obviously restore/repainted, while others look like they are still in their original state from the Ming/Qing. Our tour guide said that the whole corridor had been restored recently in '06-ish, but given some of the other inconsistencies that I caught her at, I wasn't sure if her statement was accurate.

(BTW, if anyone can tell me, is the "official" story still that Cixi used money that would have gone to the Qing military to build/restore/expand the Summer Palace, or has that been reduced to a vicious rumor?)

All too soon, we finished the Long Corridor and hand lunch at a place where they supposedly serve authentic Imperial cuisine (or is it just cuisine served in Imperial style?)... Frankly I wasn't too impressed with the place or dishes, but then, I guess I prefer minimalistic aesthetics to a lot of the gaudiness of the Ming/Qing styles.

My aunt had her heart set on visiting the Suzhou Street area toward the north side of the garden. Our tour guide tried to talk us out of that plan on various reasons including that there was nothing much to see and it was too long a walk. In the end, my aunt had her way, and the kids actually enjoyed the climb over the shallow hill over to the Suzhou Street area (they love to climb, period *shrug*). Since we didn't get to visit Guilin/苏杭 on this trip, it was a cool intro for the kids of China's version of Venice. I snapped quite a few photos as well.

After that, we made our way back to the shore where we took a dragon-boat ferry over the artificial Kunming Lake to where we were to exit the park. Hopefully, my photos from the boat/shore will come out ok, since the camera does horrible when shooting against the light, and I have not had too much luck in forcing a flash on the darned thing.

Today is the last of our guided tours in Beijing. Tomorrow and the day after, we'll be completely on our own. My aunt has already decided that tomorrow we'll be going to the Capital Museum (or whatever it's called). We'll probably want to take the subway since it might be easier than to get two cabs to take five people. I don't think it should be harder to navigate than Shanghai's subway...right?

Oct. 29th, 2010

Day 17 Great Wall, Ming Tombs

TGIF in China! Well, I think I've worked off all the duck that I stuffed myself with last night today. :)

Got up early today for the drive to the Great Wall as our guide said that traffic on Fridays were murder in Beijing. My aunt had signed up for the Mitianyu section of the wall as that was said to be the best/most scenic of the three open wall segments. They day was nice and clear, and it was actually quite balmy even up on the wall, so the twins ended up shedding their coat and I ended up shedding both my sweater and my jacket - thus wearing only two layers - by the end of our hike up. Of course, we'd hiked a great amount of the way westwards on the wall, nearly to where the end of the way of the walkable segment...taking pictures all the way of course. We only stopped before the last great incline since we were running out of time (we'd already agreed to skip lunch).

The twins had a great time running up and down the wall like maniacs, when they weren't being pressed into photos. They must have run twice or three times the distance the rest of us had walked, and the rest of us walked 1.5 hours roundtrip. But all in all, I didn't mind the hike, and it was much more fun with the girls there to imbue excitement into every little thing and explore every little cranny in the Wall. ^^

On the way down in the cable cars (to get to the hiking part of the wall in that section, you had to take cable cars up/down), we were rather surprised to see the inscription on the glass informing us that this was the same car as used by Ex-Prez Clinton when he came to China years ago! I know my aunt mentioned that she'd researched that this place had been visited by Clinton, but it was some stroke of luck to land us in the same car! I even got a pic (cuz it didn't happen if there's no proof, ne?):

After the Wall, we drove over to the Ming Tombs. Took a gander around the front hall/museum at the info on Emperor Yong Le of the Ming. Then drove over to the sacred way where the twins did their level best to mount all of the stone animals that they could climb on top of. Needless to say - I got lotsa pictures (which will have to wait for when I get back to the US to upload them all).

The drive back to our hotel took about 2 hours, showing us ample proof of just how bad the traffic was on Fridays in Beijing. By the time we got back, it was dark and the city was lit up with lights strung over the streets. Since those lights weren't there the previous nights, I can only assume the city does a little extra on weekend nights to celebrate not having to go to work in the morning. :P

After the long day (with no lunch), I was pretty starved by the time we got back. We had dinner at a muslim hot pot place (东来顺 - such a typical name). It was better than the hot pot we had in Pingyao - no surprise, it was more expensive too - and we managed to polish off a set hot pot dinner meant for 5 adults. What can I say? The girls LOVE lamb/mutton, which can't be said for many of the Chinese foods we been trying to get them to try on this trip. I liked the soup that was left afterward, so it was all good.

Tomorrow is the summer palace, as well as quick drive-by of the Olympic buildings for some pictures. That's the last day of our arranged tours. The last two days have been left free for us to arrange as we wish. I know I want to do the 王府井 pedestrian street on one of them, both for checking out some of the book/video stores and for the food. Another possibility are the various museums in town. My aunt also mentioned the temple to Confucius and something about Llama/tantric Buddhism... er... we'll see, I guess.

Oct. 28th, 2010

Day 16 Forbidden City, Peking Duck

Beijing must be in a middle of a heat wave or something, cuz the temperatures are getting warmer each day since we've been here. I'd shed my jacket and one outer layer by the end of our tour of the Forbidden City today. Maybe tomorrow will be colder on the Great Wall.

This morning we started by dropping off near Tiananmen Square, near the 正阳门全聚德烤鸭店 that our tour guide and the concierge said was less likely to be crowded and less confusing to navigate to/from the hotel. We dropped by to the store to make a reservation for tonight, then continued on to get some photos of Tiananmen.

However, it seemed that today was not our day, since it seems that the Italian president was visiting, causing most of the square to be cordoned off. I did have some fun taking shots of the security, and I wasn't the only one. There was a pair of military security guys with bright shiny helmets (space helmets!!) who marched by to stand next near Tiananmen, and who quickly got swarmed by tourists taking photos of them. One daring (Chinese!) lady practically snuggled up to one of them, actually pinching on his uniform sleeve. I think that was the last straw for these guys, and since they couldn't start up an international incident by shooting the offending woman, they quickly fled marched away.

The same thing happened when I tried to take a pic of a duo of military police (no shiny helmets this time, but the twins insisted their belt...thingy looked like a lightsaber handle), they took one look at me (or my camera) and marched away. :P

Right... Forbidden City... Um, not much to tell, since it hasn't changed all that much since the last time I'd visited. Well, except for maybe the very obvious new paint jobs on the eaves of some of the main buildings (they didn't do a good job on the blue swatches, IMO). We took some photos of the main halls, and walked through the Clocks Gallery and the Jewelry Gallery (where my aunt was unhappy that they had far less pieces on display than the museums we'd been to in Shanghai/Xi'an).

We had a quick lunch at a fast food place in the Forbidden City. The fare was mediocre, but it was fast food after all. After that, we took a walk through the imperial gardens, where the girls and I had fun chasing after the fat cat that apparently lived therein. ^_^

Then the tour took an odd turn. Our tour guide said that there was a visiting world-famous calligrapher who was at the Forbidden City these few days, who was actually the half-nephew of the last emperor (Puyi). She asked if we wanted to visit and take a look. My aunt said sure and we were taken through this side door which was not being used by any of the mainstream tourists to this small courtyard and a special room where we were introduced to the man and his calligraphy. They were a couple thousand RMB per piece, and the other antiques in the store were on the expensive side too. It quickly became obvious that we were brought there in hopes of buying something and no other purpose. After a few awkward moments, we finally backed out of the place after making a token donation of 100 RMB.

At that point, the tour guide said it was time for us to leave. But we (and everyone else) couldn't leave since half the Imperial Gardens got cordoned off while we'd been in that shop. Apparently the Italian president wanted to take a short tour through the gardens too. I joked with the twins that we were trapped in the garden just like the concubines of old. However, I was able to take a few more shots of the security. XD

In retrospect, the incident with that calligrapher guy was strange since my aunt had specified with the tour agency when setting up this expedition that she did not want to do any commercial/merchant side trips at all in her tours. Indeed, in the one day we had with our tour guide in Shanghai, the two-three days with our guide in Pingyao, and the week with our guide in Xi'an, none of them had brought us specifically to commercial places, and indeed rushed us past the stores that were on the path of our main attractions to get to said attractions. My uncle thought the whole deal was kind of fishy and wondered if it might have been some kind of scam to begin with. Hrm.

Anyway, on the brighter side, we did indeed have dinner at the Quanjude duck shop. Yes, their Peking duck was yummy, and I left the place stuffed. ^_^ Unfortunately, I think I gained weight overall on this trip to China, which I might somehow need to find a way to work off. :-/

Oct. 27th, 2010

Day 15 Tiantan, Museum, Beihai, Kungfu

On the first day of our tour in Beijing, we started out with the 天坛/Prayer Hall for Harvests in all its touristy glory. (Personally, though, I have to admit that I am slightly biased toward Han/Tang era building styles than I am the Ming/Qing styles.

Qing style vs. Tang style

Afterwards, we went to the Museum of Ancient Architecture (a place where it appears that is almost unheard of by tourists given how empty it was :-/) and looked at pics of the other cool buildings that we weren't able to see on this trip. It also had cool stuff such as a model layout of the city of Beijing in the Qing Dynasty (similar to the one of Chang'an we saw at the Tang Paradise), which was awesome. And yes, Beijing was larger than Chang'an was, though it didn't have Chang'an's perfectly grid-like streets. Also somewhat annoying were the lights on the map, which interferes with the auto-focus function of digital cameras. It's one place where an old style film-based camera would have been better, I guess.

Lunch was eaten at another vegetarian Buddhist place. This place was better than the one we had in Xi'an though. The dish with several types of mushrooms in it was good. The faux-fish soup dish also had 'jellyfish' in it made out of vermicelli, which was cool.

After lunch, we went to Beihai Park (actually, just the Jade Islet part of it). The twins of course wanted to climb anything that went up, so we found ourselves hiking all the way to the top where the pagoda hat thingy was (couldn't actually go up that pagoda thing cuz it required separate tickets). Explained several pics on the eaves of the corridor to the girls. Also visited the Pavilion of Ancient Works on the islet, where houses the writings of Wangxizhi (actually, just the rubbings of the original tablets that were there are displayed nowadays).

Finally, the last item of the evening was a kungfu show that we'd actually added at the last minute (this morning, in fact). It was a combo of martial arts, dancing, and some acrobatics. I thought it was ok; definitely touristy though.

We came back to go anywhere fancy for dinner, so we just ate at the food court of the New World mall nearby our hotel.

Tomorrow is the Forbidden City, and hopefully we'll be able to make the duck place that cashew suggested in the evening. Would it be ok to reserve at that place in the morning? Or do they need to reserve even further ahead than that?

Oct. 26th, 2010

Day 14 Taiyuan - Beijing

Back to civilization! Ahem. That is, we have arrived in Beijing, after a 3 hour train ride from Taiyuan. (Have to say, traveling by air is much more convenient than train, and the airports have much better bathrooms too. :P)

But backing up... this morning, the first place we hit was the Erlang Temple. W00t! *Squee!* Yes, I was able to satisfy my inner fangirl. It's just too bad that practically all the religious sites/shrines/etc do not allow photography, so not much photos of the place. I did donate 2 RMB to the temple, though I didn't make a wish or bow or do the incense thing. Ah well, call me a modern material girl.

After that we dropped by the old county courthouse (衙门) of Pingyao. Looked at the different courts of the olden days. Got squicked by the various ancient torture implements. Laughed at the skit of an old style court in session that was presented twice a day. (Ok, I laughed with the rest of the Chinese speaking audience, then had to explain everything to the others.)

Lunch was quickly eaten at a local shop. That was the time that it started snowing. (I'd checked yesterday and the forecast had said no rain - I guess it was right, since snow isn't rain. -_-) The twins of course have never seen snow, and were excited to witness this miracle.

After lunch, we started on the long drive to Taiyuan and the train station. We still had time to make a small detour to 双林寺, but only stayed about 10 mins since we didn't want to miss the train, and also cuz the place had no photography signs pretty much everywhere.

Then came the long train ride and the arrival in Beijing in the early evening. We were picked up by our guide and driven to the hotel.

The hotel here charges 20 RMB/hr up to 100/day for the internet service, which may or may not be more than what I paid in Xi'an depending on how much time I spend on the net. I guess I'll have to compare at the end of our stay. -_0

Oct. 25th, 2010

Day 13 Pingyao walls & Wang Compound

Started off this morning at the Pingyao city walls, supposedly dating back to Ming Dynasty. While there, we bought gloves from the local vendor cuz it was kinda chilly up there. I was wearing three layers (including a sweater), so it was just the fingers and toes freezing stiff.

Following that was a visit to the local temple to Confucius, one of the oldest of such temples still in existence - it was built originally during Han and then rebuilt during the Jin Dynasty. My uncle joked that the twins will need to make a prayer there for blessings on getting into MIT; I noted that I was glad to be done with the whole school thing (though I guess I could have used some luck/blessing in passing my CCIE lab exam/certification, I guess). While there, my aunt had 'incident' at the toilets, which required us to rush through the rest of that site and then make a stop back to the hotel.

According to our tour guide, Shanxi (山西) province is actually predominantly Daoist, which I found surprising since I'd thought that Daoism wasn't that seriously practiced as a religion anymore in favor of atheism and Buddhism. I did note the signs saying there was a local temple to Erlang Shen though, and of course, being the fangirl that I am, I requested to see it tomorrow morning before we leave for Beijing. Tee.

After lunch, we took a car to the Wang Family Compound, which while was not as famous as the Qiao family, was much larger. We spent pretty much 2.5 hours walking through the place. It was *big*! I agree with the comparison that it was like visiting one of those old castles in England. The place was built like a fortress, except also prettier, and according to the various Chinese tours I overheard, practically all the carvings on the floors, eaves, columns, etc. had some symbolic meaning or other. The compound was built against a mountain, so the top/north wall could overlook everything. There was also a huge crane there, ostensibly in the construction of a new 5-star hotel that will be connected to the compound. I guess we know what Pingyao's (neighboring town's) development plans are. :P

Tomorrow we hit a few more spots nearby before heading back to civilization (Beijing). :)

Oct. 24th, 2010

Day 12 Xi'an - Pingyao & Qiao Compound

Success!! I have gotten the internet in this old style room to work!

Yes, we are in Pingyao. We left Xi'an in the midst of sprinkling rain, and arrived in the early afternoon in Taiyuan also to sprinkling rain. There was a minor moment of panic at the Taiyuan airport when there was no one to meet us, but after a few frantic phone calls, it just turned out that our guide was slightly late.

On the way to the hotel, we dropped by the Qiao Family Compound (乔家大院). Took some photos and froze my toes off. Though there was one humourous moment when my uncle was pulled into a photo by a random Chinese tourist, and then her entire tour group wanted in on the photo; so he ended up taking a picture with about twenty people. It's funny cuz it's usually the girls who are pulled into random photos with Chinese tourists because they're small, cute, sorta-Caucasian, and twins.

Our hotel is actually a reconstructed Ming/Qing era family compound in Pingyao, complete with a giant stone bed built into the wall. Looks clean enough; the heater and free internet makes up for a lot. A little small for three though (since the old style beds won't fit an adult sleeping with head toward the wall, my uncle is reduced to sleeping 'sideways', meaning I get to share my room with both kids instead of just one usually).

Dinner was hot pot at a local restaurant. The food was average (I think their menu items might have been a better choice). We did meet another Caucasian man there with three Asian children. Apparently he's a stock broker from Hong Kong who's originally from NYC. His wife is Japanese and the kids are half-Japanese; they're just done touring Beijing and on their way through to Xi'an. So my aunt & uncle had a conversation with him while the twins had fun clowning around with his kids.

Tomorrow apparently we're going to see another family compound... somewhere. I'd thought we were only going to be here overnight, but apparently we're going to be here for two nights. Oh well. I'll just have to deal. :-/

Note: Here and as well in Xi'an, I couldn't get connected to insanejournal first. But after I left for a few hours, such as for dinner, I was later able to use it just fine. I think the problem is just a routing issue. I am experiencing BGP updates in real time! *geeks out*

However this doesn't explain why I can't get google/gmail here in Pinyao when I could get that just fine in Xi'an...

Oct. 23rd, 2010

Day 11 Afternoon - Qian Ling & Forest of Steles

Last day in Xi'an! This morning we visited the Qian Ling/乾陵 and the tomb of Princess Yongtai.

At Qian Ling, we saw the blank tablet for Wuzetian. At the tomb, we went underground through the tomb of the princess. The girls loved the tomb. Our tour guide said that when she'd come here by herself during off-season when there was no other people/tours around, it was rather spooky to be walking by herself down a black tunnel down to the coffin's resting place.

After a kinda meh lunch, we visited the Bei Lin/碑林 (Forest of Steles), and looked at the stone tablets preserved there. There were calligraphy of some famous past writers, some significant works from the Tang relating to foreign religions of the time like Buddhism in Sanskrit, and some stuff about Nestorian Christianity and its arrival to China. Not much that shows up well in photos though...

Tomorrow we leave for Pingyao (not sure if there's internet there), and then after that is Beijing.

Edit in the evening: We went back to that Old Xi'an shop for dinner. I finally got to try out donkey meat. Tastes kinda like beef tendon actually. Not like chicken. :P

Oct. 22nd, 2010

Day 10 Tang Paradise, City Walls

Woke up with a lot of mucus and a small case of the sniffles. Decided to start taking the Tylenol to head off the cold. The younger of the twins also had a slight fever and had to stay in the hotel with her dad to see if she could recover by tomorrow (since the girls really wanted to see Princess Yongtai's tomb, so much that we'd actually switched from our day of touring Famen Temple to visiting Qian Ling instead). So today's tour just consisted of me, my aunt, and the elder of the twins.

This morning we went to the 大唐芙蓉园 (Tang Paradise), which is a man-made park showcasing the Tang style architecture. There, we caught several shows - a short intro dance, a drum performance, and a lion dance atop a series of raised platforms. Our tour guide was actually very surprised since even though she's lived in the city all her life and had visited the Tang Paradise before, she'd never even known those shows existed.

The coolest thing we saw at the Tang Paradise was a 3D model map of the city during the hey-day of the Tang Dynasty, with labels of where areas such as the Daminggong, etc. were located. I had fun tracing the waterways that were channeled to the city by probably man-made canals, and which created the city moat, flowed down one of the major streets, and also channeled into several man-made lakes in the parks of the original city.

(Caption: View from 'north' side of the original pre-Daminggong palace 'south' toward the rest of the city. The gate with the sign in front is the original Xuanwumen.)

There was also a bunch of cranes caged in one area of the garden. The cage wires played merry havoc with the camera autofocus while I was trying to get a pic of any of the birds flapping. Oh well; we'll see how well they turn out.

Lunch was at a vegetarian Buddhist place. Food was mediocre, I guess, for vegetarian. Had fun rearranging the fruit/desert dish given us into cutesy patterns.

After lunch, we went to the old city wall (just the south gate portion; we weren't about to circumnavigate the inner city). According to our tour guide, most parts of the city wall dates back to the Ming Dynasty, though there are still some parts dating back to Tang. The tourist area, of course, was modern. :P

It's a pity we couldn't go back and see it at night. The light are supposed to be spectacular.

Oct. 21st, 2010

Day 9 Pagodas & Mosques

I guess today's the day to hit the religious targets of the city. In the morning we visited the 大/小雁塔 (Big & Small Wild Goose Pagodas).

The small pagoda is actually also the local park, where we could see the normal Chinese sight of old ladies doing their Taichi routines (or Taichi sword routines!) in the morning. There was also a big bell there that the kids had fun ringing (it took the both of them with some help from their dad to swing the wooden ringer). There was also a shop doing wood carvings out of the natural flow of the wood that was pretty cool.

The big pagoda was much more serious about its religion. Of course, since we were not Buddhists, we didn't bother with the incense thing and there wasn't much we could do aside, especially since photography is not allowed in any of the shrines (sacrilege, I guess).

In the afternoon, we visited the bell and drum towers of the old city, as well as the mosque in the Muslim quarter of the city - originally built there during the Tang, and repaired/rebuilt in the Ming/Qing. I have to say, if we hadn't been told that the place was a Muslim mosque, I'd have thought it was just another typical Chinese temple/garden thing. :P The kids (and I) did have fun with the orange tabby kitten that was owned by one of the groundskeepers there though.

The itchy throat and bad air made a comeback today. But everyone was having those problems today, not just me. Gah.

Oct. 20th, 2010

Day 8 Evening

We were on our own for dinner tonight. At the suggestion of the concierge, we went to a nearby diner called 老西安 (Old Xi'an). Apparently, the traditional old-style cuisine of Xi'an is mule donkey meat (驴肉), cuz that was on most of the menu items. However, we eventually managed to find enough dishes that weren't mule or too spicy, and the food was actually pretty decent.

(In retrospect, we could've ordered one small dish of mule meat just to try it out... but I was outvoted.)

Now I just need to take a pill of Tylenol before I go to bed tonight, just in case the place wasn't as sanitary as it looked. :-/

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