Monday, November 9, 2009

Yet another reptile post

This post was supposed to be about the gecko I found on my bathroom ceiling one night. The night I was alone and nearly broke my arm getting out of the bathroom so the thing didn't fall on me. It was supposed to be about how two security men from our building came up with their makeshift broomstick/towel weapon to take care of it. How I wouldn't let them out until they searched the entire bathroom and bedroom to make sure the reptile had definitely escaped via the bathroom window and was absolutely, positively gone. How everyone in my exercise class the next day made fun of me because "geckos are cute" and "wouldn't hurt me".

Then another reptile -- a 12-foot long one with a penchant for eating cats, came on the scene and my gecko story seemed suddenly irrelevant. Police here caught a 12-foot python on our street two weeks ago. Apparently two helpers spotted it earlier in the week eating a cat. (I'll spare you the photos of that.) Why it wasn't caught then I have no idea. A few days later it was caught which was caught (pun intended) on camera:

Now I find myself back in that petrified place, fearing that every movement in the grass is a python and freaking out if Victor tries to do his business off the beaten path at night. A friend of mine said, 'Don't worry, if you ever find yourself being attacked by a python just calmly unwrap their tail from around you. They're not poisonous so the bite won't harm you." Are you kidding me?! I actually have to know an "if a python attacks you" survival tip?! And my vet tried the whole "they're more afraid of you than you are of them" tactic, which I just had to call bullshit on. He claims that the cat must've been sick before it was eaten by the snake because a cat should've been able to outrun the snake. He was telling me this to assure me that nothing like could ever happen to Victor. Yeah right...

Oh New York City, I miss you! I'll trade pythons and geckos for rats and pigeons any day!

Damn the Brits and their God forsaken language!

I know I complain a lot about TV here -- the old programs (Charlie's Angels and Mad About You!), delayed seasons (just finished up Season 4 of Top Chef where Stephanie won it all), lack of product commercials, etc. But this one really REALLY gets me.

Since Hong Kong was ruled by the Brits for many years, their culture here is as vibrant as the Chinese. While in many ways this is a comfort, the one thing I absolutely cannot take anymore is their so-proper-that-what-they're-saying-doesn't-even-really-make-sense language in commercials. Since they play the same commercials every break for an eternity (there are program commercials still playing that were on TV when I moved here a year ago!), it got to the point where Vin and I could recite them and realized they made absolutely no sense.

Here's the direct and complete voice-over from one commercial:

Be empowered by John Dykes and his guests.
With the vision to achieve the profound examination of the world of football.
Football Focus every Wednesday at 10pm.

HUH???? "the vision to achieve the profound examination"??? what in the hell does that mean?

Here's another one and I bet you a million dollars you won't have any idea what the show is about:

All across Asia one common essence exists.
Where the diversing cultures converge.
Sharing the same beliefs.
Speaking the common language.
As we get behind the supporting and supported.

Please tell me what you think this show is about based on that commercial (of which I've left not a single word out.) Is it a makeover show? A cooking show? A news program? Nope, it's a soccer show called Football Asia.

Dear God, help me because I am going to lose my mind.

Chinglish Names

It is common for Chinese people to have English names in addition to their given Chinese names. In fact, all forms here have blanks for both Chinese and English names (for the same person). For such a common custom, though, these people pick some uncommon (translation: bizarro!) names.

This first came to my attention at the grocery store when the check-out lady's name tag said, "Cinderella". Strange, I thought. I shared it with a friend of mine here who clued me in that the majority of Chinese people's English names are taken from cartoon characters. She told me her husband worked with a Chinese guy named -- get ready for it -- Chewbacca! I kid you not. Can you imagine having to say things like, "Hey Chewbacca, can you send me that report when it's ready?" Or listen to the guy answer the phone every day, "Morgan Stanley, Chewbacca Ling speaking."

My friend surmises that Chinese kids are allowed to choose their English names in first grade. It's the only thing that can explain why people would have such queerball, juvenile names. Although let's be honest, even if I HAD picked a name like that in the first grade, I would've made sure it was changed to something more sensible later on in life. And who are these parents that allow their kids to choose such silly names? I guess you can't really inject reason into something so insane.

Lest you think I'm making all this up, I took a picture of a real estate circular we got in the mail recently. Check out the name of the agent (it's under her picture).

Ice Ho. She is one tough bitch!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Some updates

I have some updates on recent postings -- all of which came to light after I posted.

Let me get the boring one out of the way first. In the past 48 hours, the Discovery channels have started running product commercials -- Pantene and Olay, to be exact. While they are severely lacking the pizzaz and sophistication of their US counterparts-- there isn't even a "shiny hair toss" shot in the Pantene ones!, it is a welcome sight. If anyone from DeVries is reading this, see if you can talk to our ad counterparts at P&G to sprice things up over here. And CCA people, please ask Coke to start advertising -- I'd even be down for an old-school "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke" one or something.

I had my first snake encounter! I don't know if I conjured it up or was just more aware, but it happened on a bathroom break with Victor right outside our apartment. Victor was in the grass just sniffing around while I was standing on the sidewalk; a thin, long grate covering the rain duct that's built into the sidewalk separated us. Normally I like to give Victor some privacy so I look in the opposite direction or read emails on my Blackberry. This day I happened to be looking over at him (and we're only 3 feet apart) when, like a periscope, a snake starts rising up out of the grate between us. For added creepiness, he was hissing his forked tongue. After my initial shock at actually seeing a real snake outside of a zoo, I realized I couldn't get to Victor unless I jumped over the snake (which wasn't going to happen). So instead I started running away from the scene and screaming Victor's name for him to chase me. It was a sizable risk, but I've used this strategy in the past (when Victor's attempted to chase horses!) and it's worked. We got out of there and an hour later when I coaxed a friend into going back to the spot, the snake was gone.

Also, some other friends have confirmed the 6-ft python crashing into the helper's room story, but say that the eating of a husky sounds a bit far-fetched. I choose to believe that the big pythons are really a rarity. I also found out that most snakes are scared of people so that as long as you make noise they won't bother you. Now, poor Victor has to deal with me stomping around and yelling random crap out while he tries to do his business.

Finally -- and if you're eating, come back later!, I got on the ferry last week about to snag the second row of seats (my fave spot) when I spotted what I've feared most -- a pile of nail clippings on the floor. Yes, as some of you astutely predicted these nasty, no-manners people not only clip their nails in public, but they don't even bother to throw away the remnants. I'm vomiting in my mouth a little as I type.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Chinese Manners (or lack thereof)

Today on the ferry I heard the following: a woman in front of my burp; a man behind me burp and someone a few rows back clipping their toenails. Neither burp was a subdued, mouth-closed affair. They were both wide-open loud burps that most civilized people save for the privacy of their home. While I didn't check, I really pray that the toe nail clipper discarded said nails in the rubbish bin (it's not trash can here).

Sadly dirty looks don't work on these people since they don't think they're doing anything wrong.

I left the ride feeling very skeeved out.

That's all I care to say on this subject.

What they Call "Television"

With seven months under my belt I feel ready to give you my take on television here. It ain't pretty so settle in for a good read.

Commercials -- missing something I used to hate
There are no product commercials. None. While you think this would be a good thing -- who wouldn't give their right arm to not hear Billy Mays screaming about OxyClean?! -- it's actually quite tiring. Why, you ask? Because the channels play the same promos for their own shows during each commercial break. So during an hour-long show, you will watch the same promo for "Top Chef" five times. Vin and I can actually quote all the promos on the channels we watch. (This freaked Sal out when he stayed with us.) The only upside is that some shows don't take as many commercial breaks so the show will fade out to a commercial break and then come right back with the continuation of the show. This is especially funny on shows like Project Runway when Heidi says, "one of you will be the winner and one of you will be out" back to back.

Things seem to be changing, though. We've started seeing tourism ads (with tag lines like "Malaysia Truly Asia" and "Incredible India") on some of the channels and the Discovery Channels have started running product commercials for a camera (I forget which one!)

The Birardis' TV Guide
What shows do we watch?

Discovery (I think there are like 10 channels in all!) -- Jon and Kate Plus Eight, Take Home Chef, Project Runway, A Baby Story, Little People Big World, Jamie's Kitchen (Jamie Oliver is HUGE here)

Biography -- Lisa Williams, I Survived, Rescue Mediums, Sell This House, Flip This House and Biographies on all the big stars

Sony Entertainment Television -- Top Chef, Top Design, America's Next Top Model, Grey's Anatomy

Crime & Investigation Network -- The First 48, Medical Detectives, Cold Case Files, 48 Hours Mystery, Watching the Detectives

Star World -- 30 Rock, Friday Night Lights, Desperate Housewives (I don't watch this, but thought I should include it), Ellen DeGeneres Show, Two and a Half Men (another one I don't watch)

E! -- standard E! fare

News Channels -- 2 CNN channels, Fox News (it's on all the time; we just can't get enough of all the old crusty white guys -- HA!), Bloomberg, CNBC, BBC, etc.

Sports -- we have 15 channels

Sports you've never heard of
Speaking of sports, it's a wacky universe over here, one that a big sports nut like my husband has had to adjust to. First, there are like 8 channels dedicated to soccer, er I mean football -- British Premier League, Italian Serie A, all the Asian teams. If you miss a live game (because they're played here at like 2am), don't fret -- they will replay the game 110 times over the next year. The same goes for American sports. During the NFL play-offs in January we were so excited they showed the games over here. We're less excited 6 months later to find the same games on -- how many times can you watch the Eagles beat the Giants in the first round of the play-offs?!

On the other hand, it has been a HUGE comfort to be able to turn on live Yankees games on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Instead of beer and a hotdog, we watch Jeter and company over coffee and cereal. I hear this is what it's like for folks on the west coast. The best part is that we get YES coverage -- I never knew Michael Kay and Ken Singleton brought me so much happiness! I do feel bad for any Mets or Red Sox fans, though, as they ONLY play Yankees games. Well, I guess I don't feel that bad.

Coming from the land of basketball/football/baseball, it's been odd to turn on the TV and find professional ping pong and badminton competitions. I kid you not. There's also a lot of rugby and car racing, neither of which I find interesting at all.

Stuck in 2006
When I first arrived I was psyched to be able to catch Top Chef, a show I had always wanted to watch in the States but never got around to TiVoing. It felt like Christmas when I realized that they were showing the episodes not once a week, but once a day! This meant that I could watch an entire season in like 2 or 3 weeks (as long as I was home the same time each day, which, well, no surprise that with my new "career" I was!) When that first season ended, I couldn't wait for the next season to start. Except that it didn't start; they just played the same season over and over for like 5 months. I also later found out that this was only like the second season, whereas they were on like the fifth season in the States.

This is standard for most of the reality shows -- those on TV now are shows I have already seen in NYC like 2 years ago. For example, they just aired the Jon and Kate Plus Eight episode where they renew their vows in Hawaii. Um yeah. The only show that is shown live and current here is American Idol -- and people watch it just as religiously over here.

This one really pisses me off -- they censor movies and shows on HBO! We get like 5 or 6 different HBO channels and not one of them will show nudity or curse words. Most baffling is that one channel is called like the adult HBO and requires you to unlock it each time you want to get on there...only to find that everything is still censored. Try watching Entourage or The Sopranos censored. It sucks. In fact, we very rarely watch these channels because the censorship is too distracting.

On a completely different censorship tip, the E! channel gets positively butchered. For some reason, the powers that be have decided to bleep out any mentions of restaurants, fashion labels, stores and products from all E! shows. So here's how a typical E! News segment goes -- "Brad and Angelina were spotted eating dinner at BLEEP" or "You can find Cameron Diaz's hot jeans at BLEEP." I have NO IDEA why they do this but it's a pain in the ass for us viewers.

I'm starting to forget what normal TV is like. Rediscovering TV is officially on the "Reasons I can't wait to go back to the States" list. Is that bad?

Does this mean I'm adjusting?

I always used to make fun of the Asian tourists in NYC who walked around in sunny weather with their big ole umbrellas out. It seemed positively ludicrous to a sun worshiper like me to shield yourself from the sun, especially when you're just walking around the city. How much sun do you really get walking in and out of buildings anyway?! It's not like they're trekking across the Sahara.

Then I moved to Hong Kong, the land of 100 degree temperatures and 100% humidity. Suddenly those umbrellas (which are tenfold here) seem ingeneous. It's that hot here, folks. You walk outside and without walking a foot instantly start sweating.

Now I've taken my first step towards umbrellas in sunshine -- I walk exclusively in the shade. I will cross the sidewalk and street, adding extra time onto my trip, if it means staying in the shade. Because at the end of the day, more shade = less sweat = less showers = less washing of clothes = happy Jess.

It could be worse. I was on the ferry this week and saw a middle-aged, normal looking Asian man dressed in a business suit whip out an enormous, gold, RuPaul-worthy fan and start fanning himself. I guess he's anti-umbrella like me.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Cobras and Pythons

I wish I was referring to the latest Manolos or a trendy shot that you can get in a bar. Alas, I am not.

In my exercise class this morning I learned that cobras and pythons are indigenous to DB -- as common as rats and pigeons in NYC. Almost everyone in class had their own snake story.

One woman awoke to a crash in the middle of the night. An 8-foot python had fallen through the ceiling of her helper's bathroom. Poor helper! Apparently all was ok, she said. The python wasn't hungry so he didn't attack anyone. Coincidentally, her neighbor's cat had gone missing the day before.

Same woman said you see cobras all curled up all the time when you go hiking, something I've done on a weekly basis since moving here. Lovely.

Another woman heard about a Huskie that had gotten attacked by a large python. How could a snake take on something so large, you ask? Well, he just coiled his body around the Huskie and squeezed the life out of him. She didn't say if the snake actually ate the dog or not.

So now in addition to an epileptic seizure and heat stroke, I have to worry about Victor getting eaten by a python.

Dragon Boating

Dragon Boating is a huge sport here. It's so popular they've dedicated an entire public holiday to it.

Let's start with the basics. What is a dragon boat and what is dragon boat racing? Dragon boating is a sprint race involving large 22-person boats (canoes on crack, really) in the water. The second photo was taken from our bedroom window and is an actual race.

While Stanley is the main dragon boating hub, Discovery Bay was one of only a few other HK spots that held races. In true DB form, the town got decked out in Dragon Boat fever. Here's a view of the D Deck (where lots of our restaurants are) with the beach (starting line) in the background.

Here's the beach where each team had their own tent:

In the heart of the plaza were booths selling everything from ice cream to oriental rugs and a huge stage, where I'm guessing they presented the winners with trophies. New Balance saw a good marketing opportunity and asked some employees to hand out fliers. Anyone else thinking Halloween 2009?!

The beauty of dragon boating is that people of all ages, sizes and skill levels can participate. Usually, dragon boaters break down into 2 groups -- serious competitors and people who want to do something funny when they're wasted. We have friends who are serious competitors and who trained for a good 6 weeks leading up to the day (they came in 2nd overall!) Then there are these people, whose boats I'd rather be on any day!

We had a great first Dragon Boating holiday -- spent the day at Zak's with friends, drinking beer, eating calamari and enjoying the decent weather. Unfortunately things didn't stay that way. We came home to find Victor a little out of sorts and after taking him to the vet, on our way back home he proceeded to have cluster seizures. Vin and I literally thought he was dying. It was awful. After spending the night in the animal emergency room on HK Island, Victor was diagnosed with epilepsy. The good news is that it's a livable condition; the bad news (or good news for Victor) is that we'll have to give him valium up the pooper shooter during his next seizure to keep things under control. Now THAT should be a good time.

Here's a picture of our epileptic pug the when he got home from the hospital.


Let me start out by saying that I recognize the hypocrisy of someone who speaks only one language bagging on someone else's second or third or fourth language. And this post isn't about making fun of the English I've heard, but rather showing how when our language is taken literally it can be quite funny.

Case #1

I'm sitting in my doctor's office - -the same doctor I see pretty much weekly -- and on this day have decided to put an effort into my appearance. Now, I'm not saying my hair's blown out or I'm wearing a cocktail dress, but I've chosen to leave the jeans behind and am actually wearing mascara and lipgloss! In fact, I'm wearing one of my signature summer dresses, some nice high wedges and sure there may be a hint of cleavage, but I promise you nothing salacious. The nurse opens the door to let me into the doctor's office and, in front of the entire waiting room, says, "Ooooh, very sexy" and makes a hand gesture about my body. Suddenly I found myself wanting to throw on a sweatshirt and scrub off my blush. The last thing you want people to think is that you're getting sexed up for your doctor's appointment. No scratch that, the last thing you want is for your doctor to think you dress like a whore. So I scurried into his office and tried to not make eye contact with anyone in the waiting room when I came back out. This same thing happened again the next time I dressed up well over a month later (this time I was having lunch with a friend). She opens the door to the waiting room and says, "Ooooh, sexy today." OK, I decided, this lady is nuts.

Then yesterday I was off to an orientation for some volunteering work (the pinacle activity of any self-respecting housewife!) and decided to dress up. Again, very demure dress with NO cleavage and a hemline that reached my knee, but with heels and makeup. A woman with a dog (who I guess I've spoken to when I've been walking Victor) walks by and says, "Where are you going? You look so sexy." It dawned on me that Chinese women with excellent English vocabularies use the term "sexy" in place of "nice". They don't mean you look like you want sex; they just mean, 'hey you chose to dress up today."

If you're not surprised by this story, just take a moment to envision your nurse or a neighbor or a grocery clerk telling you you look "sexy". Um yeah.

Case #2

Our vet set us up with a very nice Italian woman named Fiorenza who had recently gotten a pug puppy named Pepe. She was going back to Italy for the summer and needed someone to watch Pepe while she was gone. Everyone in HK leaves for the summer, so while it doesn't make her Pet Owner of the Year to leave her new puppy behind for 3 months, it's also not all that unusual here. One day over lunch Vin asks Fiorenza how Pepe was doing after having been neutered the previous week. She replied, "He still gets sexually aroused; in fact just yesterday he had an erection." Vin nearly spit out his lunch.

This is Pepe (sans erection) with Victor in the background.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

I suck

If there are still people reading this blog, I feel compelled to apologize for my silence. I can't decide if it's because I'm actually living life instead of observing it...or if I've been just plain lazy. Whatever the reason, it's been awhile since I've blogged and I'm here to repent.

The good news is that the dry spell is over. (I still retain the right to have another dry spell after this mini burst of words!) The next few blog entries are just random observations and not novel-like accounts of a trip or anything. Nonetheless, I hope you enjoy them as they capture everyday life in HK.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Big Beijing -- A City on Steroids

Beijing -- this post has taken me forever to write because 1) it's hard to put into words, 2) it's massive and 3) #1 + #2 = time-intensive blog entry.

a thousand-year old emperor's palace.
an 80-story contemporary skyscraper that looks more like a modern art installation than an office building.
bumper-to-bumper traffic (BMWs, Volkswagons, Accords).
caravans of people on bikes (bike lanes are almost as wide as car lanes).
expensive malls with Chanel, Dior and Brooks Brothers.
old dusty alleys/roads called hutongs lined with local "restaurants", shops and dwellings.
an up-and-coming restaurant scene that already outshine it's Asian contemporaries.
street vendors that sell living, writhing scorpions and seahorses on skewers.
the hottest contemporary art scene in Asia.

Beijing is a dichotomy, a city so in transition from old to new that you can feel it inching forward by the second. In fact, you could go to Beijing for the weekend and have a completely "old" experience -- visit the hutongs, historical monuments, eat the crazy street food and travel around by rickshaw or bike. Then you could go back the next weekend and experience a completely different city -- eating at elegant restaurants with impeccable service and food, visiting art galleries with works by rising stars, taking in the unfathomable architecture that makes every other city's skyline seem stodgy and boring. The only things that remain constant between these two worlds are Beijing's massive size and pollution. The vibe is indescribable and must be what Berlin felt like in the months and years after the wall came down. I'm not trying to sound melodramatic; I was really taken aback by Beijing.

With my weak attempt at painting the Beijing picture out of the way, I'll dive right into our trip. It was a rocky start to say the least.

Arriving at our hotel Friday night we decided to walk to a restaurant highlighted in our guidebook, which according to the map was 6 blocks away. "Cool," we thought. "We'll be able to walk through the famous Donghuamen Night Market on our 15-minute stroll to the restaurant." The Night Market was quite a scene and, since I seem to use Times Square as the bench mark for every crowded tourist spot, Donghuamen Night Market made Times Square seem empty. Honestly, you were so pancaked in with the crowd that you couldn't walk one step without touching at least 2 other people (and is therefore not recommended for claustrophobes or germophobes). The funny thing about the market is that it didn't just appear to be tourists (although I'm still struggling to tell various Asian ethnicities apart); instead it felt like local people who were on the their way home from work and decided to walk through the market and grab a quick bite on their way home.

I did not partake in any of the food because this was what was on the menu:

Now, with the Night Market out of the way, we were on our way to the restaurant and at this point should only be 5 blocks away. Sparing you every painful detail, let's just say that a Beijing block is the equivalent to 4 NYC avenues. So after walking for 45 minutes in heels, after refusing to walk any further and threatening to get a taxi back to the hotel and just order room service (to which my husband replied, "like hell you are; we are NOT giving up after coming this far"), we flagged down a cab who took us two more blocks and dropped us outside the place. Famished, we got inside and began perusing the one English menu to figure out what we'd order the minute we were seated. This 20-page menu had pictures of all the dishes, 90% of which looked like a science experiment. One had a poor turtle (sans shell) splayed out over a plate. Another offered deer sinew, pigeon and sheep liver. I'm sorry, but I did not sign up for Survivor. We were able to find 3 dishes that we would even consider eating -- all of them shrimp (which we knew would be served with the heads on, but was the lesser of 200 evils.)

Shown to our table we ordered beers and our shrimp dishes along with some type of cornbread-looking starter. The starter was not available, we were informed. OK fine; whatever. Then they brought warm bottles of beer and when we asked for cold beers (the other thing about Beijing is that English is a real rarity, which makes you appreciate HK all the more), they brought us a bucket of ice and tongs. Ten minutes later, the waiter came over, pulled out the menu, pointed to the dish I ordered and started waving his finger back and forth and saying, "No." I took this to mean that they were out of my dish and began to have a melt-down. Vin told me to buck up and just get what he was having so, wanting to kill him and the waiter both, I sucked it up and did so. Then 5 minutes later, the waiter walked over to Vin and did the same thing. At which point, Vin looked at me and said, "get your stuff; we're leaving." Much to the bewilderment of our non-English speaking waiter we walked out of the restaurant, hailed a taxi, ate at McDonalds and got over being mad at each other when our blood sugar levels returned to normal. Unfortunately for Vin the bad luck doesn't stop there as the Quarter Pounder-like burger he ordered at McDs came with sliced cucumber in it....and he hates cucumber.

Here's how I felt about the entire night.

So lessons learned, you ask? First, consult the concierge and/or valet before leaving the hotel to find out how far something is. Throw out the map in the guidebook as it's complete crap. Consider throwing out the guidebook altogether, only after writing to let them know how bad the restaurant they recommended was.

Day 2 was our big tourist day, which is quite the endeavor for 2 people who don't really enjoy sight-seeing all that much. We started at Tienanmen Square -- the largest city square in the world (and another example of how everything in Beijing is on steroids). It's massive, but doesn't really have all that much going on.

It did however introduce us to what I assume to be a trend in Chinese baby fashion --

I guess it's both easy access for bathroom breaks and also a nice cooling system for those hot summer days. Although wearing a diaper seems to defeat the purpose of the slit, no?

After T Square, we moved onto the massive Forbidden City -- the largest palace (I think that's what they said) in the world. All the guide books say that one could spend 5 days in the F City without seeing the same thing twice. We took their word for it and did the Cliff's Note version-- saw the big structures and courtyards, didn't opt to go inside and check out any of the interiors. I can hear the real tourists out there groaning (that's you, Mr. Heft). Honestly it was just too busy and we still had to get out to see the Summer Palace.

Here's an interesting tidbit for you: The Chinese believe that fu dogs were powerful protectors who would keep bad spirits at bay, so almost every building you see has a pair of fu dogs guarding the front door. Fu dogs are the Chinese Pug's early we got to see Victor's peeps everywhere we went!

It was nice to see that, unlike the rest of the world, the Chinese are supporting Chris Brown in his moment of crisis.

Later that afternoon, we hit the Summer Palace -- a palace a little farther outside of the city where the emperors would go for the summer. (You never would've gotten that from the title, right?!) Anyway, the Summer Palace was incredible! It's basically a little city built up a mountain with amazing architecture. The views make you feel like you're at the Parc Guell in Barcelona.

Once you reach the apex, you walk down the other side of the mountain into this massive park complete with a lake where people are paddling around in boats. The Summer Palace was much more enjoyable than F City.

Still smarting from the previous night's dinner fiasco, we took a cab to Courtyard and had one of the best meals of our lives! From the decor to the food to the contemporary art on the walls (and gallery downstairs), Courtyard was akin to Gramercy Tavern or Per Se in NYC. It also happened to overlook the Forbidden City's moat, which only added to the romance. Best of all there was no turtle on the menu!

The next day was the grandaddy of all sightseeing -- The Great Wall! I'll let the pictures tell the story and just say that the Great Wall lived up to the hype.

On our way down the wall we apparently struck the gondola lottery and happened to get the same one the Dali Lama used back in 1999. Apparently it's a big enough deal that they post it on the window.

After returning home from the Great Wall, I took a nap and Vin decided to walk around a little. On his way back to the hotel, he walked through the upscale mall next door. A nicely dressed Asian woman walked up to him in the mall and started asking him all these questions -- "Do you speak English? Where are you from? How long are you going to be in Beijing?" Vin thought she was going to ask him for directions, something he realized in hindsight seemed rather ridiculous since he's a Westerner. Instead she said, "Maybe you and me go get a drink?" The lightbulb went off that he was being solicited by a prostitute so he said no and walked away. No more than 10 steps later, he sees 2 other Asian women with big smiles on their faces making a beeline for him. They say, "Do you speak English" to which he just shakes his head and keeps on moving. Poor kid was traumatized by the whole ordeal by the time he got back to the room -- moreso because he wasn't expecting to get picked up at a mall!

Later that night we had dinner at an excellent Chinese restaurant in our hotel with an equally excellent name -- Made In China! Service was impeccable, ingredients were super fresh and you couldn't beat the location (seven floors below our room!) We ordered the Peking Duck, a Beijing specialty which they bring to your table whole and carve for you. Not really my cup of tea -- and I didn't enjoy when they lopped off the head and placed it on the table, but the duck itself was delicious.

Our last day in Beijing we wanted to go check out the comtemporary art scene and/or Olympic Village, but with traffic weren't sure we could fit it in and catch our flight. Instead, we headed over to the Panjiayuan Antique Market and picked up a few trinkets. It was pretty dead on a Monday (just our speed!) and Vin LOVED haggling! The sight of him and this little Chinese lady punching numbers into calculator and then laughing at the audacity of the other's bids was pretty funny. I thought she was going to hit him when he punched in 0 as a joke!

Finding still a few hours left, we ended the trip on a relaxing note -- getting a 70-minute foot massage at Helping Foot Massage 81 -- where we had our own room complete with recliner chairs and a flat-screen TV. The massages were HEAVEN and I implore anyone who goes to Beijing to enjoy this treat!

At the airport, realizing we haven't eaten lunch yet, we decide to end our trip like it started - -with really crappy fast food. When there's a Kenny Rogers Roasters at the Beijing Airport, you just don't pass that up. (Am I the only one who thought this chain had died out?) Unfortunately we should have because the food was complete crap -- I think hospital food has more flavor than what we were served. Starving, though, we woofed it down and, well, Vin's face sums it up.

Also wanted to share this photo because it totally captures Vin on vacation. We have NO IDEA what these little statues are or what they represented, but Vin just had to have his picture taken with them. Mind you, he had to wait his turn as all the Asians were also dying to have their picture taken. (He did the same thing on a fountain in Rome -- waited in line with 5-year olds to ride the stone fish in the Piazza di Poppolo.)

Finally -- and randomly, Asia in general has some of the best signs in English ever. You have NO IDEA what they are selling and they make no sense. Here are some good ones we spotted in Beijing:

"Large Luminous Balls"

"Spicy Grandma" (which I really hope isn't an ad for prostitution)

Next time, we'll do modern Beijing -- contemporary art galleries and the Olympic Village, take bikes everywhere and consult our concierge before leaving the hotel.