Shaanxi Adventures, Day 5

Waking up in luxury, I decided to rest most of the day and make plans.  Most importantly, I’d run out of clean clothes and needed to wash a few things before I could go anywhere.  By late afternoon I’d had a chance to rest and I had some clean togs to wear – I was ready to hit the town.  By then, I’d found out the bad news that there were no tickets for the next day to see the Terra Cotta warriors.  I’ve been very anxious to see them – they were my main reason for coming to XiAn.  But no matter, there are plenty of other things to see and experience here.  And eat.

So I ventured out into the pre-evening with a successful taxi ride (no drama!) to Muslim Food Street.  I hadn’t done any research into this place before I arrived, so I had no idea what I was in for.   Turns out I was in for rather a lot.  From entry to exit, my fitness tracker counter almost 4 miles, and all of it was pushing through VERY crowded streets.  Food ‘street’ is really more of a walking food district, and it was packed to the gills with people.  

XiAn’s most famous food is Biang Biang Mian.  I’ve become a big fan of the belt noodles, served with oil and meat, from a restaurant near my work in Beijing.  I was excited to come here to the origin of the famous dish and eat the food represented by the most complex Chinese character (shown below).

Biang (regular script).svg

I picked a restaurant because of the presence of a large ‘biang’ character on the sign out front.  The restaurant was greasy, crowded, and high-paced.  The food was relatively expensive, but I was happy to pay the price.  This was clearly a restaurant made for tourists.  No matter – I ordered the Biang Biang Mian with beef and waited for my order.  I took the only open table in the restaurant, sitting next to a large family who was clearly visiting elsewhere on a family vacation.  They were thrilled to meet me, and we struck up the normal conversation: Which country are you from? Can you speak Chinese? Ah, your Chinese is so good! (There are a good many taxi drivers who would disagree with you, I thought.)  Can we take a picture with you and our children?  I happily engaged this family, continuing my one-man mission to spread friendship between the people of China and the people of the United States.

This conversation would repeat so many times in subsequent days that I’ll create a separate  blog post to cover it.

One of the brilliant things I saw, both in PingYao and XiAn, was foot massage stores in the middle of these high-traffic tourist areas.  China is great for massage in general, it being a part of general health maintenance in Chinese medicine.  But the particular placement of these stores was genius – every tourist area in the world should incorporate this.  Disney, please consider it!

After eating, I continued walking down the street until I saw a massive dragon emerging from the mist, and heard the sound of drums banging.  I bravely walked toward the monster’s jaws, then disappeared under them into the mist.  I was in a cave, with light down a short tunnel.  I followed the light and found an empress sitting on her throne, her imperious gaze looking out over shoppers, selecting jewelry and knick-knacks.  I’d just found one of the world’s coolest store entrances, but the end of the journey left me feeling a bit like Ralphie from A Christmas Story when he decoded his message from the Little Orphan Annie Secret Society: “Drink More Ovaltine? A crummy commercial?” I passed up the opportunity to buy some beautiful hand-hammered travel mugs and wandered out of the store and into the street, where the fading light of day was being replaced by the glitzy, commercial light of neon signs.  Further down the street I would find several more such store entrances.  I wondered which one was first, and how they’d felt when others had imitated their success.

I bought an ice cream, which turned out to be based on coconut milk, and delicious.  I meandered around the corner into a less-crowded side street to eat it and accidentally set up my own photo booth.  Freed from the press of the crowds and more visible standing alone, I attracted a line of mothers, bringing me their children for photos and to show off their English skills.  I had to work to maintain my smile – I wanted to be eating that delicious coconut ice cream.  But when duty calls, it doesn’t wait.  

Finishing the photo line, I made a quick departure further down the side street to a less-visible place, where I attracted the other kind of insta-friend: young or middle aged men who wanted to share a cigarette and chat.  Silently thankful for my foolish youthful experimentation with cigarettes, I accepted.  Chinese cigarettes (or at least the kind I’ve been offered) are very thin, sweet, and burn quickly.  This makes for mercifully brief smoking experiences and concomitantly brief conversations.

As I was finishing both, I looked up and noticed where I was: standing in front of the local ministry of justice building.  I also saw a rather serious-looking man staring hard at me, probably wondering why I was  there with a camera.  As I quickly made my exit, I saw him urgently ushing people into the building.  I’m not sure what was happening there; once again I find myself with more questions than answers.  In that moment I realized again my ignorance of this society, and the years it could take to penetrate the bamboo curtain of language and culture to build true mutual understanding.

My wandering continued, and I resolved to walk this district until I came to its end.  I took photos, focusing largely on people.  People working are especially interesting to me during this type of observation, and it probably shows in the picutres I chose to make.  Also, they’re often standing in one place, and frequently in pools of good light.  Patience is required is to wait for a gesture that typifies their skill, activity, or character.

As I explored the extent of the district, I noticed a change in the place’s character.  It became more local and less touristy, and very slightly less crowded.  Finally, a street dumped me out on a main thoroughfare.  I was out of the walking streets and back into the modern city.  I decided to walk the 45 minutes back to my hotel and call it a night.

*Linguistic note: The name of the city XiAn is often spelled with an apostrophe between the first set of two letters and the second set (Xi’An).  This is a concession to clarify in Pinyin and Roman characters; in Chinese, the word is a clean two character set, one for Xi and one for An.  The confusion arises from the fact that there are also a few characters with the sound xian, pronounced as a single syllable.  I’ve chosen to render it XiAn, with capitals representing where the second character pronunciation starts.  I’ve chosen this because other Chinese words don’t often rely on the apostrophe to make the Pinyin work – it seems more respectful to the language.

Shanxi Adventures: Day 3

I wasn’t certain where one finds breakfast in a place like PingYao, so I asked the guest house hostess.  She pointed me toward the concierge (the guy who had picked me up the day before, whose lack of teeth did nothing to diminish the beauty of his smile).  He dragged me next door to a small, simple restaurant.  It seemed to be a mom and pop affair.  The pop did the cooking, and the mom did the sales and service.  She was a short, round-faced woman who seemed to be perpetually offering people hard boiled eggs.  I paid careful attention to the other customers.  They used the word for “boss” (lao ban, literally old shift leader) instead of the word for “server” (fu wu yuan, literally service person) when referring to her.  I did the same, and she did, indeed, seem to command this space.

I asked about coffee, and the lao ban just grunted at me.  No coffee here.  I ordered a plate of beef baozi and some tea.  The baozi appeared immediately.  The concierge from next door, who was still hanging around and hopefully got a kickback of some kind for bringing guests here, helpfully brought me some vinegar and hot oil to mix together for baozi-dipping.  I had no idea how much vinegar I would see over the next 24 hours.  The baozi were delicious – perfectly steamed dough on the outside, and a mix of beef and spices on the inside.  I learned later in the day that vinegar is a specialty of this area.  It was, indeed, very good vinegar.  And it complemented the baozi perfectly.

When the tea arrived, it was not what I expected.  It was something called ‘you cha’, which might or might not mean ‘oil tea’.  It was liquid, but that’s where the similarity with other teas ended.  It was served in a bowl with a spoon.  And instead of being a transparent liquid, it seemed more akin to a very thin oatmeal or gruel.  There were seeds of some kind floating in it, and it was lightly sweetened.  Whatever it was, it was delicious.  It was the perfect fuel for exploring PingYao.

PingYao is a prime Chinese tourist destination.  It was packed wall to wall with tourists, mostly family groups enjoying the New Year holiday together.  It was clear from observing the crowds that, in the minds of the Chinese people, the pandemic is over.  Most people were still wearing masks, but that might have been as much a sensible protection from the bitter cold as a matter of infection control.  People didn’t seem nervous about taking off their masks to eat at the many walk-up food stalls clustered along the main streets of PingYao.  Cars and bicycles aren’t allowed in the heart of the old city, making it a friendly walking venue.  

The city is packed with gift shops, food stalls, restaurant, karaoke bars, museums, and vinegar shops.  At night, walking down the streets of the old with with red Chinese lanterns hung all around is a magical experience.  I could tell that my fellow Chinese tourists felt the same way by the frequency with which they pulled out their cell phones to snap pictures and record the experience.  Pairs of young women posed for ultra-cute snaps to share on their social media accounts.  The influencer phenomenon, it seems, knows no geographic bounds.

I walked by, and eventually into, a vinegar museum.  These seem to be everywhere in PingYao.  I later stopped into a second and third vinegar shop.  I tried some sweet apple-based vinegars, and was able to easily taste the difference between 5-year-aged vinegar and 10-year-aged vinegar.  I was sad thinking that I wouldn’t be able to safely transport any vinegar home, so I didn’t buy any.  This ended up being a good decision for reasons that will be apparent later.

PingYao is also apparently famous for its beef.  History (or legend)  records that the empress Cixi was traveling in the area centuries ago and really enjoyed some PingYao beef.  There is now a PingYao beef museum lauding the qualities of this famous dish.  The only beef I tried was chwar from a street vendor.  It was pretty decent.

Everywhere I go, people notice my foreignness.  Many people try to alert the people they’re with, and I hear whispers of (wai guo ren, or outside country person) everywhere I go.  Many people eschew the politeness and just openly point, some staring in slack-jawed amazement.   I didn’t understand this very well until I saw a blonde-headed woman walking through a train station.  It was a jarring sight, and my first instinct was also to wonder, “What is she doing here?”  Children tend to shout “wai-guo-ren” pretty frequently.  In all cases, I smile, make eye contact, and use a word of confirmation that means “it is”.  Many people ask to take a picture with me, a request that I always treat like an honor.  I will often ask if they can take a picture with my phone, as well.  I want people to know that I’m as honored to meet them as they are to meet me.  I know that if it’s the first time people are exposed to a foreigner, the way I act will forever color their impressions of the United States.  This is people-to-people diplomacy in the most literal, tangible sense.  I may be off the clock, but I’m never off the job.  

PingYao only increased in beauty with the coming of evening.  I spent long hours just wandering the streets, taking pictures and observing.  I racked up an outrageous step count on my FitBit.  As the evening drew on, I wandered down dark alleys just to see where they go.  At one point, I saw a hulking shape in the darkness ahead of me.  It was the only time I’ve been frightened while traveling solo in China.  The shape turned out to be my own shadow.  Many of the dark alleys, it turns out, contain guest houses like the one in which I stayed.

I only had a few hours ahead of me in PingYao, so I headed back to rest up and download photos.

Shanxi Adventures: Day 1

Solo travel in China has been fascinating.  I’m not too far out of Beijing but I’m far enough that I’m meeting many people who appear never to have seen a foreigner before.

Today is the first day of the Lunar New Year, so most Chinese people are recovering from late-night celebrations with their families.  Because of this, I despaired of finding a taxi for the long cross-town trek to Fengtai train station, especially at 5:30 am.  Even the ride-sharing services, at all other times ubiquitous, were not guaranteed.  Enter Mr. Wang.  I texted him the night before, on New Year’s Eve.  He checked with his network of drivers – none of them was willing to be away from their families early on New Year’s day.  So he agreed to drive me personally.  In the morning, he explained that his son is a public servant, a government official (probably at the city level), so his son wasn’t able to join his wife (a housecleaner) and him (an independent driver) for New Year’s Eve.  They ate a nice, small, quiet meal and went to bed early.  In the morning he was ready to drive me on the eerily-empty streets of Beijing.

Arriving at the train station was new to me.  I didn’t know the protocols.  And the checkin procedure relies on a Chinese identity card, a shenfenzheng, that I don’t have.  Luckily, the guards seemed familiar enough with a foreign passport, and getting into the station (and later getting onto the train pokatform) wasn’t a problem.  The train station felt like a more casual version of an airport. I tried to use the first class lounge, but it’s apparently only bookable through corporate buyers.  No matter – the wait wasn’t even long enough to sit down.

For this trip, I decided to travel heavy, bringing my full DSLR kit instead of my small, light Fuji XE-4 camera.  Shooting in the train station, I realized just how out-of-practice I am.  But all the skills come back easily enough, like a language that you haven’t spoken in a while.

I boarded the train and sat in my first-class seat.  It was remarkable how smooth the takeoff and ride were – this is a high-speed train.  It’s part of the network of high speed trains in which China has been investing so heavily for the past 15 years or so.  I rolled through the countryside, trying to observe what I could while simultaneously recording the third Harry Potter book for the little boys.  The countryside, though I’ve never seen it, looked familiar. It was filled with signs of progress (a big field of solar panels) mixed with rural poverty, small manufacturing, and geographic contours that somehow communicate their very ancient nature at a glance.

The trip was over before I knew it, and it was clear getting off the train that I wasn’t in Kansas any more.  I needed even better language skills to get around, and many people I came into contact with seemed like they aren’t used to seeing foreigners.

The hotel I selected is a once-opulent affair.  Apparently built many decades ago (and not improved or maintained since), it’s a conference site nestled at the foot of the hills.  It looks as if its main purpose is to impress provincial-level  government and party officials, who no doubt use it for important meetings.  I chose it for its proximity to the Jinci historic area, and I was not disappointed.  Though there are limousine-length golf carts constantly loitering around the front door and eager to satisfy the transportation whims of guests, the historic area is an easy (and rather pretty) walk front the hotel’s front door.

I skipped the walk at the insistence of a golf cart-limo driver, and he dropped me off at a side entrance to Jinci Temple ‘scenic area’.

At this point, it might be worth mentioning that solo travel also affords me the freedom to indulge my whims, and to see this place on my own terms.  I only share this to explain my lack of understanding about the things around me.  For example, there are guides every few feet at the entrance to the scenic area who were haraunging visitors.  Several of them argued with each other about whether it was worth pitching me.  I moved on before they could settle that dispute.

I decided that, instead of listening to an audio tour, engaging a guide, and reading all the signs (or at least the ones that are translated into English), I would just walk around and let my visual sense enjoy the scenery.  I’d like to walk away with pictures this time instead an an exhaustive (and soon-forgotten) grasp of the finer points of local history.

Jinci Temple park was lovely, and the Duke’s Art Gallery (castle?) was especially impressive.  After entering the old city/museum, I wandered, climbed lots of stairs, photographed, and generally enjoyed myself.  At the end of the day, I stopped in a coffee shop at the museum for a cup of coffee and to process pictures.  The staff, after making me swear that I wouldn’t share it with anyone, was kind enough to give me the Wi-Fi password.

After picking my way back across the vast museum/city and scenic park as the temperature went down with the setting sun, decided to stay at the hotel for dinner.  That was an interesting experience – at first I thought I’d made a mistake.  Dinner was served in a corner of a large conference hall, and the sheer size of the room made for weird ambiance.  Then I looked at the menu, where they featured very expensive delicacies, including the famous bird’s nest soup and the infamous shark fin soup.  I worried that I might be in for a 3,000 RMB dinner full of things that don’t please my palette or my ethics.  Luckily, I found many items on the menu that looked appetizing to my taste buds, my wallet, and my ethical sensibilities.  I put together an order of 5 small items.  The server told me that it was going to be too much food.  She took one of the items off of my order.  I shrugged, said OK, and waited for dinner.  She was right – it would have been far too much food.  And when I got the bill, it was only 30 RMB ($4.42 in USD).  For a delicious, restaurant-quality meal!  I’ve seen this trend elsewhere – restaurants in China tend to price everyday, normal food very low.  Even though it might be delicious or a regional speciality (like the razor-cut noodles I ordered in Shanxi, or Beijing’s JianBing), Chinese people just assume that it’s common food and price it lower than other, less common dishes.

Though I’d decided to eat in, I also wanted to see the city of Tai Yuan at night.  After taking a taxi way into the city and walking around a bit, I met a family of guys heading into a karaoke bar.  They were already half-drunk and in a very celebratory mood.  They invited me to join them, and I decided that I probably wouldn’t get another chance like this.  I accepted, and had a blast singing with them.  It was great language practice and even better diplomacy.  The father, the dominant figure in the group, told me with increasing volume how proud he is of his country.  The background on this phone was a picture of him as a much younger (and much thinner) man, kneeling in fatigues.

Getting home was a challenge – one driver picked me up, drove for a while, stopped, saw where I was going, and loudly complained at me until I got out of the car angrily.  When I finally did get a driver who was willing to make the 20-minute trek to the hotel, we found the large front gate locked and the guard on duty sleeping in the guard house.  An unhappy and bleary guard opened the gate for me, but the driver had already left.  I made the rest of the walk across the expansive hotel grounds in the freezing cold.

Beijing’s Forbidden City

Finally, after living in Beijing for several months, we made our way to Beijing’s signature tourist attraction: the Forbidden City.

We decided to take a tour with Beijing Postcards, a history-focused company that offers tours and other experiences based on original research into Beijing’s history.

Getting to the Forbidden City presented obstacles typical of being in a new country with limited language skills and `experience. For some reason, I was able to hail a ride in Chinese using Lisa’s phone, but I wasn’t able to call a car using my phone. When we finally got there, we were late for our tour.

Despite all the difficulties, it was magnificent to see one of Beijing’s signature pieces of history, and to learn from a tour guide who both loves his job and is currently engaged in unearthing China’s fascinating history. We’ll definitely be back to the Forbidden City!

(Click on any picture below to launch the slideshow view and enjoy the photos!)

Photo of the Day: Arlington Window

One of the things I love about living in a high-rise apartment building is the play of the light across the cityscape. On this day, the shifting clouds gave us an ethereal little light show whose pattern may never be replicated. But seeing it once was special, and I’m grateful to have had the chance.

Exploring Georgetown

On Sunday, I took Caleb and Joshua to explore Georgetown. I promised magical staircases and secret doorways, and Georgetown delivered beautifully. We descended the stairs made famous in the end of the Exorcist (a story I omitted to tell the little boys), explored the campus of Georgetown University, and spent a lot of time walking along the riverfront.

There were a few too many people to be comfortable during a pandemic, but we kept our masks on and kept to ourselves.

The highlight for the boys was finding a labyrinth in the park. A labyrinth is supposed to be an Irish tool for spiritual reflection, but the boys had enormous fun playing with it as a maze. We even encountered a breakdancer who danced for us in the middle for a few moments.

At the end of the day, though, all the boys wanted to do was find a playground. We stopped at an empty playground by a church on the way home, and they were perfectly content.

The whole day reminded me that small adventures are still adventures.

The 3rd Battle of Winchester

Sometimes, Mom needs some quarantine quiet to get a little work done. What’s a housebound dad with few connections to do in the middle of a pandemic in rural Virginia? Take the kids to see Civil War battlefields, of course! I found the location of the 3rd Battle of Winchester and took the kids to see it this evening. It was good exercise, good time together, good to honor our past, good to connect with nature, good to slow down.

New pictures of Liam and Clara!

They’re both growing so fast! Here are some pictures of our little walking girl and our little playful boy.

Liam is so playful these days, and is starting to see play as a worthy activity in itself, instead of something you do out of curiosity.  That’s really fun, until play time is over.

Clara is getting more fun all the time!  She loves to eat, and she really likes clothes.  She loves to put on shoes, hats and jackets.  Here are a few pictures from our most recent studio session with them!


Daddy (Andrew)

All Clara, All the Time!

So, our blog used to be the Andrew and Lisa blog. (Hence the url,*) Then it turned into the All Liam, All the Time blog. I guess Liam still makes the occasional cameo, but now we’re into All Clara, All the Time mode!

Today’s special feature on Clara includes the ADORABLE christening gown Grandma Mitzi made for her dedication this Sunday. Lisa and I had lots of fun taking these pictures while Clara jabbered at us and threatened to fall off her various perches.

Enjoy the pictures,

*Incidentally, you can also reach us at, if you prefer.