Thursday, March 28, 2013

Grub Club: Nagomi


It's a good thing that sushi is my new favorite thing, because Mad Science picked it for our latest grub club adventure.  There is - as far as I know - one kaitenzushi (conveyor belt sushi) place in UB, and Nagomi is that place.

If you've never had kaitenzushi before, each plate has a couple of pieces on it, and whatever you want, you just grab off the train.  Or if you wait too long to make up your mind, you can ask your friends to grab it for you...or hope it comes around again.  The plates are color-coded according to their price, and at the end, the waitress just adds up the values of all your plates.  I don't know how much I care for conveyor belts delivering our food, but there was one great thing about it.  We didn't have to wait long for our food, which is a constant problem with grub club.  That meant we had the time to visit Five's favorite place - Ti-Amo, conveniently located right across the street - for ice cream.
At first I was not impressed.  They didn't have the variety that I loved about Sho - or the cute, Cali-trained sushi chef (owner???) who came over and talked to me and Five when I dragged her there last Saturday after visiting the orphanage (we were also offered free wine, and then beer on that visit - I've never felt so bad about having to decline a drink before!)  But there is something nice about getting to see your choices before you make them, and all the dishes that we took off the train were really fresh.
I had a couple of different things - their kappa maki (cucumber rolls) were good and the egg thing, pictured above, was really nice.  They also had inari sushi - rice stuffed in sweet, fried tofu wrappers - and that was delicious.
However, most of their plates consisted of your classic sushi - a slice of raw fish on a gob of rice.  This one was spotted...something.  I didn't have that one - I stuck mostly to salmon - but Mad Science and Fearless Leader made it their goal to try everything.  And if you can't tell by their stack of plates, they very nearly succeeded.
Nagomi is on Seoul Street, the first block east of the circus, on the north side inside the Khan Bank building.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Greatest Show on Earth

Barnum, Bailey, and all the Ringling Brothers can eat their hearts out.  For - I think - the second time since I came to Mongolia, there's a performance on at the State Circus, in the heart of UB, and it's a doozy.  It was an international collaboration that involved performers from Mongolia and twelve other countries, each better than the last.
While the state circus is a permanent building, it's built on a small scale, and I thought this performance gave you more of an idea what a traditional circus (minus the animals) might have been like back in the days of PT and his humbug.
I mean, we had a freaking ringmaster, for crying out loud...
 ...not to mention a live band...
...and real roustabouts pulling the ropes to raise and lower a couple of very buff Canadian boys.  None of this electrical pulleys nonsense.
I went on the second night of the engagement, while some more of my friends went the night before.  I was warned about the Canadian boys, who I can not deny are quite toned.  I have to say there is something a little more homoerotic about men performing together than there is about women.
See what I mean?  However, Geek and I both agreed that didn't bother us in the least - still talking about the men here, although the Mongolian contortionists were amazing.  We were particularly intrigued by the fact that one of them was what we considered "real person sized."  Most contortionists are ridiculously skinny, but one of these girls was big enough to be noticeable.  Five and I both walked away thinking we ought to try it.
But then again....maybe not.  This was the American contortionist, and if the first minute of the first performance proved to me that circuses exist purely to drive home exactly how inept I am when it comes to anything involving coordination and athleticism - and it did - this was just showing off.  I mean, I couldn't hope to shoot that bow and hit the target, let alone do it with my feet while upside down and twisted like a pretzel.  Come ON!
Once upon a time my great uncle Ray taught me a couple of rope tricks at the Duncan family reunion and I felt pretty proud of myself.  Good thing I hadn't seen these guys!  They later did a performance in which they jumped - from a run, no springboards involved - through hoops.  Stacked on hoops.  Stacked on more hoops.  They looked like seals flying through the air and then sliding onto the ground.  The finale of that performance required one of the acrobats to stand on the other's shoulders in order to stack the rings to their full height.  If you have to stand on someone's shoulders to finish the stack, mere mortals have no business jumping through the damn thing, but he did it.  It was crazy.  I have no pictures of that part, because that was after the third time the usher told me to stop taking pictures, and I was starting to worry I'd get kicked out.
The Russian act had the biggest OH MY GOSH THOSE GUYS ARE GOING TO DIE! factor for me.  Remember what I said about a more traditional circus?  The men throwing these tiny little Russian devotchkas back and forth set up their equipment at half time, and the "net" was a strip of what looked like plastic two or three feet off the ground.  It held up the guy with the broken arm (how did he break it?  One does wonder these things) standing on it without too much give, but I was just as glad those girls didn't get dropped.  I might have screamed like a little girl at one point.
Remember what I said about the first act driving home what an athlete I am NOT?  This was the first act.  I can't double dutch, jump rope backwards, or cross it.  I'm doing good if I can keep up a good rhythm.  Apart from a lot of other really neat things (four Mongolian guys stacked horizontally jumping rope, or the one skipping rope by flopping off his belly like a landed fish) you had these show-offs.  Need I say more?
This guy was amazing, too.  Not to mention fun to look at, with all his pretty muscles.  He did a sort of contortion/Mongolian dance thing which was amazingly fluid and beautiful.  It was like watching poetry.
Finally, what kind of circus doesn't have a clown?  Not this circus.  Their clown hailed from Spain.  I wasn't that impressed with his first act, mainly because Geek got pulled up to be given a balloon swan after he popped his big balloon in my face.  He also pulled Fire Marshall into the ring, but you'll have to read about that on his blog.  I have to say that the most magical moment of the whole night was hearing the kids in the audience giggling over his antics.  His gags were killing them like a minute after they were finished, and it was infectious.  I'd go again in a heartbeat if I weren't busy the rest of this week, even if the tickets weren't the ridiculously reasonable price of 15,000 tugrugs.  I'll have my fingers crossed this becomes an annual event, because it was awesome.  Needless to say, I have spent the last 24 hours dreaming about running away and joining the circus, and not just because of the gorgeous men. Although they definitely help.

Monday, March 25, 2013

A Wild Sheep Chase

FYI - The title of this post is stolen from a Haruki Murakami book.  I'll try to make it up to him with this little blurb - A Wild Sheep Chase is an excellent read.  In fact, I've liked all the books by Mr. Murakami that I've read.  If you're into fantastic realism but don't want to spent a month trying to read One Hundred Years of Solitude, I suggest a Haruki Murakami novel.  I particularly liked South of the Border, West of the Sun.  Anywho.
I decided before I came to Mongolia that this would be a GREAT place to do felting with students.  As a teacher, of course I believe in multiculturalism, but I also believe in preserving and cherishing my students' own cultures.  To that end, I've been looking for someone selling wool since the beginning of the year.  I was starting to believe I was going to have to buy raw fleece and REALLY teach the kids about wool and felting when I turned the project over to our office Wonder Woman.  She made a few calls and found me a wool supplier.  Ironically, they are the people who supply the Tsagaan Alt Wool Shop, which is one of the places I went, asking if they sold wool.
The lady in charge told me a little more about their programs.  Her English was great, and she's been all over the world teaching about felting.  I'm hoping I might be able to get her to do a workshop for me - I wouldn't actually mind having the students clean and dye the wool, if I knew a little more about it myself.  She took me to their storage room (a few blocks west of the office/workshop) and we got a kilogram of white wool and a variety of other colors.  I'm going to start with my ninth-graders, having them felt a small wall hanging of white, with a design they will create on top.  She asked if we had carders, and I said we didn't, so for a small fee, she helped me card my wool.  Let me tell you, carding a kilo of wool is hard work!  The workshop was awesome, equipped with enough spinning wheels to make Sleeping Beauty nervous.  I'm excited to be able to do more with my kids.
I was supposed to meet the girls for - get this! - Sleeping Beauty at the ballet that night, so I decided to walk back, stopping at Namaste for some Indian for lunch.  I took a detour next to Sky Department store to walk across a footbridge, and along the way found out where ice sculptures go to die.  Some of them were actually recognizable, but most of them were featureless by this point. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Grub Club: Vikas

Tonight Engrish was going to take us to the North Korean restaurant.  PE even "arranged" for her daughter to be sick, because she's totally afraid of North Koreans.  Well, she hasn't dodged that bullet yet, because when we showed up, the restaurant there wasn't North Korean.  Apparently it had moved.  After a quick consultation, we decided to go try Vikas, an Italian restaurant next door to Ceylonta that had caught our eye.
As far as Italian food goes, it was not the best meal I've ever had.  Or maybe not the most authentic is a more apt description, because the food was actually great.  I started with the bruschetta, which came with a little bit of salad, and it was excellent.  Domestic Goddess tried the "Greek" salad, which had feta and olives but otherwise didn't resemble a Greek salad at all - no olive oil or balsamic, and lots of lettuce.  Delicious, but not Greek, and, for that matter, not Italian.
 I was torn over several dishes, and ended up having the "Tour of Italy," as did Five.  It included chicken parmesan, alfredo, and lasagna.  Each bite was more scrumptious than the last, but the lasagna was the best of all.  It had a more herb-a-riffic flavor than the lasagna at Veranda.
Domestic Goddess went for some sort of chicken thing - pollo vikas, they called it.  She said it was good, but again, not particularly Italian.
To take home to their son, instead of the dog she'd promised him (and I mean dog to eat, not to play with...we were supposed to be eating North Korean, after all, and he said he was going to start trying more things) she ordered the carbonara (a fact which, I'm sure, relieved him).  She was kind enough to let me try a few bites of it, and it was nice, although it was definitely NOT the rigatoni carbonara at Bene Bene in Shanghai - yum, yum, yum).  I also ordered the cheesecake, and this was a great decision on my part, even if I do say so myself.  After the cinnamon banana thing I had at Ceylonta, this might be my favorite dessert in UB.  It was that good.
Tonight is, FYI, a hard night.  It is with truly heavy hearts that we are sending off our very own Lit...at some time in the near future (she was actually supposed to leave tonight, but we were lucky enough that her flight got cancelled - not sure yet how much longer we have her - ie, when she will be rescheduled).  I haven't mentioned it before, but our school is cursed.  We've had family deaths, divorce, and cancer, and now Lit is amongst those the curse has struck.  She's leaving for medical treatment, and may not be back.  And I am NOT okay with her leaving - I've kind of been a mess over the last few days.  She is an inspiration to me, as she has faced some bad shit with humor and hope, and she's leaving a huge hole in our world.

She got us tonight's taxi ride free.  A guy pulled over to drive us home and the five of us piled in, and no sooner were we in than she and Geek commented that once they've had their boob jobs four grown women won't fit in the back of a car anymore.  The driver laughed, but didn't say anything, so I assumed he was laughing at all the crazy foreigners wedged into the back of his car like the bunch of clowns that we totally are.  And so we continued to talk about all sorts of things that we won't talk about in front of an English speaking driver.  He turned on his blinker before we told him to stop at the gate - he might have guessed that one - but before we could ask him how much he told us not to worry about it, it was free.  He was a cutie, too, with a nice voice.  It made tonight a little easier.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Dinner and a Show

Once upon a time, in the great midwest, there lived a girl who loved Chinese food.  And then she moved to Shanghai, and let me tell you, Shanghainese is the world's worst Chinese food.  It is disgusting.  It kind of ruined Chinese food for this girl, in spite of the fact that she also had great Xinjiang food, and Taiwanese food, and Cantonese food...
And street food was the worst, by far.  In Shanghai you couldn't get within a half mile of an old town without smelling stinky tofu.  Well, I am happy to report that I didn't smell stinky tofu once while I was in Chengdu.  Maybe it's just not a Sichuan thing.  Instead, on Jinli "Old" Street they have street food that looks absolutely delicious...
...but this one wasn't from Jinli Jie.  Would this be what Grub Club would eat in China?  The world will never know.  Needless to say, Bear Grylls would be in heaven.
 I already mentioned that the streets of Chengdu have the perfume of spicy food wafting over them, and that I was going to do a cooking class at the Traffic Inn.  It was NOT cooking class with Bronte.  It was, however, interesting and we made some delicious food.
Kung pao chicken, sweet and sour eggplant, and twice-cooked pork.  I haven't made it down to Merkuri yet with my list of ingredients, but I'm dying to try making the kung pao chicken on my own.  Although - big news up here in Zaisan - a new Chinese restaurant just opened.  It's swank and the food that's been tried was good.  It's a relief to know that there is a finally a good restaurant up here.
After cooking class I set out looking for Wenshu Temple, and to a Sichuan opera performance from there.  I took the subway to the temple, since there weren't any taxis available (I already mentioned Chengdu's dearth of taxis, eh?) and THAT was a fun experience (not really).  The temple was kind of cool, I found a restaurant that served roasted bugs (see above), and eventually made it to the Jinjiang Theater.  I originally planned to go to Shufeng Yayun Teahouse, but the Lonely Planet listing didn't have an address, and the Jinjiang theater turned out to be just fine.  I think the acrobatics were my favorite...if I ever end up buying a house I'm going to be sure it has a big old tree that I can tie some long strips of silk to and teach myself how to do these things...or, more likely, break my neck trying!
They had a performance of various kinds of wushu (aka, Kung Fu).  The whip sword was really awesome.  Also fun was watching ripped men run around with their chests showing.
The best "opera" performance was a short comedy piece about a scolding wife making her "cockscomb" husband (that was their word choice - not sure what we'd call him.  A fop?) do a bunch of stuff with a lit oil lamp on his head.  He'd make a great belly dancer.
The big finale was a mask changing performance.  These guys have some sort of device in their hats, as far as I could work out, that swap the masks they are wearing.  The one above also did a "costume changing" performance, where layer after layer of cloth was whisked off him from behind until he was left with what you see here.
The costumes these characters wear often have these huge voluminous sleeves, which they whip around quickly to hide the change.  This guy had six faces (their presentation was a little over the top, as you will see below), so big sleeves didn't cut it for him - he had a flag to whip around.
To me, the craziest, most over the top part of the show was the fire-breathing, face-changing puppet.  Give.  Me.  A.  Break.  The face changing performance is magical enough without pulling out all the stops.  I saw one when I went to Beijing in 2005, and it was the best part of the show (actually, I was really pleased with, otherwise, how different the two shows were).  The whole point of this performance seemed to be to see how many wild and crazy mask things they could come up with.  And this is how we ended up combining face-changing, fire-breathing, and puppetry.  Which is not to say it wasn't cool.  Hell yeah, it was cool.  Just, you know, a little unnecessary.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

OH MY BUDDHA!

As I was studying up for Chengdu, I found out that nearby was the largest stone Buddha in the world.  In a little city (by Chinese standards, anyway - 2.3 million people beats out my hometown of Kansas City by 7.5 to 1) called Leshan, two hours down the road, lies a marvel on par with the Sphinx of Giza...according to the Leshan tourism board, at any rate.  I wasn't sure if I could fit it in - I was only there for two days, after all, and the tour I'd signed up for that included both the Buddha and the pandas got cancelled because I was the only one signed up for it.  However, I talked to Domestic Goddess, who said that missing it was one of her biggest travel regrets OF ALL TIME, and after reading up a little more I decided I could be on the first bus out at 7:20, since the bus stop was so conveniently located next to my hotel, and make it there and back with some time in the afternoon to see a little more of Chengdu.
So here's the story: an 8th century monk named Daitong decided that the best way to deal with the treacherous meeting point of three rivers was to carve Buddha into the cliffside, that he would calm the river.  The Buddha actually took 90 years to carve out, and in the end, the river did become calmer, although whether it was caused by his divine influence or detritus from carving him is debatable. 
How big is the Leshan Buddha?  He is one BAMF (the "B" in this case standing for "big").  He is so freaking big that it's hard to get a photo with all of him in it.  Can you see the puny mortals standing on the cliffside behind him?  You could fit a bunch of them in his 23-foot long ear.  That's how bloody big the Leshan Buddha is.
On one side of the Buddha is a set of stairs wending their way down the cliffside.  The Chinese monks in olden times had names for this path - for example, the bird's way, because it was only fit for the birds.  It's kind of fun except for the million or so Chinese tourists pushing their way past you...that tends to be a little nerve-wracking.  Don't get me wrong, I like the Chinese (on a good day), but the idea of patiently waiting for the line to move doesn't always appeal to them, and the idea of falling down a cliff definitely doesn't appeal to me.
I couldn't understand the rush, personally.  I was snapping pictures all the way down.  One of the things I loved the most was all the niches with Buddhist sculptures carved into the side of the cliff - they were a little worn from the wind and the air pollution, but still just absolutely beautiful.  You can actually get up to the top fairly easily, even on a pair of feet that were very weary from way too much walking.  From the bottom, you have to go up a less steep, exposed path to get back to the top, which is a lot more exhausting, but it's worth it to see the Buddha along the cliffside path.  There are tourist boats that depart from the other side of the river and give you a much better view of the Buddha, but my "bus" - a 6 passenger van that was very comfortable (guess the early bird really did get the worm in this case - the bus on the way back was less comfortable) - dropped us off right outside the tourist area gate, which was kind of nice.
If you've never traveled with me, you may not realize that a 25 year-old pound purry named Peppermint shares my adventures.  She's a much lower key traveler than I am, and often prefers to stay in the hotel room than go out wandering...after all, she doesn't have my sense of direction and might not be able to find her way back if she got lost.  However, she was really excited to see the biggest stone Buddha in the world, and insisted on having her photo taken with it.  She and I were both a little offended when a tour guide asked us what we were doing.  I was taking a picture of my cat.  Duh.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Grub Club: Khajuraho

I go through a lot of newspaper in art class, and sometimes this is a good thing.  Back in November I was laying out newspaper, intent on keeping my tables clean, and as I scanned its content (the Shanghai Daily taught me this is a good idea - there was more than one time I almost gave my primary students newspaper with sexually explicit material on it) I saw the name "Khajuraho."  For some people this wouldn't catch their eye, but three years ago I'd been there with the Evil One, and aside from being one of my favorite days spent in India, this raised my newspaper spidey sense, because the temple group in Khajuraho is famous for its erotic sculpture.  The examples in the photo on the left are not even the best ones I have.

Well, I read the article, and ended up using the newspaper, because it had nothing to do with the so-called "Kama Sutra in Stone."  Instead, I made a mental note to take everyone there for grub club in the future, because Khajuraho turned out to be an Indian restaurant in UB - part of a chain that also has restaurants in Beijing, Moscow, and Ural.  Also known as my new favorite restaurant.
Where do I begin?  They have a naan assortment.  When Lit and Mad Science decided to share it, our waiter warned them that it's enough to feed five people.  They assured him they wanted leftovers.  Even so, it was a LOT of bread.
They have an assorted tandoori assortment, too.  This was another of Mad Science's picks.  It was a freaking ton of meat.  It also included some veggies and paneer (cottage cheese), which I was REALLY happy to see an assortment of on the menu.
The Indian restaurants here in UB tend to have only one, maybe two paneer dishes on the menu.  Khajuraho had at least six (including the grilled paneer tikka).  I went for the paneer makhani, since Fearless Leader ordered the paneer tikka masala.  I should've ordered what he had - the makhani was not as spicy as I would have liked.  But maybe that was because the chef was afraid of damaging our delicate Western palates...
The decor in Khajuraho was as good as the food.  Fearless Leader complained about the seats being too hard, but nobody else had that problem.  Although they didn't feature any of the erotic sculpture, per se - although they did have sandstone sculptures in the style of the Khahurajo temple group - it was tastefully done while emphasizing that this was an Indian restaurant.  The worst thing about Khajuraho is that, like the city, it's a little out of the way.  You'll need to go east on Peace Avenue, passing the Russian Orthodox church (you can't miss the golden onion domes).  It's half a block past the church.  If you get to the roundabout, you've gone too far.  You can take bus 27 from in front of the Blue Sky Tower and it will drop you off right in front of the restaurant.

Black and White and Red all over

Although Chengdu is supposed to be the most agreeable of all Chinese supercities - a friend I met in Shanghai went there last year, intending only to stay for a few days, and ended up staying for two weeks - the whole purpose in going was to see giant pandas.  China's goodwill ambassador to the world, and after living there two years I'd never seen them, so off to Sichuan province (one of the three provinces in which lies there native habitat) I went.
According to the advice Lonely Planet gave, morning is their most active time, and I had great intentions of getting there early.  Instead, I didn't leave Traffic Inn until 8, and although I immediately got on a bus, it took a long, long time before I got there.  I asked the guy at the desk how much a taxi would cost, and he said, "A lot," so even though it would take a lot of time, I chose to go with the bus.  Well, on the way back I was too tired to mess with buses, so I took a taxi anyway, and it cost less than $10...SO worth it.

Anyways, as a result of this bad decision, the pandas were beginning to get lethargic by the time I got there, but you know what???  So what?!  They were amazing.  They are truly gorgeous creatures, sweet and shy and mostly were just munching away on their bamboo.  Speaking of which, strolling through the park there seems to be a lot of it, but in fact the panda center doesn't grow enough to be more than a supplement to their meals.  Most of the pandas' meals come from bamboo purchased from people living in the countryside, harvesting it for a living.  I thought that was kind of cool.
The little ones were ridiculously cute.  I didn't get to see too much of them, but the ones I did made me want to take one home with me.  That's how cute they were, crawling around on their stubby little legs.

I will admit that I was a little nervous to see how things worked here after being to the Siberian Tiger Park last month.  I needn't have worried - as I said, these are China's goodwill ambassadors to the freaking world?  I mean, who doesn't love the hell out of a panda?  Of COURSE they are going to be happy and well-cared for (well, they were happy as far as I could tell).  The park had lots of signs, in both Chinese and English, which explained about the pandas and how they were raised (the official name is the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding) - for example, I learned that mothers often give birth to twins as a result of artificial insemination.  This happens rarely in nature and results in the mother abandoning one.  At the panda center, the mother and the caretakers at the center take turns taking care of them, one at a time.  The signs also listed the pandas names and ages, and included notes about their personalities.  It was pretty cool, actually.
You may or may not be aware that the giant black and white pandas aren't the only creatures bearing that name.  There is also such a thing as a red panda, which is NOT a relative of the giant panda, but the panda center has a few of them, anyways.  And as amazing as the giant ones are, I think I loved the red pandas a little bit more.  For starters, I believe in a little thing called ginger solidarity, but they also reminded me of my cat, Barnabas, with their striped tails and masked faces.  They are a little bigger than he was, and as Babysis pointed out, probably not into headbuts, but I don't care.  They were cool.

(P.S. Is it just me, or do I need to improve the endings of my posts?  I feel like most of them just kind of fizzle out at the end.  Maybe I'm just too tired when I write to finish on a strong note...)

Monday, March 11, 2013

Don't Mind if I Cheng-do!

Blog-a-Thon, Round Two: DING! DING! DING!  I said I was going to get a VPN before I went to Chengdu.  I lied.  I tried installing an open source VPN, but I lost that techno-battle, and in the end, it's just as well.  I was going just about every minute I was gone; no time for blogging.
Last month's experience in Harbin gave me cause to reflect on my love-hate relationship with China.  Last month I was feeling more love than hate.  This month was a different story.  Don't get me wrong - I had a good trip, but it started out rough because I didn't get enough sleep the night before (one of those things, again), I wore the wrong shoes, China's really crowded, I forgot my deodorant, and there are just.  Not.  Enough.  Taxis.

Some things I loved about Chengdu?  My hostel.  I used to be afraid of that word, hostel.  I envisioned sleeping in a dorm without any privacy and having my stuff stolen.  I've stayed at a few, always in private rooms, and it's never as bad as I feared.  This time I stayed in the Traffic Inn, and it was awesome.  The staff were friendly and helpful, the rooms were clean and comfy, it was hella-conveniently located (right next to the Xinnanmen bus station which made catching the first bus to Leshan on Saturday a possibility instead of a good intention), and they offered a cooking class, which was nice.  I'll have to let you know if the food turns out to be as good when I try it on my own.  In a strange coincidence, as I was walking out my first morning to go explore, I saw one of their goldfish had jumped out of the bowl and was gasping for air, so I called them over and they put him back in.  Unfortunately he wasn't a daredevil wonder fish; he didn't survive.

Also, they had a sense of humor.  In front of the hostel is the Traffic Hotel.  On the Traffic Hotel is a sign with a caricature of a backpacker, asking if any of the (none-too-flattering) traits described you....ridiculously big backpack with all the conveniences of home, Lonely Planet so you can have the same experience as everyone else, hiking boots for taking the well-trod tourist trails.  In the bathroom, they had a sign with some laowai eating hot pot, swearing over how spicy it is, and a note that said, if you ignore the customs, avoid the people, reject the food, etc, you'd be better off staying home, that you are like a stone thrown into water.  You get wet on the outside, but don't become part of the water.

Well, I was in Shanghai for two years and I'm pretty sure I only got wet on the outside.  But I loved the Sichuan food - spicy as hell.  In fact, on the first day on my way back from the Panda Center, I noticed something...you could actually smell the spiciness on the air.  It was awesome.  And I've seen my share of temples (Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucianist), learned a little Mandarin, and now, I've even learned to cook a little, although unfortunately not hot and sour soup, which I feel sure would excuse my aimless wandering in my family's eyes.  By the way - these photos are obviously not of the hotel or the food - there is a food blog coming and I didn't take pics of the hotel.  Instead, you get a couple of random temple/old town-y shots.  I've blogged about temples and old towns before, and since there was nothing jaw-dropping about the ones I came across on this trip, I'll save my words for more interesting things.