The Secret is (Half) Out the Bag

In yet another glaring example of the inept security in Beijing, a Korean reporter was able to get a camera into the Bird's Nest to record last night's rehearsal and the video spread like wildfire on the net, until it met its demise. All Chinese video sites took it down and it was even taken off of Youtube, no doubt after the government called them up and threatened another block of the site.

I'm one of the biggest cheerleaders for China there is, but one has to wonder about a country where those taking part or with access to information about the Opening Ceremony were sworn to secrecy and could face up to 7 years in jail if they reveal any of the secrets. Typically, state secrets involve issues of the utmost national security, while the Olympics are an important event, at the end of the day, they are still a frivolous sporting event and nobody is going to remember the Opening Ceremony that closely in 10 months, let alone 10 years.

Why can't they be more concerned about the air, which once again is bad today?

Wednesday Photo Thread: When Underground Goes Mainstream

It's really sad to see what 798 has become, going "corporate" and losing the soul it once had...

Olympics Style: The Opening Ceremonies Part 3

More styles, though this could be the final look at them before the Opening Ceremonies begin. For this addition, we're looking at Asian style, in this case it looks good. One of the best things about all 3 of these styles is that, unlike China's wardrobe, they stay away from just implementing the flag colors in the design.

Japan- Japan went over the top, having a travel wardrobe, and then the Opening Ceremony outfit. The travel wardrobe is the trendy grey suits seen on the right, whereas the Opening Ceremony outfits is the one in the middle. They go with a light blue and use the flag as a crest on the blazer. I don't like the collar outside the shirt look (similar to China) and this brings the white pants count to 7, but overall a trendy outfit with a very modern cut.

Korea- This is probably my favorite of all the outfits, ahead of Romania, France, and Belgium. The cut of the blazers is very trendy and its still a dressed up look, but they avoided white pants by switching the colors around, a nice touch. They were also still able to use the flag colors, though red doesn't come into play anywhere. I really love this look.

Hong Kong- Similar to Korea, but in a more traditional, British cut. It's a great look, but I'm not sure if its because of all the pictures or just the colors, they don't pull it off in the cool way Korea does. Overall, yet another look that is far better than China's.


100 Days, 100 Restaurants: Beijing Eats That Aren't Duck

There are now only 10 days left until the Opening Ceremonies and we're 68 restaurants behind, 68 in 10 days, not going to make it, no chance, but maybe, just maybe we'll make a fighting stab at it.

There is more to Beijing food then that ever famous duck, but the other dishes rarely get any play from the outside world. Sure dishes like zhajiang mian are delicious and very popular, but its kind of hard to make a gourment version of the dish and most people will just choose a small, unassuming local joint to get their noodle fix. Beijing's done a good job over the years at taking other foods and making them its own, things like jianbing, kungpao chicken, and yangrou chuanr are all not native to Beijing, but some of the best versions can be found at local joints in the capital.

Beijing has a lot of very famous, very local snacks unique to the city that rarely receive any coverage because they are often not the kind of things westerners enjoy eating. Things like boiled lamb stomach, pungent dou zhi (mung bean milk), and lamb intestine soup are not exactly things that foreigners are jumping to eat, though many of them are very delicious.

One of the most famous places to try these dishes is Jiumen Xiaochi, located at Houhai. This place is perennially packed with Chinese tourists and is almost impossible to get a table during dinner hours, the only real way is to stand and stare with an evil eye at people eating long enough that they get up and leave, allowing you to take their table. You then buy a card, typically for RMB100, and go at it, hitting the different stands and trying many local snacks. It is almost shocking what you pay for the items here, especially considering how tiny portion sizes are. This is definitely the disneyfied version of Beijing snack foods. RMB 40 for baodu? RMB 2 for a tiny bowl of douzhi? RMB12 for 4 small lamb "sandwiches" (the "bread" being tiny shaobing)? These are the kind of things that, when you can find them on the street, you pay a kuai or two for (if that). For a local to go there and see the prices, its simply shocking, both how enterprising these vendors are and how many people are willing to pay the prices. The snacks are all good, if sometimes lacking a bit in authenticity and connection with the seller, but the prices and portion sizes are as likely to make us go back as a foreigner is to taking a second gulp of douzhi (ie, highly unlikely).

Another "snack" street that will be extremely popular with foreigners and is well known for charging crazy prices is the Donghuamen Night Market, located just west of Wangfujing. The area is famous for selling every kind of Chinese snack under the sun, not just local Beijing items, including "unique" options like starfish, seahorses, scorpions, and other assorted bugs. Unless you are only stopping in Beijing and not traveling anywhere else in China, don't waste your time at this "night market", or at least don't eat there. Even more so than Jiumen, prices are high and portions are small and authentic items are hard to find.

So what are you to do if you want to try the real goods? Well, one option is to ride around the hutongs of the city and just see what you can stumble upon. Another is to head to the HuGuoSi Snack area where you can expect authentic Beijing snacks at far more reasonable prices. Its much the same as what you'll find at Jiumen, but for a "local" price and with just as much tradition as Jiumen.

For baodu (boiled lamb stomach) and other lamb and cow intestines, there are a number of extremely popular and delicious locations worth a try, all with a long tradition of serving up these dishes in Beijing. These dishes are super simple, usually just boiled and then presented with a sesame paste (and other assorted sauces) dipping sauce, easy and delicious. Yao Ji Baodu, Baodu Feng, and Baodu Huang are all popular locations to sample this dish.

For the previously mentioned zhajiang mian, while I do tend to avoid tourist places, I can't help but like Old Beijing Zhajiang Mian King. There are locations around the city, but the Chongwenmen location, just west of Tiantan's North Gate and Hongqiao Market is a perfect stop after working up your appetite with a peaceful visit to Tiantan and a rough and tumble wheeling and dealing at Hongqiao. Despite the touristy feel to the place, prices are still reasonable and everything is very traditional. There is also the new, chic Noodle Bar in the 1949 Complex, though prices are far higher and quality is far lower, you'd be better served choosing Noodle Loft. Then again, zhajiang mian can be found all over the city and it may be best to search it out in a small, hutong or quiet street location, packed with boisterous locals.

Two others to note, the Guo Lin chain of restaurants offers decent versions of Beijing "jia chang cai" (basically just normal, daily food) for a reasonable price. Also, some may be interested in checking out Yue Bin, though it's nothing special, it was Beijing's first private restaurant and it still turns out decent versions of local, Beijing food at a good price point.

Oh yeah, and for those very brave who want a taste of douzhi at a very local place, there is Old Ciqikou Douzhi, go forth brave souls!

Here are the locations to try many of these local treats

33. Jiumen Xiaochi (九门小吃)
1 Xiaoyou Hutong, Off the northern edge of Houhai

34. Huguosi Snack Street (护国寺小吃店)
93 Huguosi Dajie

35. Donghuamen Night Market (东华门小吃)
just west of the XinDongAn mall at Wangfujing

36. Yao Ji Stewed Liver (姚记炒肝)
72 Zhonglouwan Hutong,Gulou Dongdajie

37. Baodu Feng (爆肚冯)
3 locations around the city, but Qianmen is best

38. Baodu King (爆肚皇)
15 Dongzhimen Wai Dajie

39. Old Beijing ZhaJiang Mian King (老北京炸酱面大王)
29 Chongwenmen Wai Dajie (northwest corner of Hongqiao Rd)

40. Noodle Bar
1949-The Hidden City.
Courtyard 4, Gong Ti Bei Lu
Opposite Pacific Century Place South Gate

41. Yue Bin (悦宾饭店)
43, 31, Cuihua Hutong, Opposite the main gates of the National Museum of Art

42. Guo Lin Homestyle Food 郭林家常菜
locations around the city

43. Old Ciqikou Douzhi (老磁器口豆汁儿店)
locations around the city
most convenient for tourists would be at Tiantan, opposite the park's north gate

Olympics Style: The Opening Ceremonies Part 2

More styles that we can expect to see during the Opening Ceremonies. Many people think China got it wrong, but how did other countries do:

Romania - Wow! The turqouise blazer, especially for the guys, is daring, but with the slim fitting khakis and hat, it looks really nice. The outfit avoids the typical flag colors design, and is a real winner, one of the best looks I've seen so far and one of the few that would not look out of place out on the town.

Russia- White pants count, number 4. I like the women's outfit a lot, the men's blazer looks good, a nice, tighter fit and shorter cut, but that patterned shirt is too over the top for me. Why couldn't they just go with a white shirt and maybe use that pattern as a pocket square, that would have been a far more unique touch and far more fashionable.
Spain-The one look that could be worse than China's is made by another Chinese brand, in this case, Li Ning. The red suits on the men aren't even the worst part, what's with the red stripes on the women's outfits, making it look like athletics wear? And why the Li Ning logo on these outfits, not even Polo did that!
USA-Not sure if this will be the official opening ceremony look or not, especially the women's wear, but what the guy has on seems like its quite possibly what the team will be wearing, very preppy, very American, very Polo. The sweater vest may be a bit much for the Beijing heat, though. Oh yeah, and it brings the white pants count to 5.

Uganda- The African and Middle Eastern countries often bring their more traditional, cultural garb (why didn't the Chinese squad come out in qipaos and Mao jackets?) and Uganda will be no exception. I know those aren't pants, but they are covering the legs and they are white, so that brings the count to 6.

more coming tomorrow...


A Tale of Two Stories - Is Beijing Ready?

There are now only 10 days until the Olympics officially kick off and despite Beijing's slogan, "we're ready", many are questioning the capital's state of readiness as blue sky days have been non-existent for over a week. Its interesting to see how this story is dealt with differently in the Chinese and English press.

Du Shaozhong, one of the deputy director's of Beijing's environmental bureau, went before the media to talk about the environmental conditions in Beijing and the Chinese and English media focused on two totally different issues. A few days ago, he was saying that more emergency measures may need to be put into place to clean things up before the Olympics. Yesterday, Du was telling the media "We are very confident about the effectiveness," Du Shaozhong, a deputy director of Beijing's environmental bureau, said of the traffic and industrial restrictions during a news conference on Sunday at the new Olympic media center. "We are going to ensure a good air quality during the Games."

The Chinese media focused on other things from that press conference, speaking far more defensively, Du made statements to the extent that photographs and reporter's feelings are relatively pointless because they tell you nothing about the actual air quality, and instead they believe in science and the data they have received. This is to go along with his guarantee (one that we believe, having regularly ran, biked, and participated in other athletic endeavors around the city) that the polluted skies will not serve as a health risk to any of the athletes competing in Beijing.

How are things today? The sky is legitimately overcast today with high visibility and none of the smog/fog of the past few days.

Olympics Style: The Opening Ceremonies Part 1

China's Opening Ceremony garb has taken a lot of criticism online since it was first shown to the public last week. I kind of thought most countries would use the colors of their flag in their choice of attire, but that isn't always the case. Below are some of the styles you'll see during this year's Opening Ceremony:

Australia - Sure, some people feel the team looks like flight attendants (especially the women) and it doesn't really play up the national colors, but its pretty classy.

Belgium - These are relatively fashion forward, and one wonders about the tshirt instead of a collared shirt on the guys, but still look very good.

France- The men look wonderful, very classic, exactly what you'd expect from the Frenchies. The women look good as well, though that red "belt" around the waste and the hat kind of ruins the look.

Germany- Very simple, very classy, and the first white pants sighting (these will be seen on a lot more teams).

Greece- More white pants (that makes the count 3, including China), and the first (and perhaps only) look that might be worse than the Chinese outfits. I'm not a fan of the white suit, especially when paired with a club collar and white tie. If they could have gone with a blue tie, it would have helped things a lot. The major plus is the actual crest instead of China's pinned on one, it looks so much better this way.

Now When Will Deep Dish Arrive?

The founder of this blog and former main editor is a Chicago guy and as such, has presumably spent many a night partying away at Crobar. The infamous Chicago nightlife hotspot has outposts in Lebanon and Buenos Aires and took stabs at the New York and Miami scene. Well, now its coming to Beijing, opening in the Solano complex just north of Chaoyang Park's west gate and extremely close to Lucky Street. Still no word on when it will open, but like a lot of things, it could be open before the Olympics.

Sure the Cubs and Sox have yet to come to Beijing, and you can't get a decent deep dish pizza (or any for that matter), but having Crobar is a step in the right direction.


Olympics Style: More On China's Opening Ceremony Outfits

A lot has been said around the web, both in English and Chinese, about China's choice of attire for the Opening Ceremonies. Two of the most common comparisons are to McDonalds and to the ever popular dish of egg and tomato. Personally, I'm not a fan of the yellow shirts on the guys, the shade is just off, something a little lighter might have looked a lot better. Also, the ties look like they were recycled from the 2004 Games. I think the overall effect of the yellow, white and red makes it feel like the outfit is very 土, or to explain it in English, let's just say countryside farmer comes to the big city fashion style. I understand these outfits are only worn once and every country typically just follows the national flag, but they could have done something far classier, like a tan suit, white shirt, and yellow and red striped tie, but I digress. My biggest complaint about the outfits is that the national crest appears to simply be pinned on at one end, leaving it to flap around, turn sideways, or even fall off. Couldn't they have sewn these onto the blazers?!?

Pictures from Friday's activities (all pictures courtesy of Sina), giving a close up of what these outfits look like:

Here are some grainy (sorry for that, but it's all I could find), versions of what the team looked like in Athens, a far better look:

Sunday Photo Thread: Lazy Sunday Edition


Olympics Style: China's Opening Ceremony Wardrobe

It seems that white is the color for outfits at this year's Opening Ceremonies. Many nations have already released their outfits, and I'll take a look at them in the coming days, but most importantly, China has displayed what it's athletes will be wearing during the Opening Ceremonies on August 8th.

Most countries stick to their familiar national colors when choosing their opening ceremony outfit and China is no different. Not left with a lot of color choices, but that shade of yellow looks particularly hideous, as does the tie and the 70s disco collar on the men.  I'm left to seriously wonder who thought the yellow shirts would look good, last time around they wore a similar tie with a white shirt, which looked okay (these looks never are great).  The shape of the hat is also particularly unusual. The white pants seem to be the thing to wear, many other delegations will be decked out in white, let's just hope the weather is nice on 8/8 and the skies unpolluted or else those whites might not stay so white. Overall, the women's outfits are nice, but the men's ones are really horrible, especially the white shoes. Who designed these?!?

The outfit:

Also presented was another adidas track suit, this one in line with the general adidas template:

Does All This Visa Stuff Make Sense?

There were two interesting news stories that greeted me this morning, one talked about Chinese police claiming they foiled an international terrorism cell that was planning to attack Shanghai (and possibly the soccer venue) during the Olympics. At the same time, China has also announced further restrictions on business visas and the government will stop issuing invitation letters until after the Paralympics are over.

A lot of people are angry and frustrated about the visa changes and there are some with valid complaints, though most problems are simply due to the individual's (or their company's) own irresponsibility. While it's easy to blame it all on the Olympics and China's heightened fears, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out there is a reason why the Chinese government should be afraid.

These are only the second Summer Olympics in the Post-9.11 era and with so much terrorist inactivity over the past year or so, one could assume many may be targeting these Games. While China has reason to fear domestic terrorists in Xinjiang, my biggest fear are international terrorism cells. Unlike Athens in 2004, China wants nothing to do with the FBI, though they gave the FBI Director a tour of preparations a few months back and he deemed himself satisfied with China's security.

The Chinese have not faced any threats from international terrorists over the years and its unlikely Chinese security has followed or paid much attention at all to any of those organizations. In any case, they don't have the experience of organizations like the FBI and Interpol in dealing with and stopping terrorists. However, China is always very weary of allowing representatives of other governments on its soil in even the most dire of situations (like after the Sichuan earthquake), let alone allowing a large number of US and European security departments to be on the ground during the Olympics.

Therefore, China's trying to go at it alone and believes that these tightened visa restrictions will help prevent a terrorist attack. If the end result is that fewer foreigners come to Beijing and the Games go off without a security hitch, China will be satisfied. The Chinese seem to believe that the embarrassment of losing visitors is a lot easier to deal with than the embarrassment of a major attack during the Games.

20th In the World? Prices Stay the Same?

For all the fears about rising pork prices and price gouging ahead of the Olympics, Beijing has remained in the same position as last year in Mercer's Cost of Living Survey, ranked as the 20th most expensive city in the world. For our friends to the south, Shanghai has gotten a little more expensive, moving up from 26th to 24th. The top 5 are Moscow, London, Tokyo, Oslo, and Seoul, while Hong Kong just missed out, dropping one spot to 6th.

According to the articles, Mercer "takes New York as the base measure for prices, comparing over 200 items, including housing, transport, food, clothing, household goods and entertainment, in 143 cities across the globe." On Mercer's own site, they state "our semi-annual surveys are conducted by professional researchers simultaneously in each of the 250 locations we cover. Carefully chosen vendors reflect only those outlets where your expatriates can buy goods and services of international quality."

I can understand how Beijing can be expensive for some, but 20th most expensive in the world? How does this happen? Granted, drinks at Sanlitun might run you almost $8 each and there are places that charge more than that, but a subway ride costs about a quarter and a bus costs less than a penny. Then again, I'm guessing these bigtime expats aren't taking public transportation and instead its talking about buying a car, which will cost you more here. Just like, while at Zara prices are pretty much the same between the US and China, at Gucci you're paying a lot more in China, due to import and luxury taxes. Housing, though? I'd imagine housing would make up a large amount of an expat's monthly expenditures and in China its downright cheap. For US$1,000 or more, what it would cost for something a little bigger than a closet in Manhattan, you can get incredibly nice, multi-bedroom apartments in Beijing.

I'd love to see how much Mercer thinks it costs for many of these everyday goods in Beijing, though I'm not going to pay to get the full survey. When all is said and done, an expat can have a very plush lifestyle here for far less than it would cost in Europe or the US, it's hard to understand how Beijing ends up so high, but then again, if it didn't it would leave me with nothing to talk about.


How Bad Are Things in the US?

There's always a lot of talk about changing things to make the American education system stronger and to get test scores up in areas like math and science. I've heard about how bad the US economy is getting, but never imagined how bad it actually is. Starbucks is closing outlets around the US, taxes are being hiked, everything's being affected by oil prices, and then I saw this: Schools Eye Four Day Week to Cut Fuel Costs. The article stated "about 100 schools in as many as 16 states have already moved to a four-day school week, many to save money on transportation, heating and cooling."

Wow! Americans are letting gas prices effect their children's education? They aren't willing to pay higher taxes? Or start to seriously explore other energy options? This is truly sad.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (and Subways): The Changes

A lot of changes have gone into place during the month of July for travelers in Beijing and around China and this will serve as an attempt to summarize all of them. This can be extremely difficult as these changes are applied differently in each area and are continually revised.

The simple one. As of July 20th, a second set of searches/id checks has been put into place in 20 different airports around the country, including all Olympic city airports.

Heightened security is to be expected for those taking trains around China. The major change is that tickets for all trains other than the Beijing/Shanghai to Hong Kong train will go on sale 5 days ahead of time, instead of the previous 10 days. Rumor out of Shanghai, though, is that tickets for Shanghai to Beijing are now available only 3 days ahead of time.

More helpful changes will be the opening of the Beijing South Railway Station, expected to take place on or around August 1st. Another change that will be advantageous to Olympics fans in Beijing will be the opening of the high speed train to Tianjin, the world's fastest, which will get you there in under a half hour.

One of the most talked about changes was the "even-odd" traffic restrictions which have been called a last ditch effort to clean up the air. It doesn't seem like it's made a difference and with all those cars off the road and traffic hasn't gotten much lighter. Part of the reason for that are the new Olympic lanes that have been put into place on Chang'An Avenua, 2nd and 3rd Ring Road, and other major Beijing roads. These lanes can only be used by police or cars with Olympic plates.

The good: Line 10, the Olympic Spur, and the Airport Express opened up last week to much fanfare, though the Airport Express (ABC) has taken some criticism, perhaps just opening day issues that will be worked out soon. Many of the cars on Line 2 have been phased out, adding more new cars, and the ride will be quicker, reduced from the current 3 minutes to 2.

The bad(?): Security checks have been added to many (if not all) subway stations and range in strictness. Fears that these checks would cause lines and passenger delays have yet to become an issue, but the subway security guards have been relatively lax in doing their jobs. Things differ, however, when they add a number of cops in the stations. Despite fear of "international terrorists", laowai tend to have a far easier time avoiding the security checks than Chinese.

So here's a look at some of these changes, we'll try to update you as we find out more or new provisions are adopted.

100 Days, 100 Restaurants/Bar Review: The Saddle Cantina

From the same people behind the Rickshaw, and offering the same burrito, the Saddle has been a big hit in the new Nali Studios, including winning Beijing's best new bar. These guys really know what they're doing because the Saddle deserves all the praise it has received.

There's been a lot of positive talk about this place all over the web and Beijing Boyce is a big fan, so I won't say too much about the drinks other than that they are mixed well, a good size for the price, and the beer is really, really cold. One of their more interesting drinks is the spicy margarita, made with their own pineapple and chili infused tequila and garnished with a chili pepper. A beer is a little more expensive than at Rickshaw, but almost all the drinks are in the RMB40-55 range. There are also a lot of drink specials, including the great Cinco de Drinko, in which drinks are half off on the 5th of every month. Popcorn (very, very salty) is free and is a decent snack to go along with their drink.

The food is my main concern, though. The menu is fairly brief, offering burritos, enchiladas, and soft tacos as the only main dishes (though on the weekend, there are grilled kabobs). The best starting option is the Tex-Mex chips and guacamole, with the option of either the house made guac or a DIY version for RMB5 more. Having sampled all the menu items, I can say that all are good and will satisfy any Tex-Mex cravings an American may have. The prices aren't cheap (the food is also in the RMB50 range), but portions are decidedly large and very filling.

While this is the kind of place to enjoy some drinks and food with some friends and is very casual and laid back, if you get the right balcony table and the live music's going, it can almost have a romantic feel to it. The staff is very well trained and quick to respond and accommodate most requests. Being someone that is typically hard to please, this place always makes me happy. The Rickshaw guys continue to do things right with this excellent bar/restaurant.

32. The Saddle Cantina
81 Sanlitun North Rd., Nali Studios East, 2F

Bar Review: Klubb Rouge

The biggest question I have about Klubb Rouge is very simple, how long before it kloses?

First, a bit about the bar. While it has no ownership connection to Shanghai's popular Bar Rouge, there are a few connections with that Shanghai bar. The mind wonders why they had to replicate the name of the Shanghai establishment and not come up with something new, but oh well. The bar is located in the China View building just east of Gongti and you enter through a plush, and very red, area leading to the elevators that take you up to the bar. When you get out of the elevator, you are struck by the size of the bar (huge!) and the decibel level of the music (shockingly loud!).

The music is strictly electronic/house and is decent if you like that sort of music. The interior is not as plush as one would expect considering the prices, instead it has a very industrial vibe. It's also pretty surprising that for a high-end bar, there are only two private rooms. The saving grace of the bar is a rooftop terrace that offers a better view than nearby terraces like Q Bar, but still doesn't leave you looking at much more than Gongti and a few construction sites.

When it comes to drinks, you'll typically drop between RMB70-90 per drink. The quality is pretty good, they have their special ginger melon martini and espuma drinks and while the results were tasty, I still prefer the mixing at Q Bar (or even the Saddle) for a lot less. The bartenders are attentive, but it's kind of easy because there is rarely a crowd.

The crowd is a major issue, though. There are rarely any people at this spot. The problem is that its too schizophrenic. Does it want to be a high-end, classy bar or does it want to be a uber-hip, industrial house club? The prices make one think that it wants to be a bar, but the incredibly loud music says otherwise and makes it impossible to hold a conversation anywhere other than on the rooftop.

The other major problem that is keeping the masses away are the prices. The bartenders aren't as good as this spot would like you to think. They also aren't using any different alcohols than what you'd get at places like Q Bar or Suzie Wong's. The management's mindset is too focused on Shanghai, it would seem. Sure, Bar Rouge can charge these kind of prices in Shanghai, but in Shanghai it offers excellent views of the Bund, not of an old stadium. For a similar price (and a much, much better view), you can go to Yin and get equally well made drinks overlooking the Forbidden City (or just go to Suzie Wong's, Q Bar, The Saddle, Kokomo, or plenty of other places and pay a lot less).

Klubb Rouge might be able to do a lot of business during the Olympics, but once the Olympics revelers leave, it will go back to being near empty unless things change quickly, like lowering the music and the prices.

More on Visas...

Yesterday in the comment's section to the post on visas, a commenter named Peter left a link to an article written by Meg of the Violent Eclipse blog. Meg was an occasional commenter on this blog and at times we commiserated about being bloggers in China using blogspot. Her blog showed an interesting insight and outlook on China and I enjoyed reading her entries. Having not paid a lot of attention to chinalyst as of late, I was unaware of her situation and it was disheartening to hear about it.

I'm one of the Chinese faces at this blog and before I wrote yesterday's posts, I talked it over with some of the other contributors. We all agreed that we were sick of hearing about visa complaints from people. When I was an undergraduate, I had the chance to intern at the Foreign Ministry and at that time, I met a lot of people who ended up in embassies and consulates around the world. A number of my classmates accepted positions with the Foreign Ministry as well and while I considered it, in the end I decided to attend a prestigious Masters program in the US.

From my classmates and former coworkers, I've yet to hear anything about tourist visas being down. In fact, more people have been granted tourist visas than usual (perhaps based on the fact too many people are getting tourist visas instead of the proper visas).

The visa issue is a problem, but its something that's needed to be cleaned up. For every unfortunate case like Meg's, there are 10 cases of lazy slackers or psuedo "teachers" at "schools" who've been around for a long time and do nothing. For every legitimate businessman who is complaining about not being able to get an F visa, there are 10 who should have gotten Z visas long ago and who just didn't want to go through with the hassle of it all.

China's visa situation has been a problem and required cleaning up, the Olympics served as a great motivator to go about cleaning things up. It's just extremely unfortunate that the process has impacted innocent individuals as well as the slackers and the sketchy business types.


The Style Guide to Collecting Medals

Adidas released the design of the Chinese team medal stand track suit last week, moving away from the template that it used for all other participants in this summer's Games. The outfit is downright stylish compared to what China has worn in previous Olympics, though it's more for the medal stand and not for the street, yet I'm sure it's bound to be a big seller. Below are pictures of the outfit as well as the garb from previous Olympics. For those who are fans of the Li Ning designs, retro versions (and the matching shoes) are currently on sale in Li Ning stores around the city.

Here is this year's design:

And the previous designs

Athens (Li Ning):

Sydney (Li Ning):

Atlanta (Li Ning):

Barcelona (Li Ning):

Seoul (Asics):

Los Angeles (unknown):

100 Days, 100 Restaurants: It's Getting Hot, Let's Have Hotpot!?!

Hotpot is a classic Beijing dish and great for a night out with friends, something about the communal enjoyment of boiled beef and veggies over (lots and lots of) beer makes it the perfect winter dish. While many stay away from hotpot in the summer, those visiting during the Olympics shouldn't pass up the opportunity to try it at least once. Basically, hotpot is a boiling soup base in which you add meat(beef and lamb are favorites), vegetables, and noodles. It's a very simple dish, but when done well, there's nothing better. Below are some of the best spots in Beijing to sample a great hotpot meal.

For many in Beijing, and around China for that matter, when they think hotpot, they thing Dong Lai Shun. It's one of Beijing's "lao zi hao", a restaurant that has been around for hundreds of years.Unfortunately, like a lot of the "lao zi hao", its passing by on name recognition and 2 great locations at Wangfujing more than on quality food. The Wangfujing location at Xin Dong An should be avoided at all costs as its not only over priced (RMB8 for a bowl of zhimajiang?!?),but also lacks taste. Everything from the soup base to the too thinly sliced meat to the insanely expensive zhimajiang, this place is just disappointing. It's sad really, because such a great name that can usually offer a top product at other locations, fails so miserably in such a heavy tourist spot.

The hotpot meat of choice in Beijing is lamb and the source of those lambs is usually Inner Mongolia. Xiao Fei Yang is an Inner Mongolian chain that gets its goods directly from the source. They pride themselves on a soup base so flavorful that you can eat everything straight out of the pot without dipping it in any sauce. They also offer a wider range of "diverse" offal cuts and some other interesting items including many noodle choices. Service is usually fairly good and decor is tasteful, but kept to a minimum.

Hotpot isn't a dish one identifies with southern China, but the Macau import Dolar Shop (which has long had a Shanghai outpost), recently opened in Joy City. This restaurant's speciality is a classier environment and a DIY sauce bar that is a lot of fun. Another interesting speciality is a large selection of different "meat" (often seafood) balls or "noodles" that include unique tableside presentation. A number of soup bases are available, but fans of spice might be disappointed with this place. When you're done with a meal,there are ice and fruit bingsha's available to cool you down.

If you're looking for something a little less Beijing and a little more Chongqing to satisfy a spice craving, Hai Di Lao is the king of the spicy hotpot. Not only that, but they go over the top in customer service. As you are waiting (and you will wait awhile if you don't have a reservation), they offer drinks, snacks, games, and even shoeshines and manicures. Once you get inside the restaurant, you'll notice that the interior is far nicer than your typical hotpot joint(though maybe not at the same level as Dolar Shop). The spicy hotpot is the way to go, but its highly recommended you get a half-and-half as it IS very spicy and its good to have an alternative to the spice.A very good lemonade and suan mei tang are on offer as well to help minimize the heat. The menu is your usual assorted meats and vegetables, but another spot where this place shines is in its hand pulled noodles presented at the end of the meal. The whirling and twirling of your noodle guy would earn the admiration of even the best gymnasts competing in the Beijing Olympics.

Feng Gu Hotpot is another DIY sauce bar, offers free bingsha, and is fairly popular among the locals. Some mediocre, but serviceable options include the Hotpot Loft for extremely fancy (and overpriced hotpot), I Rock My Pot (an expat favorite), and T6 Hot Pot (a decent choice for those in the CBD). Hotpot is an extremely simple dish, so the key is the quality/freshness of ingredients, the service, the price, and the extras that make the difference between a top restaurant and just an average spot.

Hotpot is not your summer dish and so for most visitors, it will comedown to a choice, that choice should be between Hai Di Lao and XiaoFei Yang (with Dolar Shop coming in just a bit back for the bronze),but I think on most days, Hai Di Lao wins out. If you're just looking for a quick, fast food version of hotpot, Taiwan's Xiabu Xiabu has a number of locations around the city that do a good job. So find some friends, hit your nearest hotpot spot and enjoy the evening.

23. 东来顺 (Dong Lai Shun)
2 Xiaoyangmao Hutong, Jianguomen Neidajie

24. 小肥羊 Xiao Fei Yang (Little Sheep)
Locations around the city

25. 豆捞坊 (Dolar Shop)
7th Floor, Joy City, 131 Xidan Dajie

26. 海底捞 (Hai Di Lao)
Locations at Sanlitun, Xidan, and in Haidian

27. 丰滑火锅 (Feng Gu Hotpot)
8 Xuanwumen Dajie, 5th Floor Sogo Mall

28. 藏酷 (Hotpot Loft)
North Gongti Rd in the restaurant complex behind the Comfort Inn

29. 锅儿滚 (I Rock My Pot)
37-38 Chaowai Dajie

30. T6 Hotpot
Locations in Jianwai Soho and Xiandai Soho

31. 呷哺呷哺涮涮锅 (Xiabu Xiabu Hot Pot)
Locations around the city

Why I'm So Sick of Hearing About Visas

There is so much talk among expats and foreign newspapers these days about the lack of visitors to Beijing for this year's Olympics. Almost everyone is blaming things on China's heightened visa requirements as the thing that's keeping everyone away. There are a lot of things to blame for the lack of visitors, but visa issues are one of the last ones that should be talked about.

The visa tightening has effected a lot of the long-term expats and small-time businessmen who have always found it easy to renew their tourist visas or make a quick run to Hong Kong and come back in. It's become a hassle for tourists traveling from abroad, requiring them to show their incoming and outgoing flights as well as hotel reservations, but it's not a major stumbling block. The majority of people who are applying for tourist visas are still being granted their tourist visas.

So why aren't people coming to Beijing?

1. Distance
I'd expect if you look at the numbers for the Seoul Olympics, the number of visitors was probably lower than for the Games in LA and Barcelona. Europe and America have the largest population of individuals with expendable income and these are the people that usually go to the Olympics. It's a lot easier for someone in the UK or France to get to Barcelona than to get to Beijing. Much like the World Cup when it was in Asia, the number of visitors goes down because of the distance and the cost. There's also the distance in culture, for many Americans, considering a trip to China is something far greater and daunting than a trip to Barcelona or Athens due to the cultural and language barriers that exist as well as the huge time zone differences.

2. The Economy/Costs
Ahh, the cost. Going along with 1, since Asia's far away, it also costs more to get there. Gas prices are rising and therefore so is the price of airfare. Prices this summer are between $500-1,000 more than they were last summer and that has nothing to do with the Olympics (if you look at prices in say, October, they will also be well above the price in October of last year). I've always said that the airfare is expensive, but once you get to Beijing, everything's cheap, including hotels; that's not the case this year. Hotels are priced US$100-500 or more than what they'd usually cost and the rumors were that they'd be very hard to come by (this has proven to not be the case). We have expensive airfare and hotel rooms and on top of that, there's the tanking US economy, where even white collar mid-management types have concerns about how long they'll have their jobs for.

3. Irrational Expectations
The Chinese made a lot of "promises" about these Games and predicted a huge amount of tourists would flock to Beijing, despite the above 2 issues. Yet most articles are now stating that the number of tourists is down this year and that when all is said and done, the numbers will probably match or just barely exceed the number of tourists that visited Beijing last year. What the Chinese didn't realize is that a lot of regular tourists don't want to come due to fear of the Olympic masses taking over the city and making a hassle out of everything. Olympic tourist expectations were probably far too liberal as well, due to the above 2 factors. China didn't help itself with the T!bet controversy and the torch relay, though this probably was, if anything, a minor factor. Further, all the problems are somewhat connected, the bad economy means people are willing to spend less on a vacation, due to irrational expectations hotel owners raised their prices to outrageous proportions, therefore the tourists decided to stay away instead of coming.

Visa issues and changes have created a lot of headaches for businessmen and have had a major impact on the business community, but they've had minimal impact on Olympics travelers. If crowds are down, it's easy to blame it on visas, but other factors should be looked at first.


Wednesday Photo Thread: Beijing Construction

Around Beijing: Mall Openings

Last week saw two major happenings, first the disappointing end (for a month) of Gongti restaurants and bars happened earlier than expected as Mix, Vics, Kro's Nest and the rest shut their doors on Wednesday night. Then, just down the street, the Villages at Sanlitun saw a number of openings over the weekend, including the much anticipated opening of China's first Apple Store (see yesterday's post). Among the other openings is a Nike store to offset the huge Adidas store as well as sportswear brand Mizuno's largest China shop. For non-athletic footwear, Steve Madden and Birkenstock have opened up outlets. Beyond that, there's a Vero Moda/Jack Jones, but as of right now, that's about it, though Uniqlo looks to be ready soon.

A similar scene down the road as there haven't been many new openings in the new Nali Studios. American Apparel looks like it will be ready pre-Olympics, but that's the only store that looks like its near ready. A shoe store has opened and the Magic Pantry is full of great tools for chefs. The Saddle is hopping on a regular basis, but every time I pass by the area, Ciro's Pomodore still looks completely empty on a nightly basis and I've yet to talk to anyone whose eaten there, how long can this place hold on?

While we're at it, the new Lotte Mall at Wangfujing looks like some of its tenants may be ready to move in any day now.

A Real (Red) Cliff Hanger...

Red Cliff (赤壁) is Asia's most expensive movie ever though its turned that huge price tag into cinema success scoring big results across Asia, none more so than in China where lines at theaters have been far longer than usual. The movie is full of famous stars including Tony Leung, Takeshi Kanishiro, Hu Jun, Lin Chiling, and Zhao Wei and almost had Chow Yun-fat, though he may make an appearance in part 2. Of course this is to be expected as its directed by the celebrated director John Woo, who takes his first stab at historical drama.

The movie tells the story of the time leading up to the Three Kingdoms period, instantly familiar with all Chinese due to the classic book, Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Cao Cao, the evil prime minister, usurps the power of the week Han Emperor and uses it to wage war against two southern warlords, Liu Bei and Sun Quan.

There is one way to best describe this movie, LONG. All told, it is to last over 4 hours, but part 1, which is currently in cinemas, clocks in at 146 minutes. Part 2 is expected out in January 2009 and will include a simultaneous release of a foreign version, in which parts 1 and 2 will be cut to a (far more manageable) two and a half hour movie.

Watching the movie, its quite obvious the scenes that could be cut as many of them end up inducing sleep in patrons. The movie moves extremely slowly and there are far too many scenes of horses running (and shots showing only the hooves) or blurry battlefield scenes with blood flying everywhere, it almost feels like deja vu much of the time.

What the supposed US$80 million budget bought John Woo, I have no idea, because the fight scenes and effects were similar to your run-of-the-mill historical series on CCTV. In fact, much of the time that's exactly what this movie felt like. My ultimate gripe with this movie, though, is that there is no ending. Stories should have a beginning, middle, and ending, and Woo forgot the ending. Of course that will come in part 2, but why (like only a tv series would) leave everybody waiting 6 months to actually see the end (okay, I know why, the money, but still!)? That's not even the issue, though, he could have kept it as 2 parts and still given it an ending, like stopping it right after the big land battle instead of letting it drag on.

If you're not a huge fan of Romance of the Three Kingdoms or one of the movie's stars, save your money and wait for the edited version. This unedited version is hubris of maniacal proportions, Woo's just lucky the audiences have been duped into coming out and watching it.


Mac with Chinese Characters

There is now a Mac Store in China! The unveiling of the first Apple Store in China took place Saturday at the new Villages mall at Sanlitun. Over the weekend there were huge crowds packed in, especially around MacBook Airs, checking out all the products. The only place where there weren't lines was at the cash registers. Of course there was one very popular Apple product that was nowhere to be found, the iPhone. Domestic import/luxury taxes on Mac goods make them far more expensive than overseas, but this store is more a showpiece for Mac rather than a place expected to be an instant retail success. Photos follow below:


The Squad's Picked But Who is the Coach?

Less than a month before the start of the soccer competition in the Olympics, the CFA relieved Dujkovic of his head coaching duties for the Olympics. It's an extremely shocking move coming so close to the Games, but the only question I really have is why didn't it come sooner? There was talk for a long time that Dujkovic was just as responsible as Petrovic was for the World Cup Qualifying failure as Dujkovic seemed to play a major role in the national team's coaching staff and its decisions. Due to this and other internal issues, the press has been discussing a lack of trust between players and the coach leading up to a boiling point last week. Supposedly the move has something to do with health problems on Dujkovic's part, but it's unclear whether he stepped down or was fired by the CFA.

A lot of expectations have been placed on this Chinese team and anything short of the quarterfinals will be seen as a disappointment to most fans. A change like this, coming so close to the Olympics would be seen as dangerous by most, but when the players have lost trust in the coach, its worth the risk and hopefully, it will cause the players to come together and bond, turning out to be beneficial. It seemed to work as China was able to eek out a 1-0 win over Australia in a tough match on Sunday.

The replacement coach is Yin Tiesheng, affectionately known as Steel Egg, and he made some minor changes to the 22 man lineup today, the losers were Zhu Ting and Shen Longyuan, who were moved to the reserves.

The lineup will be:
Zheng Zhi, Li Weifeng, Qiu Shengjiong, Liu Zhenli, Feng Xiaoting, Yuan Weiwei Wan Houliang, Tan Wangsong, Lv Jianjun, Zhao Xuri, Zhou Haibin, Cui Peng, Hao Junmin, Jiang Ning, Chen Tao, Gao Lin, Dong Fangzhuo

and the four reserves are: Shen Longyuan, Zhu Ting, Dai Lin, and Zhang Lu


Summer Refreshment Made Easy

City Weekend and Shanghaiist have been talking about something I discovered myself a few weeks back, but due to my blog hiatus, never posted about. Since at least the end of summer/fall of last year, Kirin has been selling a canned alcoholic grapefruit juice in convenience shops around Shanghai. The drink was halfway decent, but extremely sweet and not something to accompany most Chinese meals.

Recently, though, the two cans pictured above(picture from City Weekend) have also been spotted on display. I've tried both and can't exactly give a glowing review of them. They are cloyingly sweet and very fruity without any recognizable alcoholic kick whatsoever. However, they're kept very cold and would make something halfway decent to sip on a hot summers day. To all those who are too cool for sparkling wine in a can, come on, you're probably the same hipster doofus in the US who was sipping your Sofia with a straw two years back?

Sunday Photo Thread: Bastille Day Edition

It's Bastille Day (or it was, in some places) and on our whirlwind travel plans, this week we're coming to you Live from London (unfortunately not Paris, at least not yet).  France and its many great thinkers and idealists influenced the Americans (who we celebrated last weekend) and hopefully one day some of their ideas will enter into the minds of the Chinese.  Anyways, Sunday was also the 7th anniversary of Samarach's announcement of "Beijing"!  Anyways, enjoy the archived photos of the Paris capital.


Around Beijing: Shopping in Early July

The Adidas superstore at the Villages of Sanlitun has finally opened and it has everything any Adidas fan can ask for. The store contains all of Adidas' lines, Y-3, Stella McCartney, Porsche Design, and Adidas Originals, as well as all the regular adidas merchandise. It also contains a large amount of Beijing Olympics merchandise featuring the 3 stripes. This location is bound to become a destination during the Games as its just down the road from Gongti and across from where the (infamous) beer mug used to be, the mugs gone, but Sanlitun's bars are still going strong and are sure to be visited by many Olympics fans. The store also features a number of interactive challenges and games, a DIY area (akin to Nike ID), and a soccer jersey customization area. With less than a month to go and no major announcement yet, is it possible Nike has something up their sleeves to match this store before the start of the Olympics? A big shop at Qianmen maybe (how weird would that be)? Already beat out as official Olympics sponsor, Nike isn't going to allow itself to be topped again, is it? Also, inside the store is the first branch of the popular Shanghai chain, Elements Fresh, unfortunately it only seems to offer its drink options and no food.

Speaking of Nike, it does have a strong presence at Wangfujing and the big store in XinDongAn has undergone some changes recently. No longer do you see Liu Xiang or Yi Jianlian, they've been replaced by a larger than life dunking Kobe Bryant bedecked in his Team USA uniform. Also, inside the store, there are Kobes and LeBrons where there used to be Ah Lians and Yao Mings. Much of the first floor space and all the images have been taken up by the US basketball squad. Its a bit unique and will probably be interesting only to me (or possibly one other person), but the USA replica jerseys have the US flag patch on the upper left chest, just like the one the players will wear, whereas the Chinese replicas for sale don't have a flag patch. Any ideas why this might be?

Also, Li Ning (for the first time in many years NOT the official sponsor of the Chinese Olympic squad) is trying its hand at capitalizing off the Olympics in its own way. First, they offer "retro" track tops and shoes featuring their designs for past Chinese Olympic squads. They are also not completely out of the picture as I believe the Chinese divers will be wearing Li Ning during the Olympics. They've been selling clothes that harken back to past host cities as well and have recently released a line dedicated to some of the different Chinese host cities (Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Qingdao). Unfortunately, the tshirts are infected with a sort of Chinglish problem or strange slogans like "Tianjin! Goal!" or "Qingdao! Heeling!". Granted, heeling is a sailing term, but the idea of that tshirt just seems very strange. What's worse are the tshirts that state on the front "We Host Our Game!" and just to be more confident about that declaration, the back ads "We Do".

Ah, but there's still a month to go, this is only the start...