Sunday, September 30, 2007

Xinjiang Rather Go On Expedition A Restaurant

This review covers a restaurant with a rather unlikely name, Xinjiang Rather Go on Expedition A Restaurant. I almost apologize for trotting out Engrish to be laughed at, but it's an accurate translation of the Chinese Name. I assume the restaurant's name makes more sense in Turkish, represented with Arabic characters. Xinjiang is a region in the Northwest of China, with a history and culture more related to Turkey and Central Asia than to China. It's tragic that in more than two years I've only mentioned Xinjiang in the context of the delicious food I get from Xinjiang restaurants.

But I don't really see any reason to stop talking about Xinjiang food, either. Xinjiang food is simple, but makes an excellent alternative to the normal dining scene in Shanghai, where the main alternative to Chinese food is overpriced, poorly-interpreted renditions of Western food. This particular Xinjiang restaurant is very popular with foreigners, who at night will invariably take up a table or two out front - pole position for seeing the restaurant's worker's kids, who turn the sidewalks into a sort of impromptu playground.

Most of the dishes I've tried at the restaurant are decent, but not extraordinary. These noodles are a little on meat and vegetables, and only a very light eater would make an entire meal of it.

But in a way that's fine with me, as the raison d'etre for the restaurant is the Lamb shish kebab, and ordering a few is a must. They're covered in hot pepper, enough to make it spicy rather than hot. They're large and go for a locally expensive thirty five cents apiece. While I'm no shish kebab expert, I consider these the best in town:

They're grilled outside, over a flame. A lot of them are sold to people walking by, rather than restaurant customers.

They also serve Sinkiang/Xinjiang Black Beer, which I've heard mentioned as the best Chinese beer. Personally I have to disagree. But it's definitely drinkable, and makes a nice alternative to the super-light lagers that dominate in China. I've only seen it in Xinjiang Restaurants, never in a store. There's also Sinkiang lager beers, they aren't as good though.

The restaurant is very near Jing'an Si, on Yuyuan Feeder road (a short street parallel and south of Yuyuan Road), and the corner of Wulumuqi Road. It has English menus. And, my pictures on this one were a little sparse, but this Japanese-language review has a bunch of very nice pictures.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Shanghai Concert Hall

The Shanghai Concert Hall is located in a park between People's Square and the shopping street of Huaihai Lu - when I first came to Shanghai, I lived just around the corner. It's in the center of town, and is lit up to match. Most notably, there's a large television jumbotron on a nearby building. It plays commercials, and there's speakers lying about to play the commercial's sound at night. Kind of annoying, really.

The concert hall looks the part of a concert hall - a big stately building with arches and pseudo-Grecian pillars scattered about.

But it started out in the 30s as a movie hall. It was the setting of a big scene from the old pre-war movie "Scenes of City Life," which by the way I've subtitled - I'm getting the subtitles looked over and working on a good method of hosting the movie, and then I'll put it on the web. Here's a look at the same spot, but from the movie. This shot is from a different angle, but I wasn't about to go climbing any trees:

The more detail-oriented of my gentle readers that the old picture has cars right in front of the theater, as opposed to being in a park - the road (Yan'an Lu) was turned into a highway, and there's also a subway nearby. To lessen the noise, the hall was moved half a block, even though it was more expensive than making a new building. The surroundings park is mostly empty, despite the location - at night there's a bunch of couples making out on benches, and occasional homeless people wandering around.

I went a few days ago, the Chinesey prog-rock band Cold Fairyland was playing - a little surprising, as it's the only time I've ever heard of the concert hall holding rock concerts. I think the band has a cool sound, but their actual music isn't interesting - I was mostly there to check out the insides of the theater. Unfortunately, the show took place in a smallish basement theater, not the main hall. It was a good match, though, the acoustics were really great and let the band's sound come out well.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Specter of Food Inflation

Inflation in China is a complex subject that's outside the typical range of this blog, however at a 6.5% inflation rate last month, the subject's become difficult to ignore. Inflation is being led by rising food prices, which hurts more in a poor country like China, where food tends to be a larger percentage of people's daily spending.

I'm going to reveal my personal biases in this one, as I don't much shop at grocery stores, mostly I go out to the high-quality restaurants like this corner manapua/baozi shack:

The most commonly consumed (by me) manapua, with plain pork, goes for a whopping 13 US cents, up from a reasonable-ish 9 cents just a few months ago! It's outrageous, obviously, but it's also to be expected. Pork prices have climbed 50% from what they were last year. It's the default meat of China - the sign doesn't actually specify that it's pork, but when they say "meat" it's a given. Most other staples have also gotten more expensive, generally around 25%.

That's a big price jump for manapua, and most shacks opt not to raise prices, and instead have ever-decreasing amounts of meat in the middle. The profit margin on these is incredibly small, so I'm sure the amount of meat used closely follows the daily price of pork.

Anyway this idea of just lessening how much pork is used has had a broad influence on Shanghai dining, at least with the cheap eats. Here's a Tofu and Shepherd's Purse Soup, from a favorite Shanghai-style restaurant. Obviously pork isn't one of the two main ingredients, but on a recent visit the meat was looking a little sparse:

Western restaurants haven't adjusted prices or portions, though - they're already much more expensive than Chinese restaurants, so in the short term that's to be expected- I wouldn't be surprised to see changes coming soon, though.

In the meantime, a lot of local restaurants paste new prices over their old ones, or are constantly updating their signs: check out the bright fresh "5", to go along with the old dull .00 beside it. It's something like how prices are done at the local gas station! At this shop, the price of xiaolongbao has gone from three to four to five kuai, in just the past half year.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Qixia Temple

Qixia Temple is a large temple complex, fifteen miles Northeast of Nanjing. I very much enjoyed it all and would even recommend it as a day trip from Shanghai, although there certainly aren't any Disneyland-type thrills, and it's not nearly as busy or as elaborately decorated as even the Jade Buddha Temple, in Shanghai.

It's not approached quite as casually as ideal - supposedly there's a bus from the train station, but I couldn't find one, and ended up taking a private taxi where we payed 10 kuai ($1.25) apiece for the ride there, with a few strangers - there was no English possible, obviously. It was in an old beat-up mini-mini-van, it took about a minute to get up to speed once we got on the highway.

Once there, we passed by a few bored touts and passed through the gates to get in. The temple occupies a huge, beautiful grounds, it has a large number of Buddhist monks and Buddhist seminary students going about their business - I actually went with some Methodist seminary students. It's a curious mix of the old and the new, and Qixia temple seems to be in the middle of a massive building project. For instance, the pavilion looks old and worn, and is right next to a fountain and a modern-looking Guanyin, riding on a Dragon throne:

The grounds aren't particularly well marked, but it's a lot of fun just wandering through the paths, they steadily but not particularly steeply make their way uphill.

Things weren't particularly well-marked and I wasn't sure what to expect anyway. I just enjoyed wandering around the forest grounds and seeing what I came across. It's so much fun to chance one's way across a fourteen-hundred year old stone pagoda:

Right next to it are a number of stone Buddhas, carved out of the side of a small cliff. A lot of their heads are smashed in, I assume it's a relic of the Cultural Revolution. I similarly guess that a lot of the construction being done is actually re-building Cultural Revolution damage, but really it's just a guess as I didn't ask anybody about this - next time I'll make a it a point!

Towards the middle heights of the temple complex were the living quarters. The day I visited was the first sunny day in a while, so the laundry was hanging out to dry in force. Which is an inane thing to point out, there's no denying, but it was interesting to see the every-day life of a monk.

Most of what I came across was smaller, though - little pavilions and ponds and vantage points and so forth.

Here a short video of myself turning around in front of the central temple complex. It's about the same as the center of every other Chinese Buddhist temple. The music in the background is Buddhist chant/singing. There's a guy at the end, wearing shorts without a T-shirt! So obviously the dress code is more relaxed than, say, Sikh Temples.

There were massive incense bells, even though the temple wasn't particularly busy. I wonder how busy they'd be if I had gone on the first or the fifteenth of the Chinese calendar, corresponding to the full moon and the half moon. Those are the days that draw the big crowds in, and I imagine that would be the best time to visit.

There's also elephant statues, very interesting. It suggests the strong perceived connection of Buddhism to its native India, although I had never seen Elephants before aside from Jing'an temple. I'm no Buddhism expert, and I'll post if I learn anything more about this.

Finally, although the bus station was a five or ten minute walk from the temple, we ended up taking a private bus, carrying maybe twenty people. It was interesting, it took a somewhat meandering route back to Nanjing. If the driver saw people walking alongside the road on the way, she offered to give them a ride - we ended up spending a quarter for our ride, once the bus got closer to town the fare dropped down to half of that.