What I haven’t been writing…

My last blog post was a whopping 11 weeks ago! That’s an eternity for a word-nerd like me.

I love words. I love savoring delicious strings of words that others have chosen and presented to me, in a prose passage, on a postcard, by email… I love the almost-devilish delight I take in finding precisely the right word – preferably slightly obscure or absurd – for conveying a meaning that feels just right. I often lament that living in a rational-numbers-world feels a little like being forced to write with my left hand all day long. I’m a right-handed girl after all, and that means I am happiest when putting pen to paper, fingertips to keyboard, and commas where they belong.

So, what can keep me away from the business of writing for so long? The only thing worthwhile, of course: the business of falling in love. More on that later… Today, as I step into another year of my life, it seems a fitting time to get back to writing. I share here My Beijing, a travel piece I wrote on the city I now call home, for Notabilia’s My Asia series. (Link here to Notabilia). Thanks to PM for giving me the opportunity, indeed, for forcing me to keep to a deadline, to write again!

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Must eats?

Brunch is not a particularly Chinese, or at least not northern Chinese concept (the southerners have their dimsum I suppose), but there are a handful of hidden gems along Wudaoying hutong near Lama Temple. At Vineyard Café I enjoy a western-style brunch in a very Chinese setting—a converted courtyard home filled with light and air. A bit further into the hutong, past the shops selling Beijing hipster staples (retro Communist-era khaki green “Serve the People” messenger bags, thick frame glasses, old school Feiyue sneakers),Saffron serves up slightly fancier, Spanish-style cuisine.

Duck de Chine in the converted factory yard 1949 is my choice for Peking duck. The ambience is classy—suitable for a gathering of friends, or for a business dinner—and the duck delectable. The Cantonese chefs here also make mini egg tarts that are among Beijing’s best. The adjoining restaurant, Noodle Bar, is also a choice venue for a quick-and-simple lunch with Chinese characteristics. The clean design, sparse menu, and ambient lighting, with an open view of the chef hand pulling noodles, make this the perfect spot for a comfortable lunch for one, or an intimate meal for two.

I relish the chance to take visitors to Hua’s Restaurant at night. At their biggest branch on Ghost Street (where many a night owl ends up after a big night out for its 24-hour dining options), the main courtyard restaurant is just one of eight different settings for diners to enjoy. At the main courtyard, you can book a table with a view of the nightly show where truly impressive (and not cheesy) performers exhibit traditional Chinese arts, like mask-changing, acrobatic tea-serving, and noodle-making.

For something a little different, I like to go to the Xinjiang Red Rose for a dinner and show. Imagine munching on giant Uighur lamb skewers, downing beers, while watching belly-dancing (perhaps a perversion of some of the true cultural elements in western China, but oh well, sometimes a little cheesiness is permissible) or listening to live music performed by Xinjiang and Han vocalists and guitarists.

Hotpot is something I can’t live without, especially in the blistery winters. My hidden gem is Diancaoxiang, a Yunnan-style joint sitting atop 3.3. Order a traditional Yunnan sour soup base and add in a host of southwestern specialties—mushrooms and green vegetables—along with the usual lamb and beef ingredients. The best part? Choosing from a dozen dipping sauces here, ranging from flower-scented sesame paste to plain old soy and vinegar.

There’s no shortage of fine dining and international fare in Beijing. Among my favorites are Bei (an award-winning “North Asian” fusion restaurant located in the basement of stylish boutique hotel, Opposite House) and Maison Boulud(although the food is stellar, the setting is even more majestic).

Must shops?

The Sanlitun neighborhood is, in my opinion (as a resident), the best place for shopping and going out in Beijing. Steer clear of the glitzy malls—Sanlitun Village and Sanlitun North—which specialize in over-priced brands that you can buy for cheaper anywhere else in the world. Instead, visit Yaxiu Market, which is both a visitor’s must-see and a local’s go-to place for random essentials. Smaller and less-touristy than Silk Street Market, Yaxiu sells everything from cheesy traveler’s souvenirs, to functional gear at bargain prices (“Columbia” ski pants), to quirky accessories (winter tights in rainbow colors for S$3 a pop).

There are a number of tailors enticing shoppers at Yaxiu with their next-day service in making bespoke suits and dresses, but my favorite is J&Y Tailor. Run by a husband-wife team in an unassuming shop on Xingdong Road, they can turn around dapper three-piece suits in less than a week starting at S$120.

For more “serious” buying (say, winter furs or creative outfits for a costume party), I turn to 3.3, where local designers and enterprising buyers who scour China’s vast apparel manufacturing world bring high fashion pieces to their discerning shoppers, or Tianyi Market (in west Beijing), another of Beijing’s many wholesale markets. I once scored a gorgeous fox vest at 3.3 for S$300 and put together a few stewardess outfits for a party from pieces scavenged in Tianyi.

Visitors would also get a kick out of the Houhai and Gulou neighborhoods, where hipster and retro stores line the streets. Worth checking out: Plastered T-shirts, selling kitsch and tongue-in-cheek shirts bearing nostalgic logos.

Must dos?

Surprising to many visitors is that Beijing actually has a great café culture. Because the city is inhabited by many journalists, photographers, and other scrappy creatives, complimentary wi-fi and the freedom to stay as long as you like with ordering just one drink are acceptable café behavior. In Sanlitun, The Bookworm is the place to go for smoothies, a lending library, and cultural-literary events, like film screenings and readings by local and visiting authors. The Bookworm also puts on the annual Beijing Literary Festival every spring, which has attracted, in the past, acclaimed writers, like Peter Hessler. In the Gulou neighborhood, Café Zarah offers a cozy atmosphere and rotating photography exhibits.

Pollution and the weather are two common complaints about life in Beijing, but it’s easy to escape by joining Pacific Century Club, where I like to suntan by the glass-roofed heated pool, soak in the jaccuzzis, or exercise in the filtered-air gym all year round. Once a week on Sunday afternoons I teach a vinyasa class at Beijing’s pioneering hot yoga studio, Om Yoga 42, in Lido. Owner Sophia (who is married to the dashing Financial Times’ bureau chief) has exquisite taste and the place—with its carefully selected flower arrangements and teas—feels more like a spa than a sweaty granola spot.

While healthy eating and healthy living preoccupy much of my time, I still like to let loose with a big night out sometimes. On these occasions I like to start the night at cavernous D-Lounge, which feels a lot like a New York Meatpacking District lounge, for good cocktails. From there, the night usually disintegrates into silliness that only Beijing can offer. Russian pole dancers and a little person bouncer named “Brother Rong”? Chocolat club in the Russian neighborhood has it. Blingy-tacky chandeliers and Chinese bottle service (whiskey mixed with red tea)? Latte is the place. For a less crazy night, I like to chill at Fubar, which is hidden behind a “secret trap door” tucked in the back of a glorified hotdog stand (a hotdog restaurant, in fact) at Worker’s Stadium.

Must sees?

There’s no shortage of advice in travel guides and once in a while I, too, like visiting the historic sights. But mostly I like to do things that allow me to discover the “real Beijing.” A romantic Chinese date would include rowing a boat on the lake at Beihai Park and walking hand in hand beneath weeping willows. Scooting or biking around the shady lanes around Ritan Park’s embassy neighborhood is a respite from the heat in the summers. And in the fall and spring, Beijing Hikers is a great way to explore greater Beijing. The group organizes rugged treks in the suburbs, around the Great Wall and other lesser known places.

Must art?

Complain as Beijingers may about the “unsightly” modern structure commonly known as “The Egg” (National Center for Performing Arts), I love that we now have our own venue for performances. Every January, I get dressed up with my girlfriends and go watch the gathering of renowned ballet dancers at the International Ballet Gala in Beijing. 798, the arts district, has become somewhat commercialized now, but it’s still fun to visit for a half-day when the weather is nice (just avoid the weekend crowds). Further north is Caochangdi, a loose collection of photography and art galleries that are deemed—by the haughty artsy crowd—to be less commercialized than 798. Among Beijing’s many temples (and Chinese New Year temple fairs), I find the smaller ones easier to navigate—Dongyue Temple is my favorite, for its strangely morbid display of scenes from the underworld.

Must gos?

Biking or scooting are how the real locals getting around. The subways are increasingly efficient and clean, but only if you near a subway stop, which isn’t the case for most people in this sprawling metropolis. Buses can be helpful over short distances, but to really get from Point A to Point B, you need to carry around a copy of the Beijing Public Transportation guide (a mini tome) and know how to match up the historic neighborhood names with the new ones. Avoid until truly experienced in the ways of Beijing.

(Additional credits: Photographs by Qi Zhai; photo layout via Pugly Pixel.)

A very Dali Christmas

I thought I’d seen it all – Christmas in the tropics, Christmas with heathens, Christmas in all sorts of places. But in Yunnan, Christmas is taken very seriously, in very unexpected ways. A full account will follow, but first, a few teaser photos…

On Christmas Eve in Dali’s Old City all the residents come out to engage in street shaving cream / confetti warfare

I was ill-prepared for the confetti war (no raincoat or shades), so I used my scarf for protection

On Christmas morning I did not have breakfast (because I’m still detoxing) at a Dali favorite, Bakery 88

Then we headed to nearby Xizhou village…

…to visit an old friend…

…who now lives in posh digs (the lovingly restored Linden Centre)…

with fancy things…

At night, we watched the 2nd Xizhou Christmas Pageant, or, rather the “Yesterday, today, Chinese, Western – harmonious life” show

Go take a hike…in Beijing

Ever since little Yunie cut off her premium jeans to fashion stylish hiking pants, I packed some Tom’s of Maine toothpaste, and we both squealed with schoolgirlish delight when a certain boy (who was in favor back in the collegiate days) started a fire from scratch on a brisk Yosemite night I’ve been itching to go into the wild again.

Although many accuse me of being a city girl, I’m a country mouse at heart. After all, the bestest parts of my childhood were spent climbing trees along the Songhua River dyke (before it became overrun with “luxury villas”), swimming against the current when the tide was up (before the toxic waste from nearby plants caused skin rashes), and wreaking havoc on the neat rows of corn that my older family members had planted (before the time of town and village enterprises). But, finding the time, the place, and the right kind of intellectual who would not only entertain me with literary critique but could also cut down vines and make gourmet wilderness meals with his bare hands always stood in the way of my going hard core hiking again.

“Tree” in front of tree

This December, my wish finally came true when my Beijing bestie GJ – a petite Brit with an appetite to rival my own – signed us up to join Beijing Hikers on a lunar eclipse hike. (Girlfriends, they are indeed sometimes better than a man, even when it comes to fulfilling camping dreams!). I tried to keep my expectations realistic because I’ve been on Beijing “nature” excursions before and know that they’re a mixed bag. Sometimes the “organic farm meal” really is served up by a jolly farmer’s wife in Changping; other times you end up with overpriced scrambled eggs in a too-kitsch “farm house.”

We weren’t really doing the “into the wild” thing. The lunar eclipse hike included a night in a hot springs inn, unlimited bottled water, and pick-ups and drop-offs by van. But, it was the closest thing I was getting to getting back to nature in years.

Beijing besties in the wild

I was not disappointed. The company was an eclectic mix, as only Beijing mixes can be – the miniscule-but-tough martial arts-trained Queen’s English-speaking founder of Beijing Hikers and her energetic sister herding a group of thirty or so Belgians, Canadians, Spaniards, and more (and me). Oh, and let me not forget an awesome chick (I can think of no better feminist way to refer to her) named Mill.

Mill is who I want to be when I’m “pushing 50,” as she puts it. She’s a tough cookie who speaks every language I thought I’d already speak by now when I was thirteen years old (that’s Japanese, Korean, French, Spanish) and a couple more random ones I didn’t know about back then. She leads adventure travel around the world for a living (or, more appropriately, “for a life”). She’s African American married to a Nepalese man (please, for the sake of my future daughters can they breed a beautiful mixed baby boy?). And she has a bangin’ body – I know because I saw her in a swimsuit!

Harbin ice festival -40C boots work well for hiking too

So Mill led me, GJ and the rest of our motley crew through Changping villages, up craggy cliffs, and down quintessentially Chinese “hiking stairs” (for some reason my countrymen like to ruin every half-wild trail by carving steps out of rocks). Along the way we walked like Egyptians, sang “Ring My Bell,” and laughed about the “dancing Filipino prisoners” who have a penchant for recreating Michael Jackson music videos in their prison yard (YouTube it!).

The scenery was fantastic, the air a welcome change from the Beijing “fog,” and the temperature unseasonably warm. I loved every minute of it: from the slightly awkward dip in a hot spring pool that was a wee bit too small for comfort when there is a middle-aged dad present (and I’m in a bikini), to falling asleep with GJ chattering next to me, to the delicious farm meals, and even down to the week-long sore calves recovery afterward. It wasn’t quite the tent-pitching provision-toting kind of hike that I have been dreaming of, but it was exactly what I needed. Thank you Beijing Hikers, and thank you GJ!

The Yogi’s Book of Quotables

Adjustments: "This is how we (yogis) do it"

When I wake up tomorrow (at 6am if I’m lucky, at 5am if my now ridiculously “clean” body awakens before sunrise again) and drag my aching muscles out of bed, I’ll be exactly 10 days away from becoming a certified yoga teacher.

The heat is on in the final weeks of training. It’s getting hot in here: quite literally, as we practice for 3 hours a day in a 37C room; and figuratively as well, since we all fall asleep every night with “yoga dialogue” running through our heads in rehearsal for the “test” each morning.

I’ve learned a lot, about Indian sages, the scapula and deltoids, healthy eating, and how to tell your left from your right when looking at a room full of confused students who copy your every move in mirror image.

For most people, yoga is just a form of exercise. And it’s fantastic exercise that works every muscle in your body without using any equipment or tools. In a hot room, the exercise is intensified and becomes quite an aerobic work out.

For some, yoga is a path to wisdom, to a peaceful state of mind, to a calm hour after a hectic day. Here at boot camp, we’re learning the mechanics and philosophy of yoga, but who will teach us to be inspiring? Where do yoga teachers get those pithy little statements – like “Smile inside your heart and that smile will shine out to everyone you touch today”?

For the enlightened few, yoga is a journey to transcendence. I’m not sure exactly what that means yet, but everyday, I’m getting closer to understanding.

Regardless of how yoga works (or doesn’t work) in your life, I think we can all appreciate this, a quote from a fellow instructor-in-training during evening practice tonight:

“If you can’t blind them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.”

I need to run out and buy myself a copy of “The Yogi’s Book of Quotables” as soon as I graduate from boot camp!

Yoga Journal: Day 9

Qrious is overdue for a post. What’s new? I survived Week 1 of yoga training. The twice-daily hot yoga classes haven’t been so bad (I don’t know what I’ll do when I go back to a normal work vs workout schedule). Giving up meat has been surprisingly easy (thanks to the amazing chefs at Love Kitchen). The one adverse effect is that I’m starting to dream in “yoga dialogue” — “Sit down lower. Squeeze your legs together. Breeaaaaaathe.”

From the large yoga bubble that I’m living in I’ve picked out these little morsels of wisdom that some of you might enjoy:

“Yoga is destroyed by these six attributes: overeating, overexertion, excessive talking, unnecessary austerities, socialising and
restlessness.”

“Yoga is gained by these six attributes: enthusiasm, openness, courage, right knowledge (of the Self), determination and solitude.”

“Think not of internal object, neither of external object. Abandon all thinking. Think of nothing, not even thinking itself.”

Another sunrise, another day. Time to rehearse my “Breeeeaaaathe” before morning class!

Yoga Journal: Favorite things Thai

Day 3 of yoga boot camp and I’m coming to understand that yoga school is serious business. I wake up at 6.30am, start physical training at 7.30, have exactly 1h45m a day of free time between meals (during which time I have to shower and change), attend 4 hours of lecture and 2 hours of group discussion and finish up at 9.30pm. After that I should be practicing my teaching skills and bonding a little bit with my roommate, but for the last 3 nights I’ve just been collapsing in an exhausted heap on my little single bed.

At least I’m getting the most delicious sleep I’ve had in years!

Given the time constraints, this update is short and sweet. This time around I’m not seeing much of the outside world in Thailand – being stuck on my cushy yoga retreat resort and all – but I’d still like to share some of my favorite things about Thailand. Here goes:

1. It may be a poor place, but it’s a very clean place

2. Street food carts

3. “Same same” (but you know they’re actually different)

4. Palms-together-nod-and-bow greeting (“Sawadika”)

5. Boots pharmacy

6. “Ka” and “kap”

Oh, and one more thing in the “Gossip Girl” tradition…

Spotted: At Suvarnabhumi Airport, Chinese tourist wearing black sweatshirt with faux-mechanic’s patch that reads, “Sex is a high performance thing.”

This beats the Bump-It plastic hair inserts that I spotted in Beijing on a girl who most definitely has no idea what “Jersey Shore” is.

Yoga Journal: Day 1

The pool, 10 meters from my room

It’s the first time I’ve traveled alone for an extensive period of time. Once, in college, my cousin couldn’t get time off from working in London, so I traipsed off to Scotland by myself for three days of majestically broody Edinburgh sightseeing. Then there was the time I wanted to get away from work stress in Singapore and packed off to Koh Samui for a week of fasting and meditation. Even when I did the summer internship in Paris, I brought my gay best friend along as a roommate.

This time I’ll be in Koh Samui for four whole weeks by myself.

I wouldn’t have remembered that I was traveling alone – after all, there’ll be 39 other devoted yogis meeting me in Koh Samui – save for the luggage boy who carried my suitcase up three flights of stairs at the Bangkok airport hotel. He asked, “You come Thailand one person?”

It made me feel like Miranda in one of the later seasons of Sex and the City, trying to buy an apartment alone and continually fending off questions like, “Will your father be co-signing the deed?”

“No, it’s just me,” was her steadfast answer.

This time, it’ll be just me. And I think it’ll be kind of glorious. No social engagements to “stop by,” no work meetings to attend, no family obligations to guiltily neglect. Just plenty of time to practice yoga, think about lofty yogic principles (“Nothing is what it seems. You make it something with your mind.”), and figure out how this year and a half of “finding myself” will culminate.

Today, I start my vegetarian experiment. Tonight, I’ll meet my stranger roommate (yeeps, haven’t had one of those since freshman year in college) and the other urban hippies who have come all this way to do what I’m doing for whatever reason makes sense to them. Starting tomorrow, I’ll be getting holier by the day on a rigorous boot camp schedule of 7am-9.30pm.

And now, time for an overdue hot yoga class (after the gluttony of Xinjiang) and some sunbathing by the pool!