First time on this blog? Beijing Traffic Lesson: Left Turn is probably a good place to start.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Where are my cheap DVDs? I was promised cheap DVDs!

From reading the newspapers back home, you would think that China is literally awash in pirated software, movies, music and the like, with vast turbulent seas of Spiderman III and Star Wars DVDs and the occasional whirlpool of movies by the Wayans brothers, and all around would be people with buckets flinging pirated material this way and that yelling "Please, Mr. American! Please save us from all these movies! Just take them!"

So I wasn't entirely surprised when, in the first few days there, I saw small 10-foot wide storefronts with hand-lettered signs offering DVDs for 10 yuan (about $1.25) each.

I WAS surprised the next day when I walked by the same store, and it was just a pile of broken shelving.

A couple days later I went to my local Vanguard store (kind of a small Target plus a grocery store) and discovered that their DVD section had just been replaced with an enormous toilet paper display.

There's been news about China cracking down on pirated stuff, and maybe it's just a drop in the bucket, but I was surprised to see such changes so quickly. It might really be happening this time - with the Olympics coming, and piracy so common, they probably need to get a head start.

That's not to say you can't find DVDs in Beijing. A coworker showed me a store one evening after work. It was like a speakeasy - you had to know the right door and the right stairs, and suddenly you emerge in a large, well-lit room bursting with videos, tourists and office workers.

As an upstanding citizen, needless to say I was morally outraged. After loudly berating the staff for taking money out of the mouths of Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg, I went directly to the U.S. Ambassador and members of the U.S. trade commission to lodge a complaint.

(They were in aisle 2, buying copies of LOST Season 3 and arguing over whether the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie was just guilty fun or a sign of what's wrong with Hollywood today.)

I can't form a coherent story to save my life. It may be that I had poured so much of myself into BeijingBananaQuest '07 that now that it's over, I need a new focus. Or maybe it's that case of 24-hour Avian Influenza I've got. ("Here, handle some dead chickens," he said. What was I thinking?)

In any case, here's a bunch of little stuff that's been going on.

I ate eels yesterday. I had to go into the office on Saturday to proof some work for a presentation Monday, so my boss suggested we go out for lunch first. We went to a Chinese restaurant and I let him order, although I did ask for nothing with too many bones.

(Admittedly, the Boney Bone Pudding with Bone Sauce did have some bones.)

Seriously, though, another excellent meal. There was spicy stir-fried beef, two kinds of duck including one famous kind in which they take duck and egg yolks and apparently make some kind of loaf out of it, then slice it thin, a soy and tofu dish that almost had the texture of wheat bread, a rice and bean concoction, tea - and a big ole' bowl of eels.

Photo chosen for dramatic effect. Mine weren't this fresh.

"It's just spaghetti with heads," I whispered to myself. "Just spaghetti with heads."

And you know what? They weren't too bad. They had been stir fried with soy sauce and garlic, and they really tasted like soy sauce and garlic. Texture is a little weird, I admit, and I didn't go back for fourths, but after the chicken feet, a pleasant surprise.

After the DVD store, I joined my coworker on a trip to IKEA in Beijing. He needed to buy some household stuff, and we also had dinner (mmmm! Swedish meatballs!)

It was the exact same stuff we buy. With the same ridiculous, unpronounceable meaningless names. And the store was just as much of a maddening cattle chute as any in the States. Apparently the Swedes have figured out this 'global economy' thing.

I've been a little unsure what to see and how much effort I want to expend on weekends, especially since I am working full time. I had almost talked myself into spending the day watching movies - and then the 'How often will you be in Beijing' voice started going through my head. (Actually, through my headphones. I was talking with my wife, who fully supported my laziness but planted a seed to take some action.)

So I took a cab to Bei Hai Park, northwest of the Forbidden City.

It used to be a private playground for the Khan and rulers who lived in the Forbidden City. They dredged out a large lake, used the dirt to build a steep island, and did it all in a similar style to the Forbidden City. But it has more little staircases and rock gardens and these neat little lanes that have rock piled up on each side so you can find privacy and quiet for a few minutes. It also has a huge promenade along the lake and little buildings tucked against the side of the hill. Very neat.

(To the south is the new 'Forbidden City': The southern 2/3 of what used to be the park was converted into the residences of the Party leadership, according to the guidebook.)

From the island I walked north through a more modern park area, kind of like a smaller Central Park. Lots of people out and enjoying the day or out on the lake in small rented boats. For me, it was nice to see so much green again.

From there I went northeast through a touristy hutong (an old neighborhood of narrow alleys - probably a little lower-income, certainly a little run down, but the area I stuck to was along a lake and more open) to the Drum Tower, a 700 year old building that was used to keep time.

After that I walked down a street of small shops, poking my head in and looking around here and there until I got tired and took a cab home.

Anyway, here's some pictures:

OK, this is either really nerdy or too too precious, but my wife and I made a 'date' last night. We both downloaded the season finale of LOST from iTunes, then got on an audio-chat and watched it together.

HOLY SMOKES! That was a heck of an episode. Fellow LOST fanatics, we will have much to discuss when I get home.

I have more little stuff, but I think I've rambled long enough. Later!