Xian Noodles in College Town

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Across the street from the Changzhou College of Information Technology, there is a small noodle shop. Now, noodle joints are definitely not uncommon in this city or China in general — and that may be the understatement of the century. This one has a menu that contains some Xian dishes, and that is what sets it apart from the others. Xian food is not a common thing here, but that’s if you exclude the widely available 肉夹馍 Ròu jiā mó, aka “Chinese Hamburger.” Don’t get me wrong. You can get that too at this noodle shop, but it’s not one of the more exclusive items. I used to always go here to get 臊子面 Sàozi miàn.

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This is a hearty noodle soup consisting of carrots, potatoes, tofu, shredded pork, bean sprouts, and more. The above picture is the hot and sour version. There is also a version that is less spicy.

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Either version is 10 RMB, which is, of course, extremely cheap for a filling lunch. Among the other things on the menu, they do have good versions of more common dishes not from Xian.

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This is 担担面 Dàndàn miàn. It originates from Sichuan, and it is in basically a “hot and numbing” spicy pork based sauce. This is more of a dry noodle dish and not a soup. As stated, this is very easy to find. It doesn’t change the fact that is still a good dish at the Xian noodle shop. It also goes for 10 RMB a bowl.

This is Canal 5

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Changzhou is a big city by western standards. The thought of that usually hilarious to local Chinese. For example, how many Changzhous can you fit into a Shanghai or Beijing? However, since this blog was originally envisioned as a detailed, definitive “Changzhou Encyclopedia,” and sometimes, that means taking a step back and giving a general description of parts of the city that locals and long term expats take for granted. So, with that in mind, this is Canal 5 …

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Contemporary urban China gets a lot of flack / criticism for rampant demolition of historical sites. Sometimes, this is not true. Sometimes, older places get renovated and repurposed. This especially true with factory locations. And that is what has happened with Canal 5. I used to be a textile factory, and now, with a bit of municipal funding and a bit of effort, it has been spun into a multi-purpose cultural space.

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It’s one that has also retained its original industrial character. Old machines and machine parts sit around here on display as if were modern art.

 

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But this is also a place that you can find art galleries.

 

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And a theater — which a friend pointed out why Canal 5 has a statue of Shakespeare. The placement is not as random as one might think.

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And, the area is also the home to bars and other places to drink and eat.

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But the truth of Canal 5 is this: it’s still a work in progress, right now. Not everything is open. You still hear the clank and buzzing of construction during daylight hours. However, there are a lot of things open here. Plus, there are a number of smaller bars open outside this “creative campus.” And, that’s municipal labeling on the signage around there, not my language. In short, if you live near the city center, this a place to potentially spend some time in either the daytime or night.

Canal Five is next to — wait for it! — a canal. The closest landmark the Zhonglou Injoy Plaza shopping mall. If you walk west and pass under the overpass you will find said canal. If you follow the road adjacent to the canal, you will pass a number of small bars and eventually find it. Show this Chinese to a cab driver, and they should know where to go: 运河5号.

 

Monkey King Bargains

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Half of my ethnic heritage comes from Italy, so it’s very easy for me to  say, “Monkey King is one of my favorite restaurants in Changzhou.” Of course, it’s not as good as my late mother’s home cooking, but it’s still pretty darned awesome. It consistently has the best pizza in town — which I would very readily compare to the sort that you can find in Philadelphia, New Jersey, and New York City. By that, I mean thin crust.  They’re not exactly alike, but it’s the closest you will find in Changzhou.

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If there is one thing I would complain about, it would be the prices. But then again, a person should be willing to pay for a high end dining experience. And Monkey King is high end dining in Changzhou. That leads to another point. From time to time, the restaurant does an all-you-can- eat buffet. Recently, the location in Xinbei hosted one of these on the 25th of February from 6pm to 10pm. Incidentally, the 25th was also the one year anniversary of this blog (a very happy, but totally unrelated coincidence!). For 198 RMB, diners were treated to veal, eggplant, salads, seafood dishes, and more. There was also all-you-can-drink bottled beer and Italian red wine. If you take all of that together, it’s quite a good deal. I ate like a pig; I will not lie about that. Next time Monkey King offers one of these — in either Wujin or Xinbei locations — seriously consider going. It’s more than worth the money.

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Where to find in Changzhou, even on regular menu days.

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Wujin Location near Yancheng.

 

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Xinbei location near Candle’s Steakhouse.

Jintan’s Revolutionary Martyr’s Cemetary

I once asked a Chinese friend why many cemeteries were located in out of the way places. “Plenty of reasons. Feng Shui is one. If you are putting somebody into the ground, there should be a mountain behind them and water out in front.” He took a sip of his beer “Also, some of us are a afraid of ghosts and we don’t like going near those places. The only reason to go is to pay homage to a relative or ancestor.” So, as I have said before, cemetery walks — where you take a stroll around a graveyard even when you don’t know anybody there — may be common in America, but they certainly are not in China.

Recently, I visited the Revolutionary Martyr’s Cemetary in Jintan. Much like many burial spaces in Eastern Changzhou, it seemed in a more remote location. This one was located far away from Dongmendajie, the commercial center of this western-most district of the Dragon City.

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There is a wall with the names of all the Jintan people who died fighting the nationalist KMT during the Civil War / Revolution.

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The people here are in ground plots. This is unlike the Martyr’s Memorial in Tianning, where long hallways have urns stored on shelves.

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There is a museum dedicated to the local history of the war. When I went, it was closed. It was also Spring Festival, so I don’t know if it is always closed, or if it was closed for the holidays.

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And, then you have the standard monument pillar. That’s pretty much all to see here. However, there are a few other things in the vicinity. There is Baota Temple and Gulongshan Park nearby. Getting here actually takes a lot of effort. Since Jintan, as a district, is so far away from the rest of Changzhou, you have to take a one hour intercity bus to just get to their coach station. A visitor could either take a taxi here, or they can walk. I walked. And my feet hated me for that.

Alleged Aliens, Cats, or Ghosts in Xinbei?

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If there is one things many Americans love to watch on TV, it’s documentaries about UFO sightings and conspiracy theories about alien visitation. The History Channel even has that and gets all Erich Von Daniken in probing ancient history and art for alleged ET references. The show is called Ancient Aliens and it has the habit of saying the most outlandish and absurd things by phrasing them as questions. For example: “Were the ancient Hindu gods actually astronauts from another world?” That’s not an actual quote, but something I made up that channels the spirit of the show. And trust me, that TV program has likely said something very similar.

One of the show’s frequent contributors has a hair style so bad, it rivals the current American president as the worst ever in human history. This contributor is also the subject of rampant social media memes in American social media like Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr.  I will admit that watching this stuff about UFO’s is a guilty pleasure that I actually share with my dad. I don’t believe any of it, but I find the far-fetched “possibility” entertaining to consider. Then again, my dad and I are science fiction nerds. Of course we like looking at strange things. But, I found myself pondering extra terrestrials in Xinbei, and I let my brain wander into Ancient Aliens question mode.  This is why.

One night recently, I left my ebike at a bar that will not be named. At the time, it was raining and didn’t want to ride back and get drenched. The next morning, I walked to retrieve it and I noticed some strange art on the back of some of the buildings. This is on a backstreet that runs north-to-south parallel to Tongjiang Road in Xinbei. I saw some weird-but-simplistic artwork painted dark grey on light grey brick. While the front of the building has shop fronts and none of this, back the structure is largely derelict and empty. Parts of the building look like they are being currently gutted.

I couldn’t decide whether I was looking at aliens, cats, or ghosts. For the rest of my stroll, I gleefully puzzled out this nonsense and what it meant. Give me some leeway; it was a fun distraction from walking in cold and drizzle. I also developed my own theory. But, allow me to mimic the intellectual slight of hand Ancient Aliens uses. Could it be that these weird images are actually related to an after-school arts education center in the building? 

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Some of the Best Draft Beer Downtown

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Here is something you will likely never hear an expat say: “Oh my god, do you know where I can find Tsingtao on draft? What about Tiger?” That’s because both are cheap and extremely common. Finding those beers is not a challenge. Let’s put it this way: No foreigner squeals for joy when they find cans of Harbin at a supermarket. Quality craft beer is another story, and downtown Changzhou recently gained a new bar that sells unique and quality draft beer.

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Bubble Lab is a well known, famous microbrewery in Wuhan. About two months ago, they opened a new bar near the Zhonglou Injoy Mall. This is in the Future City shopping complex next door. The chief difference between this bar and it’s parent location is that the beers are not brewed in Changzhou. They are made in Wuhan and shipped here. They have multiple taps and serve a wide variety. They have, for example, two stouts at the moment; one has a slight vanilla flavor, and the other has hints of coffee. There are many different types of IPAs to be had, as well as typically less bitter fare like pilsner and lager. The food is also enjoyable.

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Their cheeseburger is fairly simple, and that is not a bad thing. Yet, there are a few things that can even wreck a simple burger: bad quality beef, dry textures, and over or under cooking it. Bubble Lab’s burger avoids all of this. The meat patty is very juicy — definitely not overcooked and chewy. Truth be told, it was so juicy that it was a bit of a mess to eat. That is also not a criticism; messy burgers are delicious if done right, and this is one I would order again.

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Bubble Lab also offers fish and chips. You don’t see the fries in the above picture because they are under the fillets. Now, this should be said: this is not the type of fish and chips an Aussie or a Brit may be used to. That’s usually batter dipped and deep fried. Bubble Lab’s fish actually tastes a bit German. By that, I mean it tastes like somebody took fish and prepared it the same way you would with a schnitzel cutlet, and that involves bread crumbs and parsley. Again, this is not criticism. Not all fried fish and potato meals needs to be proper British fish and chips. I found this enjoyable, but then again, I am not somebody who is homesick and from the United Kingdom or Australia. It should also be noted that right now, their menu is fairly simple and small. Yet, new things will likely be added in the months to come.

All in all, I am very happy to see Bubble Lab in Changzhou. The city center needed another western style bar and restaurant.  Ever since Bellahaus went out of business, eating and drinking options seemed confined to Summer and a few other places. Plus, with so many Wuhan craft beers on tap, you can easily say Bubble Lab offers something you can’t find elsewhere in Changzhou.

Guanyin at Baolin Temple in Wujin

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According to local legend, Guanyin was key in the formation of Gehu Lake — which is also known as “West Taihu Lake.” The body of fresh water is located near the flower expo grounds in Wujin. This act of Guanyin’s was a way to show mercy to locals besieged by floods. And that is what she does. In Buddhism, she is a goddess of mercy. Some pray to her in times trouble and turmoil. This is just one of morsels of information that can be learned at Baolin Temple.

This is a Buddhist religious attraction near the Wujin’s Martyr’s Memorial. Baolin is perhaps one of the biggest cultural treasures in a district that is currently seeing a lot of construction. This is true for the temple itself. In the few thousand years it has existed, Baolin has been destroyed and rebuilt a couple of times. So, it’s largely renovated now and not in its original state. One of the more recent additions in the past two years is a pagoda a friend of mine compared to a pineapple.

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This pagoda is dedicated to Guanyin. She is all over the exterior with golden statues and exterior paintings depicting her showing mercy to people.

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Baolin has a lot of the stuff you could expect to see at Buddhist temples. But the real attraction here is the four-floor-high Guanyin statue inside the pagoda itself. It is simply a wonder to behold.

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The pagoda has an elevator. I usually like to take it to the fourth floor, walk circles around the statue, and then take the stairs down one floor at a time.

This is Huangtu

There is an intersection in Changzhou’s northern Xinbei district sharing a map line with Jiangyin. The B1 bus turns here to pass the Trina International School  and end its route at the Changzhou’s northern rail station.  Make a wrong turn at this stop light, and you end up in Wuxi. Jiangyin, while an independent city, is actually part of Wuxi.  There are a few times I have crossed this red light border intentionally to see what was there.  One time, it was to see the town of Huangtu.

This is a very small town between Changzhou’s Xinbei district and Jiangyin’s dowtown “proper.” The intercity bus from Changzhou North Station makes local stops here. The bus from the downtown / Tianning station does not. That’s more of an express, and frankly, if you are going to downtown Jiangyin, it’s always better to take the express and not a local. It’s a faster ride. So what does Huangtu have to offer?

Not much, actually. However, that is more of a “city” point of view. And, it’s not meant to be condescending. It’s more of a statement that you can’t find a lot to be a “foreign tourist”  about here.

The local temples are actually places of worship — not places that charge admission and give you commemorative ticket. But, again, that’s the point in a way.  “Real” is a relative term. What applies to cities doesn’t apply to towns. “Real” also means “people live here” and “local.”  It’s also an interesting contrast. Appreciating and understanding urban China means also appreciating and understanding “small town” China. Maybe that’s just the key to understanding China in general? Maybe that’s the key to understanding the complicated dynamics of any country?

This post originally appeared on www.realjiangsu.com. 

Three American Comforts at Chinese Convenience Stores

I used to think that “if you couldn’t find it at Metro, you can’t find it in Changzhou.” The longer I live here, the more I am discovering that is wrong. Unique items may pop in the most unexpected places. Sure, there are other western supermarket chains, and there are smaller import shops all over the city. However, the most surprising thing, recently, were some things that have been popping up in 24 quickie mart convenience shops like Kedi.

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Monster, a very popular American energy drink, has been popping up all over Changzhou as of late. The only other place to carry this so far has been OK Koala in Xinbei, but that is only occasional and with other energy drinks like Red Bull and some lesser known brands. Metro doesn’t carry it, but it does carry something that tries to rip off Monster’s logo.

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At the convenience stores, however, it’s only been the green Monster, not the sugarfree blue one. In a way, that’s not surprising. If you exclude Coke Zero, Pepsi Max, Coke Lite, and Pepsi Lite, diet sodas haven’t fared well. Well, the next thing is a promising thing if you like zero calorie soft drinks.

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Sprite Zero has shown up. This one is easy to miss because the cans and bottles seem to lack the English name. I have never seen this anywhere until recently — not even at Metro. The third thing I found recently at convenience stores has not been drinks.

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Yoplait is a very common brand of yogurt in America, but Kedi is the only place that I have seen it. Monster and Sprite Zero I have seen in some convenience stores besides Kedi. One thing to keep in mind when it comes western food and drink items is that they may not always be there. I can only guarantee that I saw it at the time I took pictures or bought them. For example, I once bought a Polish brand of plum juice at Way Too Delicious in Xinbei, and it never got restocked.

Biji Lane’s Questionable Comb Museum

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As I have mentioned in the past, part of how I explore places relies heavily on Baidu Maps, my phone, and learning Chinese keywords. For example, 故居 Gùjū means “former residence.” 名胜 Míngshèng translates roughly as “famous place” or “attraction” (in a tourist sense). Another common one I use is 博物馆 Bówùguǎn. There is sometimes a problem with the last one. Sometimes, a business lists themselves on Baidu Maps as this. You show up, and it’s a retail store, not a museum.

When this happens, I just shake my head and walk away. There is one that I will make an exception for. There is something that translates as Comb Museum over on Biji Lane. This is in the small little historical alley behind the Injoy Mall, downtown.

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This is historical home for one of Changzhou’s oldest traditional industries: handcrafted combs. This city has been well renowned in China for this for at least two thousand years.  Only, the museum is not a museum. It’s actually a gift shop, and some of the combs can cost upwards of 1000 RMB. I, however, never treat it like a gift shop. A lot of the more exquisite items are behind protective glass cases.

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There are also non-comb realted items like bejeweled hairpins.

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The place also has other traditional Changzhou crafts, like carved bamboo.

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While I have given Changzhou combs to people back in America, they were the cheap 10 RMB knock offs. This place is too expensive for me. And, even though its not a museum, I like to treat it like an art gallery. I go in browse, but never buy.