Category Archives: Xinbei

Tacos and Messy Fries at Fossils

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I stole this photo from https://www.hitc.com/en-gb/2015/01/06/new-tony-hawks-skateboarding-game-due-on-ps4-in-2015/

 

Skateboarding legend, all around cool guy, and notorious taco lover Tony Hawk once said, “The farther you get from the Mexican border, the worse Mexican food becomes.” I wouldn’t know, and I would have to trust him on that. I have never been to California, and I have been nowhere near the line separating the USA and its neighbor to the south. In that regard, I am not a good arbiter of what makes for an authentic or inauthentic taco. All I can speak to is what tastes good to me.

However, I can say Hawk’s maxim did hold true for Changzhou for a long time. A number of years ago, there used to be a chain called “Tacos.” It used to be at Wujin’s Injoy Plaza — what has now been renamed “Wu Yue.” Instead of using actual Mexican spices, they just put lots of black pepper on everything. Sour cream? They actually mistook mayonnaise for that. The menu was pricey, and I never saw anybody in there. So, I was not surprised when it went out of business. That place also had one of the most outrageous acts of Chinglish on its menu. Take a look …

 

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This actually had nothing to do with the rectums, butts, or fannies of scallops.

 

For the longest time, if you wanted a taco, you either had to make one yourself or go to other cities, Wuxi being the closest. Eventually, Yabby Lake in Wujin had something if one needed to scratch a taco itch. For the sake of full disclosure, I haven’t actually been to that place since I moved to Xinbei. However, I have a friend that would vouch for them. However, something relatively new and neat has popped up.

 

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Xinbei has tacos now, and they are fairly good. I have heard rumors that Daniel’s might be doing Mexican on their new menu in the future, but I haven’t had a chance to investigate. I’m talking about something else. I am talking about a place called Fossils on Hanjiang Road / Japanese Street. Fossils is a gut-and-remodel of the old City Corner Bar. Essentially, the owners wanted to reorient their business to towards food as well as pouring drinks.  For example, you can get a decent burger here on a pretzel bun. However, I found myself instantly drawn to the Mexican-inspired options. Changzhou really doesn’t have a lot of that sort of stuff.

 

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Not only do they have hard and soft tacos, but they have quesadillas, burritos, and tostadas. Die hard taco purists might bemoan the lack of guacamole or sour cream, but I have to say I have enjoyed everything I have tried on Fossils’ menu thus far. I also say “Mexican-style” because one of their tacos uses German sausage. I was highly skeptical about that at first, and I actually ordered it with dread. Turns out, it actually works well with the other things in the hard tortilla shell. Moving on, let’s talk about something else with a very high Yum Factor.

 

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They have smothered french fries that incorporates pulled pork, beef gravy, and mozzarella cheese. Can anybody say poutine? It’s very close without actually being that beloved Canadian staple. Still, I loved it and would highly recommend it.

But would a hardcore Canadian from Alberta like it? Well, yes. I actually drank beer and ate at Fossils with one of those types, recently.

So, on to my point. I actually find the food debate of “Is it authentic?” tiresome when it comes to living as a foreigner in China. It’s a pointless argument that will never be won. “Is it authentic?” is not the question somebody should be asking. The question should be: “Does it taste good when you put the food into your mouth, chew, and swallow?” The answer to that — when it comes to Fossils, their poutine, their Mexican fare, and other things — is yes. It’s quite tasty. I look forward to slowly trying all of the other stuff on their menu.

For what it’s worth, it should also be noted that Fossils basically recently opened. The owners and the chef are still tweaking the menu, and so there may be other things in works — I heard a rumor that there might be daily specials at some point. There is nothing really vegetarian, by the way. However, the tacos and messy fries are essentially there to stay. That makes me a happy guy that will be returning often. Also, there is no lunch service, and the doors open at 5:30.

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江苏省常州市新北区河海街道汉江路236号

 

Xinbei Wanda Hot Pockets

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Most Wanda Plazas in this region have a pedestrian street where boutiques stand side by side with restaurants. Xinbei Wanda Plaza is no different, and one has a pretty standard selection of malatang and more. I know this because I often go to Wanda for dinner while I am on my hour dinner break between my afternoon and night classes at Hohai University. An hour is not a long time to really get an honest dining experience in — and that is not a complaint. So, I mostly opt for quicker, more snack-based fare. One such option includes what, back in Jersey, we would call hot pockets.

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These are baked the same way some Chinese flat breads are.They are slapped against the metal wall inside a barrel oven. Xinbei’s Wanda actually has two options when it comes to this type of snack.

The two above pictures are from Kaobingju 烤饼居. This is a little nook across the way from the Agricultural Bank of China’s door to the their ATM machines. This is on the southern end of the pedestrian street. This is a relatively simple xiaokaobing 小烤饼 consisting of bread around a meat filling. As for vegetarians, there is a bean paste 豆沙 option. On separate occasions, I have tried beef, pork and lamb versions of this. This is also relatively cheap. Roughly 10 RMB will get you a bag of five.

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As for lamb, there is also the Xinjiang restaurant to consider. As full disclosure, I have never actually been inside to try their menu items. However, I have routinely visited their street food window.

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This is where you can get Xinjiang style flat bread. Typically, though, I stop here to get a few lamb skewers / kebabs. However, from time to time, I decide to snack on their hot pockets.

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In Chinese, these are referred to as kaobaozi 烤包子. In some places online, I have read comparisons to what is a “Central Asian Samosa,” and having at more than a few of these over the last few months, that seems pretty accurate.

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Like the earlier mentioned place, these are baked on the inside of a barrel oven. The main differences would be this: they are bigger, and the filling consists of ground lamb mixed with onion. Presently, these go for about 5 RMB each.

Like any bit of street food, both options are essentially fast food while on the go — something to tide you over when I don’t have the time to sit down at a table.

Down a Grape Flavored Rabbit Hole

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Originally, the thought was to take my new ebike and seek out Cangshan Temple in Jiangyin, but as is usual, the weirdest things are always the ones not expected. The Huangtu Grape Corridor was one of them.

But first, where and what is Huangtu? It’s the part of Jiangyin that is right next to Xinbei. Actually, it’s considered a village. The part of it next to the Changzhou city line looks the most urban. The more east you go, the more rural things get. The prime industry here is agriculture, and more specifically, the cultivation of grapes.

So, on my way the above mentioned temple, I saw the “grape corridor” and said, well, why not? The things I ended up finding were not necessarily celebrating grapes. Rather, there were a lot of public signage and tiny parks dedicated to Chinese patriotism.

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This includes a tiny park in honor of Lei Feng. This seems a little odd, since Lei Feng was born in Hunan Province, and he died in Liaoning when a telephone pole fell on him. As far as I can tell, he had no living connection with Huangtu or Jiangyin as a whole. Lei was a member of a transportation unit within the People’s Liberation Army. To this day, his image and likeness lives on as an intended symbol of being a “model citizen.”

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There are other things to see in the area. It does function as an integrated green space as part of a residential community. Huangtu people do live around these parts — which gets into something else.

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A lot of the buildings have vibrant, colorful pictures painted on them. None of it has anything to do with Lei Feng. But then again, Huangtu has little pockets like this in a few other places.

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The more I wandered around, it got weirder. I eventually found an area of the village with cannons.

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I won’t include a picture of an anti-aircraft machine gun.

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But here’s a rocket launcher!

Ok? What gives? Why does this town have old artillery pieces laying around? I was able to figure that out due to the ample signage, but none of it was in English. As I always say, the camera translator on Baidu Translate is sometimes my best friend. The military and patriotism theme in this part of Huangtu is likely due to this guy.

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This is 徐超 Xu Chao. There’s nothing on him in English on the internet. However, he was a battle hardened Chinese general. He had fought in both the war against Japanese Occupation and in the civil war that followed that. Unlike Lei Feng, Xu Chao was actually born in Huangtu.

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Although, it doesn’t look like his former residence is open to the public. Eventually, I moved on and found the temple I was looking for. It was closed and underwhelming, so you could say learning about Xu Chao was the highlight of this jaunt into Xinbei’s closest neighboring village. All of this is roughly five kilometers from where B1 bus turns west towards the Changzhou North Station. An intercity bus making local stops comes out this way. I do have to admit one thing. The last time I visited Huangtu, I left quite unimpressed. Times change, and so do perceptions.

 

Shawarma at Dinosaur Park

UPDATE: April 18, 2019. This place is no longer exists. The owner is looking for a new location.

It’s happened to me across many cities and countries: New York, Brussels, Utrecht, Oxford, and elsewhere. I would be stumble out of a bar, feel a bit peckish, and find a food cart. Street food can be an awesome thing, especially when it’s a gyro, kebab, or a shawarma. When it comes to that last one, I can now add Changzhou to that list of cities.

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A shawarma stand has become a very recent addition to the culinary scene at Dinosaur Park in Xinbei.  Last time I went, it was next to a guy who was frying up shrimp cakes — and that was next to KFC. The name is not in English, but the Chinese goes something like this: 德立士俄式的沙威玛  Dé lì shì É shì de shā wēi mǎ. That literally translates as something like “Russian Shawarma.”

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For those who don’t know, shawarma is slabs of meat skewered on a stick and then rotisserie cooked. It typically tends to be chicken — and other variations like gyro would have it as beef / lamb mixture. The Chinese do something similar with pork and baobing 薄饼卷肉. All three are basically meat and other stuff wrapped in flatbread.

So, what’s the verdict? I can only speak for the chicken and cheese option that I tried recently. It was awesome and I would recommend it to anybody. The chicken was juicey and tender, and the yogurt sauce mixed well with the cheese and veggies. The stand also offers tuna and vegetarian options, but I think I’m basically going to stick with the chicken and cheese for the foreseeable future. It costs about 27 RMB, and it’s filling enough to be a meal unto itself. The owner recently told me that he’s working on getting listed on Meituan and other delivery apps. So, that’s something to look forward to.

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The Temple Behind Xinbei Wanda

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In China, Buddhist temples can be venerated spaces for worship, cultural attractions for tourists, and anything between those two concepts. In Changzhou, the most noteworthy temple would be Tianning with Baolin in Wujin coming in second. Sansheng and Dalin would be tied for third. However, not all of them are intended for tourists. Some really are just meant as religious centers where one can pray — or, if you are a secular agnostic like myself, go for some quiet introspection. If I were to make a Christian comparison, it would be this: “Local churches are not all cathedrals like Częstochowa or Lourdes.”

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And, so, that would be an apt way to describe Longquan Temple in Xinbei. It’s a tiny little place of worship behind Xinbei Wanda on Daduhe Road 大渡河路. It’s not as epic as Tianning Temple downtown. However, according to it’s website, it’s actually a branch of Tianning. By that, I mean by Changzhou Buddhism as an organized religion.

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The times I have been here — as I said, seeking quiet introspection — there has always been something else in the back of my brain. The hustle and bustle of Xinbei’s busiest shopping mall is mere footsteps away. But here? It’s relatively quiet. I wouldn’t be lying if I said there was an interesting juxtaposition to be had there.

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Diversions at Dinoman Club

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Dinosaur Park is filled with gaudy kitsch, but that’s part of the charm, one would argue. As one of Changzhou’s only tourist destinations, there are also plenty things to do and plenty of places to eat at. Dinoman Club is one of those places, and it’s three floors with plenty of distractions to keep one’s self occupied.

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There are pool tables, a bowling alley, a haunted house, and more.

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It also functions as a KTV with private rooms. These can include mahjong tables, computers, and karaoke set ups.

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The restaurant is decent. The two times I ate here were for Spring Festival dinners. One was private, and the other was organized by the municipal government.

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The first time I ate here, it was ala carte with a tablet-based ordering system. The second time — the government dinner — was a buffet, which leads me to think buffets are more for large, catered affairs. All in all, the food was decent, as I said earlier. But then again, this is Dinosaur Park. So, there’s got be some weirdness somewhere, and there was.

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A friend of mine said this would look awesome air brushed on the side of a van in the greater Alberta regions of Canada.

Celebrating American Car Culture in Changzhou

“The Changzhou public bus system is more than likely better than any bus system in America.”

When I say this, my Chinese university students usually gasp in shock. They become even more flabbergasted when I say the US is pretty bad at public transportation. If they counter by bringing up the New York City subway system, I remind them that New York City is always the exception and not the norm, and a lot of the subway stations often smell like a public bathroom — and I am saying that as a New Jersey guy that has always had a very large soft spot for The Big Apple.

Owning a car is not a sign of wealth or status, because even poor or broke people have to drive to get to work.  It’s just that they own a jalopy, wreck, hooptie, rattletrap, clunker, bucket of bolts, lemon, junker, or any other colorful noun that can mean “old car that breaks down often.” America, I always tell my students, has a very car-centered culture. Instead of opting for an intricate rail system, President Eisenhower initiated the construction of a network of super highways in 1956 that has defined America up to the current day.

So, it’s interesting that the Changzhou Museum has a temporary photography exhibit celebrating this aspect of Americana.

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It’s located on the ground floor of the museum.

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There are some old black and white photos as well as some vintage illustrated posters.

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Plus, there are some contemporary shots on display. Not to mention this…

 

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This shot is particularly grainy. That’s because I took this picture with my cell phone (of course), and it’s basically of a TV screen playing a documentary. Some of the guys featured are true whackjobs.  Lastly, I sort of had to take a photo of the place I now love to hate….

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There is a wall of license plates from all 50 states. Not represented, it seemed, were Washington DC and territories like Puerto Rico, Guam, and The Virgin Islands. Anyhow, it seemed like a quirky temporary exhibit. It runs until November 18th.

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Map location for the Changzhou Museum

All You Can Eat at Pomel

“One day, I am going to try eel, but today is just not that day.” 

This is something I used to say while looking at a sushi menu. Essentially, I would be tempted to be adventuresome and try new things, but I would always chicken out in the end. This was seemingly a lifetime ago, back when I lived in North Carolina and New Jersey. Sushi places seemed few and far between, and I quite often had zero disposable cash. So, the fear was partly economic — why pay a lot of money for something I may not exactly like?

Times change, and now I am in Changzhou. Sushi isn’t really a hard to find, exotic item here. That’s especially true now that I live near Hanjiang Road / Japanese Street in Xinbei. While there are plenty of sushi options to pick from, one place has a great deal to consider.

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Pomel has an all you can eat deal for 198 RMB. This is not a buffet, either. You basically have full run at the menu, and you can order multiple times. Both beer and sake are included. Upon a recent visit with a friend, we basically got to have our fill of sashimi…

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If you think about how much sashimi grade salmon and tuna can cost, the 198 RMB price tag quickly pays for itself, and that’s not even factoring in beer and sake refills.

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And, of course, it’s hard to go to a Japanese place and not order sushi. Then, there is another good aspect of an all you can eat deal.

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You can try things out without the fear of wasting money. I have long gotten over trepidation surrounding eel. The friend I was dining with had already introduced me its yumminess on a separate occasion. However, this time, I had the opportunity to try my first couple of cups of warm sake. I also got a chance to sample sea urchin as part of a second sashimi platter. I appreciated the sake, yet raw sea urchin just really isn’t my thing. It’s got the appearance and consistency of — not to be gross — snot. However, I now can say been there, done that and move on. Again, that’s the value of this deal at Pomel — or any other Japanese all you can eat places — you can try things you normally wouldn’t if you were doing ala carte.

Unfinished, Other Worldly in Xinbei

“Once you’ve seen one temple, you have pretty much seen all of them.”

This is a comment that I have heard on and off from several people over the years. While I disagree, I will concede one point. The style of both Buddhist and Taoist temples in this area share a lot of the same stylistic points. A lot of the statuary can either be vibrant or colorful, or they can be based on different shades of gold. So, when you find something that deviates from that pattern, it really stands out. Recently, I did. In fact, it looks like no other temple I have ever seen in Changzhou or elsewhere in Southern Jiangsu.

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Xiushan Temple 修缮寺 has the standard paint job and architecture of other temples. So, the strangeness of the place is on the interior, not the exterior. And it hits you immediately when you step through the front door.

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The religious statuary is all unfinished. For example, some of them have been sculpted in what looks to be clay. However, something seemed to happen to halt the installation process. Then, over the course of time — and due to heat — the statuary began to form wide cracks. This has lead to a seemingly unearthly, somewhat otherworldly look.

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This has lead to some wear-and-tear issues that leads to somewhat creepy-looking damage — like a jawless demon.

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These are just but a few of the statues. A majority of what can be seen has been crafted from wood. These are the statues that normally wouldn’t be painted. Rather, they would be plated in gold or otherwise gold-colored.

 

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However, some of them also have their own issues that has caused damage. Like the clay statues, cracks have developed.

 

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These are not simple fissures, but cracks wide enough you can see through.

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Some of these “cracks” are necessary. Not all of the pieces were carved from a singular piece of wood. Some parts were made sparately and then jigsaw-puzzled together. Take a close look at the above photo, and you will see that. Even if the statues were not damaged, the natural, unfinished look of the wood adds other elements I have not seen at other temples.

 

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In each of these statues, you can see the striped grains in the wood. You can also see the some of the circular knots. It’s just two more things that adds intricacy of something that already has intricate detail and weather damage.

So, what exactly happened here?

 

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This place is open to the public. It looks like it is being used as a local place of worship. I am just assuming, but I am basing the deduction off of the places to kneel, the sound system, and a few other things. There is a poster by the door of the main hall. From what I can piece together using Baidu Translate on my phone, the funding for Xiushan Temple seemed to have fallen short. Some of the signage seems to solicit donations.

Either way, visiting this place is a profoundly unique experience. It’s in northern Xinbei — on the way to the industrial ports alongside Changzhou’s portion of the Yangtze River. One can take a bus out this area; the 27 and 40 come to mind, but it also involves getting off and traveling down a narrow, but paved, country road. While it is open, there still seems to be active construction with workers. In that regard, it will be interesting to return here in the future to see what eventually changes. While I do hope the people running these temples can find a way to keep their statues from crumbling, part of me hopes they find a way to keep this the one-of-a-kind place that it currently is.

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Dabei Temple Was Not Sad

Sometimes names can be misleading, and this can be especially true when translation is involved. Other personal outside influencing factors don’t help either. Recently, I have been learning how to play the card game Magic The Gathering.  It’s fantasy based, and it is a million times more complicated than poker or canasta. Magic involves specialty character cards, and many of the them work and interact differently. It makes for a game of nearly infinite and hard-to-predict strategies. Since this a basically a fantasy, Dungeons and Dragons type game, many of these cards can have weird names. The following examples are made up by myself, but they speak to the oddity that sometimes is Magic The Gathering:  Codex of Dubious Confusion, Library of Lesser but Real Horrors, and Spire of Ominous Despair. All of this, recently, had an effect on how I explored Changzhou.

Copyright Magic The Gathering.
Copyright Magic The Gathering.

While looking at Baidu Maps recently, I noticed something called  大悲禅寺 dàbēi chán sì. That literary translates as “big sad temple.” Since I was looking at this with my head in the Magic The Gathering fantasy world, I started to laugh. Binge listening to the Welcome to Night Vale podcast didn’t help. It’s a fictitious community radio broadcast filled with sinister dog parks filled with hooded figures and reports of supernatural happenings – yet, it has the humdrum, low-key delivery of America’s National Public Radio. In short, I projected my own personal culture onto Dabei Temple instead of thinking of a possible Chinese context.  I thought if I went there, I might see a large statue dedicated to profuse weeping.

So, I set out on my ebike. This Buddhist place of worship is in northwestern Xinbei. It’s near the both Changzhou’s airport and the city border with Yangzhong. In short, this is not a place easily accessible by public buses. It is also a real place of religious worship and not something aimed at tourists. Eventually, I reached my destination by traveling down a dirt road.

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Dabei Temple quickly revealed itself.

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As it turns out, Dabei Temple is neither “big” nor “sad.” It just happens to be an average countryside Buddhist temple in a very remote part of Xinbei.

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It has the standard courtyard set up and grounds layout of small temples. This means a main hall with a few other nooks of worship and community space.

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You have the usual sort of Buddha statue set up once you enter the main hall.

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Behind that, there is a sculpture wall dedicated to Guanyin, a figure of divine compassion. This is also a pretty common thing in the layout of temple main halls in this area — Buddha upfront, Guanyin in rear.

Despite the fact that I have seen a lot of temples like this, I left this place feeling grateful. I got to see a part of Changzhou and Xinbei I have never been to before, but it reminded me something I had already known. It reminded me of a fundamental truth. I had just temporarily forgotten it due to my new obsession with Magic The Gathering and the great many professional distractions and obligations I have had over the last month. It’s this: you can’t make assumptions on things when translation is involved. Not only are you bringing your personal biases into a travel experience, but you are letting your native culture effect how you see a foriegn country. That is not a good thing.