Nov 282007

On Monday, I visited the Forbidden City, home to China’s emperors for thousands of years. The city is over 720 thousand square meters, and it is said to have 9,999 rooms. (Nine is considered a lucky number for Chinese emperors.) I spent most of my day exploring the city.
The Forbidden City
The Forbidden city is at ground level, yet when you are standing on the terraces and balconies you can see for miles into Beijing.
The Forbidden City
What was most striking was the sheer number of throne rooms. There were between 10 and 20 throne rooms open to the public; it appeared as if the emperors had a throne room for every occasion.
The Forbidden City
The details of the decorations were also very impressive. The two square images are details from a wall outside a set of throne rooms; the last image is the detail above a doorway into one of the larger plazas. As you can see from the square images, some of the paint is a bit faded. In fact, many parts of the City appeared to be a bit worn. However, given that the city is thousands of years old with millions of tourists visiting each year, it’s in good shape.
The Forbidden City
The Forbidden City
The Forbidden City
A river twisted its way through the City. It was elegant and clearly meant for beauty rather than as a moat.
The Forbidden City
“Shop of the Forbidden City” is a good name for a store. I don’t know about the babo gruel.
The Forbidden City
The City also had many displays of historic art. This is a Long Ware Red Vase from the Kangxi reign of the Qing Dynasty (1662-1722). The photo is not perfect as the light in the gallery was dim. I’m only including it because the vase was so beautiful.
Long Ware Red Vase from the Kangxi reign of the Qing Dynasty (1662-1722)
I left the Forbidden City through the Emperor’s Gate. Goodbye City!
Exiting the Forbidden City from the Emperor's Gate

 Posted by at 10:25 am
Nov 272007

Here are some fun facts about the Great Wall:

  • Peter Jackson totally ripped off the Great Wall for his tower signaling sequence in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
  • The Great Wall is not inaccurate. I know when you hear, “Great Wall,” you may think it is just a big wall. It isn’t just a big wall. It’s a really, really, big wall on the top of a mountain. And it runs for over 370 miles.
  • You should be in decent shape before you climb the steps to the Great Wall. It’s over half a kilometer of steps at a 45 degree incline. There are places to rest, but your calves will probably ache for a day or two.
  • There are 50 or 60 shopkeepers at the bottom of the Great Wall. They all sell the exact same merchandise at the exact same prices. T-shirts were as low as two for $1. Sharon, who works in apparel manufacturing, is not sure how they make any money at this price.
  • It’s chilly at the Great Wall in November, but by the time you reach the top of the Great Wall you will be fairly warm

We left the hotel at seven in the morning. We decided to visit the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, around 90 minutes outside of Beijing by car. It was a nice day for a drive. The day I arrived was the worst day in terms of pollution; the days became colder, but clearer, as I stayed in Beijing.

We started our climb up the stairs immediately after we arrived. We were among the first tourists to arrive that day; at the top of the wall we were able to enjoy sections without seeing any other groups of people. The parts of the Wall we saw were in fantastic condition, and the sight was amazing. It’s worth visiting, as photos and a written description do not do the Wall justice.

Great Wall of China at Mutianyu
First view of the Great Wall as we climbed the steps.

Me, Sharon, and Mark at Great Wall of China at Mutianyu
Mark, Sharon, and I (R to L) at the Great Wall. There was a small gazebo just before you reached the wall.

Great Wall of China at Mutianyu

Me at Great Wall of China at Mutianyu

The photos make the Wall appear as if it is drastically dipping, twisting, and turning. This is not a trick of the camera–the Great Wall dips, twists, and turns as it hugs the peak of the mountain. The steepest stairs required a bit of minor climbing; as you went down the slope of the Wall you had to make sure not to slip on any frost. The Wall was also slightly angled towards one side. The angle allowed rain water to gather into drains.
Great Wall of China at Mutianyu

Great Wall of China at Mutianyu

Great Wall of China at Mutianyu

A Chinese and Australian crew was shooting a promotional video for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. I took a few photos and also posted a video to YouTube.
Great Wall of China at Mutianyu

 Posted by at 11:00 pm
Nov 262007

McDonalds ChinaMy first night in China, we decided to eat regional food. There is a unique Scottish restaurant on the Wangfujiang shopping promenade. The Chinese seem to love this restaurant’s delectable items, which center around something they call a hambaobao. The United States would love this concoction, which is two all beef patties, topped with what is called “special” sauce, layered with crisp lettuce, luscious cheese, pickles, and onions. Finally, it is topped with a sesame seed bun. It is truly a combination of the best of Scottish and Chinese cuisines.

(Please feel free to throw in your own anti-globalization rant here. McDonalds and KFC outlets appear to be ubiquitous here. I have not visited either, although I have drunk both diet Coke and regular Coke!)

For folks who do not know me, the thought of eating McDonalds in a foreign country would be a bit odd. At the risk of sounding overly elitist, I am more likely to skip a meal than grab McDonalds, especially when I am visiting a new country. For my first meal in China, Mark, Sharon, and I decided to visit Quanjude, a restaurant that specializes in roast duck. We visited the newer branch of the restaurant; it is closer to my hotel. We got into the restaurant around 5:30 pm. While we were one of the first customers and were immediately seated, there was a large group of people waiting for seats when we left.

We ordered three dishes–a whole roast duck, a beef dish, and a dish of sauteed celery. The celery was tossed with oil, peeled walnuts, and red beans. The beef dish was rich and tender. However, the star of the meal was the duck. The skin was crisp, and yet it melted in your mouth. The meat was tender and lean. Unlike most duck meat in the United States, which is generally darker, this mean was pale but still flavorful.

The duck was sliced in front of our table. It was served with pancakes, sauce and chives. We also order some sesame rolls and formed small duck sandwiches with those as well. It was a treat, and the culinary highlight of my trip so far. The restaurant hands out a commemorative card for every duck sold. Our duck was the 1,150,292,355th duck sold since 1864.
Quanjude restaurant
Quanjude duck statue
Chef preparing Peking duck

After dinner, we walked around a small market by Wangfujiang. Small food stalls are scattered throughout the area. The food on the sticks are scorpions and seahorses.
Wangfujiang market
Wangfujiang market

Yesterday, I visited the Forbidden City, and this afternoon I fly to Shanghai.

 Posted by at 9:47 pm
Nov 252007

This past Friday, I left New York City for Beijing and Shanghai for a week long vacation. I flew to Beijing on Continental flight 89, a 14-hour direct flight from Newark. I used a combination of frequent flier miles, American Express points, and cash to upgrade my coach-class seat to a Business class seat. Because of the extra room, I was able to get some good sleep and arrive in Beijing refreshed and ready for the evening.

Chinese visa
Getting a visa to go to China was not difficult. There is a Chinese consulate in New York City, and I was able to dash up there during lunch a couple of weeks ago. The consular officials were concerned about the name and purpose of my company, but I was approved for a visa and was able to pick it up the next week. (PhotoShelter works with professional photographers; they were concerned about what I did for PhotoShelter and the kinds of photographers we worked with.)

My friend Anne pointed me to this book called Lingolook. It’s a card book secured on one corner that you can use to quickly find common phrases. The book also includes drawings and simplified Chinese in addition to Pinyin and English, so you can just point to a picture if you are without a clue. The book has been helpful, but I feel that I should have taken a Chinese language class. The language is not as difficult as it may first seem, but it is unlike any other languages I know. Unfortunately, I ran out of time to take a class before my trip.

As we were landing and getting off the plane, I was struck by the level of pollution. It’s terrible that my first impressions of China and Beijing are of a dusty yellow fog and a rust-colored disk in the sky that we call “the sun,” but Beijing is the most polluted city I have ever seen. I was unable to see more than two or three blocks, and it turns out that the smog was very bad the day I arrived. Since yesterday I have been able to see across the city from my hotel room window. Beijing has a problem that they must solve before the Olympics as athletes will not want to compete in the kind of conditions I saw on Saturday.

The night I arrived, Sharon, Mark, and I feasted on Peking Duck (now Beijing Duck?). Yesterday, we climbed the Great Wall. Sharon and Mark had to go back to Shanghai last night, and this morning I’m off to the Forbidden City. Most of my trip is documented with photos; I’ll post more as I get a chance.

 Posted by at 8:19 pm
Nov 182007

I’ve been fairly busy at the new job in the past several weeks. We have been hard at work on The PhotoShelter Collection, a new edited marketplace for photos. It’s a very exciting product, and it’s a fantastic site for both image buyers and photographers.

The photo archive portion of the site is going strong. PhotoShelter provides a great solution for photographers to archive their photos. I feel strongly that photographers should not just store their digital photos in their home or studio–even if they don’t use PhotoShelter’s Personal Archive, they should store them somewhere else. (I started to use the archive product before joining PhotoShelter.) And if you have a significant number of slides and negatives, get them scanned. It’s easier to dupe a digital image than film. And dupes of a digital image don’t degrade in quality.

 Posted by at 4:31 pm
Nov 182007

For the past few weeks, I’ve had a craving for Eggs Benedict. It takes a few minutes to prepare the dish from scratch, and I’ve been a bit busy the past few weekends. In addition, the dish can be a bit complex, especially if you make the hollandaise sauce from scratch. This morning, I finally got my act together and decided to prepare the dish.

I started out with the poached eggs. While it takes a bit of practice to make poached eggs that look beautiful, the basic recipe is very simple. First, simmer two to three inches of water in a saucepan wide enough for all of your eggs to sit without significantly touching. You should add some vinegar to the water; this will help the eggs to form up more quickly.

Here is an important trick when poaching eggs: don’t drop the eggs into the water. If you are very slick, you can break the eggs just over the surface of the water. I find it easier to break the egg into a small dish and gently slide the egg into the water. After the eggs are into the gently simmering water, just cook them for three to five minutes.

After a few minutes, use a slotted spoon to transfer the eggs to a small dish or bowl of clean water in order to remove any of the vinegar flavor. Then, transfer the egg to a towel and pat dry. (Be careful, of course, not to break the egg open–the yolk should still be runny.) You can choose to trim the egg of any excess whites if you like–it depends on your presentation.

While I was poaching the eggs, I quickly heated some Canadian bacon. Simply heat a pan or griddle and cook the bacon on both sides for a minute or so. Canadian bacon is generally fully cooked, so you really just have to heat it through.

English muffins are simple–pop them in a toaster and cook. I wish I had turned down my toaster a bit. Crispy English muffins are great for eating with your hands, but I think it’s easier to cut through English muffins with a regular knife when they are still a little soft.

For the last component of the Eggs Benedict, I prepared the hollandaise sauce. For all French sauces, one of the best references is Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, and Simone Beck. I enjoyed preparing the sauce–in fact, it was the highlight of the dish. In essence, a hollandaise sauce is a butter and egg sauce flavored with lemon juice, salt, and pepper. In short, you use low heat to gently cook egg yolks with a bit of water. Salt and a tablespoon of lemon juice and is added and the cooking continues. Then, you add some whole butter and whisk it into the mixture to help stop the cooking. Melted butter is gradually added to the mixture to form a sauce; salt and white pepper is added to taste. In the end, there is around three tablespoons of butter for each egg yolk.

One of the keys of making a hollandaise sauce is to manage the heat. If the heat is too high, you end up with scrambled egg yolks. In order to manage the heat, I prepared the sauce using a double boiler. (Well, not really–I used a metal pan over a sauce pan with boiling water–same thing, though.) The hollandaise sauce has a lovely creamy texture and a delicate yellow/white color. It’s rich and velvety with a tangy (but not overpowering) flavor.

Assembly of the Eggs Benedict is a snap: English muffin, Canadian Bacon, poached Egg, and a generous topping of hollandaise sauce. And it’s an awesome dish. There’s a variety of textures as you bite through the bread, meat, egg, and sauce, and the flavors of each ingredient balance each other. The tang of the lemon juice balances against the smoke of the bacon, and the eggs and sauce provide a beautiful compliment to each other.

When I prepare the dish again, I would prepare the hollandaise sauce before the other elements. I believe I could have kept the sauce warm easily while keeping the other elements of the dish warm was a bit more difficult. The sauce is the most difficult element, and the other three elements can come together at the same time without trouble.

In the end, this dish is not so difficult. The entire time to prepare everything was between 30 and 60 minutes including cleaning. (And cleaning does take a bit of time–you end up using quite a few dishes to prepare everything.) It’s well worth it; I will certainly be making Eggs Benedict again.

 Posted by at 1:47 pm
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