Monday, September 14, 2009

Be Loyal to Chairman Mao

Learning Chinese is a ridiculous endeavor to say the least. I though I knew what I was getting into, but at each step, I'm still realizing how challenging of a task this language is.

That's not to say that it's not without its rewards. Every now and then you'll overhear something hilarious, read something amazing, or have an incredible conversation that reminds you why you're doing this, and makes it all worthwhile.

I had another experience like that a few weeks ago when I visited the Great Wall for the 6th time this summer. We were at a part of the wall that I had never been to, and I saw in the distance 30 ft. letters, Hollywood-style on the side of the mountain. It took a few seconds to sink in, but I  realized that I recognized every one of the characters. As I started to put it all together I was overcome with joy upon my discovery. The sign read: "Be Loyal to Chairman Mao". After talking with some folks on the wall, it turns out that this was a remnant from the Cultural Revolution, and has been up since.

As I passed the hundreds of other foreigners on the wall who had no idea what the sign said, it made me think about how they didn't know what they were missing and how happy I was to be able to read such an amazing piece of history.

Propaganda knows no bounds.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Tiananmen in Preparation for 60th Anniversary of the PRC

For those living here in China, it's no secret that the country is preparing for its 60th birthday early next month. To celebrate the event, in addition to denying thousands of foreigner's visas and other incredibly paranoid behavior, the government is throwing a military parade that is supposed to be greater than a million Super Bowls. ChinaSMACK has some amazing, must-see photos of the preparations.

While this would be an amazing time to be in Beijing, as it turns out, practically no one will be allowed to watch the parade in person. To be more specific, subway lines will be closed around Tiananmen Square during national day. Roads will be closed. All businesses within almost 1/2 mile away from the square will be closed the week of the event. They are not taking any chances with anything. Me and my fellow Beijingers will have to watch the event on television along with the rest of the world.

Some friends and I were on the way to a lounge last week, and happened past Tiananmen Square at 11 o'clock at night. To our surprise, in a month in advance, the whole area was lit up like a stadium with enormous spotlights and several 3-story tall LED screens. Seems quite impressive to say the least.

(Forgive the shoddy camera work.)

Friday, September 11, 2009

Worst. Band. Ever.

Of the multitude of pleasant surprises of living in Beijing, nothing was quite more unexpected than the existence of a fairly rocking music scene. Living in the South for a year, I had completely dismissed Chinese music as being utter crap. It seems that close to 100% of the population here listens exclusively to Mandopop (the cheesiest, most syrupy-sweet, gagging pop music you can imagine).

What blew my mind is that even the most bad-ass thugs you would see on the streets, would come blasting the most bubblegum Celine Dion-esque pop music. Rock music seemed to have missed the entire country.

Coming to Beijing, I found out that not only was rock music beginning to take hold in big cities here, but that Beijing was actually the heart of it. I would have assumed Shanghai to be the center for new rock music, but alas, this is not the case.

In the past 6 months, we have been host to Battles, Jose Gonzales, Ratatat, Yann Tiersen, Dragonforce, The Handsome Furs, an international electronic music festival featuring DJ's from all over the world, and many, many more. (Even washed up pop-punk bands such as MxPx and No Use for a Name stopped by in the past 6 months!)

As it turns out, the heart of the local home-brewed Beijing bands happens to be located just a few blocks away from my apartment, at a club called D-22. Dubbed by some as the CBGB's of China, D-22 features local rock bands 6 nights a week.

I try to make it a habit to stop by once every couple of weeks or so, checking out everything from jazz to deathmetal, punk and alternative to screamo. The quality runs the gamut, per usual the local scene. Sometimes you'll find absolutely fantastic bands, and sometimes you'll get typical, garageband crap.

However, nothing compared in outright crapulatude as the concert I witnessed last week. It was 'experimental' night at the club, which evidently meant 'noise...with trippy delay and phaser effects!'

The first band stepped up to the plate, and for 30 minutes did nothing but make horrid, horrid noise. A melody (or heck, even a rhythm) was nowhere to be found. During the final song, the guitarist put his guitar down and picked up the mic, and proceeded to scream - but not in a hardcore/metal controlled way, more in a 'I'm really mad at my little sister for taking one of my toys' way.

Once they finished, the next band hopped on stage. In a similar fashion, they went on to torture our ears - nay, souls - for another 40 minutes. The band consisted of a keyboardist and guitarist, and I must applaud them for at least playing 'notes', if not playing a melody. However, these notes were completely hit at random, with no regard to whether or not it could be construed as pleasant by anyone's standards.

The experience was not unlike a tribute to their 2-year old brother who at times would pick up the guitar and smack it with his hands, entertained to no end at the noises that emanated from the device.

...and yet, it continued.

...and yet I still feel I should not be one to judge. I used to be in a ska band.


Props to Steve for the pic.

More Photos From The Creepy Mannequin Store

Props to Steve for the pics.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

"Lazy Fail" Fail

This photo was posted on our much-beloved FAIL blog with the caption of "Lazy Fail". I'm not positive, but I'm quite sure this photo was taken on line 10 in Beijing. (At least it was in China or possibly Hong Kong, given away by the Chinese characters on the sign.) While I admit it's a pretty humorous scene, I take issue with this accusation.

fail owned pwned pictures
see more Fail Blog

The point of contention is that this comes from a very American viewpoint. More specifically, referring to this behavior as lazy assumes that these people do the same amount of exercise as people do in America.

This idea neglects the fact that most of these people have walked at least 15 minutes to get to the subway. Once in the subway, there might be anywhere from 2-4 flights of stairs that must be ascended without the aid of an escalator. Add another 2-4 flights for each transfer you need to make, and then another 15 minutes to their final destination from the subway exit. So when there is an escalator present, most people feel perfectly satisfied to wait in line guilt-free. (See any fat people in the picture?)

All that to say I'm not intentionally trying to be smarmy. I did have quite a chuckle on seeing this photo. Perhaps it's my own jealously that in the wealthiest country on earth, our public transportation is such a travesty compared to a still-developing country such as China.

There's really no excuse for this. So perhaps this is my way of venting my dissatisfaction with that fact that we have no way of commuting publicly that will simultaneously help us work off our fat asses.

Until then, I feel quite justified in waiting in line for the escalator.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Anything With Four Legs Except a Table

There's a saying here that says the Chinese eat anything with four legs except a table, and anything that flies that isn't an airplane, but I'm sure that still leaves a lot of things out. Eating people is generally agreed as a bad idea, but just about any other carbon-based matter is quite literally still on the table.

Thousands of years of never having an adequate food supply for the entire country has led to this "Waste not, want not" approach to their diet over the years, and in recent times when food production has finally reached a surplus, the Chinese have developed such a taste for goat penis, duck tongue, and silk worms, that there is no good reason to halt the consumption of such delicacies.

No better place is this illustrated better than in my old hometown in the Southern countryside. It took me a good couple months to realize it, but although we were surrounded by vast sprawls of beautiful nature, accompanying wildlife was nowhere to be found. Whatever the Asian equivalent would be to squirrels and deer running wild in people's back yards was nonexistent there.

When I asked a friend who had lived there for almost ten years why this was, I wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry by the response: "They ate it all." During the Great Leap Forward in the 1960s when more than 30 million people died due to starvation, anything that moved was a source of sustenance, and who could blame them? But the fact that an event more than 40 years ago has still had such a dramatic effect on the fauna of an ecosystem today is just mind-blowing.

All that to say that from my first trip to Hong Kong I've been an adventurous eater, never turning a single dish down that I had not tried before (with the sole exception of blood). The environmentalist in me certainly applauds the Chinese style to eat all parts of animals, and I think Westerners could learn a bit from their example.

So when I heard of a magical street in Beijing that where you could try every insane food known to mankind, I was ecstatic. I rounded up two brave souls to join me, Darren and Henry, and the three of us embarked on our gastronomic journey.

Me in front of the market

We figured we would go tackle the street from the grossest to most delicious. This way we would have our hunger helping us out on the really hard-to-swallow morsels. The only thing worse than eating something extremely foul is eating something extremely foul on a full stomach. So in this way, insects were elected to be the first on the list.

We had heard that the crowning jewel of the food street was scorpions. I knew, like every other insect that they were eaten somewhere in this country, but I had never actually seen them on a menu. To my surprise and delight, not only were they abundant, but they were still alive and skewered on sticks when we arrived!

We even got a glimpse of a man skewering fresh ones onto a stick!

Before we tried anything, we continued walking down the rest of the street to get a good look at everything on offer.

Live, impaled scorpions waiting to take the hot oil dive

Silkworms and centipedes

Locusts perhaps? Or maybe grasshoppers

I have no idea what this poor sucker was. Lizard perhaps?

I will be honest. On our walk towards the street, knowing full-well what to expect, I was filled with inalienable confidence. But something about seeing the scorpions wrangle around on the skewers, actually freaked me out a bit. It had been a couple years since I'd eaten anything truly this wild, and I was feeling a little rusty.

Once the first batch of scorpions came out of the oil though, my confidence returned. It was much easier to look that stinger right in the eye now that it had stopped moving.

**Bonus: Be sure to check out the lady's reaction to us eating the scorpions at 1:01 in the video.

Eating Scorpions from Simon Lesser on Vimeo.

Next up were the seahorses. It certainly helped that everything on the street made its way into the deep fryer, but no amount of oil could save these guys from tasting like eating a crispy, fishy, seashell.

Hello, my pretty.

...and goodbye

Seahorses from Simon Lesser on Vimeo.

Then came what would go down as the 2nd most disgusting item of the night: Starfish. A video says a thousand words...

From insects and bone-flavored seafood, we made our way to some good old-fashioned Halal food. At the next stand we were greeted by some extremely friendly Uighurs barbequing every part of the lamb (sans wool). One man in particular caught our interest by yelling in the same style as a popcorn and peanut vendor at a baseball game might, "Laaaaamb baaaalllllls! Laaaaaaaamb Peeeeeeniiiiis!" How could we refuse? While it's still not the exclusive Beijing penis restaurant, it's a start. So we ordered up a set. (Yes, that kind of set.)

Lamb parts. Can you guess which one is the penis?

In case you're wondering what sheep testicles looked like

A set

So juvenile, but I couldn't help myself

Lamb Business from Simon Lesser on Vimeo.

In Hong Kong, I had once eaten something that my local friends refused to tell me what it was until the next day. Turns out that it was sea urchin, but it was cooked, well-seasoned, and in a shape that you could not tell what animal the meat came from. But at the night market, we happened up upon a plate of raw, whole sea urchins. This way felt much more authentic.

Raw sea urchins

As it turns out, the best way to eat sea urchin is raw, not unlike sushi. So our "chef" picked up one of the lucky little guys and cut him perfectly in half. He shook it up a little before the cut, so all of the stuff in the inside settled to one half, and he threw the other out. The remaining half looked like it was filled with a big ball of mud. He scooped out all of the dirt and god-only-knows what else into the garbage. When he was satisfied with how much gunk he removed, he sprayed in some soy sauce and added a drop of wasabi.

First, he cut them in half

Then he scooped out most of the dirt

What he handed me looked absolutely foul. There seemed no good reason to put what was in my hands into my mouth. So we scraped out what we could best tell was meat and ate it good and raw.

Looks divine, no?

Trembling with fear

The meat turned out to be actually quite delicious. The best thing I can compare it to is very choice sashimi, mixed with copious amounts of sea mud. I figured that if it was somehow possible to rinse off the meat, or prepare it slightly more refined, it would actually be quite nice. As it was, it was still pretty good. We were just glad it was nowhere near as scary-tasting as it was scary-looking.

Before ordering up some of the most foul items of the night, we picked up a baby shark to cleanse our palette's. While still exotic, I knew from experience that shark meat tasted pretty good, so I figured it would be a nice break from creepy-crawlies that were next.

Baby sharks

Baby shark head

The last event of the night was a triple-header of beetles, a centipede, and silkworms. This proved to be our most fierce battle with our gag reflexes of the night. 

First up was the centipede. Apart from being long, there was really very little meat on the guy, so I figured it couldn't be that bad. I dove in straight for the head. A bitter, foul, insecty flavor immediately filled my mouth. The sensation was not unlike chewing through a bitter pill, or at least a bitter pill made from centipedes. In any way, the signal sent from my tongue to my brain was the same: "This is not food. This is vile. This should not enter the body."

Thankfully, due to the small size of the bite, swallowing the morsel was also not unlike swallowing a pill, and went down without too much of a fight. When my fellow companions tried their turn at the centipede, however, I felt as if I may have gotten the wrong end of the deal. They didn't mind it at all. Either I was overreacting, or the head was the most miserable part. I still guess it's the latter.

Rocking the centipede

No me gusta

The beetles were a slightly uneventful intermission before the silkworms. They fared crunchy, with the now-familiar insect flavor, but not too strong, and not too meaty for that matter. While no one requested seconds, swallowing was not too difficult of a challenge.

Our white whale was now upon us, and we were staring the silkworms right in the eyes. (Do silkworms have eyes?)

Henry was the first victim to bite the bullet and go for it. He'd held his own all night and took everything down like a champ, but the sheer wretchedness of the silkworms proved too much for him to keep his composure.

Henry gagging after a bite of the silkworms

Darren stepped up to the plate next, and suffered the same fate.

Darren trying to keep the silkworms down

By this point, I had become more than a little nervous. I had just watched two fellow soldiers wretching and dry-heaving after one mere bite. But I knew there was only one way out of this, so I popped it in.

I don't want to do it

Immediately after taking a bite, I felt my compadres' pain. It was truly awful. It took all of the worst parts of the centipede flavor, amplified it, and added a texture that was just...wrong. 

Swallowing was not an option it seemed, but it had to be done. Before I even attempted to squeeze it down my throat, however, the dry-heaving began. I almost spit it up. After a while I was able to claim victory, but it was a battle well-fought.

Without a doubt, the chewiness of the critters certainly made for the worst part. Becuase the other objects we had been eating had been relatively thin, the deep-frying process had rendered most of them nicely oily and crispy. However, while the deep-fryer had tanned the outer shell of the silkworms a nice golden-brown, the insides were left still-goey and mushy.

This made for a long, grudging chewing cycle. The starfish was bad, make no mistake, but it was crushed into a swallowable powder after a few bouts of mastication. The silkworm on the other hand was not going away any time soon, and I could feel him laughing at me for it.

Oh yeah, it's that bad

...and here it comes back up

Once we had our lasts of the silkworms, we went running towards some fried noodles to liberate our mouths of the still-lingering, offending flavor. We returned home triumphant and full, but not without battle wounds.

The epilogue to this whole tale is that this event actually took place all the way back in April. I've just now gotten around to posting about it. Since then, I've returned twice to the scene of the crime with visiting friends from the States, who naturally, must try these items. So once again, I put on my game face, and went at them full-force.

Adding to the menu in subsequent trips include: Stinky tofu (so much worse than it sounds), snake, snake skin, crickets, some sort of bird that neither Steve or I were able to identify, sheep kidneys, and a few other choice selections not coming to mind at the moment.

In full disclosure, I will add that the same excitement apparent in this first trek was not as abundant in subsequent treks. When I stuck my toothpick into the stinky tofu again last week with Steve, nothing about it felt adventurous or exciting. I only felt dread and disgust.

My apologies, Steve, for my lack of passion in our last journey together. My stomach finally said, "No more." And while my mouth still agreed to open, my heart just wasn't in it.

Is the adventure gone for good, or are my gag reflexes just begging for a short break? Let's hope the latter. Heck, I'll even put money on it.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Shake Hands with Beef (or a Mannequin)

On a long bike ride through Beijing last week, Steve and I stumbled across one of my new favorite stores in the city. The storefront is filled from head to toe with every kind of mannequin you could possibly imagine. As we went blazing by, we both simultaneously did a double take, looking at each other both realizing we had to turn around and go inside. It's the kind of store that dreams are made of. You know that a place like this has to exist somewhere, but who of us have had the the luxury of finding it?

Most likely used to juvenile trouble-makers stopping by the store with no intention of buying, the owner of the store was quick to give us the "Shoo, shoo, no photos" routine. While Steve went off taking as many shots as he could, I did my best to stall the lady.

I used to think that being a foreigner was great because I could just play dumb to everything that people said and get away with just about anything. But now that my Chinese skills are to a level that is a bit startling to the locals (still not great, just surprising), I can use their shock and my language skills to try to win them over if playing dumb doesn't work. It's the best of both worlds!

So once I realized that her pointing at the camera and saying "No!", and pointing to the door was pretty universal, I tried to smooth things over with language. She made the mistake of asking the obvious question, "Are you going to buy something or not?", which I responded with, "Why else would I come here, lady? Tell me about this one over here. How much is this one? Hmm...that's a bit much. I'm looking for one a bit shorter and younger. Do you have any like that?" I was at least halfway convincing because she led me around the store half-heartedly selling me on a few of the models (which are surprisingly expensive!)

As my confidence in my acting abilities began to wane, I told her I would just have a look around by myself and talk it over with my business partner. She then told me she wanted to close and we would have to come back tomorrow. Not wanting to push my luck, we stepped out of the wonderland.

The video's not great, but it's the best I was able to take in our limited time. I didn't want to upset the owner too much, just in case she recognized me for next time I come back...

Please No Large Conveniencing

Found in the bathroom at a cafe near the Forbidden City.

If You Want To Do Business, You Must Study the Jews

While waiting for my friend, Steve's delayed flight from America at the airport, I decided to pass the time by browsing the airport bookstore. While parsing through the books in the business section, a certain title struck my eye. It read "做生意要学犹太人", or roughly translated into English as "If You Want To Do Business, You Must Study the Jews".

After regaining composure, I opened the book to the first page. Above a hilariously cliche cartoon drawing of gold, jewels, and pearls that the Jew has accumulated through his conniving, is the headline: "The ethic group best at making money in the entire world: The Jews". You can imagine what the book continues to elaborate on.

As if it couldn't get any better, as Steve and I were waiting in another airport for yet another delayed flight, we checked out the bookstore in another city's airport. To my somewhat disbelief, we found yet another book on the same exact subject, titled "The Way of Making Money From the Jewish". Fool me're not going to fool me again, so for the best $3 I've spent in a while, I picked it up and began to read as fast as my still-awful Chinese would allow.

While hilarious, I can't say the book was entirely shocking. Chinese people are crazy about Jews. They love 'em. Mention you're an American, and you get smiles and looks of approval or respect. Mention you're an American Jew, and they are no longer worthy of standing in your presence. "The Jews are very good people. Very clever. Very good at making money!", they say.

It makes enough sense why the Chinese have such a high regard for Jews. They're similar in many ways. Both ethnic groups have a very long history deeply steeped in tradition, both have been through some pretty rough times throughout history - particularly in the 20th century, both are rather clever, and above all - highly concerned with and quite adept at making money.

The funny thing is that no Chinese that I've met have heard of any of the negative stereotypes about Jews - or any other stereotypes about Jews besides that they're adept at making money for that matter. When I tell them that they're sometimes accused of being regarded as greedy, or that they own a disproportionate amount of the world's wealth, that they dominate Hollywood, or even that they're supposed to be stereotypically funny, witty, or have awful rhythm, I'm met with empty faces. How did this happen? Where do the Chinese get their ideas about Jewish people? Is there a single source for these opinions? How is it that China seems to be the one country in the world where anti-semitism completely failed to take hold?

Anyone who has insight or thoughts on this, please drop a line in the comments. I'm quite curious.

Which Way to the Animal Killing Pavilion?

No I Didn't Say, "Yahoo"

Spicy Mother-in-Law

A bit of a creepy company name for a company if you ask me.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Chicken + Poisonous Snake = Mildly Toxic Deliciousness

As the never-ending list of incredibly imaginative, exotic, and perhaps cruel dishes continues, I've found a new one that takes the cake: "Snake-bite Chicken". The worst part (or best part) about this dish is that the only way I've found out about it is from an article on the BBC telling of its recent prohibition.

The outrage is due to the irregular slaughter of the chicken in preparation for the dish. As one may guess by the name, the chicken is killed by allowing a poisonous snake to bite it until it ascends to the great chicken coop in the sky. Evidently this makes the chicken taste more delicious. (And here we are in the States still using clumsy methods such as knives...)

Excerpt from the BBC article:
Restaurants in China have long specialized in exotic dishes which have provoked condemnation from animal rights activists and health watchdogs - such as monkey brains scooped from a live animal, civet cat and deer foetus soup.

Question: When the article says the "monkey brains are scooped from a live animal", do they mean they're scooped from a live monkey, or do they scoop the monkey brains out of some other live animal?

The deer foetus soup is a new one for me by the way.

All this to say that eating dog in China is technically illegal as well, but is readily-available in many restaurants and at almost any wet market it the South. It seems as if these laws are put in place more for the pacification of the international community rather than intending to ever be an actual binding law. Whenever the world becomes up in arms about a dish deemed cruel or a violation animal rights, China wholeheartedly agrees with its accusers, bans the dish, and looks the other way in its practice. Who says you can't have your snake-bite chicken and eat it too?

People who don't enjoy watching chickens bit by snakes should avoid watching this video.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Inner Mongolia

Spring semester is a wonderful time to study at a Chinese university. There are no less than 3 holidays we're treated to throughout the semester, not to mention the weeklong break before finals. (I'm guessing we're supposed to study?) During a glorious Labor Day, 14 friends and I embarked on a journey to Inner Mongolia for 3 days.

The tour left at a ghastly 6:00 in the morning, and was approximately a 6 hour drive to Hohhot, the biggest city in Inner Mongolia. We piled in a "15 passenger bus", which I can only assume means, if you take 15 human bodies and boil them down into some sort of liquid form, you might be able fit the remaining goo into the bus without overflowing. (Also, there were actually 17 of us including our driver and tour guides.) Needless to say, it was quite a cramped ride.

We swung through Hohhot for a quick hotpot meal, then headed into the mountains towards the grasslands. Snaking through the mountains on a very narrow road proved to be quite rough for our unfortunate carsick friends in the back of the bus. When we arrived at the top, after passing through a few small villages we reached the grasslands.

Seriously creepy taxidermy sheep at the entrance to the restaurant

Delicious hotpot

I was disappointed to find out this was just a clump of a strong-tasting seasoning, not something bloody and gross

The grasslands reminded me much of the plains in the Western United States. Long stretches of flat land, with no agriculture, and nary a tree to be found.

After about 40 minutes driving through dirt roads, we came upon our camp, dubbed "New Yurt City" by fellow traveling companions. The locals dressed in traditional clothing met us as soon as we exited the bus, singing a welcoming song, and offering liquor. The correct way to accept the alcohol was to dip a finger in it, sprinkle one drop to the heavens, one drop to the earth, one drop to your friends, and then drink with both hands (or something like that). Felt bad for germ freaks who didn't appreciate all the dirty fingers in their beverage. Turns out the fingers must have added the secret ingredient because the normally foul rice alcohol tasted delicious.

The welcoming ceremony

Me in front of New Yurt City
After settling into our yurts, more Mongolians came galloping forth from the distance.

We were told to form a semi-circle. The Mongolian warriors dismounted from their horses and entered the semi-circle. The ringleader announced to us that they would give us a Mongolian wrestling demonstration. He explained the rules, and we watched a few of them go at it.

After a few minutes, he began pulling volunteers out of the audience to go against the trained Mongolian wrestlers. A few white guys suited up, and gave it their best effort, but were no match for the quick leg work of the Mongolians. (Turns out, you're not allowed to attack the lower body with your arms - it's all throws or trips.)

I hadn't wrestled in 10 years and wasn't really interested in showing off or making a spectacle, so I gladly refrained from volunteering. However, a friend of mine (due to the Full Nelson experience - read her account here) knew that I used to wrestle. When she recalled this fact, she announced it to the whole group. While I didn't really want to go, I knew that it might be a long time before I had the opportunity to wrestle a Mongolian again, so I suited up and jumped into the ring.

Getting suited up
But by now, the Mongolians claimed they were tired, so they were now matching tourist against tourist. I first went against a rather tall Canadian gentlemen. He had long arms and a tall frame, which made it extremely difficult to get close. After a long stalemate, I stepped in front and hip tossed him.

The ringleader insisted we continue for the best two out of three, so we went at it again, and again I was able to bring him to the ground.

By this time, there was a Chinese guy in the crowd seeming to be getting quite excited, and looked like he wanted a piece of whitey. I was ready to be done, but he wanted a go, so I stuck around. After we shook hands, he came at me ferociously, I was able to keep him at bay, and sneak a leg in for a trip. After I helped him up, he looked as sore as ever. He let loose now, using any methods he knew how, flagrantly breaking a number of Mongolian wrestling rules. The ref stepped in and broke us apart. He then picked up a dried piece of horse poo and rubbed it into the man's face, as a penalty for breaking the rules.

As expected, now he was really pissed off. But once again, I scored one for the big U.S.A..

By this time, I was absolutely exhausted, but felt a bit gypped (pardon the ethnic slur) that I had not gotten the opportunity to wrestle a real Mongolian. My friends felt the same way, who pleaded to the lazy Mongolian wrestlers to go a round with me. One of them agreed, and after a quick pep talk by my peeps, I was back in the ring again.

As expected, the Mongolian was certainly my fiercest opponent yet. I couldn't get anything in on him. In addition, he was grabbing onto my shirt (completely legal) and slowly bringing it over my head hockey-style. I'm not sure how, but I was able to bring him a bit close and stuck a leg behind his, hooking him, bringing him into the ground.

Another score for whitey. U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!

If only babes swooned for me like this outside of an obviously posed photograph
Next up was a horse ride through the grasslands. It was getting a bit cold, so the locals rented frigid individuals green, thick, down-to-your-ankles, revolution-style coats. Every female on the trip took them up on it. We mounted our steeds and were off into the glorious sunset.

Once we got to the grasslands, as it was still quite early in the season, it seemed a bit anti-climactic. All of the tall grass was dead, and this year's grass had not begun to grow yet. This didn't stop me from frolicking about in the vast open fields.

That evening we had our local hosts kill the fatted lamb and barbecue it for us. Of course, they could not simply bring it to the table sliced and prepared - a ceremony was in order. And oh, what a ceremony it was! A gentleman and a lady were brought out of the crowd, and were adorned with ceremonial dress. They were placed at the center table, and the glorious animal was brought forth. Much unintelligible speech was made about the bountiful harvest, the wondrous occasion, and the provisions before us. Songs were sung, candles were lit, and rejoicing was made. The couple walked several times around the table, each time heroically downing another large glass of the fierce rice alcohol. I'm sure there was meaning to all of these procedures, but most of us were quite distracted - the ceremony seemed to take ages, and we were busy devouring the rest of our meal.

Finally the last chorus was sung, and immediately an apron-clad gentelady wielding an enormous knife came bursting into the room, going straight for the head of crispy Lamb Chop. It's carcass was disassembled with unprecedented speed and presented at our table. However, it seemed as if our butcher had done a rather inadequate job, merely handing us massive clumps of unseparated flesh and bones. The staff brought a few sword-like implements to our table to aid in the deconstruction. What followed was a greasy, bone-hacking and flesh-severing mess. Cartilage was flying everywhere. The impossibly chewy lamb gum we were left with seemed hardly worth ending up elbow-deep in ewe gristle, but the experience was worth it.

The remnants of our finished lamb carcass
While we dined, the Mongolians working at the camp gave us a variety show of epic proportions. They busted out the Casio keyboard, while ripping some pretty amazing folk songs and dances. Then, inexplicably once everyone was finished eating, they turned off the lights, disco balls lit up, and they declared it was a Mongolian disco dance party. We had seen some amazing things today, but the unexpectedness of the hilarious change in setting had everyone in tears. We pushed our tables and chairs out of the way, and got down Mongolian-style right there in the tiny dining yurt. I'll tell you, this Mongolian gent can seriously rock the Casio keyboard.

After s'more making over a charcoal fire and laying in the grass to see the stars long concealed by the Beijing smog, we retired to our yurts. Some mentally-troubled individuals woke up at 4:00 in the morning to catch the sun rise. Upon waking at a time where one would not question my sanity, I was able to see the results of the rising of the sun, which fully satisfied me. We then hopped into the bus again, Gobi-bound.

Another three cramped hours later, we had reached the desert. It turned out to be more beautiful than I even imagined - huge, rolling sand dunes stretching out as far as the eye could see. On the outskirts of the desert, it seemed slightly disappointing, as it had seemed our Chinese hosts had set up what looked like a carnival, trying to suck as much money as they could from visiting tourists. While one could argue activities such as sky-car rides, sand tobogganing, ATV and camel riding, human hamster balling, and countless other activities added to the fun, it also seemed a bit cheapening of the vast, natural environment.

While the majority went off to ride camels along a fixed route, a couple friends and I went on a hike through the sand dunes. A fantasy of mine had been to walk far enough into the desert, that when you turn around you are able to see nothing but sand dunes - no people, no civilization, just sand.

We had quite an amazing, picturesque hike, however, I can't say we accomplished this goal fully. Far in the distance on the horizon, was an enormous power plant puffing away. Oops.

We spent the remainder of our time jumping off of the peaks of the sand dunes - definitely the highlight of the trip. It seemed no matter how high the peak, how steep the slope, or how far the drop, it was nearly impossible to get hurt. We would run from the top and jump, seeming as if it were minutes before we hit the ground. Exhausted, we would lay in the sand for a few moments before mustering the energy to climb back to the top and do it all again.

The remainder of the trip passed more or less uneventful, if not still quite fun. We spent the next few days marveling at how every last nook and cranny of our clothes, bags, and bodies were able to retain such copious amounts of sand.

Oh sweet Gobi, you will not soon be forgotten.

(Props to Ade and Eva for the fantastic photography. Thanks, friends.)