Saturday, 22 December 2007


One more entry before Christmas, this time on a work outing to Henan province. Henan means south of the river, referring to the Yellow River (Huanghe). This was a project kickdown... a project kickdown in Shaolin Temple sounds pretty scary, but we all made it back intact! Phew!

After a project related meeting in the province capital Zhengzhou we went off to the White Horse Temple. This is the first Buddhist temple in China and the first officially built Buddhist temple in the world, built around year 65 AD. In the temple there was a water pond and story has it if you can make a coin float on the water that will bring you blessings. I was the only one in our group who could, without reverting to placing the coin on top of anything else at least. So I guess there are great many blessings coming my way. :-)

From there we went to the Longmen Grottoes, a large area with tons of caves with thousands of Buddha statues in them. Lots of the statues had their heads or in some cases more than that missing, destroyed in the course of the centuries. But it was still very impressive.

After a night in Luoyang city we headed on to Shaolin Temple. Shaolin temple is famous for two things: it's the birthplace of Zen-Buddhism and then of course there's kungfu. Actually more than a decade ago my mother brought me a T-shirt from Denmark that said "中国少林" (Zhongguo Shaolin / Shaolin, China) on the back, and as I had never heard of Shaolin temple I wondered for years what was the meaning of this "China few forests" thing, thinking it may have been something environmental, haha. In the temple we saw a kungfu show, those guys are pretty impressive! Shaolin temple also has its own brand of vegan cookies that are available elsewhere in China also, and they're yummy.

The pictures are here.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Good Eating Vietnam!

It's pretty cold in Beijing these days so a conference trip to Hanoi was definitely welcome, and I reserved the weekends for exploring. The early December temperatures in northern Vietnam seemed to be around 20 degrees during the day, but a bit chilly for a t-shirt at night. Just like the Finnish summer weather really, only less rain, much shorter days and far more pollution. The conference people were nice enough to book a hotel, a tour to Halong Bay and even an airport pickup for us. The hotel in Hanoi was the Government Guest House, which at US$35 a night is rather expensive for Vietnam, but it was central and comfortable.

We started up by going to a tour of Halong Bay. It's a scenic seaside area about 170 km east from Hanoi, known in China as Guilin on water -- the readers outside China (Blogger is blocked in China so I suppose most readers would be elsewhere) may not know Guilin so I'll point you to the pictures I took there in 2005 for reference, here and here. The tour group consisted of me, one of my colleagues and two professors from Beijing, and our Vietnamese guide who spoke good English. Generally language skills seemed to be at a shortage in Vietnam, but people catering for a lot of tourists speak some English and most people in Halong Bay speak good Chinese, as it's pretty close to the border. Halong itself is a small city at the seaside and with the foggy weather that seems to be a common feature in the winter time the scenes weren't overly impressive, for the proper scenes you have to take a boat to see the thousands of islands.

The houses in Vietnam are quite interesting, they make relatively high and narrow buildings and paint the front... but not the sides that are a little less visible from the main street. In Hanoi these would be right next to one another, outside the city there's plenty of space between houses but they still make them quite narrow. We had a relaxing start for the tour, staying overnight in Halong before heading to see the islands. So we had dinner (food was rather similar to Chinese, and nothing extraordinary) and went to see the night market. It was quite lively, and prices are low. They also readily accepted the Chinese yuan in Halong, but not in Hanoi where they'd only take Vietnamese dong or US dollars... actually it bothered me quite a bit when people would tell me prices in US dollars when I don't have any and don't want any either! Vietnamese dong is one of those currencies that force you to learn even the big numbers in the local language and where you have to count the zeros in the bills to make sure you don't give them 100,000 rather than 10,000 dong. (1 CNY was a bit over 2,000 VND, therefore 1 EUR would be around 22,000 VND).

We got our own private boat, a big boat, to tour the islands. We started by seeing some limestone caves on one island, quite large caves although I've seen several bigger ones in China. Just like in China they were lighted with colourful lights to make them more impressive, but seemed to have less of a tendency of naming all the formations, or perhaps I just wasn't paying attention. Afterwards we continued on the boat to see quite a few islands pass by, the rock formations were indeed similar to the little mountains in Guilin, but perhaps due to the fog it didn't really look as impressive. Very nice nonetheless. The also made us a lunch on the boat, a pretty good one, too. The guide told us that Vietnam is one of these weird "socialist" countries just like China where people have to pay for the education, healthcare and so on. And they're actually really expensive, for example a year in the university (including living costs) apparently costs about 10,000 USD, and even in the highschool level it's around 1,000 USD a year! This is a lot of money in a country where the average salary in Hanoi is less than 250 USD per month, with a lot of people making a lot less. Apparently the government does offer free education to the poorest families though.

The three hour drive back to Hanoi was interrupted by a stopover at a place selling touristy things at very high prices, probably due to a deal with the tour company. But at least it was fun chatting with the staff who after my greeting thought I'd speak good Vietnamese, which, unfortunately, isn't the case. My Vietnamese seemed to be lacking at least as badly as my Korean, especially as people didn't seem to understand even my "Tôi là người ăn chay" (I'm vegetarian). I probably got my tones wrong, or then it's just so rare to be vegetarian that people look confused even if you do say it right.

In Hanoi even crossing the street is an adventure. There's heavy traffic in Beijing also, and drivers don't care much of the rules, but it's a lot worse in Hanoi... well, a lot different at least. The main difference is that rather than cars, the streets of Hanoi are filled with motorbikes. Unlike cars the motorbikes can navigate around people crossing the street, assuming they don't change pace suddenly. So that's what you do, forget your fears and just walk at a steady pace and watch the traffic magically go all around you. Worked amazingly well. We went off for a walk on the market streets nearby, filled with little shops selling all sorts of tourist crap and tours and people walking and selling fruits and French bread and asking you if you want to go somewhere by motorbike and of course swarms of tourists... it's very crowded and loud. We went for dinner at the Tamarind Cafe, which is a vegetarian restaurant right in the middle of this area. It seems almost all of the clientèle are foreigners, even the prices are only listed in USD. The food was pretty good, but unfortunately the vegan options were few and not clearly marked. They had a marking for foods that contain egg but no markings of the dairy that seemed to be infested in most of the dishes here, unlike the regular Vietnamese cuisine.

The next few days went with the conference... but a mention of the food. They had arranged lunches and dinners at a restaurant near the conference venue, and had a vegetarian table for me, 3 Indian and 2 Taiwanese people. The first lunch looked quite scary, it seemed they were serving us chicken and who knows what. Around came a rumour that those were mock meats and not real ones, but we shied away from them nonetheless. As we pointed out that we'd feel more comfortable with "regular vegetables", we did get those on the following meals. Ah, and breakfasts were at the hotel, the only vegetarian option without egg was French bread with jam and butter, which I always asked without butter but they only did so on the first morning. The butter was separate though, and in a tiny jar that I didn't open so hopefully they gave that to the next person rather than throwing it away. They also brought a yogurt to everyone despite it not being mentioned in the menu but hopefully they also gave my unopened one to the next person.

The conference organisers had also arranged for us a city tour, funnily enough in the evening, but the Ho Chi Minh square was a very interesting sight even in the dark. It seemed like a smaller version of Tian'anmen, with similar texts and a mausoleum for Ho Chi Minh. The main part of the square were smaller patches of grass, 79 of them, to celebrate the 79 years that Ho Chi Minh lived. Seemed a popular place for locals to take the kids to play also, safe from the traffic. After that we went to see a Vietnamese water puppet show, which apparently is a local tradition over 1,000 years old. It was really cute, much recommended when you visit Vietnam.

Originally I was planning hiking at Sapa after the conference, but Christmas shopping is a pain that must be dealt with every year, and it made more sense to do that in Hanoi than Beijing. Actually the couple of days there wasn't enough to find gifts for everyone as I did want to see some of the sights in Hanoi also. And that meant I could test the other vegetarian restaurants! While the food in those was similar to the Chinese vegetarian, there were enough differences to make it feel exciting, and a great idea that the Chinese vegetarian places don't have is the menu idea where you can order a meal for one consisting of a little bit of several dishes, at a price only a little bit above that of one dish. The sharing idea that they have in China is great when you have several people, but if you eat alone it gets really dull and you don't get to taste many things. These Vietnamese ones had both as you could order either way. Perfect.

I used the list of restaurants from Happycow. Dakshin would supposedly have been the nearest one but I couldn't find it, either it's been replaced by a regular Vietnamese restaurant or I'm blind or stupid or the address is wrong. I didn't go to the faraway places at all but rather visited Nang Tam twice, it was good enough to justify that. Adida was very nice also, with very good service, which I'm not saying just because the waitress called me handsome, honestly! :-P And one thing to note is that it is quite possible and easy to get vegan food from the regular restaurants as well, ok, I'm not saying I'd know with absolute certainty they don't use animal oils but at least the food tasted good. And while these vegetarian places (with the possible exception of Tamarind Cafe) are very reasonably priced also, eating in random places costs next to nothing. During a long walk from shop to shop and sight to sight it's quite relaxing to just stop at a corner bar, sit outside on the terrace and have a couple of beers and perfectly good tofu for 23,000 dong or less than 1.5 USD.

Enough about food and on the the disturbing part of the country. One evening I was walking around the beautiful Sword Lake (Hoan Kiem Lake) when a student in his early 20s came to talk to me. He told me he gets some food and study money by helping tourists find what they're looking for. Sounds nice, until you hear what they tend to look for. That's ladies, or even more disturbingly, boys. This was reaffirmed a few days later alongside another lake (there are tons of lovely lakes in Hanoi!) when a group of boys with ages ranging from 12 to 28 came to talk to me, speaking barely understandable English. One of the older ones was asking if I liked boys, and pointing to the younger ones in the group. Sheesh! I just don't know what would be the best way of helping these kids, just giving some money to the few you happen to meet doesn't really seem that much. Ideas welcome.

Overall Vietnam was a positive experience though, it's a beautiful country with very friendly people and plenty of historical sights, as well as good food. Next up, Shaolin and then Finland... Happy travelling to everyone! The pictures (a lot of them since they include photos taken by a colleague) are here.

Luckily enough I arrived in Beijing just in time to witness the first snowfall of the year the first morning here! Don't know how much of it there will be later either, it's a very dry climate, but it did bring a nice contrast to the summer weather (well, Finnish summer weather :-P) of Vietnam.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Vegan Feasts and Meetups

We're at the time of the year where I have to stop procrastinating and actually work for a month or two to finish my projects, therefore few updates here. There are some interesting things going on though, and a few have to do with websites.
  1. HospitalityClub is a site where travellers can search for accommodation and those who have extra room can post their profiles so these travellers can stay on the couch or wherever. I just joined in recently and had my first visitors, a fun vegetarian couple of globetrotters, really great people.
  2. VeganSocialClub of Beijing!!! My most recent finding, it appears there's 10 or so people gathering every week for a vegan meal, so this Thursday there shall be one more! Yay!
And since people say this blog is all about food, I shall have to post some pictures of our recent vegan feast where the veg. couple are present and so are some of my local vegetarian friends. The cooking was done mainly by one of these local friends, I made some too, including this tofu thing I just invented and was quite happy with, but maybe I'll try some further improvements before posting a recipe. Now I'm thinking I should've taken pictures of the food. Hmh.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

Top 50 Restauraunts

Travelhacker has collected a list of the Top 50 Vegetarian and Vegan Restaurants, certainly worth checking out. The familiar ones on the list certainly are excellent, like Millenium in San Francisco, Susie's in Edinburgh and Sanchon in Seoul to pick a trio. Most of the other places I haven't been to, must keep them in mind when going to those areas. But I want to point out a few that in my mind definitely should've made it to the list though. Btw, they have a list of places for Green Travellers as well!

North America:
Possibly the best restaurant I've ever been to, the completely vegan Caravan of Dreams in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, NYC, definitely shouldn't be missed on a trip to the Big Apple. The atmosphere is like one of a cosy café, and the menu, also containing enough for an amazing feast for the raw vegans, is sure to delight. The excellent service tops it off as a place almost worth a trip to New York for!

On the north side of the border, Le Commensal, a chain of vegetarian buffet restaurants in Canada are definitely winners. Their ginger tofu is among the best I've tried. Vegan dishes at Commensal are clearly marked, and you pay by the weight of the plate you collect. They're around the eastern parts of Canada, I've tried a few in Montréal, Quebec.

Back to the south, Herbivore in San Francisco left an undying memory with their amazing creations for breakfast. Also completely vegan, there are several Herbivore restaurants in this city spoiled with vegetarian fares.

There's a bunch of awesome vegetarian restaurants right here in Beijing, but as I've written about them before, I'll just leave it at that.

In Indonesia you shouldn't miss Milas in Yogyakarta, it's simply so gorgeous that you want to dine in a place like that every day! The food is good enough to justify that, even though I think it would get boring for a vegan in the long run, the vegan options aren't that many. It's also a non-profit, which just makes you feel that much nicer about frequenting the place.

And I must once again point out to Jeombongsan Mountain Vegetable Village in Sokcho, South Korea. They create amazing dishes flavoured with the local herbs creating a truly unique experience. And the service is second to none.

Nothing is mentioned from Finland, and there is a newly opened fully vegan restaurant that just opened in my hometown of Tampere. The place is Veganissimo, and the foods are totally amazing and absolutely world class. I have some pictures linked from when I mention my visit there.

Sunday, 11 November 2007

Isänpäivä / Father's Day

It's Father's Day in Finland, and given that we're Finns the rest of this is in Finnish, sorry...

Elikkä hauskaa isänpäivää! Laitanpa tähän kuvan siitä kun viimeksi tavattiin, isä ja osa lapsikatrasta Kiinanmuurilla. Näytänpä olevan ainoa joka ei yritä olla incognito. Ainahan isä on tärkeä, mutta nyt kun sitä kuulee kaikista hulluuksista Suomessakin niin täytyy yrittää tuoda esille kuinka tärkeä tällainen erinomainen isä on. Isä joka aina tukee ja välittää, vaikkei sitä tuputtaen esille tuokaan. Isä joka opettaa tärkeitä arvoja elämässä, ja joka johtaa esimerkillään niiden noudattamiseen. Isä joka ei aseta hassuja sääntöjä sääntöjen itsensä vuoksi vaan elää nykypäivää ja sallii lastensa kasvaa itsenäisesti omiksi persoonikseen. Kun katsoo miten erilaisiksi ja kunnollisiksi olemme kaikki kasvaneet, on helppo nähdä kuinka hyvin olet tässä onnistunut. Itse olen tänä isänpäivänä kovin kaukana, mutta toivottavasti toiset sisarukset muistavat henkilökohtaisemmin kuin vain näin netin välityksellä. Oikein mukavaa isänpäivää, ja kiitokset kaikesta isukille!

Thursday, 1 November 2007

World Vegan Day

Today is World Vegan Day, but how to celebrate the occasion? I haven't really set up any kind of a tradition for it yet. This year I decided to adopt a bunch of animals for conservation, in the wild of course, I'm not in favour of zoos. There are a lot of organizations doing that, a friend has told me bad things about WWF, warranted or not I don't know, but it made me decide against them. Instead I went to some UK based charities, including CWI and tigertrust (since I happen to love tigers). Adopting animals in the names of family and friends seemed fun and rewarding for a vegan day activity. I'm also inviting some people for dinner at a nice vegetarian restaurant here, but really should've planned that in advance as not that many have time at such short notice. How about you, what's your way of celebrating Vegan Day?

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Dancing to a new vegetarian restaurant

Last night I visited a rather new vegetarian restaurant that wasn't in the list when I wrote my review of vegetarian Beijing earlier. It's another one of the Lily vegetarian restaurant (百合素餐厅) chain, this one located in a traditional hutong house near the crossroads of Dongzhimenneidajie (东直门内大街) and Dongzhimenneibeixiaojie (东直门内北小街), south from Xiaojie bridge (小街桥) or west from Dongzhimen metro station. The fact that it is built in a hutong and retains the traditional hutong feel about it makes this place more interesting especially to travellers, and indeed it seemed many foreigners had found their way there. The menus were bilingual in Chinese and English and included some pictures of the foods. The menu seemed largely the same as the other Lily restaurants, which means a lot of mock meat and especially mock fish dishes. I tried the "lychee flavoured vegetarian fish", "curry vegetarian chicken with potato" and "mushroom hotpot with vegetarian satay", and some dumplings to go with it. The portions were quite large, and the food wasn't bad, but I wasn't really impressed with them either. Therefore I give the restaurants three smiley faces in my very own restaurant criteria as seen in the earlier review. Prices were similar to the other places in relatively central Beijing.

Otherwise, I've been biding my time dancing tango as we have a teacher visiting from Germany, the dance is great, much recommended to everyone. It's very creative, communicative, beautiful, and most of all, fun! I'm also just starting up salsa now, must keep dancing as the temperatures go low!

Contact details for the above mentioned Lily vegetarian / 百合素餐厅(香草园店):
东城区东直门内北小街香草园胡同23号(四合院内), 64052082.
From Dongzhimen metro station, take exit A to Dongshimennei and turn around as the exit faces north and you should head to the road going west. Then head straight on along Dongzhimenneidajie until you reach Dongzhimenneibeixiaojie. Cross that street and walk north, the Xiangcaoyuan hutong is the first or second little street on the left. The road sign is quite small so be on the lookout.

Monday, 8 October 2007

Pilgrimage to the Vegan Bakery

Last year on the Chinese national day holiday (everyone gets 7 days off from Oct 1st -- apparently a hundred million people goes through the railway stations of Beijing during the week, so it tends to be a good time to escape from the country) I was in Washington DC and over there visited Sticky Fingers, a vegan bakery. So great their goodies were that I thought I might make it an annual thing. DC is far away, but they have another branch in Seoul, South Korea. Besides, I've never been to Korea so it made an interesting trip. And it got me to see how totally I've forgotten my Korean -- I studied it for a year and a half back in the university but apart from the writing system and a few phrases, everything seems to have escaped my mind. :-(

"Welcome to Korea, we've been waiting for you for 5 thousand years" say the wonderful placates as you arrive in the country. It seems 5,000 years isn't enough time to learn my language, but then, with over 100,000,000 forms for every verb in Finnish that can't be too surprising. They didn't speak much English either over there though, nor Chinese. Actually it was quite sad that for sudden snacks I'd have to revert to Pringles despite products called SoyBars and so on as they only had the ingredient listing in Korean and there would be tons of things I don't understand then. Anyway, Seoul is a bustling metropolis and possibly the third biggest urban concentration of people in the world after Ciudad de Mexico and Tokyo, which makes it a bit odd destination to escape the Chinese crowds, but at least the public transport was not only frequent, extensive and modern, but also not overly crowded.

I arrived late in the day and decided on a dinner in a restaurant that seemed to be in the same part of town as one of the branches of the bakery, namely Country Life Health Restaurant near the Shinsa station. They had a rather tasty vegetarian buffet with the spicy Korean kimchi and other dishes, at very reasonable prices. Then I took off to look for the bakery randomly in the area, and tried asking people, none of whom spoke any English. One was kind enough to call the number of the bakery and explain in a way that even I could understand that it's really far away. Fine, I just spent the evening walking the streets of Seoul then, quite a nice city it is. I stayed in a fine budget hotel near the city centre called Yim's House, warmly recommended, definitely worth the budget price and the owner who works really long hours speaks excellent English and is extremely friendly and nice.

Yim's House is right next to the Changdeokgung palace, so I decided to visit that in the morning, but as you have to go on a guided tour and the English one only started at 11:30, I decided to go to the bakery for breakfast first. For in the evening I had found a web page that seemed to have very precise information on how to find them. (Wireless internet hotspots were all over the place in Seoul, including free ones.) I decided on trying the Shinchon branch, followed the instructions on the page and walked up and down the street finding nothing. Deciding they might mean some other intersection I tried all that seemed plausible but still found no trace of Sticky Fingers. Then it was time for the tour of the palace, so I went back. They only show certain sections of the palace grounds but nonetheless the tour was certainly worth it and it was very interesting to hear how the heating system worked for example. The Korean palaces have a certain resemblance to the Chinese ones, but they're not exactly the same, the colour scheme is a bit different and the architecture, ornaments and even basic design have certain differences.

After the tour I decided I really want to find the bakery and the branch in Shinsegae department store seemed easiest. The department store was easy to find, but had no store map, and it has 14 stories, if I remember correctly. However, the Sticky Fingers stand is at the level where you enter from the metro tunnel, even though I didn't notice it at my first round as I didn't cover the whole floor. So, finally, the vegan goodies! I bought some samples although I was rather disappointed to see pretty much only sweet things, I would rather have seen something savoury, especially as I hadn't eaten all day. But the confectionery was definitely mouth-watering and totally palatable.

Cheered up after finding what I had been looking for I set out to touring more of the palaces of Seoul, and beautiful they were. There are five main palaces in the city, all quite distinct. I also figured a celebratory dinner was in order and headed off to a famous restaurant that's been voted as one of the best in Asia, the Sanchon Mountain Village. The restaurant was opened by a former monk who liked the mountain food the monks ate so much that he wanted to bring it to a wider audience. They have a set course which contains more than 20 dishes, so there's certainly enough to eat, and they keep you entertained by having a nightly performance of music and dance. The setting is traditional Korean, you sit on a pillow on the floor, and all food is brought in little bowls. Much of it is really tasty, some a bit too spicy for my taste. It's a little expensive though, 35,200 won.

The next day I decided to head to Seoraksan national park, and as the main branch of Sticky Fingers was supposed to be at a station rather near the express bus station, I thought I'd go there to pick some snacks for the road. Again I followed the instructions in the page mentioned above to the letter and then twisting the letter, walking over an hour through the streets and still finding nothing. I was tired of this and as I had the address even in Korean from the Sticky Fingers website, I stopped a taxi and asked the driver to take me there. He looked at the address for a while and said sorry but he had no idea where it is (or something of the sort, my Korean is very limited). Disappointed I walked on but decided to try another taxi driver still. He also didn't know the address but he had a GPS device to which he could type the address and get instructions how to get there. To his utter surprise the place was just two blocks away. He didn't even turn the meter on for such a short trip, just charged me 1,000 won for taking me there, and indeed there was the Sticky Fingers logo... but a much bigger "RENT" sign over the whole thing. It was closed. For good. As I walked back to the metro station I still couldn't fathom how could one possibly end up there with the instructions from the website, but as it was closed it hardly matters.

Next I boarded a bus to Sokcho, a small city near the Seoraksan national park. The Korean express buses are really comfortable with huge seats and not too many people and they do drive on schedule. I went to the motel recommended at Yim's House, and the place was quite good again and the staff friendly. They even had coffee that tasted good! I don't know how they do that, generally I don't like coffee but that stuff was great. The Vegetarian Korea page knows a vegetarian restaurant in Sokcho so I headed off there... first I tried to find it but eventually reverted to a taxi. I was presented with a menu in Korean only and no pictures, and I just said "vegetarian" in Korean to the waitress and she asked me if one item on the list would be ok. It was a pibimbab, costing 6,000 won, so I said yes and expected a simple meal, for as far as I knew pibimbab is rice with some veggies and possibly egg but not in this place then. I was in total awe then when I saw what they brought before me: more than a dozen bowls of totally amazing foods, coupled with rice and Korean pancakes. This place is famous for herbs, they collect local herbs and sell them over there, and you could taste that in the food. I can honestly say I've never tasted anything like it before, it was totally delightful. And the service was top notch, the son of the owner speaks decent English and he came to explain to me how to eat the foods and best of all, even drove me to town after the dinner as the place is quite far away. At no extra charge, just the measly 6,000 won. I can't praise this place enough, if you ever end up around Sokcho, do look it up!

The next day I went off to Seoraksan national park. It was a rainy day, and hence the idea of hiking for possibly even 11 hours to the top of the mountain to see nothing but cloud didn't really excite me, so I decided on the option of hiking to the 873 m high rock that's been compared to the Ayers Rock in Australia. I can't really say how fair a comparison it is since it was misty and I couldn't see far and hence couldn't get a proper look at the rock but nonetheless. At Seoraksan there's also a huge Buddha statue, the biggest I've ever seen, right near the entrance. Made of bronze. The actual hike was fun regardless of the wet weather, and got gradually harder as the path became steeper. In the end it was climbing seemingly endless stairs along the rock. I'm in a pretty good shape but I still had to pause for breath a couple of times, the thing that amazes me is that some people actually managed and saw it worthwhile to build these stairs over there, all my respect to their hard labour!

The hike was shorter than I thought though, so I also decided to take the short path to the waterfalls. I almost turned back disappointed before reaching the end of the path as it seemed there were some waterfalls but nothing really fancy. However the waterfall in the end was pretty nice, not huge but quite pretty, and the pond below was so inviting I had to fight the urge of taking my clothes off and jumping in for a swim!

I took the bus back to the motel where I had left my bag and then changed off my wet shirt before heading off to the bus station and the next destination, but in my silliness I didn't even ask about buses to Busan from Sokcho but just figured I'd go to Seoul, pick up some snacks and head on to Busan from there in a night bus so I'd arrive in the morning. Well, I made it to Seoul but the department store and hence Sticky Fingers was closed already, and I spent much of the evening waiting for a train in Seoul station as I decided I didn't want to leave too early as I'd arrive near midnight then and would have to find a place to sleep in Busan. I was quite decided that I'd sleep on the train, even though the last train of the evening, leaving Seoul at 23:00, arrived in Busan already at 4:19 AM. And I seemed to get a seat, don't know if they had sleepers. They didn't even dim the lights, the train kept stopping several times, always with loud announcements, and overall I got no sleep at all.

So in the morning in Busan station, sleepy and my legs aching from the hike of the previous day I decided to go to the beach to see the sunrise, given that I was up early enough. I went to the metro station and waited for the first train of the morning, leaving at 5:33 AM, and got to the beach an hour later to see that the sun was pretty much up already. I took some pictures anyway and decided I needed some relaxation and hot springs sounded just the thing. I went off to this thing they claim to be the biggest spa in Asia, I don't know if it is but it wasn't huge and the Chinese ones I've been to certainly don't seem much smaller at all. Anyhow, there were hot springs, in much the same style as in China, meaning that they flavour the waters to have some health effects. I couldn't understand the Korean signs to know what effect they were supposed to have but there were cherry, citron, and grapefruit flavoured pools at least. No, that doesn't mean you drink the water, you just soak in it. But it had the colour and smell of those fruits. They had a small swimming pool also, and saunas. The sauna was in Finnish sauna temperatures, 84°C, but they only had a bench to sit on at ground level, so it didn't feel like a hot and proper Finnish sauna. I also went down on the sun chairs that were by the pools to relax for a moment and ended up falling asleep for a bit.

The sad part about Busan, a city of over 4 million people, is that there's only one vegetarian restaurant, the Wellbeing vegetable buffet. It's a pretty good one, but definitely not enough for such a big city, and it wasn't even big or crowded. Maybe a dozen people or so dining on Friday night, a few more at lunchtime. It's a family business, and seemed to be quite a nice vegetarian family, even if the language skills were limited. There was also a nice temple in Busan, but I took off back to Seoul the next morning nonetheless.

Back in Seoul I decided I will definitely find the missing Sticky Fingers bakery, whatever the cost. I went off to a tourist information centre and asked the staff to call the bakery number and ask where is it. They did that very nicely and I got instructions how to get there, despite being told that they wouldn't have much more selection than the department store stand and the place was quite far away. Never mind, I went all the way to Korea for the bakery, I wouldn't mind sitting another hour in the metro to reach it. Despite the instructions I did end up taking the wrong way from the metro station and ended up in a wrong place that still somehow seemed to match the description, so I used my superb Korean skills to chat with an old man there and after five minutes managed to understand that I was supposed to go to the other direction from the station. Well, I walked back and searched for a bit and there it was! The vegan bakery. It was true their selection wasn't much wider than that of the department store though. I bought a bunch of things and happily headed back to the city centre.

There was still time for dinner and I had read of a restaurant offering a nice vegetarian fare, including tofu ice cream, so I took off to find it in the artsy district. Surprise surprise, after walking back and forth where it was supposed to be for an hour or two I didn't find a trace of it. But I did see a restaurant that had its name written in Chinese characters and the name started with 素, which means vegetarian or plain. So I checked their menu, it wasn't a vegetarian restaurant but they did have a vegetarian special also, so I went in and tested my Korean in explaining the whole "no fish, no egg, no dairy" thing to them while pointing to the vegetarian special in the menu. Another waitress came back a moment later to verify the no egg part, so I guess it had an effect. The food was good and at least seemed completely vegan.

The last day I checked out the main palace, Gyeongbokgung, and the Korean folk museum that's adjacent to it. A beautiful palace and an interesting museum. After which I headed off to the Sticky Fingers at the department store and bought the stand empty to bring back tons of stuff to offer to everyone, thinking I'd host a vegan confectionery party in the weekend. Later I realised there's a tango workshop during the weekend so the party might not take place. Don't know. Anyway, Korea overall seemed a very nice country largely worthy of its name ("korea" in Finnish means pretty, sometimes suggesting overly decorated). Well worth a visit, with or without a vegan bakery, but especially with one. The rest of the pictures are in flickr.

Sticky Fingers bakery branches in Seoul:
- Shinsegae department store branch: Take metro line 4 to Hoehyeon (회현) station, go to Shinsegae department store by exit 7 and search the level to which you arrive, probably B1, it's in the sweet foods court.
- Garak market branch: Take metro line 8 to Garak market (가락시장) station, take exit 3 or 4 (one was closed as I was there) towards Olympic Family Apartments (올림픽훼밀리아파트), note a big GS25 Mart and make sure it's on your right hand side as you walk on. If you don't see it, turn around. Turn right immediately after the fence of the GS25 on a small walkway and walk across over to the place straight ahead with several small shops. Sticky Fingers is a bit towards the left, on the side where you'll arrive from.

Monday, 24 September 2007

Blood donation in China

The blood donation tends to be very similar around the world, as far as I know, but there are certain differences also. In China they're only now moving to the completely voluntary donations, certainly a good move as the paid "donations" led to individuals over-donating and disease-spreading etc. At least Beijing seems to be in voluntary donations now, the countryside is probably behind in matters.

The confusing part for me at least was that there aren't dedicated places for blood donation, but this is done in so called "blood buses" that are parked around the city, and then one would have to figure out where are they and when. But I gather they are in the same places pretty much every day, from 10 AM to 6 PM, more or less. Other than that, the donation proceeds in much the same way as elsewhere (well, my experiences are from Finland and the UK). First there's a form to fill (in Chinese) with the regular questions about illnesses and sexual behaviour and so on. Then they take a blood sample, presumably to measure the hemoglobin and whatever other tests they might do, I didn't ask what they did with it. They do use new needles, thankfully. And then it's the donating part which is the same as anywhere really, although you don't lie down in the buses but it's done while sitting. They gave me a T-shirt for thanks, those are really cheap over here.


Zhangjiajie is a nice but touristy town in Hunan province, claiming to fame with natural parks full of beautiful mountain scenes and nice waterways. The downside is the same as always in China, there are just too many people. Fortunately this isn't quite as popular as some other sights yet, so the number of people is somewhat manageable, but it undoubtedly is a problem for the local wildlife. Which, to my utterly pleasant surprise, exists! In the form of monkeys at least.

The company outing over there started by drifting down some rapids and water cannon fights to make sure everyone got soaked, later visiting a rather nice park dedicated to the culture of the Tujia minority people... You know, there are more Tujia people than there are Finns, so it really didn't feel as much of a small minority group as I guess it was supposed to! But I bought really nice handmade straw sandals over there, they're really light and in every way feel so much better than any stupid factory-made footwear. Much recommended.

The following days were filled with mountains, hiking up and down them, and admiring the great sceneries. Plus a huge limestone cave for the last day. A very nice trip, even if food wasn't all that great... They did get vegan foods for me, but especially in the beginning both quality and quantity were lacking somewhat. And I admit to getting a bit tired of the "what would you do if you came across a tiger that wanted to eat you" style of questions when I didn't let a colleague kill a bug at our table but chased it away instead. Tired enough to have my first bubble bath in years with a good book, wouldn't do it in BJ with the water shortage but it seemed different in Hunan. The pics are at flickr. But not of the bug nor me bathing, mostly the mountains, sorry if that disappoints. :-P


Got tagged for a me-me by Dreamy...

Here are the “official” rules:
# Players must list one fact, word, or tidbit that is somehow relevant to their life for each letter of your first or middle name.
# When you are tagged you need to write your own post containing your first or middle name game facts, word, or tidbit.
# At the end of your post choose one person for each letter of your name to tag.
# Don’t forget to leave a comment telling them ,they’re tagged, and to read your blog.
# If I’ve tagged YOU, please join in on the fun!

Ok, so Jari (which, btw, means a helmet-laden warrior) stands for:
J - Jolly. Once a year I turn into a jolly old fat man, as you can see in this picture from last winter with the nephews...
A - Anti-cruelty. I believe in the equality of all life, and I don't feel one has a right to cause deliberate harm to other beings.
R - Romany aka Gypsy. Well, I'm only a quarter Gypsy but it still works for me as an excuse to keep travelling! Life is a winding Road that goes far and wide in unpredictable ways.
I - Independence. Finns are people of the forests, having our own little houses somewhere in the middle of nowhere, with no neighbours for miles. Traditionally, that is. This causes the character to be quite self-reliant. We hardly ever ask for help.

And of course all know my middle initials are P.T. which stands for Perpetual Traveller. :-)

Friday, 21 September 2007

Tempeh goreng and wild Finnish mushrooms

Here's last night's dinner and today's lunch, my very first take on "tempeh goreng" coupled with spinach noodles and wild Finnish mushrooms. I had no recipe for tempeh goreng, so this is just my usual case of using whatever I happen to have around, which tends to be salt and a mix of peppers -- even my chili sauce had seen the end of its lifespan. The tempeh I brought from Germany, haven't found any in China. The mushrooms are trumpet-shaped chantarelles, they're one of the richest natural sources of vitamin D and totally yummy. The whole thing tasted even better with the egg-free mayonnaise from Plamil -- which was brought from England, it's not available in China either. So the only Chinese obtained thing were the noodles and the spices. Oh well.

Thursday, 13 September 2007

Dalian and Qingdao

More travelling to the travel blog, I just got back from my beach holiday to Dalian and Qingdao. I started off by taking the train to Dalian, it's about 1000 km or 10 hours from Beijing but should be more eco-friendly than flying. A lovely city by the seaside, Dalian happened to host the Summer Davos 2007 at the time, which was very much visible on the streets and one famed beach resort was closed due to the conference. The other beaches were open though so on to the water! The beaches weren't overly clean but up to the Chinese standard, and the many Russian tourists in Dalian made it sure I was generally taken as a Russian as well. I should learn more Russian so I could play with that a bit more...

Some say the blog is all about food, so here we come to the topic. Dalian seems to have two vegetarian restaurants -- the list provided by IVCB only carries one, the other was found randomly on the street. Tian Yuan (天缘素食店) was a tiny little place but relatively central, and the food quality wasn't remotely comparable to the fine vegetarian restaurants of Beijing or Shanghai, but it was edible and vegan. So edible, I guess, that my belt broke down while I was eating there! Perhaps that's only for the better, it was the last animal product I had in daily usage, given to me over 15 years ago when I wasn't vegan yet. Unfortunately there are no pictures in this blog entry because I only took pictures with my phone and lost it when leaving Qingdao.

The second vegetarian restaurant is one of three parts of a restaurant by a central hotel in Dalian, I don't have the address here but will update this entry with that later. The other parts are a regular Chinese restaurant and an Indian restaurant... actually it turned out the vegan food in the Indian restaurant was nicer than the one in the Chinese vegetarian, not to mention the nicer atmosphere and lower price. This place is considerably fancier than the street diner Tian Yuan, but the food wasn't much better and the vegetarian part was quite small. As people go to Dalian for seafood, they did provide a lot of mock alternatives.

From Dalian I took a boat to Yantai, a port city in Shandong province. This was a fast catamaran, the trip took a bit over 3 hours but I would suggest taking the slower boat instead: people weren't allowed on the deck during the ride, there was nothing onboard but seats, the windows were mostly too dirty to see through, and the seasick lady in front of me and the TV screaming dubbed Deep Blue Sea in far too high volume didn't make the ride any more comfortable. Yantai seemed to be a relatively dull industrial city, I had a small dinner there and jumped in a bus to Qingdao.

Qingdao, formerly romanized as Tsingtao, is the beer capital of China, but also famous for beaches. They did have a nice seaside walk, 40 km long, which I went through and of course made a stop at all the beaches passed for a swim. Beside the staring and comments (positive ones, but still) of the locals, all this shirtless walking also got me a mild sunburn, silly me I thought I wouldn't burn in the sun of northern China in September. The beaches were a bit nicer than those of Dalian, fine sand and the less central ones seemed quite clean, beaches 1 and 6 (they're numbered) were slightly dirtier and more crowded. With the lack of Russian tourists the beaches were filled with Chinese men; it seems very few Chinese women go to beaches. One odd thing to see at the seaside were newlyweds having their wedding photos taken by the sea. There were dozens of them, going knee-deep in the water in their wedding dresses! Unfortunately, again, the pictures were lost.

Qingdao seems to have only one vegetarian restaurant, at least in the list and I didn't see any others either. This one is quite far from the city centre or the seaside, and while the atmosphere and service were friendly and nice, I'm afraid the food quality wasn't any better than in Dalian. Overall these two cities do provide nice places to swim and veg*an people can certainly survive there, but don't expect culinary delights from such a trip. In that sense it was a happy return to Beijing, although the blue skies now seem a distant dream again. Oh, and I did get a replacement SIM card already with the same number, and the phone was provided by the company anyway so the only real loss were the pictures. The phone must have fallen out of my pocket as I was running for the bus back to Beijing. A bus with beds, never seen one of those before, but it was a reasonable ride, although the beds were a bit short and narrow for me, made for the slightly smaller Chinese people I assume. Ah, and note that Qingdao is confusing with railway stations right now, perhaps the proper one will be repaired by the Olympics but right now the one in use is Sifang station quite far from the centre and not knowing this had me going to the wrong place and almost late from the bus back (which would be why I was running). Next off to Zhangjiajie in a couple of hours, about that later...

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Beijing Raptor Rescue Centre

I finally found the time to visit the Beijing Raptor Rescue Centre this weekend. This centre was established in 2001 by IFAW and Beijing Normal University (BNU) on BNU grounds. It provides rehabilitation and medical treatment for raptors that are e.g. hurt when flying into kite strings or glass buildings, or kept illegally as pets. The centre holds the birds for a maximum of three months, trying to heal them with the target of releasing them into the mountains. This target has been reached for hundreds of birds, but unfortunately about 1/3 of them cannot be rehabilitated and are euthanised instead. They also educate people on raptor conservation.

The centre has had many international visitors and is endorsed by organizations such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Several of the people working there are vegetarian, which is very much a rarity in China. The raptors, obviously, are not. They're fed with chicken and mice. Their cages weren't terribly large, but probably bearable for short time keeping, especially for the smaller birds. They had also artificial rain in parts of the cages and tried to keep human contact to a minimum so the birds would live more naturally. Detailed health logs are kept on each bird.

In any case, it was very interesting and very positive to see a wildlife rescue centre in China, there are very few and from the lack of wildlife, they would be very much in need. At the moment the centre had 20 gorgeous birds, hopefully they can all be released soon.