Sunday, November 24, 2013

Melbourne Cup

The beginning of November marks "Spring Racing Carnival" time in Melbourne. A week of horse racing takes place annually at Flemington Racecourse, just down the road from where we live. The biggest race, Melbourne Cup, takes place on the Tuesday, and it is often coined as "the race that stops the nation". It is a public holiday, which means no work or school in Victoria and often in neighboring states the case is the same.


I had been wanting to attend Cup Day since our arrival in Melbourne. One of our friends who lives in Queensland was coming down for the race with some of his friends, so we thought it would be a good chance to hang out with him and to see the races.
Joe and I. Contiki 2004 reunites again!
There are several races (10) throughout the day, but the actual Melbourne Cup race is the one that everyone gets excited about, and that race takes place around 3pm. We arrived about 10am with lots of snacks, a blanket, and chairs (which actually did not survive the day!), finding a spot very close to the rail to allow for a good view of the races. The crowd built gradually over the day and eventually there were 104,000 people there for the races!
In the early hours there was plenty of room to move around.
Our view of the horses from the rail.
Crowds started to form on the rail around midday.

By the time the Melbourne Cup race rolled around, there was not any space to move!
video

One unique thing about horse racing in Australia is that most races take place on grass, and Melbourne Cup is no exception. Also, there was a warm up area for the horses where spectators could get very close, and I honestly have no idea if that exists in the States for races like Preakness, Belmont, or the Kentucky Derby. I do know that there are a very small percentage of people at Melbourne Cup that do not dress up for the races. Headwear, in particular is something that stands out, as there are often unique hats or fascinators worn by women attending the races. From what I have seen of those big US horse races mentioned earlier, there are generally a lot of people in the infield who do not dress up and sometimes the well-dressed crowd is limited to the grandstand. We saw a few people in shorts or jeans but most men were in suits and most women in dresses.
One of the horses showing off to "punters" before the races.
In a city where the weather is completely unpredictable, we could not have picked a more perfect day. Blue skies, light winds, and no rain made for excellent conditions for watching the races and for socializing. I had heard horror stories about lines to get drinks and for the toilet, but I was impressed with the efficiency of those lines given the number of people in attendance.

All in all, we had an awesome day at Melbourne Cup. I am told that in order to truly experience horse racing in Australia, I also need to attend a race in the country (often termed "Country Vic" by the locals), so of course that is now on my radar and I will be looking for a country horse race to head to soon!
Horses and jockeys racing with the CBD skyline in the background.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Chinese Food!

Trying different foods was certainly a major highlight of the China trip, so I felt that "food" was worthy of its own blog post! I wasn't really sure what to expect with the food in China based on what I had heard from previous travelers' experiences. Our manager, who has traveled to China many times as a coach, recommended that we buy Travelan, which is taken before every meal in order to prevent stomach issues. We stuck to the routine of taking a pill before each meal, so perhaps that helped to keep us healthy.

Our typical breakfast, served in the basement of the Sports School, consisted of rice, hard boiled eggs, frittata-like pancakes, dumplings, bananas (if we were lucky), bok choy or some other green veggie, and yogurt (once we figured out how to ask for it!). There were other choices as well, but these were the main things we ate for breakfast. Lunch and dinner were typically done on our own, as we were out and about for most of those meals.

On our first full day in China, we were very eager to try some Peking Duck, which is supposed to be a Beijing specialty. Low and behold, there was a Peking Duck restaurant INSIDE the sports school, down a few levels underground and next to to boxing hall. We had asked our guide earlier in the day about where we could get some Peking Duck. He said that he would tell us about that later... needless to say we did not expect the restaurant to be underneath the track and tennis courts of the school!
Our duck being carved. It was delicious!!
Every duck comes with a certificate!

Our first experience with Peking Duck was outstanding, however, the boys thought that a lot of meat might be wasted when the duck gets sliced. Therefore, we decided to have a go at carving our own Peking Duck. Let's just say it was quite messy and there is a reason why the restaurant offers to carve it for you!
Not as easy as we thought...
Street food is served everywhere and one of the most popular items on the street in Shichahai seemed to be traditional Beijing yogurt (suannai in Chinese). Every stall had a stash of little clay pots sealed with thin white and blue paper tops.

One of the things that I loved about dining in China was the round table. Essentially you order several different dishes for your group and and everyone shares by spinning the table around like a big lazy Susan. This concept creates opportunities to taste many different dishes.


Our cheapest meal was at a place I read about in Lonely Planet, where we paid less than $4 each for what was essentially all you can eat dumplings, including drinks!


The most adventurous eating took place at the Donghuamen Night Market. The boys made much more dramatic choices than I did by eating scorpion, spiders (big ones!), sea urchins, and starfish (though I did, in the end, try the starfish). I chose to try snake, which was chewy and did not taste very good!
Seafood
Insects
Fruit! In case you were wondering if there was any "normal" food at the night market.
Scorpion!
One for each of them...
Cheers!
My first bite of snake!
I will let you use your imagination to figure out what these foods are!
The night after our interesting eats at the Night Market, we were really craving Westernized food, so a stop at Maccas (aka McDonald's for the American readers) was in order. That was our only "Western" meal during our time in China.
Cal is shorter than me, so you can see that places are not really built for tall people in China!
Not only did we get to enjoy some of China's finest food, but we also indulged in just a few of their beers. Alcohol was quite cheap compared to Australia, so we took advantage of that when we could. Footy finals were on while we were there, so we found an Aussie pub where we could watch the games. Professional development combined with team bonding made this trip an incredibly enjoyable one!

Monday, November 4, 2013

Beijing

During our week in China, we also had time to do some sightseeing in Beijing. Because we are all sport enthusiasts, one of the highlights of Beijing was touring the site of the 2008 Olympic Games. We spent about half a day walking through the Bird's Nest and Water Cube, imagining what it would have been like during the Olympic Games. Our manager, who was with us, was in China for those Olympics, coaching the Australian race walkers.
Not sure what this tower was used for but there would have been great views from the top!
All of the medalists are on this wall.
Bird's Nest
Olympic Torch
View of the Water Cube from inside the Bird's Nest
Crazy-looking building from inside the Bird's Nest. Might have been a hotel during the Games?!

One night we headed to the Donghuamen Night Market to see (and taste!) the unique food choices on offer.
So many interesting foods to choose from...more to come about that soon!
The "boys" leaving the Night Market
After our experience at the Night Market, we walked through Wangfujing Dajie, where there are lots of chain shops and another market with various food offerings.


We also had the change to visit Tiananmen Square and Forbidden City, though we did not actually get to go all the way through the Forbidden City due to the fact that we visited on the one afternoon of the week when it closes. Unlucky!





My fan club checking out a picture they took with me. It was quite amusing!
Traffic in Beijing was insane. There is really no regard for traffic signals or crosswalks, and we almost witnessed multiple accidents. Interestingly, we were on the road A LOT and we only saw 2 actual accidents. Our van driver came close to hitting other cars, pedestrians, and cyclists on numerous occasions. The Chinese people definitely make good use of the horns in their cars!
Not really the best picture, but have a look at people, cars, bikes, and motorbikes in the streets!
Overall, we found the people of Beijing to be very friendly and helpful. We often struggled to communicate but most people we encountered were patient with our lack of Chinese speaking skills and tried to understand what we were saying in English.

One last post about China to come, as I want to share a few of our food experiences!