Pay As You Go Utilities

Living in a ‘serviced apartment’ had a few perks, one of which was we never had to deal with utilities, as they were included in our rent. Now that we’ve moved to a non-serviced apartment, things are a bit different. Not only are our utilities not included in our rent, but they work on a system that I’d swear is from another planet…Um, that is if I didn’t live in China.

Here’s how it works. Upon move-in, you’re given a handful of different utility cards- Hot water, Electricity, Toilet Water, and Gas.

Each room in our apartment has meters that require us to insert a card to add a value to the meter. So, if we need hot water in the master bathroom, we have to insert the hot water card into the hot water meter and deposit units on to the meter. That goes for every room- if we want hot water in the kitchen, we have to insert the hot water card into the kitchen meter and add units to that particular meter. Same for toilet water….gas, etc.

But, being China, it’s not as easy as just inserting a card into a meter. Those cards need money added to them, and there are rules about how much you can add, certain places you can add the money to the cards, and certain bank cards that you can use to add that money. There are also rules about when you can add a value to the meter, and when you can add money to your cards.  Confused yet?

The cards have no value until you add money to them. It took some serious leg work and many hours one day to figure out how to do this.  Off to the bank I went to deposit cash into a Chinese bank account. Once the account had cash, I could then put my ATM card into another machine, select ‘electricity’ (in Chinese characters, no cheating with an English menu on these puppies), remove ATM Card, insert electricity card, type in amount I wante to add, hit confirm and bam- I now had units on my electricity card that were purchased with my ATM card. I thought the amount I added was Chinese RMB, not units, but how would I know? I couldn’t read a thing.

Back I went to the apartment to try to add these new units to our meter. But can I I access that meter myself? No way!  I have to call an engineer up to our apartment to open the utility closet door. An hour later, he arrives, unlocks the door and inserts my electricity card.

“Bu ke yi.” You can’t, he says.

Hmmmm. I then learn that unless my current electricity balance is UNDER 200 units, I cannot deposit money on to the machine. But in order to check that balance, I have to call the engineer come up, unlock the utility closet and read the meter. Or, we can wait until the building management leaves a note under our door saying our balance is below 200 units.  That little note doesn’t always arrive in time,as our friends have experienced three times in the last month,  and we may run out of electricity in the middle of the night. That sucks for those of us using an alarm clock…or lights…or air conditioning.

So fast forward one day, I again have the engineer come to the apartment, unlock the utility door, check the balance. 185. Sweet! Now, we insert the utility card and (can you hear the chorus in the background?) we have enough electricity for…….well, for the next few weeks, until I have to do this all over again.

The rules:

1. Meter cannot be accessed by tenants, only engineering.

2. You cannot add any money to a utility card without first depositing the entire balance of the card into the meter. So if you have 100 units on the card and want to add 900 units to the meter, you first have to add the 100 unit balance to the meter, then head back to the bank to get 800 more units, go back to your apartment, call the engineer, and then deposit the units.

BUT-# 3. That’s only if the balance on the meter is under 200 units. Remember, can’t add units unless you’re below 200.

Just to kick this up a notch, how about #4-

You cannot add more than 1000 units of electricity to a card or a meter at a time, and therefore cannot add enough units at one time to last a few months.

How much does your head hurt just reading this?

I’ve yet to solve the problem of how to deposit a specific amount from the hot water card into the master bathroom, and still have units on the card to deposit on the meter in the guest bathroom. Read between the lines, those of you coming to visit…. You’d better be nice or I may decide not to unravel this mystery, leaving you with an extremely cold shower!

I used to think pay-as-you-go phones were ghetto. But, as it turns out, I just might have one of those here in China also.

Never say never, people.


The Secret to Suckling Pig in Bali

It’s amazing how fast time can pass. Not only have we officially been in Beijing for over a year, but May zoomed by in a flash with a trip to Bali, moving out of one apartment, into another, and there’s also this growing belly I’ve been working on…

We spent 10 days in Ubud, on the island of Bali, Indonesia last month.  It’s the same Ubud, Bali that Elizabeth Gilbert writes about in Eat, Pray, Love, and the same Ubud that Julia Roberts visits in the movie version to ‘find herself.’  These two facts had no influence on us choosing the destination.  We hadn’t lost ourselves, and we weren’t going to find anything in particular. We  just went to relax, explore and unwind. It was the perfect place. We opted for Ubud, a small town a bit inland, rather than a Bali beach vacation for a couple of reasons…

Number 1- We aren’t beach people. Sure, we love being on/near the water, but a week at a resort laying in the sun with thousands of other tourists in speedos drinking watered down pina coladas just isn’t our thing.  It gets boring, and often times the culture of a place is totally lost at a resort.

Number 2- Ubud has been voted #1 on a lot of travel magazine lists lately. It won Friendliest city in Asia, Best Spas, and even Best Destination in Asia. You can’t really top that.

Number 3- I’m pregnant. We initially were going to visit Cambodia, but didn’t want to take any chances with food and the possibility of getting sick.  This pains me, since I like to try everything, especially street food. But, now that I’m sharing my body, I wanted to be extra careful for the little one.

So, we booked an awesome villa at a place called the Desa Sanctuary. It had five joglos (Indonesian style houses) surrounding a pool. Gorgeous. Our joglo was open-air downstairs, with a big, comfy King sized bed in air-conditioned comfort upstairs. Oh, and the bathrooms are also open-air. It was fantastic.  It wasn’t fancy or five-star luxury, but it was lovely, private, big, and lush.

Ubud was more touristy than I expected, but still wonderful.  The small town is full of galleries, health-conscious restaurants and yoga studios. Plus, like everywhere on Bali, there are stunning temples around every corner.

I’ve learned when traveling that while you sometimes want to be the first person to find that ‘undiscovered’ destination with zero tourists, that can also turn into a  lot of work. Ubud was a nice mix of authentic, beautiful Bali, but also caters to tourists enough so you don’t spend half the day trying to figure out how to…say…rent a scooter.

Which we did. We rented a scooter for six dollars a day and drove all over the place. We rode to a volcano, we rode down gorgeous empty roads surrounded by rice terraces, we rode to the beach. We also snorkled, attended a beautiful Balinese dance performance at the Royal Palace, bought  paintings, read, bathed at a holy temple, swam and just soaked it in.  We even felt an earthquake on our last morning in Ubud.  It was just a little sway, but we felt it, and later confirmed that it was a 5.5 on the island of Java.

Fun tip-

Anthony Bourdain did a show in Bali a few years back, and featured a warung (small restaurant) called Ibu Oka. Bourdain is a pork freak, and claimed that the Babi Gulung (suckling pig) at Ibu Oka might be the best in the world. That’s a pretty hefty title coming from a guy who travels the world to eat. Ibu Oka is now famous, and there’s usually a line  just to get a seat.

Here’s the secret- the restaurant Rai Pasti on Monkey Forest Road serves the Babi Gulung from Ibu Oka. I’m not talking the same recipe, I’m talking Ibu Oka’s Babi Gulung. When you order, a member of the staff zooms off on a scooter to Ibu Oka and brings the suckling pig to Rai Pasti where you can enjoy it without a wait or a crowd in an adorable environment overlooking a field of rice.

How do we know? We ordered it, at least 6 times during our stay. And on one occasion, a certain tall, tan and handsome guy placed one order, ate it, and ordered another serving  immediately. It’s that good.


The Mister and I took a country drive yesterday.   We’d heard about a village called Cuandixia, about 90 kilometers (quick, how far is that in miles?!) outside of Beijing, that is a settlement from the Ming Dynasty, known for its well-preserved courtyard homes. We were excited for a peek into the past.

We headed out on a perfect spring day. The weather was in the 70’s, the sky was clear, and the drive was stunning. It’s still amazing to me that Beijing  (a city so flat nearly everyone rides a bicycle) is surrounded by such gorgeous mountains.

Cuandixia was…..soooo touristy. It seems that a lot of our trips to ancient sites or attractions around Beijing turn into a big, fat tourist trap. Potential learning experiences here seem to be completely overshadowed by money-making ventures. Ancient courtyards, which could give a glimpse into village life years ago are now turned into souvenir shops selling cheap, junky trinkets.  People set up stands selling water, trying to arrange drivers back to Beijing, and selling ice cream. Not once did we see a tour guide, or a brochure explaining the history of the village or the descendents that occupied the homes.



Driving in the countryside is always fun (yet completely life-threatening). Two lane roads that twist and turn around the mountains turn into an F1 racetrack among Chinese drivers. I have no idea where in the driver’s manual it says that it’s totally appropriate to pass on a curve, with no sight of what’s around the bend, but here, it’s done 3 cars wide at 50mph with absolutely no regard to life in general. Holy Speedracer.


But enough of my Negative Nancy tone. Look at these photos!! I mean, if you aim your camera just right, you can’t tell that it’s a tourist trap, and you certainly can’t see the tee shirts and postcards being pushed on you at every turn.

Norway in a Nutshell

My Mom and I met in Norway a few weeks ago, for a girls-only vacation. Norway was the perfect meeting spot, about equal distance from both of us, and we have a friend there who lived with us as an exchange student when I was in high school.

Norway is beautiful. We were lucky enough to have perfect springtime weather (60’s, sunny). We stayed in an adorable town called Drammen, and took trips into Oslo, as well as a trip to Bergen, and a boat trip in the North Sea!

The trip to Bergen was a highlight. We took a train to a town called Flom, where we caught another train that was extremely scenic, through the mountains passing by waterfalls, picturesque towns, more waterfalls and fjords.  We then boarded a boat through the fjords, which was stunning.  Finally, another train ride and we arrived in Bergen. The town is a UNESCO world heritage site, and we spent two days exploring. It was so charming, with a great little fish market where we bought caviar and salmon.


Our hostess and her hubby own a fantastic boat, and we were treated to a trip in the North Sea to a place called ‘The End of the World.”  It really does look like things could just end after the rock formations!

The only downside to travel in Norway is sticker shock.  I knew Norway was expensive, but wasn’t anticipating the most expensive country in the world (it truly is listed as #1). A burger is about $35 USD, and a Coke can be $7-8. Coming from Asia, where a coke is maybe $.50, I was a little taken aback, however we managed and our hostess kept us well fed with amazing brown cheese, a Norwegian specialty made from goat’s milk, and breads that are super hearty and full of grains. Delish!

My big souvenir was a reindeer pelt. In Norway, you see them thrown over leather chairs, on sofas, in stollers….they look fantastic, and our cleaning ladies were inquiring this week about what it was. I’m sure they were pretty confused!

I even ate reindeer on my flight back to Beijing. Let’s just hope Santa can make it to Beijing sans a few Rudolph’s!

Random Observations

I haven’t been writing as much lately. It gets tough to come up with new and interesting topics, because as we roll into our 1 year in Beijing Anniversary, it’s all very comfortable and normal to me now.  I have to remind myself to observe things with fresh eyes, something that’s tough to do when you’re going about your daily business. But of course,  when I think about it long enough, there are some pretty interesting things that have happened, and now is as great a time as any to share.

The Right, Right Hand

I take Chinese classes on Mondays, and enjoy going. My teacher, whose English name is Swallow (and nope, not the bird, I definitely made sure to ask), takes a bus two hours each way to teach us Chinese. She does this for free! She taught herself English by listening to the radio, and is always full of energy.  My favorite mistake she makes in English is when she says “you pronounce Asian very good,” instead of “your pronunciation is very good.” An adorable mix-up.

Last week, Swallow decided to start teaching us how to write Chinese Characters. Before that, it was simply listening and repeating which is a very Chinese way to teach.  A new student, a girl from New Zealand, was called up to the front of the class to draw a character on the board. She is left-handed, and started drawing the character.  Swallow immediately corrected her, saying “no, you write with your right hand.”  I was so offended FOR the student.  “I will not write with my right hand,” she said.  And that was the end of it,  But it reminded me- no matter HOW comfortable I get here, some things are just soooooo strange. Why on earth would writing with your left hand be an issue in 2011?

It reminds me of another situation that same day, when learning a Chinese character.  This certain character is comprised of about 12 different strokes of the pen. AND, each stroke has to be in the proper order. So, if you draw the character, and it looks exactly like the character the teacher drew, but you got to the end result in, say, 4 strokes, and maybe you drew stroke 3 before stroke two, you’re WRONG.  We’re talking the character is a carbon copy. Wrong. No reason is given as to why you’re wrong, or why you must make each stroke in the proper order, but that’s just the way it is and there is no other way. Just like you write with your right hand and that’s just the way it is…. Despite everything WRONG about that.

Hello Operator

Another day, I wasn’t feeling well and played hookie. I’d emailed the school and let them know I wasn’t coming.  My phone started ringing 10 minutes after the start of class. It was another Chinese woman , the woman who introduced me to the class. She doesn’t attend the class, but occasionally pops into the community center to say hello. I didn’t answer, and hit reject, but Chinese cell phones don’t come with voicemail.  She called back. And she called again, until I turned off my phone. When I turned it back on, she called SIX TIMES IN A ROW.

It’s just the way it is here.  There’s just not the thought that “oh, she must be busy, or at an appointment or in a meeting,” nope.  You call until the person answers.

I don’t get it.


I tried chicken feet for the first time today. They are as appetizing as they sound. And the texutre, wow.  Make no mistake, that absolutely WAS  a knuckle you just bit through.

Out of Control Top

Young women’s fashion here is….interesting. It’s a mix of ohhhh, first communion meets cheap floozie. Lace, frills, sequined heels, glittered denim…. you name it, it goes together. Even in the office.  We were at Starbucks a few days ago and saw a young woman wearing control top pantyhose and a shirt….. with very high heels. I know what you’re thinking, but no, if the shirt was long I would have mentioned it. 

I mean everyone knows the control top part is pants……right?

Just received a text from the Mister that sums all of this up:

 “In a taxi with a guy who has a pet cricket. Thought I’d seen everything.”

Apparently not.

Country Driving

The Mr. has been reading a great book by Peter Hessler called Country Driving. Hessler is an American who lived in Beijing, and during his time here, wrote a few really great books on what life’s really like in China. Country Driving details a series of trips along The Great Wall, and is incredibly well-written, accurate and funny description about what driving in China is truly like.

We got up early on Saturday and decided to do a little country driving of our own.  China is made up of provinces, but Beijing is considered a ‘special administrative region,’ similar to Shanghai, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Macau.   The actual region of Beijing is huge, and while we mostly just think of it as an over populated city (22 million!), there’s actually quite a bit of country to be seen outside of the 6th ring road.

We drove about 50 miles outside of the city. I am still amazed that we can take a drive and pass by sections of the Great Wall….


We spotted a sign for a ‘scenic route,’ and turned off. We started climbing into the mountains, and it reminded us a lot of the drive from Reno to Virginia City in Nevada, except instead of other cars, or motorcyclists, we saw local villagers on bikes, and grinding corn in their yards with stone tools. Wild.

It’s amazing to drive just an hour and be so far from the hoards of people in the city, and get out into some fresh air and nature.

But not to worry, readers. Being out in the country doesn’t mean you don’t get to see the  strange and unexplainable things that make China so fun-