Sunday, September 24, 2006
Getting there though is probably what makes one feel that way.
Since all my pals had spent the time throwing gasoline on the fire that is the Chinese economy, there was no way we were going to fit in one cab for the trip to the airport. So we arranged for the hotel van to take us there at the rate of about $100 for 5 of us. Sounds like lot, but it certainly doesn't compare to a US airport shuttle ride. And in China there is no tipping!
Checking out was a breeze, which surprised me since it seemed like I'd been there for months. As we waited for the van, I had to intercede on the behalf of my suitcases when one of the doormen insisted on loading them in a lower-caste "taxi van" that some of my other co-workers had commissioned. They were not going the full way, electing to finish up the final 20k on the Maglev which we had already ridden once on this trip.
The Buick arrived and the concierge immediately decided it was too diminuitive for our needs. So he sent for the "big" van which turned out to be a giant Mercedes beast with more than enough room for all of us. Off we went.
Driving across Shanghai is the same pretty much any time of the day except for that early morning jaunt I described last week. Traffic, that doesn't end until you cross the Huangpu and get into Pudong. So we sat and looked at the ever present laundry hanging from the high ride balconies. The driver was silent as always and the immitation faux burlwood trim on the console was wishing it was part of a Benz on the Autobahn instead of a van on the A20.
We made it to the airport with plenty of time to spare. Naturally the driver dropped us at Row A of the international departure zone not knowing we were checking in at Row P. Another slog across the marble plains, this time gratefully devoid of skimming bats.
Check in was a breeze and my dead weight suitcase did not trip the scales. On the bulletin board was a notice telling all those flying to the US that the must go through security between zones 19 and 22, which incidentally happened to be back at Row A. Another slog, still no bats.
The gel and lotion ban was extended to all flights heading into our air space so they made it clear that we needed to not have those things in hand. All but one of us made it through, Big Ham being nabbed for a prescription ointment (we won't go into those details) that had scrip with it that had his shortened name, not his given version. When he pulled out his American Express card I immediately wondered if this was a pathetic attempt at a bribe, but it turned out the card held his shortened name and that the guards were willing to accept it as identification.
Off to gate 19 for departure, back again in parallel to Row P. We'd now transversed the Pudong Airport completely 3 times, and still no bats.
Waiting for the departure, it became obvious that the Asiana Air 747 at our gate (destination Inchon) was not in a hurry to leave. Even though we were 15 minutes from the purported beginning of boarding. Just for grins I went looking for a monitor, which interestingly are far less common than the plasma screens on every surface that run a tape loop of some European version of Candid Camera. I found one, gate change, nice of them to tell us.
Back to Gate 17, about the equivalent of Row F. And a delay. Chinese airport officials are kind of funny - they talk fast and softly. First in Chinese and then in some sort of version of Traveler's English. Which is to say unless you hold your breath, you miss the messages. The delay was unexplained, but short and I did manage to collect the message that our carry on bags would be searched again. I wondered how that was going to be carried out in a narrow hallway leading up to a jetway at the bottom of the escalator.
They finally called for steerage and down we went. Ten guys were checking bags. My turn arrived and I was called over and asked to place mine on a backwards chair. The official asked me to open the lid, I did, he patted the bag twice, apparently blessing it and sent me on. Hmmm.
The plane was hot as the air conditioning was not working. The pilot apologized and promised she'd fix it personally as soon as we were airborne. I slid into my seat and immediately realized I was once again the victim of genetics - my femur length provided an nice bridge between the back of my seat and the back of the one in front. Realizing that that wasn't going to work for 11 hours, I unloaded all the magazines and catalogues from the seat back and put them in the overhead. I bought myself another 3/4", or enough to prevent sub-patellal blood clots from forming.
We got off once some deal with the paperwork for the fuel was resolved (they wouldn't accept the pilot's Master Card?) and we were on our way.
Not much to tell about the flight, it was long, The Poseidon Adventure is perhaps a bad choice in disaster films for a trans-Pacific flight, the food was routine, including the ritual pouring-of-the-hot-water-into-the-Ramen-sitting-on-your-lap, the other movies were okay although I'm guessing that Over the Hedge was an odd one for the 75% Asian crowd, and I think I mentioned it was long.
My rowmates were kind enough to time their bathroom visits to coincide with me standing up. A refreshing change. The young woman sitting directly next to me couldn't figure out how to let the air out of her neck pillow, compound valves not being her field of expertise. She also had the strange habit of peeling the grapes that came with our meals. And all this time I thought that old Mae West line was a double entendre - "Beulah, peel me a grape." She was little bother until she started throwing up while we were taxiing into the gate at SFO. Luckily she used the bag, unluckily (for the cleaners) she rolled it up and shoved it in the seat back.
We got off the plane, cleared customs and waited for the bags, ours being once again the last ones off the plane. This time though - no rush. Re-checked, went back through security and on to our gate. This time 79 out of ..... 79.
Being back in a US airport, we get treated to all those glorious traveler's outfits that make you wonder what the heck people are thinking. I won't say too much about the giant pregnant woman in the turquoise two-piece outfit consisting of a frilly halter top and hip-hugging parachute pants except to say I wondered if jet lag induced hallucinations were kicking in.
Our flight was there are ready to go once we figured out yet another gate change. Oddly, they boarded us and a second flight through the same doorway and jetway, a United agent down the ramp directing traffic depending on destination. Even with the coaching, two people heading for Denver managed to get on our plane, realizing their mistake just before take off.
The final indignity - a non-reclining seat for the final 2 hour trip. Perhaps better than the inverse angle seat I had on the way over, all those weeks ago.
Pulled in on time and found my lovely wife waiting for me just outside the sterile zone. I was early and out of context so she
didn't recognize me as I approached. Surprised, she stood up and as I went to offer my biggest Shanghai hug, I knocked her newly purchased Starbucks Vanilla Steamer out of her hand, spraying it all over the floor. Retrieving the cup and the lid, we bolted out of there, making it clear we knew nothing of the high temperature lactic disaster that now greeted visitors to the last gift shop at the end of the line.
It was good to be home.
In closing this trip, let me say "thanks" to all my loyal readers. I get a lot of feedback and it's always positive so it's nice to know that my rantings are appreciated. I have a lot of fun writing these updates and I hope they're fun for you too.
Some final words - the big learning for me on this expedition had to do with being open to new things. I'm not an intrepid guy and it wasn't that long ago that I hid my head beneath a blanket for the whole 5 hours of my first drive into Mexico. Here, 12 years later I'm bombing down muddy irrigation ditch roads in a mini-van with no shocks with a guy I've never met who doesn't speak English. Perhaps a tame adventure for many, but a true departure for me.
This last picture - one of a dozen funny translations you encounter on the other sides of the world that are always worthy of a chuckle. And being open to a chuckle is perhaps the most profound message traveling can give you. Because if you can do that, the doors open and the world appears.
Next stop - San Carlos, Sonora. Please stop by again!
Thursday, September 21, 2006
Thought I'd take the time to make one more post before the long trip home. We got out of work early yesterday and took the subway over to the "real" replacement for the Xiangyang Outside Counterfeit Market. Now you might ask how many more fake Tommy Bahama shirts or Tag watches I really need, but it was a fun adventure as alway and even if I didn't buy anything it was worth for two little experiences.
The market is now located in the halls of the Shanghai Science Museum subway station. Not being outside, it's a bit less friendly but not nearly as oppressive as the Qipu market I mentioned previously. It's clean, less crowded and generally more smoke free.
The government is really cracking down on the fake goods, so the sellers have to be far more cagey than they used to be.
I went with one of my pals to a young woman's stall which she had visited the previous day. For grins, I asked about Hermes wallets. The young woman nodded, went out in front, looked both directions and came back in. She closed the glass doors, locked them, drew the drapes and moved some luggage aside that was blocking a secret panel behind a mirror.
By now it was about 103 degrees in the little room. Opening the door, she motioned me to come with her. She had a rickety aluminum ladder in a 3x3 foot closet that led upwards to a small attic. She climbed, I climbed and up we went to a 6x8 foot room whose walls were lined with purses. Coach, Todd, Chloe, you name it. At the end of the room was a built in chest of drawers holding 100s of wallets.
I was roasting.
We went back down, my companion did her deal and we moved on, of course after the ritual of re-opening the store. This level of secrecy is now apparently required to avoid problems with the officials. A few stores later we were at it again, this time rifling through bags of watches that were retrieved from a secret compartments beneath the water cooler.
Heading back, I had my first experience on the subway at rush hour. It's an understatement to say it was crowded. At every stop you prayed more would get off than would get on. Which of course was not the case.
My last vignette for this trip has to do with Toupee Man, a fellow guest at the hotel. Apparently he is a long term guest because the staff in the penthouse knows him. A couple of days a week he is accompanied to breakfast by an attractive young
Chinese woman who generally shows up at 7 AM wearing pearls and a designer evening dress. Don't know much about it, but it seems odd to see an American middle-aged guy eating eggs with a young woman in Prada. Maybe someone can explain it to me, or perhaps this photo, dripping in irony, says it all.
Tuesday, September 19, 2006
There were other bronzes along the way, some Giacometti figures and some traditional Chinese. But these really struck me, not only because of the indomitable spirit of this country, but because of our recent loss. I guess I like to think that one of these is our boy Bluey, free of his earthy bonds and running unhindered once again.
Capping the moment was a little old man who touched me on the arm and said, "Hello, Ni Hao" and then went on his way into the park.
Monday, September 18, 2006
Albert did a little research and found a ferry schedule and we made plans to head out early in the morning. I rose at 4:30 AM to meet his driver at my hotel. I met him a bit early and we headed across town to pick up my companion in Pudong.
Shanghai is a different place at 5 AM. Most of the big cities I’ve lived in or near (NYC in particular) don’t really ever close up shop. But this place, normally a buzzing cacophony of horns and traffic was stone cold abandoned for the whole drive over. Needless to say, we made incredible time down to the Bund Tunnel, under the Huangpu and through that Oz of glass and concrete that Pudong has become.
We got Albert and headed across the northern reaches of Shanghai to the ferry terminal. Terminal being a really loose term in this case.
Passing through endless industrial areas we headed towards the river and into the shipping zone, large container loading cranes dominating the horizon.
Arriving, his driver pointed in the direction of what appeared to be a dock and grunted. We got out and walked up the muddy street. There was a small group of people waiting by a locked gate and we sidled up and took a look. Leaning on a barrier that overlooked a choked stagnant canal with a derelict barge, I noticed that most of the people seemed to have tickets in their hands. So I suggested we head back to where I had seen a bunch of people standing in line. Albert volunteered to handle the purchase and promptly got in the wrong line. A man standing there gave us a head nod towards an open window and he switched. He’d apparently been in the line for those with cars.
The tickets set him back 13 RMB, $1.50. Not bad for a 1 hour river trip. We headed back to the gate which was now about to open. I passed through and was told something in Chinese by the official taking the stubs. Who knows what, but I assume it was important given all the little things that were to come.
Making it down to the wharf, we found two boats. One pretty big and shiny, the other with “ferry capsizes in Yellow Sea killing dozens” floating above it in misty red letters. Naturally we opted for the pretty, shiny boat.
Climbed the stairs and entered the cabin which was spacious, well lit and clean. We selected a couple of seats in the back rows and Albert went off to use the facilities.
Almost immediately I was accosted by a one-handed Chinese man speaking to me in a not quite threatening if somewhat insistent tone. Naturally I couldn’t understand a word of what he was saying, which only made him speak faster and louder. Another man in a uniform came over, starting in with the same routine. I was at a loss and I fell into saying “I don’t know what the hell you’re yammering about” over and over. The one-handed man kept showing me his ticket (it being pressed against his stump with his good hand) and seemed to be saying I should show him mine. I did, and they were different. But who knew what that meant? Then they started to point out the window and it finally came to me – we were on the same boat. I told them my friend was in the toilet and they agreed to stop yelling at me. Albert came out and we disembarked and crossed the pier to the death trap awaiting us wondering all the while why it took a passenger to set us straight and not the guy who was taking the tickets.
Boarding boat #2, we were greeted by three or four surly crewmen, their shirts unbuttoned to display those wife-beater t-shirts popular with tramp steamer merchant sailors the world over. We motioned that we’d live to ride above – the answer was no. We motioned that we wanted to ride on that deck, the answer was a return motion that we could ride there if we planned on drinking. So we just stood there until the chief tough guy came over and motioned down a flight of stairs and said, “Xia mian” which I understood to mean “you’re riding down below.” So down below we went.
Where the cabin on the other boat promised a sun-splashed Yangtze crossing, this one said “be near the window if the thing starts listing to port.” It was about 8 feet
wide and 30 feet long with 10 or so rows of dingy seats with even dingier head coverings on their backs. There were three sliding windows gaily decorated with that flower stick on stuff one used to put on their clear glass bathroom windows back before frosted glass was invented. We selected a couple of seats towards the back and settled in for what was surely our last adventure on the high seas.
The boat got off on time and we began to cross the river. More people filed in and so I moved to the center seat to allow someone to use the outer one. Which no one did, taking one look at us and deciding instead to ride in the engine room. A young woman, late teens, early twenties crossing with her mom and boyfriend decided that the seas were rough and decided to spend the time with her head out the window vomiting up her breakfast. Her condition was in stark contrast to the “Snoofy” (yes, Snoofy) sweatshirt she was wearing. Poor Snoofy had never suffered so.
Not much else to say about the trip except that Albert and I had long talks about what a bitch it is to get old and discovering that we both had problems finding shoes that were comfortable.
Now our plan was to get off the boat, wander around Chongming, find some birds at the southern end of the island, maybe see the temple and get back on the boat around 4:30.
They say that the universe sometimes smiles kindly on babes in the woods, and on this day the universe had a big grin, just for us.
We got off the boat to a swarm of men offering “Taksee” and we scoffed, being in possession of comfortable walking shoes and snacks. A few men offered to take us in their bicycle rickshaws and were met with further scoffing. We were the merry scoffers!
So we walked along the road to the center of the island. One guy in a little minivan would not leave us alone. He kept pace with us along the road yelling, “Dongtan”
over and over. It wasn’t in my dictionary so I was perplexed. I told him we were walking and he just started laughing and laughing, that being the funniest thing he’d heard up until that moment of the day. We walked and he followed. Finally, I decided we should just take a short hop and take the rest on foot. So we began negotiating. Which was pretty stupid since we couldn’t understand a word of what he was saying. Ever resourceful, he opened his wallet and took out a 20 and pointed at it. Aha, why not? $2 into town.
So we got in the car and off we went.
Couple of miles down the road, we began to understand why he was laughing. I told him I wanted to see some birds, he nodded furiously and started repeating “Dongtan” again. We turned the corner and then it all became clear. The sign read Dongtan Bird Refuge along with a distance – 42 kilometers! Now we could understand his amusement. He thought we were completely daft. And so again we began the negotiations and he solved the difficultly by showing me a 100 RMB note. $12 for 42 kilometers and all the Chinese birds I could see? Why the heck not!
Driving along the roads it quickly became obvious we were not in Shanghai any longer. This was real China – rice paddies, water buffalo, crazy little carts with belt-driven lawn mower engines that were attached to the front steering mechanism, grandmas on bicycles. So close to the metropolis yet it couldn’t have been further away. I was loving it and every mile provided another wonderful sight.
The housing was quite interesting – pagoda-style lines with bright and colorful tile roofs. Many of the houses were covered with tile on the outside walls as well. There was a lot of home construction going on and there seemed to be a self-perpetuating cement business with homes being the chief driver. I don’t know much about the local industry, but the place seemed prosperous.
We sped along until we hit a little village and he veered off onto a dirt road between fields of rice. It was muddy and bumpy and I was wondering what the heck he was doing. I halfway expected him to be taking us home to meet his wife. Up ahead, I could see a backhoe working in the road, something that escaped him because he drove
right up, called them “idiots” turned around and headed back to the pavement. Where we once again picked up speed. About this time I was beginning to think about how I was going to negotiate the return trip because we were out in the middle of nowhere.
More paddies, more villages and more regular life going on around us. The wind was picking up and he more or less explained to me that it was from the typhoon off the coast. How he knew that, I will never know. The wind though was making itself known now and it was becoming apparent to me that the birds were more than likely disappearing with its ever increasing intensity. In the words of a wise Chinese philosopher, “Niao bu xihuan feng” – birds hate the wind. But on we motored.
We turned onto a long straightaway and it was obvious we were nearing Dongtan. The road was lined with lighpoles with banners depicting the various birds of the area. We drove on, a small cluster of building appearing in the distance.
Pulling up to a barricade, he stopped the car and we had a chat about what it was going to cost us to go back. 100 for the ride and 100 for him to kill time while we birded. He mimed taking a nap to explain the second 100. Fine, $25 for a day in the place. That agreed to, he motioned us out of the car and into the building where we were greeted by three young men in uniforms. They presented me with what must have been the visitors guide and handed me a pen. Problem was, the page was in Chinese. Completely. I just stood there like a gaping dolt until the driver took the pen and lifted my glasses off my face and put them on. Old guys around the world going blind together. He filled in the lines and the guards took out a passport, stamped it and handed it to me. When he was done, he handed them back to me.
Walking out of the office and into the wind we climbed a small rise and saw before us a field of reeds and Phragmites grass that stretched to the horizon in all directions. The scope was staggering. There was a little boardwalk that went out about 40 yards and one small mudflat that contained a single egret but beyond that, it might as well have been Kansas. He pointed at the egret and said, “Niao”, bird, and insisted I have a look at it. This was I realized that birding for me meant one thing, for him it meant seeing a bird.
I set my gear down thinking that since I was out in the sun I might want to consider a little sunscreen. I got out the tube and started putting it on. This instantly attracted a crowd of people wondering what the heck I was doing. I explained to the driver in Chinese that I was pretty white (Wo shi hen bei se) and pointed at the sun. This caused the crowd to break into polite giggles.
The driver insisted I walk down the boardwalk, which I did avoiding the part of it that was freshly painted. No birds. So we headed back. Off in the distance there was a small flock of Cattle Egrets working the field behind a backhoe that was digging. Typical of Cattle Egrets, garbage eaters the world over.
Figuring it was time to head back I decided to use a Porta Potty along the side of the parking lot. They were coin operated but one was open, the door being obstructed by a giant spider web which was more than happy to envelope my head. I went in and slid the door open and immediately realized I had chosen the one toilet in China that had never been flushed. Be happy with that explanation, it’s all you’re going to get.
Back to the car and back on the road, the driver continuing to point out each and every bird as if he was being paid by the head. Saw a few things I recognized and a few I didn’t.
It was now about 10:30 and we weren’t getting far into our day long plan so I asked the driver if there was a temple on the island. He nodded and off we went into one of the singular experiences of my life.
The ride back was along a different route so we were treated to more villages and more people. It was great and I was rapt. Eventually we made it into a small town and into a seedy section and there it was – the Chongming Temple.
I’ve done a fair amount of things in my life and I’ve been a few places. Many of
these have provided emotional experiences, but few come close to this one.
We entered the temple and were greeted by old man who presented me with a book and asked me to sign in. Again the pages were in Chinese so I just wrote my first name. He asked us for a donation of 10 RMB. We passed a large golden Buddha in a glass case just beyond the entrance. I asked for permission to photograph it which was gladly granted. It as the last photo I took in the place because the feeling of holiness made it clear that it was simply wrong to invade it with a camera.
The driver performed the rites of submission, and I followed with the palms together wave in front of the face acknowledgement for the shrine. There were around 6 buildings in the complex in addition to the entry building. The main temple held a very large golden Buddha surrounded by a 10 smaller golden statues of disciples, each in the 5 foot tall range and completely unique. From there we made our way around the
compound. At each of the 4 corners were smaller temples with Buddha varying in size and shape. The air was sweetly redolent of incense. A small group of monks in saffron and burgundy robes came out and watched us, one offering a “hello.” We stopped in each of the smaller temples and paid our respects. In the final one there was a service underway, monks singing and chanting and playing instruments. I didn’t go in, feeling it was too much of an imposition but I stood and listened for a bit and it was wonderful.
I thanked the driver for this experience and told him using what little Chinese I had that I thought it was simply great.
I asked him to head back to the ferry and he was happy to do so. He took us on a very circuitous route through fields and along dykes, his desire to show us some more birds. He continued to point them out as they presented themselves.
Arriving back at the dock he ushered us up to the ticket window and saw to it that we got our fares. And then we parted, a hearty handshake, many smiles and a new friend made. He, $36 richer, we immeasurably so.
The timing was perfect – 10 minutes in the waiting room and the gates opened. Up the pier (our friend passing us and waving, his next fare underway.) This time it was a nice boat, like the one we’d been kicked off of earlier in the day.
Again an easy crossing. I’d expected some chop based on the wind but it wasn’t too bad. As we neared the coast, we encountered a steady stream of tankers, barges and container ships moving in and out of the port.
Getting closer, I noticed some obvious landmarks that I’d not seen earlier in the day. Writing it off to us being on the opposite side heading out, the time of the day and the fact that we hadn’t been paying attention, pretty soon it became obvious that none of these things had been there in the early dawn light. Still trying to come to grips with conflicting information, it finally dawned on us – we were headed into a different port. Which was a problem, because Albert’s driver was waiting for us at the other one?
A check of the GPS confirmed that we were 10 miles or so closer to Shanghai. So now here we were. “Where” being an interesting construct because we had no idea where “where” was and no way of finding out.
Couple of calls to Albert’s wife who in turn talked to the driver who in turn couldn’t imagine why we were stupid enough to take the wrong ferry yielded a plan – taxi to my hotel where the driver would collect Albert. We found a cab quickly who acted amazed at where we wanted to go, the amazement later explained by the huge taxi bill. But we made it, the driver found us and everything worked out splendidly.
It was quite a day and not quite over. We met for drinks in the penthouse and decided on Mexican, that cuisine being one we’d not yet tried. So off to Mexico Lindo, chicken fajitas, Sol beer and tortillas just like the ones in San Carlos. Can’t get them in New Mexico, but if you want them here, not problem.
The last little tidbit of the day came at the end. Walking into the hotel after dinner, we were greeted by “Take Me Home, Country Road” performed in broken English by a German band in a reggae beat at the Shanghai Oktoberfest.
I dare anyone to top that.
The bad news that there were no rooms available was dealt with swiftly – the hotel kicked out their reserved guests and created space for us. We bought our tickets and made plans for our van driver to take us to the airport the following day.
Now I’ve been playing with my Mandarin and decided to try making arrangements for our guy to take us out there at 12:30 PM. So on the Thursday night drive to the hotel, I carefully spoke to him, hoping he’d get it. “Qing dai women dao Pudong feijiechang.” He snapped to immediately, I was so shocked and grateful. He asked when, I said, “Mingtian, ershi dian ban.” Tomorrow at 12:30 PM. The “tomorrow” part was clear, but the time was for some reason eluding him. And I thought that was the clearest part. So when we arrived at the hotel, he asked the doorman, who asked me, who then told him. He still couldn’t get it. And the Leong jumped in and wrote it in invisible letters in the air. Ah yes, all was clear.
Until the next day when we were standing out in front of the contractor’s office at 12:50 wondering where he was.
A couple of phone calls got to the bottom of the dilemma, he wasn’t sure about the time and whether he should pick us up at the office or the hotel. Go figure. Twenty minutes later we were on our way.
No problems at the airport or on the flight, my first on a domestic Chinese airline. The leg room was far better than that on our transoceanic flights, the attendants were great, the guy snoring loudly was not that annoying, at least not so much so as the tape of Kenny G playing Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird”, and the lunch was quite interesting. Nice shiny green box tied with a pink ribbon that held a piece of pound cake with chocolate chips, a box of cookies, a dinner roll, some tube cookies and a package of what claimed to be dried radish. No carb under loading going on here.
We arrived close to on time, landing as the sun set. It was the most vivid shade of blood red, indicating to me that the air was full of the results of something burning. Lightning was firing off in the distance and rain was threatening.
The hotel staff was waiting for us – a woman in a business suit who insisted on carrying bags along with a guy dressed up in faux Beefeaters uniform with white gloves and golden buttons.
The drive into town was quick – the first thing you notice about Dalian is the lack of traffic and the quiet that comes with the associated lack of people laying on their car horns.
We pulled into the hotel and were immediately surrounded by a dedicated staff that whisked us across the lobby and through the hordes of regular customers. There was an elevator waiting for us, doors open and blocked with a red velvet rope. We were obviously getting the royal treatment. The car took us up to the 25th floor and the exclusive Horizon Club. No check-in required for this bunch, more staff members came and took our cards and passports while even more staff got us drinks and finger food. We sat around for a bit and went off to our rooms, agreeing to have dinner across the street at Pizza King. Honestly, could we eat anywhere else on our first night in Manchuria?
I said, “rooms” earlier, I guess they’d better be described as palaces. Living room, dining room, powder room, a bathroom as big as my whole room in Shanghai, a bedroom about as large as my entire house back in the world. Bathrobes and pajamas, terry cloth, cotton and silk. King-sized bed and for me a view of the seafront. I was immediately sorry that I was only spending one night. The hotel itself was pretty amazing - Vuitton, Dior and Ferragamo stores in the lobby. Kate Moss looked fetching if 20 feet tall and staring down at me. The bar was featuring a band called So Cool which were featured on an in-room video channel. The lead singer's breakdancing was punctuated by his inability to pull himself back up onto his feet following some back spins on the floor. They drew me to the conclusion that there is some company out there that designs bands specifically for export to foreign hotel lounges.
Time for dinner and out we went. By now it was raining a wee bit and braving it we headed across the street.
The first thing that strikes you about Pizza King was that the décor was just like every other small owner-operated little neighborhood pizzeria the world over. The second thing that strikes you is the Steinway concert grand piano being played by a little woman in traditional Chinese formal wear, in sort of a sea foam green. They showed us to our tables and we made our choices. The beer of the evening was “Fresh Tsingtao Beer” which in this restaurant means “draft,” the bottled version I reckon being stale. I had a vegetable pizza, the veggies being tomatoes and onions. Really not bad, even better than the Pizza Hut product in Shanghai which always reminds me of those wonderful boxed pizzas that we thought were a treat when we were kids. The beer was good as was the 24 verse version of Love Me Tender that our chanteuse regaled us with. I had no idea that song was so long and I am sure that Elvis would’ve died much earlier had he tried to do the full rendition.
By the time we finished dinner, the rain had stopped so we took a brief fresh air spin up the road to the closest square, which is actually round. This one, Zhongshen has two Russian era colonial buildings that were lit in bring colors. The things you notice in downtown Dalian coming off an extended Shanghai stay it that a) it’s cool and b) the air is actually breathable. A nice change.
Our day of adventure began after breakfast. Leong had rented a van and we planned to cover all the highlights of our potential, future, expat experience.
Driving around the city gives you an impression of Russian-ness. It was after all Port Arthur up to the point that the Japanese Navy decided to litter the bottom of the Korean Bay with the Tsar’s fleet. Big, wide boulevards lined with tall apartment complexes. Not the ugly ones you’d find in Moscow, but buildings that were tastefully designed and appeared to be quite habitable. The Dalian literature offered that the Russian planners had designed the city with Paris in mind. And the effect is positive – it’s a light, bright place.
We headed off to Xinhai Square, an area of the city with a large park surrounded by much new construction that evoked San Diego. We de-vanned and went for a stroll along a beautiful waterfront promenade. The first Chinese birds of the day were some squawking Black-billed Magpies. Damn, do those things follow me everywhere? A few older men were fishing and some young people were milling around, but in general the place was largely deserted.
For some reason, they were setting off fireworks across the river and behind the amusement park. Overlooking the area is a large castle that mimics the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City, the scene of a 10th grade French Club bacchanalia that will remain undescribed as it has for these intervening 36 years. Like all the commercial and residential real estate in the area, the castle is almost completely un-used.
Seeking a better vantage point, we drove up the hill and parked. Several of us decided to visit the Shell Museum which is the sole tenant of the place. It was pretty impressive for the sheer volume and variety of shells. Specimens from the world over, it could take hours but since the descriptions were in Chinese, one’s interaction was limited to ogling and moving on.
Next stop the Dalian Development Area, the expat construction area and the plant site.
The drive out was pleasant enough; we passed through some industrial areas, a shining new downtown and the DDA tech park. It pretty much looked like one would expect – heavily landscaped medians with big techie monoliths housing many firms. We stopped at the construction site for the school – same architecture you’d find in Sonora – pressed concrete, domes and tile. The vegetation in this area was largely seacoast desert scrub.
Cruising around, we passed the Golden Pebble Beach, aptly named since it’s a beach of small brown rocks. Palapas clearly imported from Mexico lined the strand. Off to the left, we sighted the Kingdom of Discovery, a theme park of the Disney genre, although Cinderella’s castle this time might have been designed and constructed be some insect alien race. It was brown, it was odd and it was menacing. The rest of the place was a merged stolen IP version of Main Street USA and Seaport Village, gingerbread houses seeming only too appropriate in the middle of a coastal Chinese technology enterprise zone. Oddly out of place though was a giant Episcopal cathedral. I can’t describe its purpose or attraction as we decided not to pay the admission.
Leaving there we decided to head off to the Golden Pebble Beach golf course and perhaps lunch.
The golf course looked a lot our very own Pebble Beach minus the windswept Cypress trees but with a busload of Chinese workers on a company outing each wearing a red t-shirt that said “I wasted 10 years of my life working at this company.” No, I’m not kidding. They filed out of a line of buses in a continuous carmine stream down to the driving range where they took turns beating golf balls to death.
It was decided that lunch would be held at the golf course convention center, so off we went. Turned out the place was booked for a giant wedding, but they graciously accommodated us with a couple of tables on the balcony overlooking the reception. When we arrived the bride and groom were being photographed with a bubble machine in full tilt providing atmosphere.
The menu was interesting in a positive way; I elected wonton soup and chicken curry. The others going more western with spaghetti and beef stroganoff. The former being red sauce on rigatoni and the latter being stir-fried beef strips frolicking in warmed Catalina dressing.
My lunch was pretty good although I will admit to skipping the giant prawn – head intact – and the slice of bologna that were swimming with the wontons.
The wedding came inside and the festivities kicked into high gear. There were perhaps twenty ten-top tables all full of chain smoking adulta and envious children. The net effect was so many clouds of gray smoke rising up to our place on the balcony that we began to wonder if they were sending us signals. A man came out and sang to the crowd, the volume being so loud that we literally had to shout to offer comments disparaging his singing ability. Apparently a sign of prosperity is an overly loud, distorted sound system, in which case this couple was loaded.
The bride and groom made their way from table to table offering shots of Chinese tequila and Marlboros to the honored guests all the while a young woman sang what could best described as Klingon Opera. When she was done, she brought the house down. Even we were clapping amidst the shards that came from the wine glasses that seemed to burst each time she hit a high note. The bride was gorgeous in her traditional red silk gown.
After some debate about whether they accepted non-Chinese credit cards, we piled back into the van and headed out to the plant site.
Thinking about it proved easier than finding it, but we eventually found a field or two full of dried corn, sunflowers, the biggest burdocks you’ve ever seen and piles of broken metamorphic rock.
Part of our mission was to try and see if the local authorities had put up a fence so we headed off down a newly paved road for a nice mid-afternoon stroll in the blazing sun. When I say newly paved, it’s not an exaggeration, the surface of the asphalt sucking my shoes off my feet with each step.
We passed an old stone house with a handful of workers and a couple of women lolling about. To a person they literally dropped what they were doing and stared at us as we walked by. I offered a “Ni hao” which brought out the biggest smiles I’d seen in a long time. Just think, pointy eared white devils speaking the lingo. We got to the suspected edge of the property where we were told that the fence was about another mile through a corn field. Demurring on that hike, we headed back to the van, passing our friends in the workhouse. This time “Zai jian” got the smiles flowing once again. Man I love speaking Chinese!
Time was running out and so we headed to The Giant Flying Saucer on the Hill for a final view of the area. And that’s just what it is, a giant flying saucer on the hill overlooking the DDA. Down slope, there is giant statue, this one being a big black bull with golden wings being ridden by a boy in a turban. Some things just defy explanation.
I chose to walk up the wooden stairs to the top of the hill; the others rode the golf cart. Reaching the top, the view was quite spectacular if dwarfed by the giant flying saucer. People here really stared at us. One group of men asked if Jon was a Russian. Perhaps a step down from last week when he was doing time as Beckham?
Enough of that, I headed down the stairs and decided to stop in the rest room. The attendant waved me into a room with four stalls. I later discovered that I’d used one with a pink hat on the door, perhaps a slight gender miscalculation. The hand washing facilities were a big tank of water with a spigot off to the side. A solution that made me wonder if washing them was really the right solution. I paid 5 RMB for the privilege and discovered later that others had paid 1. Perhaps I looked like a prosperous guy who owned a really loud PA system back in the states.
Hanging out in the parking lot below, I struck up a broken conversation with a woman holding a little boy who was staring at me and wondering if I was a human at all. I managed to tell her where I was from and to ask his name, which was Junjun and to delight her to no end at my interest and willingness to talk to her. He was very cute and we all took turns waving and saying “Zai jian Junjun” to which he would wave. He never stopped frowning though. His dad took many pictures of us talking to his wife and his boy.
Off to the airport and back home. Nothing much else other than the security check in the airport and the young woman who took the notion of checking us very seriously, even taking the time to pinch the cartilage above both of my ankles with much gusto. The airport gift selection was quite incredible – freeze dried 4 foot flounders and expensive boxes of what appeared to be licorice flavored sea cucumbers. I was tempted, but I only had a small carry-on bag and it was stuffed. Food on the plane was breaded fish pieces in Jalapeno jelly, a dinner roll and a cupcake that had clearly been created in the caterer’s version of an Easy Bake Oven. We got home fast, caught the Maglev from the airport which is sadly governed at 300 KPH after dark. A cab to the hotel and back into bed.
Final impressions - breezy, light, sea coast, San Diego cum Seattle cum Manchuria with a futuristic tilt and a lot of people that have seen few westerners before. I can see a lot of sea kayaking and time spent wondering where to eat dinner on a Thursday night. The air and weather were good, I bet it's cold in the winter and I imagine there's another adventure around every corner. Which is what life if supposed to be about.
Thursday, September 14, 2006
It was sort of explained to me in a manner that made it sound like a spy genre mystery cafe, one in which I would almost certainly be forced out of the audience and up on the stage to the delight of the patrons while driving me into a fit of abject horror. I figured though if I whined enough they'd let me off the hook.
When you make the reservation, they give you a secret code that is required to get you into the place. Falling out of the cab and walking up a darkened flight of stairs illuminated only by a single circle of light with a stylized 7 in it, you're presented with 9 lighted tubes on the wall. The code for tonight was 9-6 so I plunged my hands into the tubes representing 9 and 6 in matrix and a sliding steel panel opened to our left.
We walked in and gave our names to the hostess who handed me a lucite rectangle with the number 67 on it. Walked up a couple of flights of stairs and presented that to a waitress who led us to a table.
The place was done in Neo-Nazi-Bauhaus-Bunker-Bladerunner concrete block with absolutely no embellishment anywhere. The tables were minimally set - 6" diameter plates and porcelain chopsticks done in Rave Delft decor. There was no general lighting whatsoever, the place was lit only by a single halogen tracklight in the center of each table and the little red strobe lights the waiters were wearing on their black shirts. Every one of them was gorgeous and carried that air of superiority normally reserved for Naomi Campbell and her cell phone. The background music was some sort of house mix, techno, New Age and missing one string out of tune Koto raga. Sorry for the lack of photos, it was just too dark in there to get any.
The glasses on the table were constructed of two parts, a traditional pilsner beer glass with no base and a plastic cube that it sat in. All I could think of was Rolf on that old SNL skit - "would you like to pet my monkey?" We ordered liang ge Tsingdao and settled into the menu.
The entrees were designed to be small, and we ordered about 15 of them for the 5 of us. All were wonderful and very tasty. Supposedly Japanese, I'd call it Sino New World.
The restrooms presented the next challenge. Six stainless steel doors in two little alcoves. All the handles were locked. You needed to figure out how to get it. I couldn't and I had to crawl back to the table explaining how I can ace any crossword puzzle but when it comes to logic, I'm a moron. The trick - you push on the side of the door opposite the handle and it swings open, admitting you to a stone black room. The lights don't come on until you close the door to the tomb and throw the bolt. Cute.
We decided to have an after dinner scotch and were escorted down to the lounge. It was filled with westerners sitting around having drinks. A couple off to one side ordered the house specialty - The Tube of Wine. It consists of a giant punch bowl filled with water and dry ice in which little test tubes of wine are set in a rack. It steams up the whole bar when served. Quite an interesting concept drink.
We headed back out into the French Concession (my favorite part of Shanghai) and went cab hunting. One appeared almost immediately but wouldn't take all five of us so we sent two off and headed up the block to find another one.
This part of the city is a live wire - so much happening as to cause complete sensory overload. Zillions of people, busy cafes, lots and lots going on in all directions. We finally got a car after being propositioned by one amazingly sultry young woman who insisted she knew Matt, that little episode being good for yucks all the way home. Driving out we passed a steady supply of "barber shops" staffed by very attractive young women in very minimal clothing. Didn't see anyone in there getting their hair cut. Perhaps not a big surprise.
Wednesday, September 13, 2006
The last time we were over, we spent several afternoons at the Xiangyang Market, that great outside bazaar where one could find all the luxe items offered in the finest stores of the world for cut rate prices. (Not to mention cut rate quality)
The Chinese government in an earnest attempt to show their dedication to the protection of Intellectual Property rights closed the place down last June. But, capitalism rules and so the Xiangyang Pirates sailed across town and carved out a space in an existing market called Qipu. Where the other mart was open air and offered a sense of a Sunday stroll through a park redolent of cigarette smoke, this place is enclosed, 5 stories and instead of autumn splendor, evokes the stories we read about hundreds dying in the crush in front of the chained exits while trying to escape the fire in the other end of the building.
It was creepy.
The difference in the goods offered was immediately obvious. The old stuff - Burberry bags, Patek Phillipe watches, Armani jackets - were no longer present. North Face was still about, which raises the question of whether it's knocked-off or just plain stolen from the local factories. Almost every stall was dedicated to inexpensive clothing shoes and supplementals.
But, just ask and the panels move and you're ushered into the dark back rooms of the mysterious (mercantile) Orient.
At Xiangyang, you were usually mobbed by young guys when you got out of the car. You could shake them once they took you to their stall and you scoffed at their goods. Here, it was different, very different. A "goods supervisor" grabbed you when you got out of the cab. Accompanying him was a posse of 4 or 5 guys whose sole purpose was to contain us in a group. Liu was the name of our guy and he was sharp as a tack. First words out of his mouth addressed my watch, "Genuine, eh." He was looking at a Xenith Class IV, a pretty obscure timepiece and he managed to size it up in about 10 seconds. "Too expensive" was his second comment.
I really didn't have much shopping in mind for this excursion, preferring to tag along with the guys with their wife-provided shopping lists. It was clear from the start though that Liu had an agenda, as he was steering us towards very specific stalls. If you stopped and looked at some "unapproved" wares, he was there in an instant to get you moving again. He took us to a stall for Gucci bags and watches that had none displayed. We asked and the panels opened and we were escorted to the market behind the market. Two small rooms, perhaps 8x8' one in which watches lined the walls, in the other it was bags. In addition to the goods, the place was jammed with 5 or 10 salesmen and many customers. The watch selection had not changed since last February, so I was not really engaged. When they opened the door to allow 20 more people in, I bolted - it was getting hard to breathe.
We carried on like this until everyone was carrying a couple of plastic bags full of goods. I finally broke down and bought a watch, getting to the bottom line price of 200 RMB, a number that mysteriously increased when one of my companions tried to do the same. Also picked up 2 Tommy Bahama Hawaiian shirts, the vendor pronouncing me "hard and clever bargainer. Yea right.
The one really interesting moment came towards the end of our visit. I was helping Bill negotiate for a watch and I opened my bag. A middle-aged gentleman looked inside and saw my shirts. He came out and started yelling at Liu, all I could catch was "Tommy Bahama" in his string of abuse. Liu took me aside and asked me where I bought the shirts. I told him and he nodded. Clearly, Liu had let me wander off the planned route and the Capo di Tutti Capo was letting him have it for his indiscretion.
We finally bailed out - 20 or 30 cigarettes worth of second hand smoke being about all I can handle in an afternoon.
Heading over to Nanjing Lu and the major shopping district, lunch was on everyone's mind. And Pizza Hut was the answer. It had not changed much - the pizza still tasted like those old box-mix pizzas we ate as kids. The big difference was that Willie Nelson was not singing this time. The food was good, hot and fast and we were in and out pretty quickly.
The decision was made to head to the Old City and its associated pearl market. At the north end of the area is a large shopping locale built in the style of faux-old-China and it's packed with foreigners. Interestingly, the guidebooks say "don't bother," but clearly no one is reading the guides. The pearl market was cool - one floor of dedicated to diamonds, one in expansion and one for pearls alone. Following the same strategy as the other markets, this one had many stalls that were ostensibly independent but that I suspect were actually working in concert. More hard bargaining and everyone came away with gifts for home. Very reasonable prices, freshwater strands in many colors for $2 to $5, seawater in the $20 range. Beautiful stuff.
One more little vignette. Most of the good stores sell what appear to be solid gold representations of the animals for the Chinese Zodiac. I'd admired them last time and decided to inquire about a price. The woman gladly brought one out and her supervisor came over and offered me a price - 5000RMB or about $600. No bargaining. I nodded, she returned the item to the locked case and said something to her worker along the lines of "cheap foreign window shoppers."
We all know it really comes from British plantation owners who look and sound like a young Alec Guiness in The Bridge on the River Kwai, striding out between the rows of bushes, British army shorts and knee socks paired with a officers hat rakishly aslant a sweary brow. Oh yeah, riding crop shoved under left arm.
Mad Dogs and Englishmen - the soul of tea.
In reality, it comes from little tea villages up in the hills above Hangzhou. Well, at least that's where the best green tea in the world comes from. In other words, our next stop.
It appeared that we were now in Switzerland. Green hillsides dotted with little Chinese chalets. Coulda been Uri for all I knew and I was ready to be transported there. We climbed and climbed into the clouds, terraced tea fields on both sides of the road. Unlike the rest of China, this place was pin neat. Ordered and clean, back and forth in a little bit of dimensional transcendence, to Switzerland, to China, to Burma. The place was really, really green. And very beautiful.
The tea villages are interesting little biomes. Families have lived there intact for 100s of generations, and most of the people in the different sections of the valley all retain the same surname. Being a tea villager is a source of pride, and a source of income since they park themselves in quaint little compounds and wait for the money to arrive in the form of an endless stream of tourist buses. Sort of a pay-as-you-go living museum provided in such a guileless manner that it makes you feel really cynical for even suggesting that all they want is your money.
We pulled into a lot and de-vanned. Lili led us up some stairs and onto a platform and gave us the story of the area. Each level of the valley offers a different brand of tea. Each of brand of tea offer multiple different levels of quality. The best is picked in the very early spring and consists of only the tiniest top leaves. This tea, the Emperor Tea is never exported in bulk. It's reserved for party officials, local consumption and Americans with wads of RMB. The subsequent harvests are divided into various grades. The higher grades are consumed in the east. America gets grade 15, the British - grade 17, the lowest. No small irony there, eh?
We all circled around a man with a couple of large woks who was cooking the tea. Not cooking it in the sense of preparing it to be drunk, but drying it in preparation for cooking it to be drunk. He swirled it around and around in the wok with his right hand, and the tale goes that these men are known as "iron hands" because they essentially bake themselves to mummification while preparing the tea. It was quite fascinating. (Later, I wandered outside and found Iron Man wearing an Oakland Raiders cap, leaning against the wall smoking a cigarette.)
We were given badges to wear (assuming I guess that we would get lost) and shuffled off to a tea viewing room, a veritable Den of Iniqui-Tea. The grounds and buildings on the way were quite attractive, the rain giving it a bit of mystique and allure. Very peaceful and a nice place to wander around.
The tea room was comprised of a large rectangular table with chairs around the outside. In a sunken well in the center, a dozen or so empty tea cansisters stood shoulder to shoulder. I could smell a hard sell coming......
The tea hostess came in and told us the story of the tea plantation and her family and the general spiel of tea. She gave each of us a small juice glass with some tea leaves in the bottom and sent her minion around to fill it with hot water. Her instructions were to hold the tea glass with both hands placing your thumbs on the rim and your next two fingers on the bottom. Clearly, this is a position born out of necessity because the tea glass was hot enough to melt the flesh off your hands. I discovered this when like a feeble dolt I picked the glass up the way it was intended to be picked up. She further explained that they don't call it "drinking tea", they call it "eating tea" to allow one to daintily crew the stewed green vegetal matter than now clogged the spaces between your front teeth.
After tasting the tea, she had us place the glass on the table in front of us and then lower our faces down to allow the tea fumes to cleanse our eyeballs. First the right, then the left. Repeat as necessary. She explained that this was the path to good occular health. We assumed that she was just trying to see if we were dumb enough to do it. Which of course we were.
She passed around several reed plates containing dried leaves of the teas picked at various times of the year. There was a distinctive difference between the early stuff and the late stuff. The former bearing the dainty aroma of perfumed nights on Huxi, the latter smelling a lot like grass hay from the Village Mercantile. And then she offered to sell us some, hand packed. Watching her do that was a marvel - she was blindingly fast. Of course some of us bought in, the retail atmosphere being so thick that you could cut it with Iron Man's adamantine right hand. Okay, so we were separated from some dollars, but think about how excited everyone will be when we arrive at Christmas with a tin from Cost Plus loaded with Dragon Well Emperor class green tea from the hills above Hangzhou.
We wandered about for a bit and then were led to the gift shop. As if the tea hold-up wasn't enough, we were forced to run a gauntlet of clay pots, silk ties, kewpie dolls, tea candy, tea fudge, tea divinity and tea jewellry. Anything you could do with tea or silk was available to accompany your newly acquired tea collection back to the bus. Made it out of that maze with my paltry money stash intact.
The day was winding down and we headed for the bus. Three hours in the car were ahead of us and we were pretty worn out.
The ride back was memorable if only for the silliness that comes with a car load of middle-aged techno-tourists, minimal language skills, oddball senses of humor and too much time on our hands.
We passed the time working on compound words using "tea" like "quali-tea" and "uncertain-tea" and God knows how many more. Bored with that, we moved on to singing "Yi ge laohu" to the tune of Freres Jacques. I couldn't remember the last verse, but Lili knew it. Who could ask for a better guide? Those of us lucky enough to be sitting in the middle rows had a great time making fun of those jammed into the last row. The funniest bit of the day came with of our crew asking Lili to explain why she was calling him "Big Ham." He'd heard her say it to the Tea Lady earlier in the day and was wondering. Lili replied "Big Ham, you know, the English football player." We all about died when it clicked - Beckham. She was refering to his blond spiky hair. He may as well change his business cards, because that nom de guerre is never going away.
Made it back to Shanghai about dinner time, Lili dozing off for the last hour or so, thoroughly played out by this nutcase crowd. Best tour group she ever had, or at least that's what she said.
Time to close shop for the night although sleep I think will elude me for a bit. It's Octoberfest time here at the Renaissance - the front lot converted into a mini-Bremen with white tents, liederhosed imported lanky Germans, Chinese dragon dancers, polka bands and supermodels shilling Buick convertables. We've developed a phrase here of late - Bizarro World. It's the culimination of 10 days of seeing that which cannot be believed. Of sitting in the Chelsea Pub at the Sheraton eating a "focasia sandwich" consisting of prosciutto and flavorless mozarella, listening to Joao Gilberto and watching the Paris-Dakar rally on the TV. It's Julio Iglesias and Willie Nelson singing at Pizza Hut and a pink pet store crowned with a giant bone for a sign while displaying a pair of frisky poodles in the front window. Or maybe it was the furry pink handbag I saw in a window in Xintiandi last night. Whatever it is, it's beyond explanation. Which is fine with me.