Monday, September 18, 2006

Freeze dried fish in the airport gift shop

We had come to China with the intention of taking a day in Dalian, the place where we might find ourselves spending a few years of the not too distant future. But the plan was not well thought out, so we cancelled the trip en masse and decided instead that six of us would catch a domestic flight up on Friday, spend the night and return around 24 hours later.

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 d├ęcor 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.




No comments: