Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The Vancouver of Asia

I read that comparison somewhere and I have to say whoever coined it must have been in Vancouver on a day when all the nearby pine forests were on fire. The air here over the last two days is just that bad. Visibility is in the range of a quarter-mile and that nagging upper respiratory thing I developed the last time I was in Shanghai has come back in full force.

The question is – where does it come from? Some say it’s just damp marine air. Others, power plants. It’s probably not cars as there are not that many of them and the air lacks that distinctive leaded gas smell. Who knows, whatever it is it’s dense. We were joking yesterday about jumping off the roof and slowly gliding to the ground on the suspended particles.

A day of work yesterday bookended with a couple of commutes out of and into the city itself. Our driver is a great young man who speaks fluent English with a West End London accent, gained during his university studies in that city. His choice of music was interesting – Salsa and an Islamisized electronic version of Khachaturyan’s Saber Dance speeded up by 40%. On the way home it was techno-rave-house-disco dance music. We broke midday for lunch at an Italian restaurant that was really quite good. I went for Pizza Margherita, demurring on the “Pizza Moyonaisse”. The staff stood around us watching us eat and making it feel like we were a living Westerner Museum. In keeping with our exposure to varying musical styles we were regaled with ethnic instrumental versions of “Auld Lange Synge” and Mary Hopkins’ 70s hit “Those were the Days” as well as the complete Kenny G collection including his rousing rendition of “Greensleeves” and a cover of the 1961 Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen hit “Midnight in Moscow.” Local music selection I think is one of the chief contributors to the continuous feeling of bizarreness one gets while traveling.

After work we went exploring. Across the street from the hotel lies a very fancy mall – Versace, Zegna, Klein, Ferragamo – major labels in a sparkling white tiled interior. But that was not our goal, it was the celebrated “Underground City” that lies below the gritty streets. Trying to find out way there, we wandered through a meat/fish/poultry market, stopping to marvel at the various offerings - all manner of beef, pork, ox tails, eels, sea cucumbers. The ribs were like nothing I had ever seen; instead of the traditional rack we buy, these were just the spine. “Honey, let’s go out to Rudy’s for a couple pounds of spine!” Most amazing were small skewers of barbequed song birds, head and all. The smells varied from enticing to repulsing within a given aisle.

We finally found the way down to the underground and started riding escalators. Down and down we went, closer and closer to the center of the earth, stopping on the occasional floor for a brief reconnaissance. Hundreds of little 10x10 stalls lined corridors 10 feet wide and 7 feet high, all crowded with people. Everything you could imagine from clothes to jewelry to airbrushed tattoos to shoes to luggage was for sale there with no apparent logic to the order or contents. European women sat getting their nails done. Chinese women sat getting their hair curled. Kids jammed an arcade playing on the dancing machines. The sensual assault was remarkable. No shopping for me, it was too hard simply to think. Eventually I needed to just get out of there and so we returned to the street level where it was now evening.

Above the Underground City, vendors plied their wares. Different things than down below, in this case many options among telescopes and binoculars plus rows upon rows of fake antiquities. I was tempted by the selection of little bronze Buddhas but didn’t feel like haggling. Barbells for sale graced many of the small kiosks.

We made our way across Labor Park where an outdoor amphitheatre was jammed with Chinese enjoying a pair of singer/comedians doing a kind of Dean Martin – Jerry Lewis routine. It was hard to tell if they were funny, because no one was laughing. The lighting evoked the bridge scene from “Apocalypse Now.” Their singing was “interesting.” Off in the background, a steady techno beat emanated from the amusement park while bats skirted the trees above our heads.

By now it was pretty dark so we headed over to a known entity restaurant, the Café Igosso. The place was a quaint old storefront with dark wooden floors and plain, wood tables set with white linens. The menu was Italian and the choices myriad. The servers were all done up in white dress shirts and black slacks. It felt like Paris aside from the Mandarin. Continuing our musical adventure, the Buena Vista Social Club soundtrack poured Cubana music out of two single element speakers from the 1950s perched on shelves near the ceiling. Italian food, Caribbean music in a restaurant in Liaoning Province. Right.

I ordered Chicken in cream sauce on linguine with mushrooms. My companions went for linguine with clams and pizza. A Tsingtao and Pellegrino each topped it off.

The clam dish was amazing with more than two dozen little necks decorating the pile of pasta. My dish was tasty, the sauce and pasta perfect but the chicken required some analysis. The pieces were each a uniform elongated circle and about 1/8” thick with what appeared to be embossed chicken meat patterns pressed into the surface. They suggested to me a Chicken McNugget without the breading. Either someone took a lot of time to cut them the same or they were some sort of processed chicken food product that was sliced from a long tube. The first one I ate tasted odd and the second one confirmed my suspicion, reminding me of that sweet smell that uncooked poultry has about two days too long in the fridge. I checked my watch to start the 3 hour countdown to food poisoning.

We finished up and headed back to the hotel which was conveniently across the street.



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