Saturday, April 26, 2008
Prior to that I had another rotten night’s sleep, better though by way of my decision to strip the last of the down products off the bed. Waking up every day in a histamine coma takes its toll over the course of a week and I thought that one healthy night’s sleep warranted such drastic action. So I peeled off the sheets, removed the bed pad and the down mattress topper and rolled them up at the foot of the bed as though at camp. The topper did not inspire salubrity – it was old, yellow and covered with what appeared to be little gray pigeon feathers. At least they looked like the little pigeon feathers the lofted down from the eaves of all the old apartment buildings I’ve lived in.
That helped, but the improvement was diminished by the temperature which was still a toasty 78 degrees. In the middle of the night I got up and opened the little window and was immediately blasted with a gale force wind, so strong that the door in the room started whistling. Figuring that noise was better than an inferno, I slept fitfully that way until the wind managed to fill my room with the scent of the oil refinery across the bay and I decided that heat might be better than processed carbon carcinogens.
Looking on the bright side, sometimes it’s not so bad to start a long travel day exhausted, at least it helps you sleep on the plane. So I rolled out of bed, checked out of the hotel and took one of those great taxi rides to the airport with the trunk open due to excess luggage. The kind of ride where you expect to see your bag left behind on the road every time the driver hits one of those giant Chinese pot holes.
I know I’ve told this tale before, but checking in at the airport always is worth a mention. My flight never came up on the board at the check-in station so I just got in a line. An agent kept making announcements that caused people to scurry back and forth between lines, making me really understand how limiting it is to not have a strong grasp of the language. One of them looked at me after one of her pronouncements, smiled and laughed as we shared that realization that she could do nothing for me.
The review of my documents almost caused an international incident because the knucklehead travel agent did not book my ticket with my passport number. The agent read off what was used and I’d not heard it before, I showed her my itinerary which she pretended to read and in the end finally let me go thinking that perhaps it was enough that the name on the boarding pass matched the one on my passport.
From there it was through security where they decided to x-ray my passport (?) and off to kill some time in the gift shop where the saleswoman taught me how to say “sea cucumber” in Chinese and then went off on a 45 second dissertation in Chinese about the nature of such products. I nodded knowingly even though I did not understand 1% of what she was telling me.
Off to Beijing on a flight noteworthy only for the German sitting next to me in the center seat who was absolutely bathed in Cologne. His scent put me into yet another state of histamine shock.
The new airport was once again a marvel to look at and hard to get through in terms of timing. Much walking, long train rides and multiple passport stamps simply consume your layover. I had so little time that my lounge pass was worthless. I went straight to the gate and was told my Business Class upgrade was a pipe dream and that I was stuck in a window seat, neither being good news for someone who wants to control bathroom access.
The flight was as it was. I’d already seen Alvin in the Chipmunks twice this month so even that frothy little thing didn’t cheer me up. I just picked at my candy, ate the meals that were served and wondered when the guy in the aisle seat was going to wake up so that I could have a stretch. Eventually though it was over and landing along coastal California on a sunny day with Beethoven blasting in your ears is good enough medicine to drive you to forget even the stinkiest German.
So now I sit in the food court at SFO, polishing off my turkey and avocado on sourdough (only $8.95) and a Diet Coke (only $2.98) watching the people go buy (including one United flight attendant with purple hair) and staring at the clock, wishing that my boarding time of 11:11 would come a bit faster.
Friday, April 25, 2008
I took a lot of pictures and wanted to share the ones I found most interesting.
Thursday, April 24, 2008
As promised, I said I would get to the bottom of the Sichuan restaurant name. Bringing the napkin along, I asked my friend Ling for a translation. The answer - 川人百味 - chuan ren bai wei.
Chuan is the nickname for Sichuan. In the olden days, Sichuan was known as the province of 4 Rivers. "Si" means 4 and "chuan" means river. This came to me as a thunderbolt, hours later during a cross town taxi ride. But back to the topic at hand. 川人百味 translates as "Sichuan People Hundred Tastes", and that it is.
We spent most of the morning meeting and greeting and then moved out to the construction site for more meeting, more greeting and a tour of our part of the facility that is under construction. Punctuating that was lunch in the worker's canteen, my second favorite place to eat in Dalian. Today I had a great soup made with raw bacon, glass noodles and cabbage that cooked before your very eyes, the steel bowl being suspended above a sterno burner, bringing the concoction to a boil as you ate it. An interesting presentation. Downed it with a Diet Coke that left me reeling for hours afterwards, an effect that for some reason just doesn't seem to sink in to my thick skull. They use some different sweetener or more caffeine, but whatever it is it gives you a case of temporal displacement that is not exactly what I would call pleasant. One of these days I will learn.
During our tour we decided to have a group picture so we handed our guide our cameras and stood there while he took 8 or 10 individual shots. The indoor attempts didn't work as they were either blurry due to no flash or washed out due to the reflection from the flash on our safety gear so we repeated the entire process a second time outside.
Later in the afternoon we decided to head across town to have a visit to the HP district office for a general meet and greet with them. Ling had the receptionist call 4 taxis and the resultant argument at street side was an opera in the making. Turns out it was nearing shift change and there had been a misunderstanding about our destination (the receptionist had told them it was our hotel instead of the software park.) In the end, two went off and we took the other tour on what was to become an amazing race across a part of town that was completely new to me. Take my word for it, there is nothing like a taxi driver with his day's end in mind when it comes to generating creative solutions to rush hour traffic. We used more parts of the road than I even knew existed and maneuvers which while not completely driven by a fatal drive to keep moving, were at least motivated by a desire to call it a day.
On the way over, I was listening to Ling talk to the driver and to my surprise was actually catching some of it. I asked him a very pointed question - you folks don't care about the 4 tones, do you? His answer - not really. As I have long suspected, it's all about context and generally there are few mistakes in communicating among native speakers as long as both know what the boundaries and topics of the conversation are. I find this pretty interesting, because all of the western teaching methods beat the tonality into your head, over and over and over. Rebel that I am, I generally don't worry about it and just forge ahead. And this approach has worked for me, people more often than not know exactly what I am saying. In comparison, he told me that English training in China takes a similar approach with heavy concentration on the alphabet and memorization of sentence construction rules, whereas everyone might be better served to just grab a few words and go out there and try. I guess this is where the thoughts of educators conflict with the successes of those that have bucked their recommendations.
We had a very fruitful meeting that began with each of them introducing themselves until it came to me. I did so in Chinese, much to their amazement and delight. Andy followed in turn which prompted the most senior guy to remark that everyone at Intel must speak Chinese. That generated a huge laugh. We visited and toured their regional call centers (a huge room filled from side to side with agents sitting 4 to a desk) and then headed out towards dinner. The HP guys were kind enough to go off and come back with taxis for us.
Our driver started the show off right - he bypassed a long line of cars turning left by heading down the wrong side of the road and timing his arrival at the intersection perfectly to catch the changing light. He made his left on the outside of the cars remaining in the approach to the intersection from the cross street.
From there is was more of that style of driving, including a couple of times when I felt we were about to go under the backsides of trucks stopped in the jam.
Dinner was at the local Swissotel, a very fancy establishment across the plaza from my favorite hole in the wall, mentioned earlier. We were taken to a private room, poshly decorated in Asian-fusion by traditionally dressed young women in gold jackets and floor length red skits. Dinner was held at a 3 meter table in the center with the biggest lazy susan I have ever seen. We worked our way through 15 or 20 courses including jellfish heads (shown below), beef, sardines, vegetables, shrimp, more vegetables, a noodle dish with roe and little shrimp that I think were actually mealworms, mushrooms, slab bacon, tiny intact crawfish, cold pork sausage, a whole crab resting on a platter of baked egg custard, dumplings formed of sticky rice and sculpted to look like carrots, stir-fired clams, small pork ribs, patties made of white carrots and chopped pork that resembled corned-beef hash, and stir-fried dumplings. That plus cold local beers from large frosty bottles and a fruit cup to polish it off. In other words, just another team dinner in China.
Most of these rooms have their own toilet and this one was no exception. It was a half-circle mounted on the far wall of the room. I'd been told to check it out and so I did before leaving. It was a House of Mirrors, rest room style. Tall walls composed of 6" wide mirror slats running from floor to ceiling. All of the regular appliances of course, but with that very strange infinity effect you get from mirrors reflecting upon mirrors. Made me think I would not want to have been spending the evening drinking before entering.
As I left the hotel, a really cute, bubbly young woman approached me with a big grin and handed me a small piece of paper with her name and phone number on it. I wonder what she wanted? As an insurance, she handed one to my friend as well. Women can be so fickle.
Having eaten as much as we did, we decided to walk home and in doing so passed one of the many wedding planning storefronts in the district. Weddings are a very big business here in China and the stores are well-appointed and very chic. In the warmer months they set themselves up outside on the plaza, attracting people with blasting rap music. I prefer the more elegant approach and liked the dresses in the window of this one.
So that's it, another day and a half-dozen new food, experiences and acquaintences. The disco beat from the bar down below the hotel is reverberating off my hotel and the hour is late and thus it's time to close.
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
Pretty much a day at work today whose highlight was our driver taking us to the wrong office at the start. The Development Area is just a tad beyond my grasp in terms of me being able to recognize landmarks and call out a missed turn to a local driver. I did see a building on the way in that I remembered was the place to turn, but I was so unsure of my directional ability that I didn't call it out. Only when I was absolutely sure did I tell him that we wanted to go the other way. Comfort in these situations comes with familiarity I reckon.
For dinner tonight we decided to visit my favorite little diner in the mall, hitherto nameless. We walked as it was a nice spring evening and passed all the regular stuff in the street for sale included this box of bagged starfish, looking to my eye like something you'd find in a bin at Kay-Bee Toys listed under "plastic shellfish", the colors were just that vivid and odd. For some reason, a Chinese jet fighter was doing circles over town, echoing among the buildings. It continued during all our ambulations and was still puffing alone as I sat down to write this.
My place was packed as usual and we stood with the hostess at the door gaping for an opening. A granny at the closest table waved to the girl and told her she was done and sure enough she gathered her goods and got up and left. I thanked her for her generosity as she passed. By some trick of fate, we had the same officious waitress we had last time and this time she continued to suffer no fools. I ordered three of my favorites and got stuck on the fourth. She recommended soup which I did not like. I asked for the famous garlic green beans which she did not have. We went around and around like this until I finally picked some arbitrary dish and she agreed with the choices. I ordered one tall beer and she insisted on two. I made the universal "tall beer" signal and she stood fast, two it was going to be. She left and returned with three glasses, I having successfully managed to request that amount. She took a look at the three she had, handed me the cleanest one and gave the dirty ones to my companions. I thought that was a riot, clearly I was in charge. We'd forgotten to order rice so I added that to the list and since I had already paid, we did a complex negotiation in which my change would pay for some of the add-ons but the total outlay needed to be supplemented by a few more kuai. That behind us, the food started to appear.
Once again, that delightful dance with the mouth-numbing peppercorns. The food was pronounced as "over the top hot" by people whom I've seen soak thinks in chile oil. By my standards that sets the dinner in the "success" category.
As we wrapped up, I called my friend back over and asked her the name of the restaurant. This brought another worker into the fray and we pretty much ended up with "tri ren bai hai" which I am sure is not correct. We looked so perplexed that she brought over a napkin with the characters written on it in her hand. Nice I thought. Turned the napkin over and there it was printed in the flip side. A little research and I'll report back as to the correct name.
We'd been talking about the vaccination program, something I think is so over the top as to be downright silly. Our corporate medical service plays the scare tactic line while the US CDC offers what I consider to be far more reasonable recommendations. Rabies was the main topic of our discourse, and people seem genuinely concerned about being attacked by a frothing Pomeranian. Of course talking about one's fears brings it right up into one's face and by that logic, every dog in Dalian suddenly appeared as if on cue. It was even remarked that one had not seen a single dog until we started talking about them. I caught this shot of just such a vicious hell-hound as it tried to attack me during its evening walk.
The evening was wearing down so we decided to take a spin to the Carrefore supermarket for some drinking water. No anti-western demonstrators complaining about the treatment of the Olympic Torch here, just regular people shopping for dinner. After wandering around a bit, I determined that the only special things about it were this Chinese Jack-a-lope out front and a cleverly worded checkout sign. Aside from that it was just like every other food store I'd been in over in these parts - lots of hard to figure out products and tons of live seafood. The woman working the counter in the fish department stirred up the langostino bin, putting them into a roiling froth in order to demonstrate their freshness and aggressive nature. The tank full of doughnut sized Abalone was a bit of a shock. I reluctantly decided not to go around photographing everything, so these two are all you get.
Tuesday, April 22, 2008
After sitting around the lounge for a good spell, like 4 hours, feasting on Danish and Cheese and Crackers and a nice mix of orange and cranberry juice, we headed out to the gate to meet the rest of our party.
There was nothing exceptional about the 12 hours over except that I seem to be getting used to it. Punctuated by panic attacks and feeling of self-pity the haul actually seems to go by pretty quickly. This time, armed with a new sleep mask, I was able to literally zone out for nearly 7 hours, a personal record by a long shot.
There was only one person in my row, which is always nice, except he was one of those that does not follow the unspoken rules. He had no compunction in tapping me on the shoulder any time he wanted to get out, which was fairly frequently. At least he was polite and waited while I unstrung my iPod, took off my blanket, unclipped my neck brace and unstrapped my mask.
We landed about 1/2 hour early into a gray, misty Shanghai, weather that did not bode well for our 8:30 PM departure. Friends of mine on that flight last week spent the night at an abandoned hotel out in the swamps when their flight was cancelled. An experience that may sound worthy but one I was not in the mood for.
Given the hour, we decided to try for an early flight. So there I was again, at the China Southern ticket counter trying to find someone who would admit to being able to speak English.
After a few go-arounds, we finally agreed that there was an earlier flight and that the 3 of us could get on it. This was after many renditions of "You are reserved on a later flight." Per procedure, she wrote my new ticket number down on a scrap of paper and then sent me over to the check-in area which was, as normal, mobbed in some places but empty in others. So I walked up to a semi-empty line, one reserved for Business tickets, which I didn't have but I figured I could bluff my way through. The agent there went through all the same announcements about my later flight and then informed me that the earlier flight was limited to standby. Gee, wonder why they didn't tell me that back at the ticket counter?
We hemmed and hawed a bit and she told me to come back at 6:00 (it was now 5:40) so we moved off to the side and waited. At 5:55 I went back and the supervisor remembered me. Perhaps it was my green coat? She started yelling at the young woman who had helped me earlier which brought another young woman into the flight. Now bear in mind, no one is talking to me, they're just glancing in my direction and yelling. The supervisor motioned me over and opening a manila envelope full of paper scraps she wrote my name on one of them, the "standby list." She told me to come back at 6:10. This time I didn't leave, I just moved to the side. At 6:07, she called the three of us over and started the process of issuing boarding passes and checking bags. I got mine and headed off to security, passing through the cursory checkpoint with no problem. For some reason, I looked at my pass and realized that it didn't have my name on it - it was one of my companion's. So I headed back to the cursory checkpoint, figuring that this would be too hard to explain, and waited. Sure enough, he had mine.
Interestingly, the three of us took up a row. I've heard how Chinese airlines hold back a few seats for last minute travelers, and I guess this is how we lucked into this one.
Made it through security and down to the gate. Waited a few minutes and then the scrum began, all 125 people trying to pass through a small swinging gate to the buses waiting outside. I ended up behind a very non-aggressive Westerner who was not moving forward to my liking. Side-stepping him and using my bag as a block to my left and my elbow as a pick to the right, I bullied my way right on through.
The bus ride was quite interesting. It was very long and we spent part of it drag-racing with the luggage trains. Finding ourselves on a remote tarmac surrounded by identical white Airbus 321s, the driver appeared to be reading the sides of the plane to figure out which one was ours. He finally decided on the very last plane, stopped, got out, leaving us locked in the bus. He went up the stairs, knocked on the door and discussed something with a person on a plane who signed some form. The driver returned and opened the doors. People started running across the pavement to the plane, forming exactly the same scrum that we had just cleared. As though there were better seats to be had? I don't know, but it was chaos. Employing my blocking techniques I found myself in line behind a young woman who was so close that my head was literally pressed into the exposed flesh of her right shoulder. Down below, other things were getting pressed that perhaps should not have been given our lack of a formal introduction. Spooning here is more of a contact sport involving strangers than something you do with your partner in the privacy of your own yurt.
But I made it on the plane and through an easy flight with a fine dinner of stir fried beef, rice, carrots, pickled radish and "salted fruit kernels" (as in peanuts) and into our final destination 2 hours earlier than planned, making it all a worthwhile adventure.
Monday, April 21, 2008
Today's flight left at the unholy hour of 6 AM which meant up at 4 and out of the house by 4:40. Surprisingly, I made it with only 10 minutes to spare, the big hang-up being the security check which was absolutely mobbed. I guess people like to take to the air early on Monday morning.
I settled myself into my extra wide seat with facing a bulkhead and stretched out. The attendant brought me a nice little glass of orange juice to slake my pre-take-off thirst, such as it was. We got up in the air and the service got better from there. I guess I understand why people pay a premium for these seats, but I doubt I ever will be able to bring myself to that point, unlimited orange juice is just not that compelling.
Unlike the rest of the bunch in back, we were treated to a "snack box" which had the oddest combination of snacks. Gummy Bears, mixed nuts, pretzels with orange/rasperry mustard dipping sauce and a tin of pasta and vegetables prepared in France via the "Optimal Method" that guaranteed freshness in the absence of preservatives. None of it was really breakfast fare but I did manage to make my way through 1/2 the Bears, 1/3 the pretzels and all of the nuts, early hours be damned.
Easy flight over and down to the ground where I realized just how early it really was. The security bus from the domestic to the international terminal was not yet running, so we had to hoof it. The international security line had exactly one person in line, which was nice for a change and once through I was sad to see that the Red Carpet Lounge did not open for another 15 minutes. I guess they get up late here in the City By The Sea in contrast to Albuquequeans. So I waited and now here I sit in this comfortable cocoon drinking Lemon Tea and thinking about a second danish or banana killing the remaining 3 hours of my 5 hour layover.
5 hour layover, what was I thinking?
Saturday, April 19, 2008
Sitting in Denver International Airport pondering the remainer of the month while waiting for yet another delayed flight. DIA is the 9th unique airport I have been since venturing forth that past March 29th. Certainly a personal record. For those planning on passing through here, the best food options are located in Terminal B and the rest rooms double as tornado shelters. I wonder if men and women are expected to separate during such an event?
Aside from the largest Crocs store I've seen, the only unique thing here are the birds - little flocks of House Sparrows, ever the opportunists, living in a predator free environment subsisting on food court droppings. They sit high up on perches, tiny representations of their lofty cousins Peregrine Falcons surveying the areas under the tables for prey. A french fry, a bit of frosting from a croissant, a bit of hamburger bun. No challengers in this unique biome aside from the cleaning crew.
Looking back on the last three weeks we are that my original plan of two whole days home during the month was put asunder by the convergence of time zones, a nasty Asian virus and the bloom of the mulberry in my home town. Those three met in sort of a "perfect storm" of illness that extended my 1 day of downtime into 3 days in bed, unsure as to what the proper medicinal concoction was to deal with such a combination. As always, My Lovely Wife came through to mop my fevered brow.
Worried that this was going to scotch my plans to do the one thing I really wanted to do - visit my kids on the tail end of business in Phoenix - I experimented with all manner of over the counter medication until I finally arrived at a combination that enabled me to board a plane to Colorado on Thursday night.
It's never fun to fly when you're feeling marginal and your ears are ringing but it worked out, the only snag being my trusting nature that put me in the local toll road that promised to take me from the airport to Boulder. $2 contributed to the local economy and a wasted 20 minuter visit to the Great Plains only out a little damper on my spirits.
Picking up my youngest the next morning we started the day at Whole Foods which is still called Wild Oats in Boulder because that's where they started despite being bought out. Interestingly, the Wild Oats 6 miles down the pike is now called Whole Foods in recognition of the change. Another "only in Boulder" I guess.
Muffins and coffee and a new friend in the hyperactive barista who wanted me to tell him how to say all sorts of things in Chinese. We even did to elbow touching version of shaking hands that food service people do to avoid contamination.
From there we headed out to one of my old favorite haunts, Walden Ponds, a local wildlife refuge that was the place that got me really hooked on birding some 25 years ago.
It has really been upgraded in the intervening years and is now less of a weedy area of abandoned quarry ponds than it was back in my day. We took a long loop around checking out the birds, savoring some resplendent Cinnamon Teals and tons of other ducks. Off in the distance, a small kettle of White Pelicans wheeled over some distant lake, making we surprised and reminiscent of the first tme I saw them, some 40 miles to the east at Barr Lake.
Rounding the corner I was jolted back to the moment by many dozens of them preening and feeding in one of the ponds. A new one on me, and a testament to just how far my favorite little spot has come. We stood and watched as a dozen more flew in and joined their brethren.
From there, a little shopping and a nice discussion on the weakness of multi-wheeled luggage with the woman at the travel store followed by lunch for the 3 of us, we having collected my oldest.
By now my cocktail of drugs was dragging me down so we split for a couple of hours so that sad old dad could catch a little cat-nap.
Boulder on Friday nights is a busy place, so we were not surprised when they told us it would be an hour wait for a table at hour favorite place, Rio. We were surprised when we checked back in 20 minutes and got a lecture about how they'd been paging us for 10 minutes. But nothing was lost as the table was still there. Joined now by their two beaus, we settled in for a great Tex-Mex dinner and some good discussion about Obama's appeal to today's youth and the weird things I eat in China.
After collecting jackets we decided to go tip a pint and went searching for a bar with room for 5. We ended up at Boulder's premier Irish pub which brings me to my next personal record - I've now been in an authentic Irish Pub in 5 cities on 3 continents since the 1st of the year.
That pretty much capped the night and we headed back to my car. I was truly grateful for the fact that I would not have to burn my clothes as Boulder is completely smoke free. A far cry from many of the places I have haunted recently.
We said our goodbyes and I went back to my hotel, thankful to have such wonderful kids and more than a bit sad that I don't get to see them as much as I would like. Life deals you tough hands sometimes and it's easy to just throw in the towel. But I think I will try to play my cards more wisely as we go forward.
The third leg of my woeful health condition reared its ugly little head this morning when I was totally awake at 4 once again. Rather than fight it, I just turned on the tube, watched Batman Returns, ate a tangerine and drank a flat Diet Coke. Such is the glamorous life of the international jet set.
Left the hotel with plenty of time since I had no idea how long it would take and made my way east. Noticed for the first time that from the top of the hill at Federal Blvd. you can see Long's Peak, Mt. Evans and Pike's Peak in your rearview mirror in one sweeping vista.
40 minutes to the airport and through to security in less than an hour, leaving me with 2+ hours to ride the trains, drink coffee and make up stories about the people wandering to and fro. That plus ponder the fact that on Monday morning at 4 I am up again to start anew. Perhaps my jet lag insomnia will finally come to beneficial use. With my luck, that will be the first day I could've slept through the alarm.
Source = Blackberry
Saturday, April 12, 2008
I was doing a domestic to international transfer, so my row was a bit more difficult hoe than that of the average visitor to China’s capital. Which is a good thing since if they all had to do what I had to do, it would result in chaos.
We made it into Beijing at 9 AM after a one hour flight from Dalian. The early flight had been chose since a 3 hour layover is generally recommended for international travel. Unlike regular travel, the big birds generally fly once a day – miss it and you’re scrambling to find a hotel for the night in an unexpected port. So we got on our early shuttle and made it to what has now become the domestic side of the airport.
In the olden days, like last week, you used to fly into Terminal 1 (T1), grab your bag and take a ten minute walk over to Terminal 2 (T2) where the flights to the US and Europe depart. I always found it amusing that there were signs on the walls on these endless corridors informing you of how much time you had left to the destination. Once through the walk, it was a rugby scrum through the initial security check and then things eased up a bit.
The new process isn’t all that much different. You get your bags in Terminal 1 and start the Trail of Tears all over again. Because it would apparently be inefficient to have a shuttle to T3 leave from one of the two major domestic arrival points. Noting that there were no directions posted anywhere, we grabbed the bags and started on the way, rounding the corner to discover that the only escalator up to the second level was dead in the water. Recovering quickly, we shot over to the elevator just as it was heading up. Two Germans (what is it with these Germans?) were waiting there. Ironically, one of them was the same guy I rode down the elevator with last Sunday on my way out to the Russian Street where I saw him again. Is he following me? The lift went up to the 3rd floor and stopped there. We stood there staring at the floor indicator. Nothing was happening and I wondered why the elevator operator was not bringing it back down. We’d seen the blue suited gent operating the controls when we missed it the first time. One of the Germans reached over and pushed the button and lo and behold it came down. When the doors opened – no operator – so taking matters into our own hands, I pushed the button marked “2” and the thing departed.
Upon arrival and just for grins I went over to an information desk and asked how to get to T3 and surprisingly the young woman had the right answer, at least to the extent that it agreed with what I had been told. Funny thing though, you couldn’t really tell if she was reading from a memorized script or actually speaking English.
On and on we went, finally arriving at T2. We knew we had to go down so we sought the first escalator, and it was dead. So on to the next one which was graciously in service. Down to the ground floor and off to the right, a decision that was about to prove fateful.
We kept passing doors to the outside clearly branded as “Emergency Only” and panic was just setting in when a tiny young man in a crisp gray suit offered his help. In the words of Yoda, “Wrong direction going you are.”
A quick 180 and some more schlepping brought us to a genuine exit with a clearly marked sign that directed us to Terminal 3. Following the universal code for “go a bit and turn left” I planted my face on a corrugated steel wall where the shuttle buses should be. Gathering my thoughts I scanned the tableau and saw a gang of buses, boldly proclaiming “free service to T3.” One left just as we approached and a loud talking man with a radio motioned us towards a second one whose driver gave the international head shake indicating “no way.” Undeterred he pushed us towards the 3rd.
These were much like the shuttles that take you to rental car centers, except there was no room for luggage storage aside from on small platform with a railing around it, big enough perhaps from my bag alone. The traffic flow in the bus was interesting in itself, one seat along each side and stadium seating in the rear. As the bus filled up, the net result became obvious – people coming in the front had to scramble over the luggage jammed aisle to get to the elevated seats in the rear. For grins I started my stopwatch.
This turned out to be far more than a drive between terminals; it turned out to be a bus tour of Beijing. We exited the airport and drove on a half-completed freeway a good, long ways. We passed an Army barracks where guards in white gloves stood on half-height glass paneled daises saluting at a lone officer standing in the middle of the street talking on his cell phone. Plane Trees decked in their early spring pale green lined the cross streets. As we neared the new facility, work gangs populated both sides of the street installing landscaping. The new terminal came into view, orange roofed with huge pyramid skylights, the front bisected by a large Buckminster Fuller-style glass dome. It was quite a sight, further enhanced by the largest parking lot full of brand new taxis that I have ever seen.
We got out of the bus and I checked my watch – 20 minutes on the dot. The layover was slowly disappearing. The United counter was easy enough to find and my line was short enough to make the wait incidental. From there it was just a matter of heading to the gates whose directions were clearly marked. The place is even more incredible from the underside of the dome. The layout though is a bit weird, in order to break up the row and column feel of most interior spaces like this, they didn’t lay things out in right angles. Rather they tend to be on the bias and which makes it impossible to walk in straight lines. Instead, you’re constantly doing an up and downwind tack. It also makes the signs strange because the arrows more or less become suggestions instead of directions.
A kindly young woman in orange relieved me of my luggage shuttle and directed me to the first security check, passport and boarding pass. The cheerful guards there pointed us to the platform for the train. Train?
Two parallel light rail tubes stood side by side heading out to the gate pods. They’re bi-directional, constantly picking up and dropping off passengers at the gates and at the terminal. Ours appeared in 40 seconds, at least as the monitor claimed but not until I was reminded by yet another cheerful guard to keep my toes behind the yellow line.
On the train and out we go for a longish ride past the pods from which the planes actually leave. Got me thinking about what this would be like on the day that one train went down, in the middle, while carrying the Zimbabwe volleyball team.
On arrival we formed queues for the immigration check. That took a while as there were many serpentines but only a few officers. Once stamped you walk another 10 feet for a second immigration visit and a second stamp. That one had me perplexed. And then it was through another barrier to the actual security check with the metal detectors and the x-ray machine.
Having passed that, you’ve cleared your way to shopper’s paradise – Dior, Ferragamo, Bvlgari, and Chanel – all in individual boutiques. Lots of goods but little food, interestingly enough. It was now 10:55, a full 1 hour and 50 minutes since we began the quest making me think that we are in for some serious flight missage here on our regular run.
Trying to maximize our time we headed to the Business Lounge to grab a bite. We only had 20 minutes before boarding though so the lounge was not about to be brightened by our presence for very long. The food was ample, but cold making me wonder if I making the right choice eating it. Bolting it, I grabbed a bottle of water and we started the walk to the gate. Again cutting catty-corner across the non-straight lines, the walk turned out to be significant and we made it to the gate just as boarding started. I got in the special personal line and my companion got in the proletariat line and she actually got through the doors before I did a gross violation of the terms of my frequent flyer agreement with United. The doors at the end of the jet way formed a bit of a clog for no obvious reason until the reason became obvious. Another security check. This time it was more cheerful guards rifling carry-on bags on little tables. One guard controlled the action by sending passengers to tables as they became open. He sent me to one where a second inspector happened to be chatting with the first inspector who was going through some woman’s bag. She was not happy to throw about $300 worth of make-up in the trash having reasoned that she had already been cleared by security 20 minutes ago. I scoffed until they seized my water, the very bottle I had just picked up in the lounge.
From there it was just the usual pre-boarding nightmare of people not sitting down and doing all sorts of dumb stuff. I ended up in the Row of Hell and knew it the moment I walked up to it. The window seat dweller, let’s call him Professor Fosdick was busying himself at God Knows What standing in front of my seat. In an amazing burst of clarity he asked me if that was my place before turning to put his bag overhead into the spot that I had taken while he dawdled. He finally sat down and for a while I though we’d have an empty between us but that ended when a bunch of Chinese people on some sort of tour appeared and started filling the remaining seats. The Professor took out his 10 year old giant digital camera to snap a few taxiing shots. The Chinese Guy just stared straight ahead. The Professor never really got the whole sunshade thing, his being the only one open on the entire plane during movie time. He was using the sun to read. When night time came, he discovered that his light didn’t work and complained to the Flight Attendant who unfortunately lacked both the necessary tools and spare bulbs to effect a change while sitting in my lap. He and Chinese Guy did a little pantomime and discovered that using Chinese Guy’s lamp, he could read. At one point, Chinese Guy reached across my chest and turned my light on. I said “Mei yao!” and turned it right off, both of them giving me a look that plainly said “selfish.”
Being the Captain of the Row and the Controller of All Access, I made obvious departures for the rest room, setting the pattern for the remainder of the flight. Chinese Guy got it, leaving at the same time. The Professor though didn’t preferring to wait 10 minutes until Chinese Guy fell asleep.
From there it was more of the same and all down hill.
Reflections for the day as I pass the Aleutians – it’s going to be a fine time this August and the athletes of the world converge on that airport. I hope all those shiny new systems work reliably, because all the nice landscaping, pretty architecture and shiny new taxis aren’t going to make up for the one day those trains get sideways in those tubes.
Did I mention how yellow the air was today?
The final story of the day concerns baggage. I truly am jinxed when it comes to luggage claim. Usually I’m the last person in the area, and I know I’ve complained about it here before. And while I know you all think I imagine these things, it’s true.
When I handed my bag off to the agent in Beijing, she gave it a priority tag. First time for me and I honestly believed it might break my streak. Fourteen hours later at SFO, I positioned myself in the ideal place and waited. And waited and waited. Someone’s big black roll-around came up the chute and got sideways, blocking one of the conveyors. I pointed this out to a couple of the baggage guys and they agreed, sure it enough, it was sideways. Didn’t think all that much of it, figuring the load must have shifted to the other chute. Twenty minutes and still no bag when a maintenance guy came along, gave the ill-behaved bag a kick, climbed down the chute to into the guts of the system and fired it back up. And then the bags began to flow, mine, the “priority bag” was about 6th off the belt. It had been sitting down there in the basement waiting to come up to the light. Makes you wonder why, when a conveyor shuts down some really annoying bell doesn’t start ringing.
So next time I whine about my baggage curse, consider that little morality tale.
Friday, April 11, 2008
We decided to spend the final night on this tour doing the genuine expat abroad thing. A sausage dinner in the brewhaus and a trip to the downstairs hotel bar. It was so hard to beat last night's authentic meal, and the follow-up soup I had today in the worker's canteen - based on those devilish little peppercorns - were hard to top. So rather than try we decided to go full bore western.
The Pauliner was as smoky as ever, populated by well-heeled locals out for a big Friday night. Dinner was its usual self - giant beers, Pretzel Tree of Carbs, lard, wurst and mustard spreads, breaded veal and onions and Black Forest Cake. The band, your archetypal 3-piece Filipina oldies generator started off with Average White Band and went down from there. Tonight though, no slo-mo bar brawl like last time. The gals wore orange instead of lime green for a change.
We bailed from there early and decided to hit the F2 Bar at out hotel. And this is where my education starts - I've never, ever spent any time with the working girls of the world.
The place was Dantean - loud, dark, smoky, loaded with young Chinese doing God-knows-what at couches in niches along the outside. The bar formed a big ellipse. One side - expat businessmen. Other side - local businessgirls. Girls of every ilk from girl-band emulating 20 year olds up to very elegant looking 30ish women in black. The most aggressive one was probably in her early 20s and trying really hard to work the floor, yet getting rebuffed at every stop. It must have been too early for the men. Overall it brought a perverse high school dance to mind, but with much, much more at stake. Got me thinking that this same thing was going on in varying degrees at a thousand bars in every corner of the world at this very minute. I'd seen it in the movies, but this time I was a bit player.
This band came on missing one Filipina and proceeded to cover a slightly more aggressive brand of music, including the "Are You Ready for Some Football" song. Thankfully, the live music put an end to the over-amped Beyonce music videos blasting from the flat panels. I wonder how someone ends up at this, the last stop on the train to nowhere with a career playing for a boozy crowd of lonely people far, far from home. Do you suppose they call home to their mothers and tell them that they've made it with a really big-time gig?
Hung around for a while until the smoke said "go home" and so I did. It was early - pre-10 - and to my count, not a single love connection had been negotiated. The girls sat there sadly hopeful as the boys sat with downcast eyes, staring in their beers and wondering just how far they were willing to take it.
Thursday, April 10, 2008
Tonight we went to my favorite restaurant. Don't even know the name of it, but it's easy enough to find in the basement of the Victory Plaza shopping mall. VP is a pretty fancy place - Armani, Burberry, Omega, Choppard - and this little spot is not what you'd expect to find in such upscale digs. It's more like a diner, very low rent and I've never seen a foreigner in there. Such is China though where the sublime mixes easily with the quotidian.
We were last here in January following our freezing trip to the Lushun Buddha. That day we had one fluent person with us so most of the work was done. Tonight, I filled that role, one which daily is becoming mine and mine alone. This place does have pictures menus (recall the shots posted on my last visit) but that's about it. There is no English on no one and so the challenge is set.
We ordered a mess of plates, one giant beer, Cokes all around and a couple of bottles of water. For some reason, our rendition of "bottle of water" renders the servers dumbstruck. We're going to have to work on that one. You pay before you eat and the food is on the table just as soon as the money changes hands.
It would be a gross understatement to say the food is good, because it is so much better than good that the words escape me. A couple of pork dishes, Chicken with dried peppers and those nasty little mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns, green beans bathed in garlic, a truly unique rendition of sweet and sour chicken (no sweet sauce, rather a soy-vinegar mixture) and the nostalgic favorite, Hot and Odd Taste Sheep. All served up with bowls of white rice doused with canned corn.
Three-of the way fourths through the meal, the "hair challenged" fellows were working up a bright patina of sweat on their shiny domes which brought by a steady stream of server girls, checking them out and giggling. I caught more than one pantomiming the story with a hand brushing over their heads to their friends behind the counter. They saw me and broke into the biggest smiles. The napkins were pretty much single ply toilet tissue which made the mop up difficult.
Second round was another chicken and pork dish, simultaneously steaming and spicy hot. It was a tough call as to which was the best, but I think that chicken dish with the peppercorns continues as my favorite.
Total for the evening, 180 kuai or about 30uS for dinner for 5. A one litre beer and a bottle of water was $1.
As the week winds down, I'm glad to make it into places like this. It's far easier to do the pizzas and chicken sandwiches and other close approximations to western food, eschewing the chances to go out and eat with the regular people. But taking the extra step always pays off, even if it's only with a numb mouth.
Wednesday, April 09, 2008
We love this place, it's muy autentico - populated at lunch time by workers from the Kafaqu - development zone - and with nary a foreigner in sight.
We barged in as usual and declined a private room, preferring instead to sit upstairs on the main floor. In the past they had a great book-style menu with nice big pictures that had apparently been replaced with a single sheet under the glass table top. We whined and received an old one as there was no way we were going to get anything from the new one. The pictures were just too small. I stood up and took charge and managed my way through ordering chicken pork, "sheep" and shrimp dishes while having a good laugh with the server. When we thought we had enough, she decided to go over the list with Matt and I jumped in telling her that he didn't speak a lick and that I had plenty of Hanyu to go around. So she came over and ran down the list with me and although I had little clue about what she was reading, I at least appeared to be in complete control of the situation.
The food came and it was outstanding as were the Cokes, extremely sweet due to their use of sugar instead of corn syrup and just like they used to taste at the soda fountain, 100 years ago. A little more back and forth with our pals and then it was back outside and off to work.
Tonight was team dinner night at a local expat-owned restaurant and food far more like that I'd have on the far side. A blood red sirloin, bread, wine, haricot vert and a nouvelle desert tray.
No question which I prefer, not knocking the excellent presentation at dinner, but there is simply something special about struggling to remember what "Yang", "Zhu", "Niu" and "Ji rou" mean when it comes to ordering food. It consistently cracks me up that Pinyin for shrimp translates as "little people" and that I can spit this stuff out on demand.
We brought my pal Ling into town tonight for the team event and I was bantering back and forth with him and our driver, Mr. Wang. Ling finally said, "I don't think it's such a great idea to teach all these laowai (foreigners) Chinese." Which brought a road of laughter in the car. I asked him how he thought I was doing and he said, "fine, it just takes me a few seconds to realize you are speaking Chinese."
We made him an honorary Laowei.
A few pictures below just for entertainment. The watermelon carver sitting in the hotel lobby was amazing.
Tuesday, April 08, 2008
By my rising time of 6, the fog and grown and enveloped everything, even the second tower of the hotel. The two pictures below, taken about the same time of day, one on Monday and one today show you what I am talking about. Pea soup at its finest. It lasted all the way out of town to work, some 40 kilometers away.
As always, work days do not produce many grand and interesting stories, but if you keep your eyes open and your wits about you, some things pop into view. For example, the notion of "driver."
We're not allowed to drive here for a variety of reasons, most of them valid. So we get drivers. Generally we're in boring minivans, but on occasion we go out with an expat in their personal car, some sort of black sedan. You see these all over town and sometimes they're foreigners, sometimes they're well-heeled locals and sometimes they're party officials.
Today we went to lunch at a small place in the DDA, I drove over with Lin in his black Buick. Our driver pulled us into a courtyard and up on the sidewalk, exiting to hold the door for us. The restaurant was empty and we sat by the window with a good view of the outside. Sitting there, another black sedan pulled up and four other men, all westerners (probably more Germans) slid out and headed our way. Ironically they were all dressed in Euro-black duds and were a little scruffy. A few moments later, along came another black car with three similar guys. The drivers pulled the sedans over to the side, next to each other and stood there smoking and laughing. We all sat inside looking like bad guys eating our Italian food. The one and only thing that popped into my mind was that we all looked like a bunch of gangsters, Russian probably, out for a tete-a-tete in some local cafe, away from the prying eyes of the public and law enforcement.
Two more little moments piled onto that vision. I waited a long time for my Pizza Margherita and when it finally came, it was plain cheese. I pointed this out to the waiter who barely understood me, I didn't really care but I didn't want someone else's lunch. They were very slow today, what with all the gangsters to serve. He did that head-shaking big smile grin thing and went and grabbed the menu. He opened it up and pointed to the Margherita and pointed saying "yes, yes, yes." This despite the fact that the photo in the menu looked absolutely nothing like what I had in front of me. I nodded, smiled and just ate it.
The last thing worth mentioning was the neighborhood cat that came to sit on the ledge outside the window. Pretty good looking and fat, sort of a Russian Blue, it was enjoying the sunny spot. One of the cooks came out of the back and stooped down to pet it. And then did the most unusual things - she grabbed both front legs in her left hand and both back legs in her right hand and picked the cat up. I'm thinking if I did this to my cat, I'd have a bad case of bloody shreds instead of skin. But the cat just sort of mellowly took it. The woman bent the cat back and forth and up and down and finally sat it down on the step where it stretched back out for a nap. Most amazing cat, not sure if it was being sized up for the dinner course of it it was just the local mascot.
Monday, April 07, 2008
And speaking of work, I had plenty of it today including a decent tour of the construction site. This of course mean little of interest from a blog standpoint, but as is often the case, dinner trumps all.
We decided to make it easy tonight an visit Pizza King, an old haunt from visits of the past. It's smack across the street from the Shangri La, the food is good and it's just plain simple. Besides, where can you get a pizza and a mug of beer in a pizzeria with live entertainment belted out in a grand piano? The menu provides some gems, as seen below -
The food is good, but the entertainment is what it's all about. Our chanteuse opened with "The Blue Danube", moved into a sprightly set of ragtime, then on to a strange cover of Dylan's "Don't Think Twice It's All Right" then off to some undecipherable pop tunes, a cover of the Carpenter's "Close to You" that had us all in tears, longing for home. She closed the first set with the the theme from The Sting, whatever the heck that song is called. After a break she returned with "Auld Lange Syne" and then more indecipherable pop tunes and it was time to head out the door, an evening well spent in being entertained.
Sunday, April 06, 2008
From there, I decided to gear up and head out into the street for a walk around town. When I arrived yesterday, spring was in the air. The temperature was mild and although the sun was somewhere up above the haze, there was no threat of rain. No such luck today, it was cold, windy and the clouds were lurking. Not dissuaded, I zipped up and headed on down Renmen Lu.
There was not a lot to look at over the first couple of kilometers, just an endless line of tall buildings. Construction at one site - a big condominium project – proclaimed an honor roll of forthcoming stores. Prada, Armani, Dior, Vuitton and other luxe brands. The diet for high end luxury goods here is China continues to amaze me.
Marching along and trying not to get hit by cars during my frequent street crossings, I heard a very loud racket that sounded like a pile driver on a construction site. Only the beating was rhythmic suggesting it was either a crew with a musical sense of humor or something else. I took a quick left and went up a side street and found the source – a band of people in traditional Chinese costumes beating on very large kettle drums. The sight was quite amazing, reds, yellows, tall flower arrangements framing them on the sidewalk. It was not obvious what they were celebrating – they were simply positioned in the middle of a street with no many people around. It clearly wasn’t a street festival, just a band in a neighborhood. But it was loud, a young girl wandered by in front of them, hands covering her ears. Car alarms were going off up and down the street due to the concussions. I watched for a while and ambled on.
My first goal for the day was the Russian Tourist Street. The name has intrigued me for some time and I decided today was the day to find it. I had a vague idea where it might be, so I headed off down some side streets and sure enough found it in no time.
The architecture is pure Northeastern Russian, and presents an odd contrast to the bleak northern China industrials district that surrounds it. I’m not sure of the history, or if it’s even old. Information on the web suggests that it a renovated version of the first avenue constructed in the city. It doesn’t look particularly old, or authentic, and perhaps that’s the result of the renovation and Wikitravel says that the buildings are authentic representations of what it looked like at one time.
It was pretty uninspiring, but an interesting stroll. There were numerous little stalls along the promenade selling all the regular Chinese stuff – telescopes, binoculars, pearls, plastic toys, entrenching tools, leather goods – as well as more Marushka Dolls than I have ever seen in one place. An apparent nod to the Russian history of the place, it makes me think there is a giant Marushka factory somewhere here in the north. There was also a large collection of cloisonné, compacts, combs and other personal effects. I watched a western woman wander up into the grounds of a boy’s school at the end, she had that normal pie-eyed, necked craned posture that you see on tourists everywhere as they try to look fascinated by whatever they are staring at. I turned around and headed out, passing a large group of German tourists that had apparently been dropped off by a bus. I recognized many of them from my hotel. I took a picture of the group but decided that one picture of German tourists might be enough for two days of blogging.
From there I decided to get lost in a literal sense, heading off into some genuine areas bordering the tourist trap. There is something liberating in going off into a part of the city with no map and no GPS, even if you can still navigate by occasionally catching a glimpse of the giant TV tower that looms above Labor Park.
I passed this doorway shortly after turning the corner and realized it more or less symbolized how I was feeling today – bleak. The city was grimy, the sky gray and the air cold. But moving on I realized I was heading into areas more interesting to me as a walking explorer and so my spirits inched up a notch. I find neighborhoods off the beaten track to be what I really enjoy while visiting places. Even in the US, it’s often fun to wander around the city you’re in and just check out where people live. Same thing here and everywhere else I go.
The architecture in this district was pretty intriguing. Big old houses that at one time must have been home to the city’s prosperous class. Now, they’re run down hulks, broken up into so many little hardscrabble flats. I imagine that they will eventually be razed and replaced with even more high-rise towers, so common here in the cities. But for now they capture a transitional phase - leaving a gilded past and moving through a grimy mid-life onto eventual destruction. I find them fascinating.
As a westerner, these districts are the places where you get the odd looks. I imagine those who dwell here can’t understand why you would be wandering these mean streets which offer nothing more that daily life. Passing down one lane, a woman stood in front of a doorway staring at me as I passed by. She slowly turned and went in a door. I stopped, took a picture and then reversed my course. She had been replaced by a man who was surprised at my change of direction and was now trying to look like he had not been looking at me. He too turned and went into the door, closing it behind him. The first picture, of the gent in the green running suit is my favorite.
I really like taking pictures of people doing their regular things, but I feel it’s not particularly polite. So I look for opportunities to do it on the sly.
Moving along, the interesting buildings were disappearing so I decided to head back up into the modern part of the city. I’d been walking for about 2 hours and it was getting to be time for a break.
Dalian is a bit like our seafront cities of San Diego and San Francisco in that the all have these steep, urban hills leading up from the waterfront. Trudging up them, the sights became less interesting, but a few things caught my eye. I found myself at the train station whose parking lot was loaded with tourist busses. It must be a common Sunday practice to catch a ride into town. A long line of them made me think of caterpillars sleeping side by side in the sun, their rear-view mirrors taking the place of drooping antennae.
The second shot is of a sleeper bus. A new on me, the interior sides are lined with cots on steel frames. You can see the pillows through the window. The last picture is some sort of advertisement on a bus shelter, I liked the old-style representation of the horses.
Finally making it up and out of the waterfront area, I crossed the street into the neighborhoods behind Labor Park. I passed a temple and was accosted by beggars, this apparently being the best place to collect money. There was a large golden, multi-armed Buddha in a shelter out in front and you could smell the incense wafting over the walls. The front gates were closed, but a side door was open. I did not go in, feeling somehow like I did not belong there. Normally I love temples, but today I felt like an intruder, a feeling I rued as I walked along.
I walked down that street took a turn and found myself in a gated neighborhood that led out to the park.
Spring has not quite sprung here yet and the grounds were a mix of warm and cold. Forsythia and Cherries were blossoming along with this beautiful white Magnolia tree. The rest of the plants were still in their winter clothes. About this time, it began to rain and reaching for my hood, I realized it was still in my suitcase where I’d left it for my plane trip. As it grew stronger, I became envious of the person below, sheltered by their raft of balloons.
By the time I hit the gates, it was raining really hard and the wind was back in my face. My brand new Patagonia jacket proved itself to be literally waterproof as promised. As did my shoes, reminding me that you can put up with a lot if your feet are warm and dry. But my hoodless head was another story and my hair was soon soaked, so much so that it was now running down my forehead and dripping into my eyes. I decided that this was probably enough exploring for the day and decided to head to the Starbucks near my hotel. It continued to pour and I continued to get soaked, the front of my jeans giving a good indicator of what happens when water rolls down off of a water-shedding jacket. I knew there had to be a flaw in my design.
After a bit more of a soaking I arrived at the coffee shop and ordered a traditional Chinese lunch of Café Americano and a chocolate-chocolate-chip muffin. The young man at the counter asked me if I liked walking in the rain. I told him I’d like it a lot more if I had my hood. He promised me that the weather would be better tomorrow.
Hanging out there for a bit was nice. They had a disk on that was a combination of classical and Brazilian guitar and there were few customers aside from a young man typing on his computer a few tables a way. His style was just as loud as mine, a fact that will undoubtedly amaze those who have sat near my while I bang away. An hour there and it was time to head back. Leaving the building, I was re-apprised of just how cold and damp it really was. I put it in cruising gear and got back to my place in only a few minutes.
So now I sit up in the penthouse having a traditional Chinese snack of Peppermint Tea, Danish butter cookies, shelled peanuts and tangerine. It’s getting dark outside the window and the rain continues, unabated. Guests wander in, talking in Chinese and what’s become my second language of the trip, German. I might have to try and pick that one up next.