Sunday, April 06, 2008

In an effort to minimize the effect of another 7 hour time zone shift, I slept in until the decadent hour of 9 AM. I went up and grabbed breakfast in the penthouse, which was mobbed, and ended up sitting in the smoking section as there was but one table left. Thankfully no one was smoking.

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 cloisonnĂ©, 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 CafĂ© 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.

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