Monday, June 09, 2008

Well it's good to be home

As is turned out, I was seated next to a young Chinese woman on my flight from San Francisco to Albuquerque. She was on her first trip to the US, traveling here for training on some sort of instrument that she supports in Beijing. Seems my opportunities to practice my Chinese are becoming more constant and varied.

This trip is over, and I am glad of it considering the amazing craziness of the last two days. It's nice to be back on my regular time zone and I have to say my judicious use of No Jet Lag has done its job. I always feel better when I remember to take it. I'll be staying home for a month before heading out again. My annual ranch hand gig kicks in next week and so, I'm home with the horses.

In closing out this adventure I wanted to share a few photographs, not really cultural in nature, but oh so Chinese in their own way. Just a few things I encountered while roaming around.

You don't see many dogs in China. Unlike Mexico, it's very unusual to encounter those rangy strays wandering around the city. On a rare occasion, not even daily, you do see people out walking them in the parks and neighborhoods. You do see a few fluffy Pekingese and Pomeranians, the appropriate dog for the vast amount of apartments here in town. I have seen one Husky up in Dalian and one very large Great Pyrenees crossing the street near our hotel. But often, what you see are big, beautiful, impeccably groomed Collies. It takes you back a bit because you simply don't see them in the US like you did 40 years ago. I took a quick shot of this one being walked by its master across the street from my hotel in Pudong.

Another thing you find here, especially on the front of upscale bath houses and clubs is an Asian interpretation of Ancient Rome. I have seen Praetorian Guards in Dalian, and Gladiators in other places but this one, in the north of Shanghai near the Jade Buddha Temple really kind of takes the cake.

Another shot of the roof of Terminal 2 at the airport. Vast sweeping lights suggesting the leaves of lilies.

This guy is the mascot for the upcoming World Expo being held in Shanghai in 2010. You see him everywhere from printed advertising to cartoons shown on the subway. His name is Hai Bao here and here he is greeting you as you enter the airport.

And lastly, Chinese signs are known the world over for their interesting transformation when translated. I've seen so many goofy ones, but this one is one of the best. Taken in the men's room at a local research park, I guess scientists not only need to be reminded, but in a manner that involves measurement, precision and specific requirements. Ladies, a forbidden glimpse into the lives of men.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Well, if you wish really hard, and click your heels together, the plane takes off

At least ours did, on time.

There was a general feeling of geniality on the plane, we'd all been through an adventure and we were now all headed home. The story from those who opted for the free night's stay at the airport was variable, "Not bad", "I've stayed at worse", "Mirrored ceiling and round bed", "Last night's dinner was today's breakfast". I had no such interesting remarks, my stay was up to the regular Renaissance standards.

So let me tell you about business class. It's really just like the regular fare except that it's bigger and there is far more of it.

We started out with a drink and a little bowl of warmed nuts. The latter brought to mind a recent piece in The New Yorker by David Sedaris in which he carries on quite a bit about the nuts in Business Class. I'd like to use the cheerful chipmunk analogy that he crafted so well, but that would be stealing from my writing hero so I will instead use something more close to home - I felt like a cheerful Ground Squirrel. There is something clearly special about taking a can of generic mixed nuts, warming them up and putting them in a little bowl. Special enough for the 30,000 miles this upgrade cost me? Well, I'd have to say "yes."

Dinner was preceded by the placing of the white linen tablecloth on the folding tray table. Dinner itself was filet mignon with gratin potatoes and green beans. Dinner was really, really good and complemented nicely by the bottomless glass of French red wine that happened to appear on my white linen table cloth. Desert was a nice little chocolate hazelnut mousse layer cake and a nice little glass of Sandeman's Porto. Porto, yes, I said Porto.

I settled in and watched 10,000 BC on the little personal video screen and messed around with the various adjustments on my chair. The movie was a riot - cave men fighting Egyptians on horses when not mutually fighting Saber Toothed-tigers or giant dinosaur like running bird things. The birds reminded me of a paper published in Scientific American by our chum the paleontologist Larry Marshall describing the fossil record for South American "terror birds." I think these are what the director had in mind.

Growing weary of mindless entertainment, I put my chair as flat as it would go and tried to nod off. I was doing well until the guy next to me turned on his reading light and scorched my retinas right through my closed eyelids. I guess you can put the hayseeds into the $7000 seats, but you can't put $7000 behavior into the hayseeds.

Finally got tired of trying to sleep so I watched the rest of the episodes of The Tudors that I had loaded and then it was time for a snack, personally designed just for me. Bleu Cheese, Cheddar, crackers, grapes, Kit Kat and that little lemon cookie that normally comes with the Ramen that apparently we don't get up here. Boy, that's a miss! Back to matters at hand, I noticed that the guy next to me was watching Dr. Zhivago with subtitles (in English) so I was able to watch all the critical scenes in that movie while watching my own.

A little more iTouch video and a little more attempting to nap and then it was time for breakfast. Fresh croissant, omelet, fresh fruit, endless breakfast tea and lots of orange juice.

We landed on time and I was first down the lane to immigration, one of the benefits of being in the front of the plane. Of course, all the classes are instantly equalized when it comes to the baggage check as we all had to wait for the carousel to deliver our goods.

In review, I'd have to say I enjoyed my time there and perhaps I will get lucky again. But it wasn't so remarkably special that it changed my view on travel. Sure, you're pampered and sure, you have some extra space to stretch out in but in the end you're still trapped in an aluminum cylinder for 12 hours surrounded by people who don't know how to behave in groups. In one way I found it a little less enjoyable - you have so much blank space around you that it's hard to keep track of your stuff. And that is something that drives organization nutcases to abandon.

One last little tidbit - the guy next to me told me as we were landing that today's Flight 858 was cancelled before leaving Shanghai for air conditioning problems. Seems that they gave us the new plane and moved the repaired one into today. Another bunch of travelers about to have another adventure.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

2 days into a 1 day trip

After a nice evening spent drinking Kirin beer and eating some Chinese lamb chops in the Pudong Renaissance lounge, I got a good night's sleep and made preparations to head back to the airport.

Our cab had one of those bogus meters you hear about, charging probably 2 times the correct rate. You read about them once in a while in the Shanghai newspaper "Black hearted cabbie steals from kind visitors." The fare was 60% higher than last night's despite the fact that he was driving like a bat out of hell, playing chicken with another cab from his company.

We arrived and got into the special line for our special departure. Turns out they kept the plane here, got a new crew and decided to send us back as an intact group. Easier than re-booking 300 people I guess.

Once again, it was chaos. No one at the special gates really knew what they were supposed to do. Someone had come up with the brilliant idea of pre-printing all the boarding passes, a nice idea if everyone lined up in alphabetical order. But since we didn't they had to deploy a second crew of agents to run around and grab the correct pass and deliver it back to the agent handling the passenger. After me they got wise and started asking the second passenger in line for their information so that they could pre-stage the pass. I was handed a survey, a printed letter apologizing for the inconvenience and a pass to the 1st Class lounge. Through security, we ran there figuring it was going to get real busy as all those people checked in.

Now we wait for the day to unfold. Next blog, by phone from the plane.

Did I say something worth writing about?

Well, I had no idea just how portentous those words were going to be.

Not five minutes after the refueling announcement, a forlorn voice came on and told us the flight was cancelled, and apologized for any inconvenience that might cause. Right, 300 US bound people perhaps being inconvenienced by sitting in a hot plane for 4 hours and then being asked to leave.

From that moment on, my life was forever changed. Those of us who had elected to pass the time hanging out on the plane were lucky - we got to grab our stuff and make it up the jet way in opposition to all the people whom had left and now had to go back to collect their goods. Like a few renegade salmon fighting the throng of their cousins heading upstream. At the top of the ramp, we stood queued before the tiny crew elevator until someone showed up to lead us out to immigration and that is where the true chaos began. Everyone just jammed up against the 3 lanes that were open creating a vast, unmoving jumble of people. The Global Services people, United's top class were pulled off and sent a different way. We just inched forward until I took the lead and peeled off to the outside, finding a line that was actually moving. While waiting, I called the American Express emergency line and made reservations on a plane tomorrow and checked myself into a hotel in Pudong. The only flight tonight was $5600 so clearly that was out. When I made it to the counter they checked my passport and collected my boarding pass and sent me through, with no instructions as to where to go. We came to a small door in the security wall where a guard refused to let us pass, having not been told to open up for the abandoned flight. She finally relented and let us through and having cleared it, everyone began to run to the next scrum, the United counter. Half the agents were yelling and telling us to go get our baggage, the other half had us forming lines. I finally bullied my way to a counter so that I could at least hear what was going on. Multiple Americans were just standing there yelling as though talking louder was going to make it go faster. A Chinese agent was trying to make an announcement using a handset that kept going in and out. A Chinese man in line was screaming at her telling her that no one could hear. She switched phones to the same problem, but it finally started to work and when she switched to English I managed to get all of it - take a voucher for the free hotel, go get your bags and leave, come back tomorrow at 10:30 and you'll have the same seat on the regularly non-scheduled flight that will be leaving at noon. A young man stepped out from behind the counter and began handing out blank boarding passes, the ticket to the free hotel. I took one for grins, knowing I had no plans to use it and went off to find my bags.

Downstairs, we had another small scrum when we were all sent through the staff security door. I only found it because I happened to recognize some people from our flight. Apparently since we had left the safe zone, we had to be re-checked albeit this check was pretty cursory. We stood there joking with some guys in line about having to chug the bottles of duty free Scotch Whisky since we had left the enterprise zone. Once through the check it was off to collect our bags and mine just happened to be waiting for me for a change. My Zero Halliburton karma continues to flow. Too bad I don't have any for air conditioners and refueling connectors. Out to the taxi stand where a short thin driver wearing Ray Ban Wayfarers in the pouring rain agreed to take us to the hotel. A long haul on a gray night across a mostly abandoned Pudong, we joked when the Maglev train went blowing passed that we were doing nothing more than retracing this morning's path.

So here I sit now in the penthouse of the Pudong Renaissance contemplating the vagaries of international travel and wondering what tomorrow will bring. Will I have that business class seat again, or will I be stuck once more in 34G with the Indian woman who took my place? Will the plane even go?

Reflecting on today, in my estimation this was a complete disaster mishandled in so many ways as to defy one's imagination. This is a major airport and this is a major airline and yet no one seemed to know what to do with what must be a fairly common occurrence. It was almost as though they were improvising as we walked along, all 300 of us. In this modern age that, in my estimation is inexcusable.

And sadly for you, the events of the day pretty much pushed aside all the good characters I was going to describe. Like the really big guy in an Olympics t-shirt with the greasy gray comb-over who sneezed loudly without covering his nose and was seen later walking up and down the aisles knitting something in burgundy yarn. Yes, knitting. Or my row mate in business, a young tech nerd listening to Phantom of the Opera on his iTouch and doing so with absolutely no irony whatsoever.

It was a full day, just not full of the things I might have chosen.

Travel delays

So we boarded the plane with the typical efficiency. After lining us up behind a clearly marked sign, they switched to another entrance at the last second, causing a mad crush.

And once again they seized everyone's freshly purchased water, causing some very unpleasant racial remarks.

I had chosen to forgo a center seat in the better cabin, electing instead to take a aisle seat up front. I had also requested a Business upgrade but had been told at check-in that Business was over sold. So I boarded with the first group and tucked myself into my tiny hole. Ten minutes or so passed before a woman came along and told me that I was in the wrong seat. I showed her my pass and sure enough, we had same seat. She went off and got an attendant who informed me that I had won the lottery - a seat in business.

It's been more than 20 years since I worked for a company kind enough to let me fly in the better seats. And in that time, boy has it gotten better. Plenty of room, better food choices, kind attendants, a chair loaded with gizmos, a little bag with slippers and toothbrush, if word ever gets out, the underclass is going to riot. Settling in, I felt like a complete dweeb because I had brought so much stuff with me, things that are necessary to barely survive back there in the poor section.

We got underway and taxied out to the strip. And the we turned around and parked. Seems one of the air conditioners was not working. 5 minutes they said while they fixed it and topped off the tank.

That was almost 4 hours ago. They finally had to unload the plane because without air it was quickly becoming unsafe. It took a long time to get a jet way up to the plane and the people from the back of the plane, allowed to get off first due to the heat in the back, just stood there melting.

I got off and went up the ramp just to stretch and watch the events at the top. Some apparently important 1st class passengers were being met and led away by UA agents. The local girl, holding the door told us to bring our carry on bags, in complete disagreement with what they were saying on the plane. At one point they announced we were cancelled, then they took it back. Now we're told we're refueling.

It's a pretty weird thing being on a plane with no lights and no power. It keeps coming and going because they are apparently trying to reboot the fueling system. It's dark and more than a little spooky and because of this and the lack of people, it feels like you're somewhere you aren't supposed to be.

So I'm sitting here having a Coke and eating miniature Kit Kats and pondering how far I have come personally as a traveler. Used to be I'd be getting stressed and depressed when it was obvious that my connecting flight was long gone and that I was flying into the unknown. Now, I just don't care, it's just another day at the office and another adventure, that, good or bad will almost certainly be worth writing about.

Source = Blackberry

Friday, June 06, 2008

Shanghai-Pudong Airport Terminal 2

Writing here from the new Terminal 2 at PVG. My first time out of here, having come in to this one last Monday. But you don't really get to see too much arriving.

We took the cab out to the Shanghai Maglev Museum for the ride into the airport on the train. Why they call it a "museum, I do not know since it's just a train station. It's their place though and they can call it whatever they want.

The train ride is always fun, especially so when you have first-timers along with you. It roars along between 300 and 400 KPH, or 180n and 240 MPH, across the Yangtze delta. The view out the window is of small blocks of stone houses with those special Chinese roofs, embellished with the little turn-ups on the ends. We pass many small truck farms, today green with the beginnings of this year's vegetable crop. Dotting the plain are small impounded ponds, today frequented by fishermen with long bamboo poles, angling for today's midday meal. The contrast between rural life and this aluminum snake blasting along 20 feet above the ground is unique. We bank and we go straight and the silence is only broken when the train on the opposite track passes us, it laden with incoming passengers from airports around the world.

I am sitting now in the lounge. I find more and more that these little special traveller environments are reasons only to load up on cheap carbs and drink some water or coffee. Or, the option most people elect, free beer and wine. As much as I try to be open to drinking like this, I just don't get putting a buzz on in advance of a 12 hour plane flight. Aside from the pastries, there are also many other unappetizing things like brown noodles and sushi, two more things that make no sense to me when considered in the light of our upcoming travel.

The new terminal is quite stunning. I've put a shot at the end of the ceiling, because airport ceilings seem to be something that the Chinese architects do very, very well. All the major airports I have passed through over here offer an architectural marvel overhear. The rest of the place is just acres and acres of slippery brown marble tile.

Compared to Terminal 1 though, this one is heaven. It is not yet crowded, the stores are new and well-stocked and the general feeling is much more positive. Terminal 1 was an odd mix of lofty design and poor execution on the necessities. This one seems to have gotten it right.

One hour and 15 minutes to boarding, time perhaps to go and wander around and escape the unwanted attention of those chocolate-chocolate-chip muffins.

Jade Buddha Temple

We wrapped up work in the early afternoon and headed out one last bit of sightseeing. I've been to two of the three major temples in Shanghai - Longhua and Jing'an but for some reason I had never been to the Temple of the Jade Buddha. The story goes that the temple was constructed in 1882 as a home for two precious Buddha, made entirely of jade that had been brought here by a monk. The original site was destroyed during the final throes of the Qing Dynasty but rebuilt in 1928. The Buddha thankfully survived.

The subway was our conveyance of choice so we hoofed it over to Louguanshan Station and grabbed the 2 line to our crossover point at Zhongshan Park. Once arrived, the walk between the stations, all stairs, turned out to be about as long as it would have been had we chosen to skip the first leg on the train. Finally we got there, waited a few minutes and the train came along. It was crowded, Andy and I got squeezed in by some high school girls who kept saying something about English and spent most of the time giggling and comparing the size of their forearms and their skin tone.

Six stations down the line we parted ways at Zhongtan Station in the midst of a big city of fancy high rises. You could tell by the cars and the neatness that his is where the more prosperous live. The buildings were situated along an es curve in Suzhou Creek and there happened to be an old steamer bringing a load of logs down to somewhere along the Huangpu. Kind of an odd contrast.

One way you known you're in a more well-heeled part of town is by how crowded the streets here. They were empty, which is always a nice break from the bustle on your average road.

We headed off cross-country and finally made it to the block where the temple sat. After an abortive attempt to enter via the automobile gate we found our way around the block, purchased tickets ($2.50) and went inside. A young man came up and introduced himself and told us that photography was allowed in the front part of the complex but not beyond. I went over and prayed at the Happy Buddha and he asked me if I was a Buddhist, he having noticed that I knew the proper position and hand motions. He said he watches westerners praying the wrong way all the time. I told him I did not practice much in the US but that I enjoyed doing it here both for personal reasons and for respecting the Buddha. He liked my answer and he liked my Chinese.

A group of monks came out and chanted while worshipers threw bags of paper prayers on the incense burners. The air was filled with swirling ashes and the sweet smell of incense. I wandered around, stopping here and there and taking a few photographs, even though allowed it never feels right. The place was not crowded but there were quite a few westerners wandering about looking as though they could not wait for this part of the tour to be over. Many Chinese were praying here and there. I walked out back and took a shot of the Koi in the feeding pond. Many were colors I had not seen before and the boil of them in the water created an interesting swirl. I had to buy a second ticket to see the Jade Buddha ($.75), clever marketers these folks. It was located on the second floor of the back-most building at the top of a winding staircase. You enter the temple and you are bathed in a palpable feeling of peace. The room was dark, very quiet and when I got there populated by a single attendant. I asked if I could pass the rail and pray, she said no. So I stood there and just looked at it. Of the two Buddha, one is sitting and one is reclining and they are quite remarkable, made of clear white crystalline jade. This room held the sitting Buddha. It was paneled in dark wood and over head in little niches sat hundreds of small golden Buddha. I stayed there staring for quite a while until some gabbing people came in and broke the spell.

This Buddha and its temple was quite remarkable. It was about 15 feet tall and behind it, stretching 30 or more feet up into the top of the temple was a vast carving of various saints, angels and demons. It was impossible to photograph well, so I just took a section for your enjoyment.

After perhaps an hour we had seen it all so we headed back out into the street planning to make our way to the subway station and our next stop in the Old City. After walking a bit and haggling with a young woman over some postcards we concluded that a cab would be a better option. So we flagged one down.

I took the front seat because I had an idea where we were going, something as it turned out our cabbie did not. I asked for Yu Gardens, the biggest tourist trap in Shanghai, figuring it would be the easiest thing to communicate and also figuring there was no way he would not get the destination. Wrong on both counts.

We sat there for what seemed like 10 minutes while he looked at my map. Granted, it is in English, but it's also in Chinese. And I began to wonder if he had ever seen one before. Finally he sort of shook his head and off we went into the rapidly growing rush hour traffic. I held the map, trying to figure out where he was going and we seemed to be heading more or less in the right direction. We would pass familiar landmarks, which was a big help in building my confidence.

But it soon became obvious that we were taking a really odd route. So I asked him at a red light where we were and he tried to show me a spot far out in the eastern suburbs which was clearly not correct. I adjusted our destination at a stop light, figuring we could make it on foot and suddenly the light bulb went off. With a big smile he told me "Very good, I understand you and you understand me!"

Right. This is the first trip where I feel that my Chinese is actually blossoming into something usable. Feels good, like all those hours of study might actually be paying off.

We got out and went on, hoping to find the Antiquities Market, last visited back in January. But after much wandering about, my memory was incomplete and we never did find it although we were very, very close.

I took this last shot wandering by one of the popular "wedding complexes" down by the Old City. A bride's gown, hanging on a wire as a visual welcome to the goods inside. It would blow madly from side to side with every passing bus. Nothing meaningful in that, just an odd little sight in the city.

We had dinner at South Beauty, one of the better, fancier Chinese restaurants that I know of. Not much English is spoken and the waitress had a real problem with our beer order. We had five dishes - beef with Sichuan chiles, garlic prawns, chile covered lamb chops, beef in tangerine sauce and duck with wild mushrooms. We also ordered white rice.

In true Chinese fashion, four of them came one on top of the other and then we had a ten minute wait for the duck. Of all things, the rice was next to last to arrive. It was saved by the fact that the presentation and taste was remarkable. Served in little bamboo buckets in individual servings, it was fragrant and loaded with mushrooms and corn. Quite nice. Overall, every dish was great, especially the beef with Sichuan chiles which was so loaded with those special peppercorns that my mouth was numb for 15 minutes.

We ended the day at Starbucks for a coffee and desert. What better way to drag our consciousness back from the heart of the Orient to our own little worlds.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

My moment with the maid

I always make it a habit of tipping my maid. Sometimes I do it during the time I'm here, sometimes at the end. But I try to, because 100 RMB goes a long way for people in this country.

My maid this time around, I think it the same one that once made me fill out her evaluation survey at gunpoint. At least she gives the impression she remembers me. The last two days she has come by to leave me a couple of extra bottles of water and today she saw me leaving my room to go upstairs to the penthouse. She offered to clean my room right then, and I said a little something in Chinese and she told me it was very well spoken.

After hanging out up there for an hour I came back down and she was still working in my part of the corridor. My room was done and I went in and got going on some other things when there was a knock on the door. She had two more bottles of water and an apple. She told me tomorrow was her day off and that she would not see me again, I told her I would be back and that I would see her next time. She smiled and said goodbye.

I closed the door and the little wheels started turning - I debated whether it would be insulting to walk down there and hand her a 100. Finally I concluded that I just didn't care, so I grabbed one and left the room. My door was not yet fully closed before she started thanking me. I handed her the 100 in the traditional Chinese two-handed manner and she was effusively grateful so much so that I thought she was going to cry. I told her that I wanted to offer her a little something for taking such good care of me and that normally I would leave it tomorrow, but since she was going to be gone, I would like to give it now.

I've never been thanked by anyone so many times by a single person, regardless of what wonderful thing I had done.

Now a cyncical person might just say I'd been suckered out of $7. And a pure-hearted person might suggest that she was completely sans guile. I don't care one way or another, it made me feel feel good and if she's able to spend it in some way that causes enjoyment for her, well then I have succeeded in making the world a tiny bit better this morning.

After writing the first part of this I decided to get really brave and go out and take her picture. She was extremely kind to pose, I asked her name, she told me it was Margie Huang (she pronounced it with a hard "G") and tried a bit more Chinese with her and that was that. Another friend made.

A blog about some stuff and no stuff

We began our Thursday with a ride on the corporate shuttle out to the other site in town, located on the far, far edge of Shanghai. You get so used to being hemmed in my multi-story buildings here that one tends to forget that the city has some bounds and that the concrete will eventually give way to the countryside. Our ride out was not the traditional corporate, rather it was one of those comfy touring buses that you see out on the interstates when they are not jamming up parking lots at national parks. This one was pretty nice and very well-appointed, the only problem being the former taxi driver at the helm. He forgot he wasn't in a Volkswagen Santana and chose to drive this thing as though he was. I'm not prone to car sickness, but this guy's style challenged even my inner ear and the rolling from lee to starboard with every maneuver came close to making me green. Here's a shot of the traffic out the front.

This location is in an R and D park reclaimed for the river delta and many of the familiar high tech names have a presence. The architecture was unique to say the least and somehow managed to look futuristic and worn out at the same time. I've put a couple here just to give an idea of how odd it was. The surroundings were pastoral, and the buildings looked somewhat Star Wars meets Fascism with a dose of video game thrown in for good measure.

We had our meetings and decided to stay for lunch, the canteen being an opportunity to experience some interesting lunchtime fare. You buy paper tickets with cash and then get in line where the servers take your order based on a sample dish placed on the counter. I had white rice with a potatoes and pork in a brown sauce plus a chicken and celery dish, all of which were outstanding especially when you consider that the whole deal set me back 75 cents. If you want something to drink there is a little convenience store at the back of the cafe where you can get a Coke or water or some snacks to embellish your meal. Like a dimwit, I left my change (in the form of lower denomination coupons) on my tray when I left, bringing the cost of the meal up to $1.50.

We caught a cab from there and went on to shop a bit, filling the orders sent with me from home. The knock-off markets never change "Hello sir, you want Mount Blanc pen?, how about t-shirt." I like to go in, get my bartering done and get out. But when I am stuck with friends, I make it a game, telling the shop keepers that my wife has taken all my money. This is always good for a laugh.

I had planned to take the boys to The Face Bar because it is so cool and I figured it warranted another visit so I called them to make a reservation, a first for me. I got someone who spoke English but who was hesitant, so asked if there was a problem. Turns out my request of 7PM was close to the point where they were booked, so I offered to back it up to 6:30 which was acceptable. She took my name and repeated the request back to me, "Mr. Terry, 6:30PM, 4 people, you must be gone by 7:45, okay?" "Fine", I said.

I got everyone together at 5:30 knowing full well the the traffic is a bear at that time but we caught a cab quickly and were on our way. He chose to take a route which I knew, but had not been on before when heading to this particular place. And there was a reason for that - it was a bad choice. The traffic on Hongqiao Road was atrocious and we sat for a good 20 minutes trying to get through one single light. I felt even worse when he pulled out his map and asked Peter in the front seat if the place he was pointing to was where we wanted to go. Peter just stared. I climbed a bit over the partition and told him "Dui", "correct." As the time ticked away, the phrase "You be gone by 7:45, okay" kept running in my mind.

Once through the bad intersection we flew though and arrived with about 5 minutes 15 minutes to spare. The table was ready so up we went to the enclosed veranda. I started with a Gin Gimlet, always the best choice to conjure the spirit of 1930s Shanghai which lives so visibly in this old house. Thai chicken soup for the starter followed by Duck Red Curry and capped with a Chocolate Rum Pot and a cup of Peruvian organic coffee. The latter two items put me in the proper mood to roll, so out we went into the neighborhoods, seeking the subway. Before leaving though, I checked my watch - 7:55 and no one had come to throw us out.

The area around the Ruijin Hotel, home to the Face Bar is part of the old French Concession and viewed by just about everyone as the nicest part of Shanghai. The streets are narrow and lined with tall Plane Trees, sporting the biggest leaves you've ever seen. Little shops selling very elegant women's clothing mingle with tiny restaurants and the occasional custom jewelry store. The pace is slow, the goods are beautiful and when the weather is nice, you're not sure if you're here or Saigon or Paris. The night just envelopes you. I took a few pictures as we walked along, starting with the big lantern outside the bar and ending with some clothing in the shop windows. The jacket with the gold embroidered dragons was something to behold, and my meager photograph barely does it justice.

We caught the subway at Fuxing Road and headed off to Nanjing Lu for a pass bay the neon lights. I've posted them before, but a couple can bear a repeat. The Nike Store was featuring the uniforms of the Chinese Olympic basketball team.

Street vendors were selling lots of electric toys tonight. Tops about the size of a Red Delicious apple that lit up and cast colored lights on the ground when spun. Lighted flying disks, that launched to 20 or feet in the air. And my all time favorite, roller skates that clamp on the back of your shoe and light up when you glide. Every ten feet, you were accosted, but the stuff never changed.

One enterprising fellow came out the crowd and grabbed me by the arm. Wanted to know if I would like to go and meet some ladies. I laughed and told him not, offering that my lovely wife would kill me. He replied that she did not need to know and I said, she would know. He laughed out loud and pantomimed a pair of scissors in front of my pants saying, "Yes, she would take of you." We parted friends.

From Nanjing Lu it was off to the Bund for a stroll along the Huangpu River. Not many of the famous lights were on, a bit of a disappointment. The vendors here though were thick as fleas and twice as insistent. Here it was kites and post cards and they weren't taking no for an answer. Once there was blood in the water, the beggars showed up and they are even harder to get rid of. Even if you give them a few coins. The last straw for me was a man with no legs on a little wheeled cart moving towards me at a rapid pace using blocks to propel himself. For a minute I thought I was in 17th century London. I went looking for some stairs, figuring that was the safest way to lose him, and that barely worked because he had me in his sights. Back down at street level we debated the merits of cab vs. subway and concluded that subway was the way to go. So back up the stairs to the promenade. I helped a worker carry his handcart up the two flights and he was not only grateful but completely stunned that I would grab a hold of the heavy end and help him to the top.

Where, the legless man again caught sight of me and began to give chase. I chose a different strategy this time, weaving in and out of the crowd listening to his "clop, clop, clop" fading behind me.

I knew there was a subway station back somewhere on Nanjing Lu so just for grins I asked a policeman, in Chinese. where the station was. He understood me, point in the direction I knew we needed to head and sent me on my way. Clearly, I come across intelligibly.

We went through the tunnel, still lined with Van Gogh paintings (after all these years) and made our way down Nanjing towards where I thought the station might be. For grins, I asked another policeman the same question and got the same answer. He and the other two cops with him decided to walk behind us which made me wonder if he would eventually point the place out. Instead, he passed me and homed in on two men selling peanuts from platforms attached to the back of their bikes. They saw him coming though and took off running, pushing their bikes through the crowd. I don't think the cop was all that interested in catching them though, he seemed satisfied to just run them off. Apparently there is some sort of licensing system for these people dealing on the street, but this is the only time I have ever seen anyone chased away.

It was all anti-climatic after that. We found the station and rode the tube back to the hotel, the only drama coming from my traditional problem deciding which way to turn when exiting the station on Loushanguan Road.

This morning we got out early, about 5:35 to take in the two parks down the road, just for a change of scenery. The sun was nearly occluded by the thick, wet air and presented a milky, tangerine vision over the street.

The parks were busy, and I took a few shots here and there of people doing their thing. People out strolling under the trees, a young couple chatting by the side of the pond, old men visiting on the bridge and finally, a tree-hugger to offer incontrovertible evidence that such people do exist. The cats at the end, mill around waiting to see what their people have brought them. I'm sure it's more than coincidence, but in this park it is common to see the elderly open a bag and wait as a their special feral cat comes out of the bushes for a morning snack.

Lastly, today I found a modern version of the Rosetta Stone, the very first time I have seen characters and Pinyin on a sign together. And the basic translation is "Yangtze West Road and Center Mountain West Road" indicating that this particular bus stop is at the intersection of those two thoroughfares.

There, you've had your Chinese lesson for today!

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Yet another dinner to remember

We had our traditional team dinner last night at 海之幸, Hai Zhi Xing or "Fortune of the Sea." It's a mile down the road from the hotel, and I am sure I have walked passed it a dozen times without a thought. As always, some of the jewels in life are overlooked and right before your eyes. This one certainly was. It turned out to be great. The walk takes about 45 minutes, not so much due to the distance as the fact that it can sometimes take 10 minutes to get across the streets. This happened a couple of times when our group fractured due to picture taking opportunities, but we made it intact, even beating our local hosts. We sat and enjoyed a couple of 1 liter Qingdao beers until they arrived.

It was Japanese for a change with a bit of Korean and Chinese thrown in for color. The plates and the beer and the sake kept coming and of course much was left on the table. The spirit was great and we had lots of long conversation reprising our various adventures together, my favorite being told by Ling recounting how torturous it was for him to sit and listen to Matt and me speaking Chinese. I am sure he was referring to Matt's accent!

I love doing food blogs and so below I have captured most of the dishes and will describe them individually because they deserve it. Sadly, some of the dishes were attacked by my fellow eaters at such a rate that I was unable to capture a shot.

After dinner we walked back in a balmy, not terrible breeze. It was wonderful and brought back to mind the exotic Shanghai I have read about so many times in the past. I talked with some of my Chinese co-workers about learning languages and interesting places to travel. We split up when the American contingent wanted to go to Starbucks for a night cap. I went along and sat outside watching 100s of people in the park across the way ballroom dancing in the cool evening to old big band records. I was so tempted to go across the street and find an elderly woman to have a dance with, but my fear of breaking her feet with my size 11 Ecco Track IV walking shoes put an end to that reverie.

It was another one of those great evenings, the kind you hope to have on what is the rest of the time boring business travel. An coincidentally it ended a day that had begun perfectly with tea in the park.

I have posted a poor shot of this place previously taken in the dark. The name drips with so much irony that I just love to read it. No, this is not where we ate, although I am told by my friend Matt that this is a wonderful spot for families in the area. Judging from what can be seen through the windows once the sun goes down, I am skeptical of his claim.

Ling takes charge and begins ordering the food. We placed a couple of orders individually, in order to provide for less adventurous western palates. But in general, we were headed for another course in Asian eating.

First up Sushi. Every travel site I have visited warns westerners to avoid shellfish, cold dishes and raw items. We being brave, we not only try to cover all three, but we further start the meal with them. Every piece was fantastic, making me appreciate just how woeful the stuff we eat at home is. The Tuna and Salmon melted in your mouth.

This dish was comprised of two of my favorites, octopus and snails. We had some debate about which was which, and the general consensus was that the snails were the ones in the middle. Not sure, but they were good.

I asked for an order of tongue and this was what we got. Spicy and taken from the Ox, it was different than what I am used to. A bit chewier and due I think to it being stir-fried. This one is honor of my fans on Cottonwood Lane in Tucson, the first to ever make a tongue for me. This was good, but the Arizona Tongue is better.

Each of us at one time or another has ventured forth and tried something that caused immediate regret after sitting in the mouth for a second or two. Up until now, I have had to face that urgency, do I swallow or do I discretely find a way to spit this out. Asian restaurants do not give napkins, so the latter choice is out. Instead, you try to get it down as quickly as possible. This one was mine - sea urchin. The taste was not bad, but the consistency, which I will leave to your imagination was completely alien to the universe of things that we westerners comfortably eat. As I started with the urchin, I saw no point in eating the roe.


We had several beef dishes prepared in the Korean style. This one was a brazed flank steak, crisp on the outside and raw on the inside. It was fantastic. We also had a Korean carpacchio, paper thin slices of raw beef, very, very good. Additionally a beef sausage that nice as well. These latter two went so fast that I missed the photo op.

This one was sort of a local version of our Clams Casino, one of my favorite treats as a child. In this case, a steamed scallop buried under a pureed potato gratin with a little ham thrown in for color. Very good.

Japanese custard, in a clay pot containing some clams and crab. I like it, even though its consistency is very runny. One of my pals suggested it was better served to inmates.

Tiny clams with the most beautiful striped shells. I didn't manage to get one of these, I was too busy with other things. But they looked pretty good.

Whelk, one of my favorite items of the evening and a new one on me. A delicious, subtle flavor with the consistency of liver.

I didn't get a piece of this fish, as Ling had to send it back to get chopped into chopstick sized pieces. When it returned it was at the other end of the table. When they served it whole. it made me wonder how someone would normally eat it. My miss was fine though because there were two plates of that fantastic caramelized fish I had recently had in Dalian. Which I think is tied with Shanghai River Fish for my favorite dish in China. Missed the pictures of that because it was gone in a flash.

Bacon wrapped around a little spear of asparagus. Chinese bacon is far better than ours, sort of a mix of what we normally eat and the Canadian version. This one was very good.

I finally took a shot of the other end of the table. Going from front to back - tempura prawns and vegetables, barbecued eel, some little fishes stuffed with roe, and shrimp on a skewer.

Perhaps you might recall a shot I took of the menu in my favorite place in Dalian. One of the dishes was called "chicken bones" and this is it. Little bits of cartilage on a skewer with the tiniest portion of meat on them. You're supposed to eat the whole thing, but we are trained in the west to work around bones that are not supposed to be there, so there was no way. I just got what meat I could get and respectfully returned the knuckles to my plate.

Finally desert - green tea mousse. Truly the consistency of the Junket we ate as children, and bearing that unmistakable flavor of old ashtray that only green tea can give. It grabs you on the first bite and then slowly morphs into something more pleasurable. I have to say, I liked it. It was a cool, pleasant end to a evening's banquet.