Thursday, August 21, 2008

Things might not go well if the first thing you notice in your new hotel room is a dehumidifier

It’s been a couple of days since I’ve had a chance to check in; we’ve been very busy with work and travel. A bit has happened during the gap and I hope to be able to recall the best of it.

Our last night in Dalian we went out to an Italian restaurant called Barolo that is up in the residential hills above the city. It’s a nice place with a great view, good food and friendly service. We had planned to eat at a different Italian place down by Labor Park - one of my favorites as it is a funky little sidewalk place in an old factory building - but the doorman told us it was closed for renovations. I hope they don’t ruin it, because its simplicity is what makes it so attractive, I always think of it as a worker’s restaurant on some back street in Rome.

We had the concierge write us out a ticket and got a cab and went on our way. While this place is theoretically walk-able it’s not much fun when the humidity is 99% and it’s 86 degrees at 8PM.

We’re driving along and heading generally in the correct direction when Matt tells me that the big, illuminated mansion up on the right is the best Thai food in Dalian. I’m thinking that we should have stayed to the left at the last split in the road and sure enough, we pull up at the Thai place. I tell the driver that this is not the right place and he shows me the card with the directions. The car park valet comes over and joins in the discussion. The driver is insistent, the valet is telling him this is not the place and a couple of my pals are adding to the fray by saying “Barolo” over and over to the valet. The valet grabs some guy walking down the street and he confirms to the driver that this is not the place we want. I’m now telling the valet in Chinese that it’s back over that way behind us and the pedestrian agrees. The driver pulls his reading glasses out of the glove box and sticks his head out the window to get better light on the card. Finally he agrees and does a U-turn, heads down the hill, takes a right and takes us to the place we wanted.

Was a slow night in Dalian as there was only one other table occupied. We got a nice spot by a picture window with a view of the city and after much deliberation we finalized our choices. Drinks were a different story; our order for San Pellegrino was met with an answer of “no, sold out” and an alternative offer of a certain white wine. We insisted on bottled water and the waiter left, returning with two liter bottles of……….San Pellegrino.

I had Gnocchi with gorgonzola cheese sauce and “dried Speck” which was a new one on me, it being a cured pork meat product seasoned with juniper berries. The dish was excellent and the gorgonzola sauce was breathtakingly pungent and flavorful.

Desert was next up and I spotted a pannacotta on the menu with a sauce interestingly described as “cherry balsamic” so I ordered it. Pannacotta is one of my five favorite deserts and you don’t see it all that often, even in places with the most interesting menus. This one was excellent until I tried the sauce which was sequestered off to the side of the plate in 5 little dabs. I didn’t get the cherry, but I did get the balsamic – it was little blobs of reduced vinegar and how they figured that would embellish a mild, Italian milk custard is lost on me.

Arriving back at the hotel a couple of us decided to go off and find a recommended Thai restaurant and in the course of the adventure walk off some of the dinner we’d just finished. We found it in short order – it was given away by the two giant golden elephants guarding the front door. I went inside and asked them for a business card so that I’d be able to find my way back. On the way out the door I was accosted by two little girls selling posies made up of tiny red roses. They were aggressive, grabbing my jacket sleeve and demanding a purchase. When I told them I was not interested, they dropped the pretense and just started demanding money. It sounds worse than it was - I was laughing and saying “Bu yao, bu yao” and they’d respond “Qian, qian.” They didn’t feel like following us as we crossed the street so we headed back to the hotel.

I caught this picture on the way, one of those great literal translations.




On Thursday we made an appointment to tour a new set of service apartments that were being recommended as a place to live when we get here on assignment. It took some doing, because it’s a construction site and our safety is always a paramount concern. But we got it arranged and I gave our driver the information that the sales agent had sent me.

He tried the cell phone, and it was the wrong number. He tried the office number and got an answer. He was told where the place was and we found the site and pulled up in front to wait. Five or ten minutes later this tiny little woman in a blue pant suit comes out of the soon to be front lobby lugging 4 hard hats. I got out and offered my hand and said “Wo hen gaoxing renshi nin”, the formal Chinese “pleased to meet you” to which she responded “Me too.” She got in the van and asked our guy to drive around the back to the entrance.

From that point it was pretty much going 4-wheeling in a minivan. We entered the site and Kelly, our host, hung her head out the window yelling at the construction workers to get their equipment out of the way. We sat there dumbly in the back seat wearing our hard hats lest they drop a crane on us.

We parked in front of another soon to be front entrance and walked in, ducking under the scaffolding and stepping over the construction debris. We wound our way to a working elevator where a nice woman with a hickey on her neck let us on board and took us up to the sixth floor. More ducking and stepping and we came to a big sheet of plywood mounted on a couple of hinges. Kelly tried to open it and spoke with someone on the other side. We waited a bit and she pounded on it some more and finally we were allowed inside. To a completely finished hallway and two finished apartments. It was a very weird juxtaposition, kind of like those futuristic sci-fi movies where it’s the apocalypse outside but the hero has managed to maintain a refined pied-a-terre on the inside of some abandoned building.

The apartments were quite beautiful and Kelly went into high-pressure sales mode, pointing out the iPod docking station in every bedroom and the multi-function toilet with remote control in the lavatory.

The maid followed us around dusting everything we passed.

Tour over, we went back to the van and after more yelling at workers about inconvenient equipment, we pulled out through an exit in the construction barricade, about 50 feet from where we had picked her up in the first place. Why we did the tour in the van I will never know, because Kelly smiled, said “goodbye” and jumped out, leaving us to drive down the sidewalk to the handicapped crossing in order to get the van back on the road without going over the curb.

That done, we headed to lunch at The Real Eddy’s. Eddy is a local restaurateur who is sort of a darling of the expats. Nice guy, he had a spot in 5 Color City that was very popular until he and his partner had a falling out and he disappeared for a while. He recently re-surfaced with this new place. The first floor is a bake shop, the second a small dining room and the third a Tapas bar. The food is wildly varied – American sandwiches, pizzas, Thai – whatever you want. I went for a Philly Cheese Steak which was pretty good.

Once done, we headed to the airport, far too early per my friends. Hanging around we watched a little Olympic handball on a flat screen and observed as a little boy beat the living crap out of a poor locust that had had the misfortune of ending up in his grubby mitts. His mother was part of a group checking in for some sort of charter, and he pretty much plopped himself down on the floor and tortured the poor bug before his sister came over and stomped on it for a while. There wasn’t much left of it by then, so the boy just sat there with a Plane Tree leaf in his hand and stared at the bug pulp.


After checking in I went through security and got busted by the wand girl for a 5 kuai coin I had in my change pocket. She was very thorough - untucking and tucking back in my shirt, both front and back. We got out on time and the flight back to Shanghai was pretty boring once I found my iPod which I had managed to lose in a pre-departure seat shuffle. I’d picked the wrong row and set my stuff down on the middle seat and when I figured out I needed to move, I grabbed everything but the most important part and then went into a panic when I couldn’t find it. Just when I had resigned myself to its loss, the young fellow behind me discovered he was sitting on it and returned it to me with a smile. I was not interested in the meals but the box lunch offered a second chance to snag a bag of Mint Gummy Bear Cough Drops. Look out kids, there are going to be some interesting stocking stuffers this Christmas!

Arriving in Shanghai was like opening one of those big Laundromat dryers before the clothes are done and stepping inside. After standing there sweating in the taxi queue for a few minutes we got a cab and headed into town. The cabbie asked us where we were from and I threw him a curve by telling him “New Mexico” in Chinese. We finally got that straightened out, me paying the price for being so glib.

This guy took a really weird route around the north side of town, following what appeared to be a Chinese Garmin Nuvi. I found this very interesting as to my knowledge there are no detailed GPS maps available for China. Yet there it was, right in front of me. Upon arrival I asked the doorman to find out where he got it and then I had a nice talk with him in Chinese about the maps and the device. He was very proud and appeared touched that I would want to talk GPS shop with him.

I have been coming to the Renaissance for so many years now that checking is pretty much second nature. We always get Club Level which provides a nice breakfast in the morning and cocktails at night. So I was a bit surprised when the young woman at the desk told me “No breakfast for you on the 33rd floor.” That usually means my room is not the correct rate, so I asked and she no, it was right, there was simply no breakfast for me, I would have to come downstairs. I pressed it a bit and she got a friend ostensibly with better English. They had a quiet conversation in Chinese and the other girl said “No breakfast upstairs, you come downstairs.” I wasn’t letting this one go, so I asked again and finally what came out was that the lounge was going to be closed and so the food would be downstairs, not upstairs. I didn’t feel like I was going to get much more, so I left it at that.

When I opened my door I knew I was in for it. There in the hallway was a little Chinese Sears dehumidifier chugging away. Odd, I thought until I got further in and was slammed in the face by the strong smell of mold, not something you expect in a 4 star hotel. I thought about it for a while, and went upstairs for a drink. While there I took advantage of the better English offered by the Lounge Manager and asked him about the breakfast situation. The answer was interesting – they were closing it for a week to cut costs due to the lack of business brought on by the Olympics. Apparently the restrictive Visa policies had cratered their summer tourist trade and the occupancy rate was too low to justify the regular buffet.

By now it was time for dinner and so we went back out into the Laundromat and headed around the block to South Beauty for a little Sichuan pick me up.

Salted Pork in a steel pot, Kung Pao Chicken, Chile Beef, Breaded Scallops in Orange Sauce, Garlic Green Beans, Country Rice (served in little bamboo baskets and loaded with corn carrots and mouth-numbing peppercorns), Hot Pork, and Pumpkin Fritters for desert - all really, really good. The waitresses were the best - very cute and friendly and having a riot speaking Chinese with us, trying so hard to pull the proper pronunciation for “hot” out of the sadly disadvantaged musculature of my mouth. It was a fun evening.

Now being completely worn to a nub I decided to give the Mold Palace a reasonable chance. I got in bed and went to sleep and everything was fine until the kicked the cooler off in the middle of the night and I was devastated by the triple whammy of heat, humidity and airborne jungle rot. I waited until 6:30, packed up, marched downstairs and demanded new digs. The girl at the counter did not resist, merely admonishing me to return the other card right away.

That’s about it for the last three days. I’ll close with this shot of a t-shirt taken this morning at Xin Ba Ke (Starbucks.) Five dollars to whomever can tell me what the heck it means.


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